Chief Bender – The Early Years

This article was written by Robert Tholkes

This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal


The scene paints a mental picture. It is Philadelphia in the winter of 1908-1909; the exact date is not a matter of record. Charles Albert (Chief) Bender sits in his newly-completed home at 3515 Judson Street, contemplating a survey document received from the Carlisle Indian School. The recently enrolled Jim Thorpe has yet to make his mark at that institution, and for the time being Bender, Class of 1902, is its best-known graduate.

The survey itself may be assumed to mirror the aspirations of the school for its students. Questions include: Any other schools attended  after leaving Carlisle? Present occupation? Salary? Do you own your own home? Number of rooms? Property owned? Money in the bank? And finally, the question with the greatest amount of space allowed for response: Have you done anything for the betterment of your people?

Pondering these questions the Chief could feet that he is looking down from a pinnacle. Though only in his mid-20s, he has six major league seasons behind him; his pitching effectiveness has grown from each of those seasons to the next (as measured by his ERA), and he has every reason to believe that his best years are in front of him, as indeed they are. He describes his new home: “A two-story brick home containing 9 rooms and bath. Terraced front porch. Gas and electric lights,” He describes his property: “Carry  $5,000 endowment policy of 10 payments. I have 160 acres of land on the White Earth Reservation.” He chooses not to reveal his salary and the amount of his bank savings.

One response speaks volumes about the racial consciousness of the man and his era. His response to the question, “Are you married, and if so to whom?” is, “Yes – German-American.”

Bender scratches out the question which asks what he has done to better his race, substituting a one-and-a-half-page composition which he entitles, “Just an outline of my life.”’ Does he feel that he can give no satisfactory answer to the original question? His closing remarks to his autobiographical sketch are: “Wouldn’t advise any of the students at Carlisle to become a professional baseball player. It’s a hard road to travel. Many temptations along the wayside.”

This attitude may be explained by an earlier remark. Speaking of his Carlisle experience, he writes. “The best training I received was at the hands of the good Quaker folks of Bucks County.” Carlisle had an “outing” program which involved extended stays with Pennsylvania residents. At the turn of the century professional baseball was not generally considered a respectable occupation. The opinions of Pennsylvania Quakers may be imagined, and they seem to have had a strong influence on Bender’s formative years. He may very well have felt at this point that, while baseball had been good to him, it was not an occupation which reflected credit on his race.

There is another, more positive explanation: that he felt his early life presented an example for Indian youth. Describing those early experiences is the purpose of this article. The reason why Chief Bender chose to answer this survey item in such singular fashion may no longer be learned directly, but from the story of his early years we may draw valuable evidence of his frame of mind. The italicized words are the Chief’s.

Born in Brainerd, Minn. Parents: Father – German American, one of the early settlers in Minnesota. Mother, Chippewa. Parents moved to the White Earth (Minn.) Indian Reservation when I was quite young.

A birth certificate registered in 1942 by Maud Bender Seymour, Charlie’s sister and eight years his senior, listed his birthplace as Partridge Lake, 20 miles east of Brainerd in Crow Wing County. No town has ever existed on the site, and the township in which it is situated was not organized until 1900. Bender’s birthplace is therefore most accurately described as Crow Wing County.

It would have been handy if Bender had inserted his date of birth here. The birth certificate says May 3, 1883; other sources list May 5, and in some books the year is given as 1884. Charlie’s school records give an age generally corresponding to an 1884 birth, and so does the state census of May 1885, which found the family still in the Partridge Lake area. White Earth Reservation records are not available for the years before 1891; Mary Razor Bender and her seven children (not nine or 13, as is given elsewhere) appear on the rolls that year. Charlie’s father, Albertus Bliss Bender (according to the birth certificate; the census gives his name as William) is not listed, either because he was not Indian or was not present. The family settled on its allotted land in what is now Gregory Township, Mahnomen County. Eventually, the Benders’ combined allotments totaled 23 80-acre sections, more or less contiguous. The Benders missed out on the reservation’s timberlands, which became relatively valuable. Their sections were prairie, hilly in parts and dotted with marshy areas. Like most of their neighbors, the Benders probably raised vegetables for their own use and kept some livestock. It is doubtful that they lived independently of the government subsidies to which they were entitled through Mrs. Bender, a member of the Mississippi band of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe.

