It’s been over a year since we visited Washita Battlefield National Historic Site and it has taken me this long to decide how to write about it. Located in western Oklahoma, in November of 1868 this site was the winter camp of the band of Southern Cheyenne led by Black Kettle. I’ve done quite a bit of reading trying to make some kind of sense out of what happened there and it still baffles and bothers me. Of course, I’m looking at it through my twenty-first century lens and one of the things the ranger on duty said was that there is a difference of opinion as to whether this should be called a battle or a massacre. I’ll let you decide what you think.
We were at Washita at the end of December so the battlefield was cold and windy and conditions were similar to those in 1868 except that there was no snow on the ground and we were there mid-day. We hiked the trail through the battlefield and read the trail guide to learn what happened there. We were the only people visiting the site that day so perhaps it was a little easier to visualize what it must have been like in 1868.
The Cheyenne were a nomadic tribe who originated in the woodlands of the Great Lakes region and migrated west. By the early 1830’s. they had forged important friendships with white traders on the Arkansas River, trading thousands of buffalo robes at Bent’s Fort.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 promised lands to the Cheyenne and Arapaho which included the Pike’s Peak area in which gold was discovered in 1858. Some Cheyenne leaders, including Black Kettle, felt the best course of action was to move away from the growing white population and in 1861, they entered into the Treaty of Fort Wise which reduced their land holdings for a compensation of $450,000. The Dog Soldiers and some of the other warrior societies refused to recognize the treaty. Black Kettle and other Cheyenne peace chiefs were fairly successful in controlling their young men but other tribes conducted raids north along the Platte.
Things changed dramatically in 1864 after Lean Bear was shot by U.S. troops while attempting to parley, and hostilities broke out in earnest along the Platte and Arkansas river routes. Cheyenne chiefs met with the governor in an attempt to arrange a peace, leaving there with assurances of safety and setting up winter camp on Sand Creek. However, in November, Col. John Chivington and his Third Colorado Cavalry swept into the village and massacred 125 men, women and children.
Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, survived the massacre, and even then, tried to effect a peace between his people and the whites. In 1865, Black Kettle and other chiefs negotiated yet another treaty, the Little Arkansas Treaty, which established a new reservation south of the Arkansas River. In 1867, another treaty established a new reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). However, the nomadic ways of these tribes precluded acceptance of confinement to the specific territory of the reservation. Cultures clashed.
In 1868, Indian/white hostilities broke out in Kansas. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan prepared for a winter campaign against the hostile bands. He chose winter because Indian horses would be weak from lack of forage and the cold and snow would make it easier to overtake villages. His plan was basically the same as “The Burning” of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War – complete destruction. Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack: cavalry and infantry marching east from New Mexico; cavalry moving southeast from Colorado; and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer leading an attack south from Fort Dodge, Kansas.
Black Kettle’s village was sprawled along the Washita River, a few miles from other camps. It was bitter cold and they were processing meat from recent hunts. Just before dawn on November 27, 1868, Custer led his troopers in a surprise attack on the village. His approximately 700 troopers were divided into four parts: the first, under Maj. Joel Elliott, would circle the village and strike from downstream; the second, under Capt. William Thompson, would attack from the south; the third, under Capt. Edward Myers, would move in from the west; and the largest contingent, under Custer himself, would charge directly into the village.
The number of Cheyenne killed that morning is unknown. Custer claimed 103 but Cheyenne accounts are as low as 13 men, 16 women and 9 children. Both Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, were killed. There were 53 women and children taken captive. The cavalry then burned the lodges and all their contents and slaughtered the large herd of Indian ponies leaving the surviving Cheyenne to suffer the brutal winter.
Maj. Elliott’s detachment was missing, but faced with warriors from the camps further down the river, Custer left the Washita Valley. When Custer and Sheridan returned to the site in early December, they found the remains of Elliott and his troopers.
This attack and other military actions soon forced the Southern Plains tribes to live on the reservation.
Magpie, a boy of sixteen on that fateful day on the Washita, escaped. In June of 1876, Magpie was in the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana when Custer and his Seventh Cavalry struck. Custer and more than 250 of his men were killed. Magpie became a chief of the Cheyenne.
Congress established Washita Battlefield National Historic Site as a unit of the national park system on November 12, 1996. This site recognizes the attack by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th U. S. Cavalry on the Cheyenne encampment of Peace Chief Black Kettle as a nationally significant element of the United States Government Indian policy and the struggles of the Cheyenne to maintain control of their traditional homelands.
For additional information:
Greene, Jerome A. Washita: the U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.