Death on the Washita

In an attempt to bring an end to years of fighting, the US government formed the Indian Peace Commission to investigate the grievances of the Plains Indians. The commission concluded that the fighting had been entirely preventable and that the US government and its representatives had failed to fulfil its legal obligations and to treat the Native Americans with honesty.

In October 1867, Major Elliot and tribal chiefs met at Medicine Lodge, a traditional Indian council site and on the 21st October, a treaty was signed with the Kiowa and Comanche tribes and later with the Kiowa-Apache. The third treaty was signed with the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the 28th.

Under the terms of the treaty, the tribes were required to move south from their lands of present day Kansas and Colorado to a new reservation in Indian Territory, (modern Oklahoma). The reservation contained little arable land and was far away from the buffalo, their main source of meat and central to their culture. The Arkansas River was to form the northern boundary of the reservation.  In return they were promised that the new land would remain theirs “For as long as the grass shall grow and the rain shall fall”. They were in addition promised supplies of food, blankets and other necessities, but greedy agents and crooked suppliers, together with the US government’s reluctance to adhere to the treaty terms, ensured that little actually reached the Indians.

The tribal elders found it increasingly difficult to keep the younger warriors in check and by the summer of 1868, war parties of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Oglala Sioux began to raid white settlements in Kansas, Colorado and Northern Texas. The warriors killed at least 15 settlers, wounded others and were reported to have raped some women.

On August 19th, Colonel Edward Wynkoop, the Indian Agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho at Fort Lyon, Kansas, held a meeting with Little Rock, a senior chief in Black Kettle’s camp. Black Kettle was known amongst the whites as a “Peace Chief” who had done his best to keep his young warriors in check. Little Rock told him that a party of 200 Cheyenne from a camp above the forks at Walnut Creek departed camp intending to raid their Pawnee enemies. Instead, they raided white settlements. Some of these warriors then returned to Black Kettle’s camp and it was from them that Little Rock learned of the raids and the names of some who had taken part. Little Rock told Wynkoop that he would try and have them delivered to the white authorities.

By November, Black Kettle’s camp had moved to join other Cheyenne and other tribes at the winter camp at the Washita River. The camp stretched for some 15 miles along the Washita and contained Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Comanche. Black Kettle’s was the westernmost camp and contained many famous warriors such as Big Man, Wolf Looking Down and Bear Tongue. It contained fifty Cheyenne lodges, plus a few lodges of visiting Arapaho and Lakota, some 150 people in all.

Downriver from Black Kettle’s camp stood the Arapaho tipis of Little Raven, Big Mouth and Yellow Wolf with a total of 180 lodges and beyond them stood the Cheyenne of Medicine Arrow with its 129 lodges. Overall, about 6,000 Indians were in the winter camp on the Washita, most of them completely innocent of the raids

On November 20th 1868, a party led by Black Kettle and Little Robe of the Cheyenne, and Big Mouth and Spotted Wolf of the Arapaho, arrived at Fort Cobb to meet Major General William Hazen to discuss making peace and to receive food and other supplies in accordance with the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Details of this meeting were documented by Captain Henry Alvord of the US 10th Cavalry.

Hazen told the Indians that he could not make peace with them and that they should not come to Fort Cobb as their presence might jeopardise the peace of the Kiowa and Comanche already camped there. He also reminded them that they should remain south of the Arkansas River as part of the treaty terms. This last point illustrates the duplicity of the US army’s attitude to the “Indian problem” and their crude attempts to separate the Native Americans between what they saw as friendly or hostile. Despite their insistence that “friendly” Indians remain south of the Arkansas, the army throughout 1868 regularly distributed treaty food and provisions  to the Cheyenne and Arapaho at Fort Larned and Fort Lodge, both north of the Arkansas.

Major General Hazen was under orders from the General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the military district of Missouri, to make provision for Indians who wanted to stay out of the fighting and suggested that all such Indians should camp near Fort Cobb. Sherman’s superior, General Phil Sheridan had already made it clear that if he had to invade the reservation to pursue hostile Indians, he needed the friendly ones under control and had suggested that they should camp close to Fort Cobb, yet Hazen was telling Black Kettle that he should not stay. His reasons are unclear, but it is known that an anti Indian attitude was prevalent among some cavalry officers and, knowing that Sheridan had already declared the Cheyenne and Arapaho “hostile”, meaning they were subject to attack by the US army, he was possibly deliberately sending them into danger.

Captain Alvord documented the meeting between Hazen and the chiefs. He notes Black Kettle’s reply to Hazen, “The Cheyenne when south of the Arkansas do not wish to return to the north side because they fear there will be trouble there, but we are continually told that we had better go there and would be rewarded for going there”.

Black Kettle again asked to move his people close to Fort Cobb and said, “The Cheyenne do not fight at all this side of the Arkansas, they do not trouble Texas, but north of the Arkansas they are almost always at war. When lately north of the Arkansas, some young Cheyenne were fired upon and then the fight begun. I have always done my best to keep my young men quiet, but some will not listen and since the fighting began I have not been able to keep them all at home. We all want peace and I would be glad to move all my people down this way, I could keep them all quiet near camp. My camp is now on the Washita, 40 miles east of the Antelope Hills and I have there 180 lodges. I speak only for my own people; I cannot speak nor control the Cheyenne north of the Arkansas”.

Hazen replied, “I am sent here as a peace chief, but north of the Arkansas is General Sheridan, the Great War chief and I do not control him. He has all the soldiers who are fighting the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Therefore you must go back to your country and if the soldiers come to fight, you must remember they are not from me, but from that Great War chief and with him you must make peace”.

On the 22nd November, Hazen sent a report of the meeting to Sherman. He explained that, “To have made peace with them would have brought to my camp most of those now on the warpath south of the Arkansas, and, as General Sheridan is to punish those at war and might follow them in afterwards, a second Chivington affair might occur which I could not prevent”. This being a reference to an incident in 1864 when US soldiers massacred some 160 men, women and children at Sand Creek.

He also reported that, while the chiefs seemed sincere, the Kiowa and Comanche at Fort Cobb said that the young warriors who accompanied the chiefs were pleased that peace had not been made. They boasted that the Lakota and other northern tribes would come down the following spring “To clean out the entire country”. This threat rattled Hazen enough for him to request two more companies of the Tenth Cavalry from Fort Arbuckle.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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