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McCowan, Samuel M.


Samuel McCowan served as superintendent of the Fort Mojave Indian School located in Mojave County, Arizona. McCowan was born February 8, 1863 in Ontario, Canada, the son of Hannah and Robert O. McCowan. When he was two, his family moved to the state of New York, and then two years later they moved again to Peoria, Illinois where they stayed until McCowan was an adult. His father died when he was nine, and from then until he was eighteen he worked to support his family. He started first as a chore boy on a farm, and then at eleven he went to work in the coal mines surrounding Peoria. In 1881, at age eighteen, he started his education at Elmwood High Schoool. It is unknown when he graduated high school, but he graduated from the teacher's college at Indiana Normal School in Valparaiso, Indiana in 1886. McCowan educated himself on the law in his free time and in 1894, he was admitted to the State Bar of Arizona. In July 1885, he married Emma Beecher. The couple had one son together, Leroy M. McCowan.

Before serving as superintendent of the Fort Mojave School, McCowan was the principal of the Princeville Academy in Illinois from his graduation until 1888. For two years after that, he was the principal of Lincoln High School in Peoria. In 1889, he became the superintendent of the day schools on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. It is this that led him to be offered the choice of superintendency at three different Indian Schools, of which he chose Mojave.

McCowan oversaw the opening of the Fort Mojave Indian School in Mojave County, Arizona in 1890 and remained its supervisor for six years. The school was originally called the Fort Mojave Agency and School until March 9, 1891, when it became known as the Herbert Welsh Institute. By December 1892, the name was changed to the Fort Mojave Indian School. At various times, the school was also referred to as the Fort Mojave Industrial School and the Fort Mojave Indian Industrial School.

While at the school, Superintendent McCowan used the guidelines already in use at nearby schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Grand Junction, Colorado. McCowan hired teachers to instruct students in English, mathematics, geography, and American history. He received funding to hire a farmer, blacksmith, and carpenter to teach the men vocational skills, and a matron to guide women in domestic skills such as sewing and cooking. With limited funds, McCowan found himself placing more emphasis on the vocational curriculum in an effort to provide students with necessities such as food and clothing.

After his time at Fort Mojave, McCowan went on to be superintendant of the Indian school at Albuquerque, New Mexico for only six months. He was promoted to supervisor of all Indian schools in the United States, but he quickly resigned to head the Phoenix Indian School in 1897. He stayed there until 1902 and grew the school to the second largest Indian school in the United States, with close to 700 children at the school.

By the mid-1890s, problems associated with the removal of Native American children from their homes

became evident as runaways became a major problem at all schools. Reformers highlighted the hardships

placed on both children and their families who were caught between two cultures. A movement to reform educational policy began when Theodore Roosevelt appointed Francis Leupp Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1905. Between 1905 and 1920, Leupp worked to build a case against off-reservation boarding schools. In 1926 Secretary of the Interior Herbert Work commissioned the Institute of Government Research to complete a thorough study of reservation conditions throughout the country. Presented to Congress in 1928, the report, titled "The Problem of Indian Administration," known as the Meriam Report, found United States Indian policy to be a failure and was especially critical of education efforts.

Utilizing the social momentum of the Meriam Report, Indian policy shifted back toward the expansion of reservation schools and worked to close the remaining off-reservation institutions. The Fort Mojave Indian School closed in 1931.


“Professor Samuel M. McCowan.” Essay. Portrait and Biographical Record of Arizona. Commemorating the Achievements of Citizens Who Have Contributed to the Progress of Arizona and the Development of Its Resources. Chicago, Illinois: Chapman Publishing Company, 1901.

Lindauer, Owen. “Archaeology of the Phoenix Indian School.” Archaeology of the Phoenix Indian School, Archaeology Magazine Archive, March 27, 1998.

"Department of the Interior. Office of Indian Affairs. Fort Mojave Indian School: 1917-1931. Organization Authority Record", The National Archives Catalog, accessed April 12, 2018.