Manataka American Indian Council


 

 

 

 

CHIEF BLACK KETTLE 
presented by Dancing Eyes

 

As Black Kettle rode in solitude across the wind blown prairie of Eastern Colorado, his expression revealed the concern and worry of the elder Indian chief. In the crisp autumn air of 1864, Black Kettle reflected on the bloody summer which had witnessed terror and murder across the plains. Roving bands of young Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors had raided eastern Colorado and western Kansas, causing alarm and rage with the white settlers. Finally, Territorial Governor, John Evans called for a military militia to end the Indian problem. The influential press, led by William N. Byers of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, called for the immediate extinction of the Cheyenne. Falling to the pressure, Governor Evans enlisted Colonel John M. Chivington to organize the 100 Day Volunteers. Governor Evans further issued orders to all Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians to lay down their arms, release their hostages, and return to the lands as set forth in the Treaty of 1861.  

Only known photo of Chief Black Kettle at the peace negotiations at Camp Weld.

 

Black Kettle knew the militia would set out on a full-scale war and would not relent, even to the peace-seeking Black Kettle and his Cheyenne people. Black Kettle was widely respected as a fierce adversary of the Pawnee and Kiowa, yet believed in peace with the white man. In 1861 he signed a peace treaty at Fort Wise, promising to remain in the vicinity of the Arkansas River and not to interfere with the emigrants along the Smoky Hill Trail. In 1863, he and Lean Bear traveled to Washington to see President Lincoln. It could have been during this visit that Black Kettle realized the great magnitude of the white population, and realized that all-out warfare would mean the annihilation of his own people.

For the next three years, the Indians began to complain that the dry lands near the Arkansas River held little wild life and the white settlers removed much of the timber in the area. The prime buffalo hunting grounds near the foothills were now lost to the Indians, being accessed by the migration of gold seekers. In short, Black Kettle's people were not only facing a surge of miners, also an increasing number of homesteaders on the plains, as promoter, William N. Byers and his Rocky Mountain News helped to bring agricultural development to the Colorado Territory. The young Cheyenne warriors refused to obey the Treaty of Fort Wise and launched raids among the white people, running off livestock, disabling mail routes and destroying freight carriers, causing major supply shortages in Denver and elsewhere. The raids culminated with the murder of the Nathan Hungate family thirty miles south of Denver. When the scalped and horribly mutilated bodies were brought to Denver and displayed before the public, mass hysteria gripped the town and the entire territory.

Governor Evans issued a general proclamation dispatched to the Indian camps by messengers, ordering all peaceful Indians to assemble at Fort Lyon. Those Indians who did not comply with the order would be killed. The order authorized the citizens of Colorado Territory to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians of the plains... kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever the Indians may be found. Colonel Chivington responded in kind. In a Denver speech, in August of 1864, Chivington is quoted as saying, ...kill and scalp all, little and big... nits make lice. He was applauded, and the phrase became the slogan among his fighting regiment.

When Black Kettle responded to the governor's demands at Fort Lyon, Major Scott J. Anthony instructed Black Kettle and White Antelope to move their people to Sand Creek, some forty miles from the fort. Anthony told Black Kettle his people would be safe and the game would be more plentiful. Anthony even presented a white flag to Black Kettle, a sign of his intentions to protect the Indians.

Now, as Black Kettle gravely rode toward his camp, his mind was filled with events of the past summer and worry over the coming winter. When the winds brought the snow, would there be enough game to feed his people, and timber to warm the teepees?

On the early morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington's troops, led by the old mountain man, Jim Beckwourth, moved into position near Black Kettle's camp along Sand Creek. They were soon joined by over a hundred men of the Colorado First Regiment, followed by troops from Fort Lyon, led by Major Anthony. Rounding out the armed troops were four twin-gun howitzers. A hasty camp was made amid the two-foot snow drifts. No fire burned as the troopers hunkered down to a quick meal of maggot-infested hardtack. The men were tired, saddle sore, cold, nervous, and hungry.

Camped in the ravine were some six hundred Indians, primarily women and children, along with Lone Bear, White Antelope, Left Hand and Black Kettle. Chivington knew where Black Kettle's village was. Chivington, along with Governor Evans and Major Anthony had sent them there. He knew they were friendly and would not suspect a thing. He knew his force was larger, better armed and better equipped. Chivington, in all probability, planned his attack back in September, when Anthony told Black Kettle where to take his people. In this way, the forces at Fort Lyon would keep an eye on the Indians. In any case, Major Anthony had done his part; for better or worse. A victory would put Chivington in the forefront of any political ambitions he may have had. The mass hysteria of Denver, and favorable coverage by the Rocky Mountain News, supported any action Chivington was about to take.