At the age of eight was sent to the Educational Home, 49th and Greenway Ave., Phila., where I received my early training.

The Educational Home, an institution enrolling orphaned and destitute white and Indian children, was operated by the Episcopal Church. It had begun enrolling Indians in 1884 when it merged with another Episcopalian school which enrolled Indian children exclusively, the Lincoln Institution. This school drew its funds from the Indian Department (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs); it continued to fund the Indian children’s education after the merger, while using the Educational Home’s staff and facilities.

In 1894, the first year of Bender’s stay for which an annual report is available, 103 Indians were enrolled, with ages ranging from seven to 22 years. Twenty-four of the Indians were from White Earth. Bender was among a group of 12 from the reservation which enrolled on July 15, 1891.  Charlie Roy, who pitched for the Phillies in 1906, also was in this group. Unlike Bender, he returned to White Earth where he died in 1950. The children were listed by both their English and  Indian  names; Bender’s was Mandowescence, which is translated as Little Spirit Animal. This is described by Ojibwa-speakers as a boyish nickname; if Bender ever received an adult name, it is not a matter of record.

The reason for the large contingent at the school from one remote Minnesota reservation couldn’t be definitely determined. Only three of the 24 students from White Earth enrolled from

1889 to 1891, and in the years from 1884 to 1888 only two are on record. The head of the White Earth Episcopal mission, the Rev. Joseph Gilfillan, had long-standing ties with the Lincoln Institution. It must be assumed that around 1890 more government funds became available.

In 1889 the White Earth Indians had been persuaded by the promise of subsidies to allow sale by the government on their behalf of four townships on the reservation to white lumber interests.

This opened an era in which reservation land was sold to lumbermen and farmers, often at a fraction of market value. Part of the subsidies received in compensation for their surrendered lands may have been applied to education and made possible the sending of the large contingent to the Educational Home.

It is reasonable to assume that the children sent represented the more promising youths from the local schools, or at least those whose parents were willing to surrender them voluntarily for training in the East. Considering the number of Bender children and the possibility that Mr. Bender was not with the family, Charles’ surrender is not surprising. Also, since the few White Earth Indians who had already attended and returned from schools such as Carlisle commanded the desirable positions of employment on the reservation, attendance at the Home was probably viewed as a prize. Bender’s entry group included the postmaster’s son, who had won a scholarship sponsored by one of the Home’s private benefactors, and the children of other prominent reservation families.

The school’s objectives for its Indian students may be deduced from the prayer for divine intervention which precedes its charter:

“Be watchful over them for good; provide for their necessities; make them dutiful and submissive to authority; preserve them from sickness and accidents; and turn their youthful steps unto thy testimonies . . . so as these children grow in years, they may grow in wisdom for the good of society and the prosperity of true religion.”

Not stated was the school’s desire to make it unlikely that its charges would return to their previous way of life. Once surrendered, younger children remained at the school at least until the age of 12, unless dismissed as a punitive measure; there were no trips home. In her portion of the 1894 report, the secretary to the school’s Board of Managers noted that “of the returned pupils (then numbering 180) not more than four have gone back to the old life.”

Aside from devoting itself to its civilizing mission, the school gave instruction in the three R’s and taught the rudiments of the useful trades. With few exceptions, students left the Home to become shoemakers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, or engineers. The school relied heavily on music for recreation at the end of a day in the classroom and the shop, preferring it as more “enlightening and civilizing,” in the superintendent’s words, than sports. The superintendent noted also that many schools and colleges had taken sports to excess, playing them on a daily basis, which he deplored. Boys at the Home, therefore, played them in an organized fashion only on holidays. It may be assumed that Bender’s development as an athlete did not begin here!

The school also duplicated Carlisle’s summer “outing” system, placing the children in local homes and farms as workers. These outings, which Bender may be presumed to have experienced annually from the age of nine onwards, were instrumental in his character development. They are the only portion of his educational experience to be mentioned specifically by him in the Carlisle survey. He spent those summers living the life of a rural Pennsylvania farm boy, gaining a first-hand experience of the way of life which his educators hoped he would adopt as his own.

“1896, was allowed to go home, At the end of two months, decided to run away from home and go to Carlisle Indian Training School. Arrived the first week in September.”

