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America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Eight
The Southern Plains
For thousands of years the buffalo thundered across the Great Plains. Living off the herds were a scattering of nomadic Indian nations.
In 1680 the Spanish were driven out of the Southwest by the Pueblo nation. As they fled they left behind their horse herds, an animal that would change the way of life for Indians across the continent. Plenty-Coup, a chief of the Crows, told his biographers how he and his fellow warriors felt when they went out on a war party:
"To be alone with our war-horses at such a time teaches them to understand us, and us to understand them. My horse fights with me and fasts with me, because if he is to carry me in battle he must know my heart and I must know his or we shall never become brothers. I have been told that the white man, who is almost a god, and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit. This cannot be true. I have many time seen my horse's soul in his eyes.”
In 1858 gold was discovered at Pike’s Peak, Colorado and once again greed raised its ugly heard. Four years later the Homestead Act opened the region to white settlement. In one year alone 100,000 immigrants swarmed across the plains over two main roads, spreading a wide swath of destruction. To protect traffic the government erected a series of forts across the plains and churned out cadets at West Point specially trained for Indian warfare. They wanted to herd the Indians onto confined areas – reservations.
Indians had two options – give up their homeland and way of life or fight the American army. Some chose resistance, but many Indian leaders, responsible for the protection of women and children and elderly saw little hope in fighting. Among them were two Cheyenne leaders, Black Kettle and White Antelope. They ceded vast Cheyenne land to the United States in 1861 and agreed to confine themselves to a reservation in exchange for protection from soldiers and settlers and assistance of food and money to replace lost hunting lands. They then traveled to Washington and met with President Lincoln. Lincoln presented Black Kettle with a large American flag and White Antelope with a medal of peace.
Over the next three years there was unrest and rumors of an impending Indian war. In Denver Governor John Evans enflamed public opinion by making up stories of Cheyenne hostilities and encouraged civilians to take up arms against them.
Seeking protection, Black Kettle and White Antelope went to Denver to meet with Evans.
“All we ask is that we have peace with the whites. 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. These braves who are with me are willing to do what I say. We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace.” – Black Kettle.
They were promised safety for their people if they camped near Fort Lion, near Southern Colorado. But the military commander, Col. John Chivington, had no plans for peace with any Indian people.
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.”
They had been told to camp at Sand Creek and that they had nothing to fear from the US Army. At dawn on November 29, 1864, Chivington’s Colorado volunteers rode to their sleeping camp at Sand Creek.
“In the camps... all was confusion and noise -- men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms.... Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and... kept calling out not to be frightened; that the camp was under protection and there was no danger... White Antelope, when he saw the soldiers shooting into the lodges, made up his mind not to live any longer.... He stood in front of his lodge with his arms folded across his breast, singing the death-song: ‘Nothing lives long,’ he sang, ‘only the earth and the mountains....Then suddenly the troops opened fire on this mass of men, women, and children, and all began to scatter and run. ’” George Bent, Southern Cheyenne. Source: George Bird Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1956), 177-80.
White Antelope, wearing the peace medal given to him by Lincoln, was shot dead in front of his lodge. Black Kettle and his wife ran toward the creek bed where people were digging into the sand for protection. His wife was shot. Believing her dead, he ran on without her. He lay in the creek from early morning until almost dark in the cold, with the soldiers all around them. As the soldiers left they killed all the wounded they could find.
Black Kettle found his wife. She survived but had nine bullet wounds in her body. Over five hundred Southern Cheyenne died. Chivington returned to Denver with over a hundred Cheyenne scalps. (History of scalping)
In 1868 Black Kettle’s band was camped along the Washita River on a government reservation. At dawn on November 27, almost four years to the day after the Sand Creek massacre, US Army troops, under the command of George Armstrong Custer, attacked the sleeping village. Black Kettle, his wife and 100 other Indians were killed.
In 1871, south of the Cheyenne, the Kiowa nation lived on lands including parts of present-day Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They were also being pushed onto reservations by treaties and the US army. They had heard about what happened to Black Kettle.
“The good Indian, he that listens to the white man, gets nothing. The independent Indian is the only one rewarded.” Satanta, Kiowa (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)
To many, the only path open was armed resistance. Many began supporting Settainte, also known as Satanta.
“A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber; they kill my buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting; I feel sorry. I have spoken.”
In 1871, after leading a raid on a mule train in Texas he was brought before General Sherman. Satanta said,
“All the land south of the Arkansas belongs to the Kiowa and Comanche and I don't want to give away any of it. I love the land and the buffalo and will not part with it. I don't want any of the churches within the country. I want the children raised as I was. I have heard that you want to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don't want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when I settle down I grow pale and die."
He was arrested, shackled and placed in a crawl space below a barracks for twelve days. Finally, he was taken to Texas for trial. There he was imprisoned. It was two years before the Kiowa nation was able to barter his release by surrendering their guns and horses. When Settainte returned to the reservation he found that the money, food and supplies promised by the government as payment for their land had not come through and their lifeblood, the buffalo, were fast disappearing.
The US government knew that without the buffalo the plains nations could not survive and would have little choice but to remain on reservations and live off the meager government rations. White buffalo hunters with high powered rifles were brought in and began to slaughter the buffalo herds.
"The soldiers cut down the trees; they kill the buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting...Has the white man become a child that he should recklessly kill and not eat?" Santanta
Thousands of buffalo were killed every day. To survive, the southern plains Indians went to war to save the buffalo.
In the summer of 1874 thousands of Indians flooded off the reservations and Santanta and others led an allied Indian force in an attack on a buffalo hunter’s camp at Adobe Wall, Texas. They were defeated and that was followed by massive military expeditions by the United States Army to force them back onto reservations. In the fall Santanta was forced to surrender and returned to the penitentiary at Huntsville, TX. He reportedly committed suicide by leaping out of a window, but the Indians think he was murdered. By the winter all the Kiowa bands were back on the reservations.
The following spring the last of the Cheyenne surrendered followed by the last free Comanche. The army rounded up ten thousand Indian horses. Almost a thousand were shot and the rest sold at auction. By 1890 the buffalo population of 50 million had been reduced to less than 1,000.
Links to America, A Nation Blessed by God?
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part One
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Two
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Three
- America, a Nation Blessed by God? Part Four
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Five
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Six
- America, A Nation Blessed by God? Part Seven