The attack came at dawn.  "Take no prisoners," Chivington ordered, adding his own slogan, "...nits make lice."  The attack lasted over eight hours, becoming one of the worst acts of savagery that exists in records of Colorado history. When the first shots were fired by the troops, less than a hundred warriors ran up the creek bed and hastily dug pits to established a line of defense.

As a military operation, the battle was a horrible bungle. The surprised warriors, ill-armed, managed to hold their own and keep the soldiers at bay for nearly eight hours. Meanwhile, nearly five hundred Indians managed to escape across the prairie, including Black Kettle. Command was lost early in the day, fighting was confused, as soldiers were caught in their own crossfire.

Those Indians who could not flee the bloody insanity, died on the spot. Eye-witness testimony estimated the number just under two hundred, while Chivington would boast six hundred hostiles killed. Two thirds of the dead were women and children. White Antelope was among the first killed in the military fire. Once the firing began, he left his lodge with arms extended, in the traditional sign of peace. He was shot down in a single round of fire.

Black Kettle immediately flew the American flag, as well as the white flag given him by Major Anthony. The sign of peace ignored, the military onslaught continued. Black Kettle eventually took his wife and fled toward the prairie. His wife was shot, and as troopers rode near, they put eight more bullets in her body. Black Kettle returned for his wife, and seeing her alive, threw her over his shoulder and ran. He later extracted the bullets, and his wife lived.

A three-old Indian toddler, perfectly naked, toddled out toward the dry creek bed. Three troopers dismounted some seventy yards from the child, and assumed the cavalry kneeling position for fire. One carbine shot hit the sand at the child's feet. Let me try... the second trooper demanded. He also missed. Hell, spat the third trooper, as he raised his carbine and fired. The child dropped in the sand. One nit that would never become lice.

By late afternoon the battle was over, and Chivington would receive a hero's welcome in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News reported ...all Cheyenne chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Robe, Left Hand, Knock Knee, and One Eye were killed. In no single battle in North America, we believe, have so many Indians been slain. Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory. The news account, obviously erroneous, would also prove to be disingenuous.

It would be three years before a Congressional inquest would renounce Chivington and his actions. The hearing, lasting seventy-two days, left the government repudiating Chivington's actions and labeled the episode as a massacre that ...scarcely had its parallel in the records of Indian barbarity. (Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, 38th Congress, Washington, D.C.)

In the meantime, the Cheyenne and Arapaho would again raid and pillage during most of 1865, in retaliation of the massacre at Sand Creek. Black Kettle was not among them. While he was widely blamed for the massacre by his own people, he continued to work for peace and asked his people not to retaliate. In 1867, Black Kettle signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge. Promising peace, the Indians gave up their land along the Arkansas River, in exchange, receiving land on the Indian reservation in today's Oklahoma. Promises of provisions were not kept by the army and the government. The following summer a young Cheyenne, Roman Nose, led a series of attacks on farmers and white settlers, despite Black Kettle's peace agreement.

By the autumn of 1868, a forlorn and defeated Black Kettle settled with some two thousand warriors in the valley of the Washita River in Indian Territory. Black Kettle instructed his people to live in peace with the White man. As autumn settled into winter, Black Kettle again wondered what the cold months would bring to his people.

An Indian War campaign was launched in November of 1868. Led by George Armstrong Custer, the military militia, hampered by a severe snowstorm, moved toward the Washita River. Eager for an Indian fight, it mattered not to Custer that the camp he located was peaceful and on government Indian land. On the morning of November 27, 1868, almost four years to the day of the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer ordered his men to open fire on the sleepy Indian village. The slaughter of innocent Indians was completed by 10 a.m..  

The ever-boastful Custer later reported over a hundred Indians killed, the capture of women and children, and much destruction.

Among those killed were Black Kettle and his wife, Maiyuna. Again, Black Kettle witnessed the slaughter of his people before finally fleeing by horseback with his wife. They were shot dead and fell on the bank of the river.

On the Washita, the Cheyenne hope of peace and independence died along with their people. Black Kettle the man, the Indian chief, the advocate of peace, died at the hands of those he trusted, sought peace with, and believed in.