Charlie was 13 when he was released and sent back to White Earth. That his subsequent stay there was brief is evidence that the Home’s efforts to win him away from his “old life” were entirely successful. He had been completely out of touch with his family for five important, formative years, and the situation at the reservation had changed since 1889, when land sales began. Described at the 1911 hearings by a prominent, college-educated resident, John W. Carl, as (before 1889) prosperous, with many residents engaged in cattle raising and truck farming, the reservation changed in the l890s. Drunkenness, always a problem, became rife, and the new subsidies received (or at least promised) at the time of the land deal encouraged many to cease earning their own livelihood. The concern of educators at schools such as the Home that their students would return to a life of idleness and vice was well founded. The contrast in lifestyles must have struck even the young Bender forcefully upon his return.

The difference in standards of living between the Home and that of his family must also have been a shock. Families like the Benders lived in one-room log cabins, sometimes with a lean-to kitchen attached. Flooring was of wood or earth. Stifling in summer and freezing in winter, poorly ventilated and impossible to keep clean, the home to which Bender returned in June of 1896 contrasted poorly with the neat austerity of the Educational Home and the prosperity of the Pennsylvania farmers with whom he had spent his summers. He also found that the family had had two additions: a brother, his mother’s eighth child, and a child born to his sister Emma.

Bender probably received encouragement to depart, if not from his family – his statement that he ran away seems to eliminate that possibility – then from the educated residents of the reservation. One such person, Eugene Warren, testifying at the 1911 investigation, mentioned the scarcity of job opportunities at White Earth for trained Indians. Speaking of Carlisle graduates, he said it was his opinion that they should stay in the East if at all possible, for if they returned, he said, they would be “pulled down” by conditions at the reservation. This was even more likely to be true of younger children such as Bender.

Encouraged or not, Bender must have agreed, for one day (or night) around the end of August 1896, he left for good. Tantalizingly, he does not describe his return trip. Did concerned adults, possibly including Rev. Gilfillan, help him on his way? Did he ride the rails? Did he walk and hitchhike when he could? Did he head eastward to Duluth, on Lake Superior, and travel by water? All that is certain is that one or two weeks later he turned up in Carlisle, Pa., several hundred miles away. Presumably he had evidence of his attendance at the Educational Home, for Carlisle had become selective in its admissions policy by 1896. Young Charles had made the biggest decision of his life, Though he held on to his land allotment at White Earth for several years, he lived the remainder of his life in Pennsylvania.

* * * *

A question was raised in the introductory section of this article. In the Carlisle survey Bender answered the question, “Have you done anything for the betterment of your race?” by outlining his life story.

Was that because he felt he had no worthy answer to the question or because he considered that he had set an example which Indian youth could follow? While he indicates in the survey that he does not feel professional baseball to be a suitable occupation for Carlisle graduates, other facts speak for themselves.

In 1902, Bender’s determination to stay in the East was tested, as it had been in 1896. Graduated from Carlisle, he played baseball as Charles Albert with the Harrisburg, Pa., Athletic Club that summer, He wrote in the survey, “. . made good, but saved little money. Had to scratch to make ends meet during winter.” Coming from the matter-of-fact Bender, who sticks to an unadorned narrative style through most of his biographical essay, this admission bespeaks a trying time.

Staying in Pennsylvania to await the 1903 baseball season with the Philadelphia Athletics was a gamble. With government support for his education terminated, his schooling, in those days before the availability of athletic scholarships, was finished. His Carlisle training was no better than that of the many students who returned to reservation life. Indians in professional baseball were few. They were not excluded by any means: in fact, Frank Jude another Chippewa from Mahnomen  County, Minnesota, who also attended Carlisle, played the outfield for Cincinnati in 1906. However, they did bear the extra burden of proof that was the lot of a racial minority. Home may not have beckoned, but it did offer a certain security. He could hope for eventual preferment for one of the limited job opportunities at White Earth. But for a young man who was capable at age 13 of deciding to undertake a long journey to a strange place, abandoning his home and culture in the hope of improving his lot, the decision to hang on through the winter must have been comparatively easy.

The story of Bender’s youth is that of a self-confident, proud individual. While he may not at the time have approved of professional baseball as an occupation, it is difficult to believe that he could regard his individual struggle for betterment as anything but exemplary.

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