The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 sealed the tragic fate of the Plains Indians, but the key chapters in the genocide were written many years earlier. A prophet of peace bore the brunt of both, as racist intolerance fueled the desire to drive the native peoples from the land.
The discovery of gold in California in the late 1840’s propelled thousands of Americans across the Great Plains toward what they hoped was fortune. To protect wagon trains of settlers from warring Indian nations, the United States government gathered several tribes together to sign a treaty on Sept. 17, 1851 not far from Fort Laramie. The treaty guaranteed safe passage along the Oregon Trail and established tribal boundaries between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers. The Lakota, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara agreed to the terms. The treaty also promised $50,000 in exchange for the right to build forts and roads across the prairie.
Few things went right with the treaty, however. Some of the tribes who signed the document continued to war against the Crows, who did not. Settlers competed with natives for scarce resources in the area governed by the treaty, leading to conflicts. White hunters killed thousands of buffalo, which further aggravated the situation. In 1859 gold was discovered near Pike’s Peak. Americans swarmed into the region and set up permanent residence in violation of the treaty, which the U.S. government refused to enforce. The money promised the tribes fell far short, as well.
Black Kettle, a leader of the Southern Cheyenne, was among Native American leaders who visited President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The distant travel brought the chief to an understanding that the whites were vast in number, and the soldiers who protected them presented an awesome force that could not be countered effectively. To protect his tribe, he agreed to a peace under the Treaty of Fort Wise, leading his people to the banks of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, poor land far from the buffalo that was the staple of their existence.
When a white family was killed in the summer of 1864, Colorado Gov. Evans demanded that Indians report to a fort or be considered hostile. Black Kettle concluded a peace treaty at Fort Weld on Sept. 28 and returned to his reservation, where he raised Old Glory and placed a white flag over his tipi.
"All we ask is that we have peace with the whites,” the chief said at Fort Weld. “We want to hold you by the hand. You are our father. We have been traveling through a cloud. The sky has been dark ever since the war began. We want to take good tidings home to our people that they may sleep in peace. I want you to give all these chiefs of the soldiers here to understand that we are for peace, and that we have made peace, that we may not be mistaken by them for enemies."
But photographs of the scalped bodies of the family had inflamed white passions, and a Col. John Chivington had assembled a temporary troop called the Third Colorado Cavalry as a kind of official vigilante force.
Two months after the Treaty of Fort Weld and nearing the end of his soldiers’ enlistment, Chivington led his bloodthirsty gang of 700 against Sand Creek, whose men were mostly out hunting. The white soldiers killed more than 150 Cheyenne, mostly women and children, and then torched the village. Black Kettle’s wife, Medicine Woman Later, also survived, though she was severely wounded.
Black Kettle survived the Sand Creek Massacre, but many Cheyenne joined other tribes in carrying war to the encroaching whites. Still hopeful of protecting his shrinking band of Cheyenne, Black Kettle concluded yet another peace, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of Oct. 28, 1867. This time the terms required him to move his people into Oklahoma Territory to the banks of the Washita River. However, the chief, now more than 60 years old, could not stop the younger braves from using the new village as a haven between raids and a place to stash captives.
Concerned that his peaceful families would be considered among the hostiles led by Roman Nose, Black Kettle and Arapaho Chief Big Mouth traveled to Fort Cobb to seek protection there. Gen. William B. Hazen replied that he did not have the authority to do so, and he turned them away.
Gen. Philip Sheridan planned winter reprisals. Col. George Armstrong Custer led his Seventh Cavalry on one of these raids. Just days after Black Kettle had returned from Fort Cobb, Custer hit Black Kettle’s camp at dawn on Nov. 27, 1868. Again, scores of Indians were slain in this so-called Battle of the Washita. This time the dead included Black Kettle, who was killed with his wife as they fled across the river.
The depredations of Native American warriors trying to protect their homeland cannot be overlooked, just as the wholesale slaughter of Plains Indians by whites cannot be condoned. What is left between the two is the ineffably sad end of a man who repeatedly tried to achieve peace in a world that would not let it be so.
“Biography of Black Kettle.” National Park Service. Sand Creek National Historic Site.
https://www.nps.gov/sand/learn/historyculture/black-kettle-biography.htm. Accessed 2 January 2017.
“Black Kettle.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Kettle. Accessed 2 January 2017.
Dancing Eyes. “Chief Black Kettle.” Manataka American Indian Council. Copyright 2000 Linda Wommack.
https://www.manataka.org/page161.html. Accessed 2 Jan. 2017.
Weiser, Kathy. “Oklahoma Legends: Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.” Legends of America.
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ok-washitabattlefield.html. Updated April 2015. Accessed 2