Copyright © 2000 Linda Wommack. All rights reserved.
Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.
Full copyright retained by the original publication.
http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html


DO NOT VISIT THE

Black Kettle Museum
Cheyenne, Oklahoma
Closed Mondays and State Holidays

LETTER FROM A STUDENT OF HISTORY...

"...I was very disappointed in the museum and in the “ Battle site”. The museum takes a very Euro-centric view of Black Kettle and the events leading to his death. It is a disgrace to him to name the museum after him. The first thing I saw upon entering the museum was a large display of books about Custer and Chivington. The museum has a lot of information about the U.S. Army and presents it in such a way as to make the uninformed think that the plains Indians brought about the massacre because of raids on white settlers. It does not say anything of Black Kettle requesting protection of the fact that the raids occurred because of the shortage of food that was promised by the government. I left the museum in total disgust after reading most everything on display. I would hope the Cheyenne people will take action to have the museum represent a more accurate view of the events on the frontier and the circumstances surrounding Black Kettle.

The National Park Service is charged with the maintenance of the battle field and does no better at explaining what occurred there. The only redeeming thing I saw was a large granite stone inscribed with “Custer’s Battle , November, 27, 1868 ” that had Custer’s almost illegibly destroyed, probably by someone who knows the real history."   Bill Hill, Tsalagi, 5/17/2004.

Counter Point Opinion:

I wish to respectively take exception to the recommendation of Mr. Hill regarding the Black Kettle Museum as presented as "LETTER FROM A STUDENT OF HISTORY" at the bottom of that web page.  I suppose I should first point out that the museum is no longer in existence.  The federally maintained Washita Battlefield National Historic Site and Cultural Center that opened in the latter part of 2007 has essentially replaced it, and the Black Kettle museum has closed. 

 

While this makes the balance of this correspondence somewhat mute, I would like to suggest that this small, state-funded museum was essentially a collection of artifacts.  I toured the museum numerous times and felt no particular bias in either direction.  True, there was little there outlining the plight of this magnificent People, and the elements leading up to that terrible encounter.  However, it was a point of interest.  A place that housed the famed 7th Cavalry sandstone, the Cheyenne implements, rifles, etc. 

 

The books on display are the same as are offered at virtually any other such museum.  There was no promotion of this book over that.  Most of the same books are available at the Cultural Center and most provide an accurate account of  the Tsitsistas.  Perhaps we have gone too far by needing to tell others what to think.  True, the poor little museum did not do a good job of discussing the plight of the Cheyenne, but it did not attempt to promote or justify the US Government's point of view either.  It simply was not an interpretive center.  It was a place of interest.  A place where one could see a piece of the past with no strings attached.

 

I am not Cheyenne or even Native American.  I am, however, a lover of this proud people.  I live in the center of the Cheyenne-Arapaho nation in western Oklahoma.  I regularly devote several hours weekly to the study of the Cheyenne.  This evening, along with my two younger children, I interviewed a local chief at one of our local nursing homes.  My point being that there is no shortage of good and historically-accurate information of how this People has been cheated, lied to, swindled, and essentially forgotten by the US Government.  To suggest that a museum should be boycotted because of its inability to present this view or that is somewhat antagonistic to the purpose of a museum, i.e., display what tangible evidence is available relative to an historical event or issue and let the viewer decide.  That little roadside museum captured my interest twenty years ago, and in spite of its deficiencies, its contents inspired me to a deep interest in Cheyenne history, and a growing love for the people of that great nation whom I am proud to call my neighbors and friends.

 

Incidentally, the new Cultural Center is little more than an interpretive center.  Its walls are covered with enlarged print of written history about the events leading up to the "battle's" that took place that November day in 1868.  There is plenty to be read and this structure certainly meets all criteria for a modern interpretive center.  Gone, however, is the famous 7th Cavalry sandstone, the Sharps rifle, the buckskin outfit that hung on the west wall of the previous museum, implements, etc.  In fact, as of March 2008, there was not a single artifact on display at this multimillion dollar structure.  Gone also are the people who would otherwise be attracted to this site.  Could I be as bold as to suggest that a museum can be a good museum without taking any point of view. I respect Mr. Hill's perspective and certainly understand the essence of his argument.  However, to suggest a museum limit or govern what books should be sold, or what perspective should be embraced, serves no one well, least of all the memory of one whom I believe to be among the greatest of any race, Moketavato.

 

Respectfully,

 

Mark Mann, MD

Clinton, Oklahoma

 


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