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The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site: Ghosts of the Cheyenne
On a bitterly cold night in November of 1868, more than one hundred Indians lie in tangled heaps of death across a frozen battlefield. One could not discriminate between the dead men, women, and children that lie on the plains; the white man’s army cared not for such things. This is the story of the Washita Battlefield.
The Road to War
The Cheyenne were a proud people. While they reluctantly agreed to leave their native homelands around present day Wyoming, they quickly learned to start again in the Indian Territories. They continued to lead their semi-nomadic lifestyles and established camps wherever game was abundant. The Cheyenne followed the buffalo. When the buffalo herd would stop, the tribe would settle into a well-established routine; tipis would spread out across the plains while the warriors would ready themselves for the hunt.
For generations, this had been the way of life for the Cheyenne. Ever since they stole the first horse from the Spaniards, they had lived this way. Traditionally, these “horse people” had roamed across the Great Plains in search of buffalo. As the white man moved further west, the Plains Indian was forced into smaller areas.
Much of the Cheyenne hunting lands were soon crossed with cattle trails, barbed wire, and white settlements. Cowboys driving cattle along the Great Western Trail crossed through Cheyenne land. Settlers illegally began building establishments in prime locations. As these untamed places in Oklahoma slowly started to disappear, land that the Cheyenne held dwindled. All of this expansion threatened the Cheyenne way of life.
On the Great Plains, buffalo were slowly starting to vanish. White hunters began hunting the large beasts around 1865. Within twenty-five years, all of the large herds would be extinct.
As the Cheyenne saw their traditional way of life starting dissolve, some tribes began striking out against the white man. These tribes would raid white settlements, stealing horses and killing many innocent victims. Soon, white man would come to fear the Indians and started to consider every Indian their enemy.
Chief Black Kettle
“It is not my intention to fight the whites,” proclaimed Chief Black Kettle.
To many Indians, war was the only solution. Still, others preferred a more peaceful existence. They wanted to keep their places in Oklahoma, but these Native Americans would remain divided. Among those dedicated to preserving peace was one chief who would ultimately pay the highest price.
Chief Black Kettle (Moke-ta-ra-to) wanted nothing more than to protect his tribe and their way of life. As the white man encroached further onto Cheyenne land, he soon realized their enormous power. Knowing that the Cheyenne would have to work with the white man in order to stay alive, and having his own peoples’ best interests at heart, he became determined to avoid conflict. Whenever white soldiers or hunters arrived near his camp, Black kettle would move his village to avoid and possibility of hostilities. When government officials presented him with an enormous U.S. flag, he proudly flew it from a pole above his tipi.
While most of the tribe wanted war, Chief Black Kettle stood like a light in the darkness. For most of his life, he went out of his way to pursue peace. Even though he struggled to keep the peace, greater forces were at play.
In 1868, on the Southern Plains of Indian Territory, all his efforts crashed down around him.
After trying for several months without success to obtain a promise of safety for his band, Chief Black Kettle informed General Hazen at Fort Cobb that his people were going into winter camp on the Washita near the site of Cheyenne. The Cheyenne winter camp was made up of 180 lodges, but down along the river, within ten or twelve miles, were more than 400 additional lodges, in which Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, and Arapahoes had settled for the winter. Within this small area in Indian Territory, there were more than six hundred warriors and several thousand Indians, including women and children.
This gathering of tribes worried the United States Government. Heightened tensions ran rampant throughout the settlements and military posts of the white man. All it took for war to blossom was the ignorant acts of a small raiding party and Black Kettle’s loyalty to his Indian kin.
After General George A. Custer learned that Chief Black Kettle was harboring fugitives of the United States, he became determined to apprehend these wanted men. In all likelihood, Black Kettle would have surrendered the wanted men, but the difficulty of communication between the two races only fueled the fire. Misunderstandings and extreme tension between the Indian and the white man eventually lead to the slaughter at the Cheyenne winter camp.
The Battle of the Washita
In the winter of 1868, General Philip Sheridan ordered General George A. Custer to ride south from Fort Supply to attack Black Kettle’s band. Immediately upon arriving at Camp Supply, scouts were sent out to locate the Cheyenne tribes. It didn’t take long before they discovered fresh Indian tracks in the foot deep snow.
Along with General Custer, twelve troops from the Seventh Cavalry began the short march south. Along with the eight hundred soldiers, Custer employed several brilliant scouts. Ben Clark, California Joe, Hard Rope the Osage and Jimmy Morrison were among the scouts that accompanied the soldiers. Custer knew the extent of the Cheyenne camp before he attacked.
Crow Neck and Black Shield, two young Cheyenne raiders, had recently come back from Kansas with fresh scalps as trophies. The young men were confident that white troops would not venture an attack on the camp during cold weather, but Black Kettle was not convinced. As a precaution, he posted a sentry to keep watch for the soldiers he was certain would come.
It was early morning when General Custer arrived at the Cheyenne camp. Approaching from the north, Custer waited for the early shades of dawn behind a low hill and made preparations. He divided his command into four bands of approximately 200 men each and quickly set about surrounding the Cheyenne.
Major Joel Elliot was sent downstream nearly three miles to approach the camp from the east. Captain William Thompson went south across the Washita River to come in from the southwest. The soldiers under Colonel Edward Myers advanced on the right, crossing the stream to approach the Cheyenne camp on the south bank. Custer’s band moved in directly from the northwest. Forty sharpshooters under the command of Lieutenant W. W. Cook rode with Custer.
The soldiers were in position when the first rays of the rising sun reached out across the snow swept plains.
The attack began in earnest at dawn on the bitter morning of November 27, 1868.
Double Wolf, the sentinel on guard duty that morning, had just slipped inside a lodge to warm himself when the savage barking of dogs echoed through the camp. He rushed to warn the Cheyenne warriors, but the warning had come too late. The warriors barely had time to wake up before the eight hundred white soldiers came streaming into camp. The moment that Black Kettle had feared finally arrived.
The attack was vicious. The Cheyenne warriors were outnumbered four to one. The well-planned attack quickly became a murderous melee. Women and children were cut down as if they were as wheat at harvest.
In the chaos of the attack, Black Kettle managed to mount his massive horse and quickly helped his wife to mount behind him. They knew they must get to help and to safety in order to save their tribe. They never got that chance. As they raced through the clashing warriors, a volley from Cook’s sharpshooters killed them both.
Towards the end of the battle, General Custer interrogated Black Kettle’s sister, now a captive of war. She told him about the one thousand Indian lodges located farther down the Washita. With tears streaking down her face, Black Kettle’s sister pleaded with him not to harm them. Weary of the bloodshed, Custer determined to pull out without pursuing the fugitives farther.
By the end of the attack, one hundred and three warriors lay dead on the battlefield, along with sixteen women and numerous children. The United States’ forces fared much better, but Custer still lost several highly valued officers and men, including Major Elliot, Sergeant-Major Walter Kennedy, and Captain Louis Hamilton.
Many Indians all across the United States believed that Custer’s death at the battle of the Little Big Horn, in Montana, eight years later, was the result of a curse that the Ghosts of the Cheyenne had placed on him.
The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site
Among the most sacred places in Oklahoma, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is near present day Cheyenne. The historic location protects the site of a Southern Cheyenne Indian village attacked by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under General George A. Custer just before dawn on Nov. 27, 1868.
During that time, the attack was hailed by many as a major step forward in the military’s attempts to restrain Indian raids on frontier settlements. Others viewed it as a massacre. Among those killed was Chief Black Kettle, who had long been an active proponent of peaceful relations with the United States.
© 2010 Eric Standridge