In the late 19th century, The U.S. government used boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate American Indian children into American society. The Fort Mojave Industrial School in Arizona used labor-based instruction that taught children trade skills and encouraged a sedentary lifestyle.
On October 8, 1890, the United States opened the Fort Mojave Industrial School on a mesa on the east bank of the Colorado River. The school’s superintendent, Samuel M. McCowan, frequently expressed the school’s need for an irrigation system to sustain the school’s agricultural program in the arid environment of the Arizona desert. He, like many other federal officials in the nineteenth century, attempted to assimilate American Indian children into American society at off-reservation boarding schools by relying on labor-based instruction that promoted agricultural practices and sedentary lifestyles. A lack of water limited the development of the school’s farm, which impeded McCowan’s goal to turn Fort Mojave into a large industrial institution and interfered with the federal government’s efforts to transform American Indian children into self-supporting American farmers.
Despite his access to approximately 1,200 acres of rich and fertile alluvial soil located half a mile below the school buildings, McCowan claimed that he could not fulfill his plans without an irrigation system to sustain crops. He knew that Mojaves on a nearby reservation planted their crops on this soil once a year after the spring overflow. However, he did not utilize this technique because he wanted to cultivate two hundred acres of land year-round.
In 1890, McCowan built a school farm without irrigation. He enclosed two acres of land on the mesa and covered it with fertilizers and bottom soil to a height of eight inches to grow lettuce, radish, beets, turnips and potatoes to be used in the school’s kitchen. The following year, he ordered schoolboys and employees to dig trenches four feet deep by four feet wide, long enough to fit one thousand trees, vines, and roots each set sixteen feet apart on the originally gravel and sand-filled mesa. American Indian children balked at this work. Boys complained, avoided the farm work by refusing to show up for school, and believed that they should be paid for their labor. Nevertheless, their work ensured the survival of more than eighty percent of the crops.
On March 16, 1892, the school finally received a pump station, which consisted of a pipe, a boiler, and two compound duplex pumping engines each capable of extracting up to 1,300 gallons of water per minute from the Colorado River. When engineers completed the installation of this irrigation system, many of the crops on the twenty-acre school farm had already matured. That year, the farm yielded approximately fourteen tons of hay, one hundred bushels of potatoes, two thousand melons, and one thousand pumpkins, among other vegetables. The installation of the pump station produced immediate results. In 1893, students produced thirty-five tons of hay, ten bushels of onions, five thousand watermelons, three thousand pumpkins, and other small vegetables.
Agriculture programs played a major role in the forced assimilation efforts that attempted to erase American Indian cultures and ways of life. The lack of an irrigation pump at Fort Mojave Industrial School intervened with the United States’ efforts to force American Indian children to adopt the agricultural practices of American society.