This is a story that I was oblivious to until recently. It wasn’t until I read Dee Brown’s brilliant book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that I became aware of the Cheyenne chief, Black Kettle. His story, in a book full of tragedy, deception and betrayal, stood out the most for me. Ultimately the man was trying to do what was best for his people and ultimately he failed. The sad truth is that most of my ‘knowledge’ of native Americans had come from Hollywood’s warped lens. In the western narrative the Indians are ‘savages’ who kill indiscriminately and scalp (scalping was actually a Spanish practice brought to the Americas) their defenceless victims. While there is no doubt that there was violence from the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a lot of it was retaliatory for the violence and broken promises from the government of the time. Black Kettle tried to curb this violence, to stop the tick for tack that was keeping his people, the Cheyenne, back.
Due to white settlement the Cheyenne had left their traditional home in present day Minnesota and settled around Montana, South Dakota and Colorado. It was declared that the native Americans would have the territories west of the Mississippi River and the whites the east. However, by the mid 19th century, with the discovery of gold there was more migration westwards and with that more encroachment on Indian land. The U.S. government then planned to put these tribes in their own reservations, away from the white man and with the ability to self govern and live in their traditional ways. The Cheyenne (who are broken up into two groups, the northern and the southern) were divided on this issue. Some thought they should fight the white man to the death and appose any resettlement of their people. Other chiefs such as Black Kettle, thought it was futile the fight the white man as this would lead to the destruction of the Cheyenne. Black Kettle and another Cheyenne chief, Lean Bear, years earlier had visited the then President, Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. , they saw first hand the technology and ingenuity of the white man and realised that opposing them would lead to the destruction of the Cheyenne. These peace chiefs knew that they had to work with the United States to secure the safety of the Cheyenne. The chiefs shook the hand of the president and were given medals, an American flag and official documents saying that Black Kettle and Lean Bear were a friends of the United States. They were told that as long as the flag is flown above their camp their people will be safe. Black Kettle and Lean Bear returned to their tribes with renewed optimism and pride that peace had been secured. Other Cheyenne did not share that optimism. Roman Nose, a fearless and respected warrior, led a group called the Dog Soldiers (might do a future write up on these guys as they were seriously bad ass) who were staunchly opposed to any peace deals. They would go around wreaking havoc on the plains of the United States and scoffed at the idea of peace.
Black Kettle and a number of other Cheyenne chiefs signed a treaty, which gave up some traditional lands of the Cheyenne in return for peace. As Cheyenne leadership didn’t fall on one person, these treaties were observed by some and totally ignored by others. One day, a group of soldiers were riding towards the Cheyenne camp. Lean Bear grabbed his papers signed by the president, and rode out to meet with the soldiers to see their intention. He felt he would be fine as he was given the word of the President of the United States. As soon as he was close enough the Cheyenne chief was shot in the head and killed. These course of events enraged Roman Nose and the Dog Soldiers even more and many rode north raiding on the way and seeking revenge for the death of Lean Bear. Black Kettle, perplexed over the death, kept a cool head and told his people (the ones who would listen) that revenge was not the answer. Black Kettle rode out to Denver to speak to the governor of Colorado. Cold and distant Governor Evans told Black Kettle that if they stayed in their reservation and report to the fort close by, they would not be harmed. Black Kettle was unconvinced of Evans’ integrity but took the Governor at his word.
The Sand Creek Massacre
Believing he had secured the peace of his people, Black Kettle and his group of Cheyenne settled at Sand Creek. However, Governor Evans had employed a man called John Chivington, to keep the peace. Chivington had served in the American Civil War and was an accomplished general. He was also a real piece of shit. He had more disdain towards the native Americans than his boss, Evans. Its also important to point out that the camp at Sand Creek, consisted mostly of women, children and the elderly. Most of the warriors
were aligned with the more aggressive Cheyenne such as Roman Nose and the Dog Soldiers and the warriors who did reside at the Sand Creek, were out hunting. This didn’t stop Chivington. On the morning of the 29th of November, 1864, Chivington and his military unit rode towards Sand Creek. White Antelope (another Cheyenne chief) rode out to meet with the soldiers. Just like Lean Bear, he was gunned down. The troops then charged towards the camp. Hearing the hooves of the horses Black Kettle grabbed the American flag given to him in Washington and told his people to gather around. “They will not touch us as long as this flag fly’s above us.” They were, after all allies of the United States. Confusion had struck the camp at this point as the hooves of the horses got louder and louder. Some ran. Some huddled around the flag. Chivington and his forces stormed the camp and started killing indiscriminately. They shot and hacked to death anyone not of white skin. As those around the flag realised that this flag offered no protection at all, mass panic hit the camp. Some ran. Some got away. Most didn’t. Black Kettle somehow survived and he managed to save his injured wife as well. If killing innocent women and children isn’t enough, the soldiers then moved on to mutilating the corpses. Taking ‘trophies’ with them. Scalping and hacking off body parts. There are even reports of a young children having their privates slashed off. One soldier said he saw a little girl begging for mercy, but instead of mercy she got her head bashed in with a club. Another young girl had put her hand up to stop a blow. Her arm was broken. She lifted her other arm, that arm was broken. She was left there to die before being scalped. Some soldiers stretched the private parts of females over their hats. The eye witness accounts of some of the soldiers is truly grotesque. Some soldiers, it must be noted, provided evidence later on and were directly responsible for saving some of the Cheyenne. However, if Chivington had his way there would not have been one survivor. I think when I called Chivington a piece of shit earlier I let him off lightly. I don’t think words can express the soldiers’ conduct and Chivington is to be held accountable. As he had, only a few weeks earlier, condoned the scalping of all native Americans, even children. Remarkably, Chivington would not face justice. In fact a few weeks after the massacre he was given a parade through the streets of Denver. Chivington had claimed that his unit had killed around 500 warriors. The actual figure was closer to 150, very few if any were warriors. The surviving Cheyenne, fled north to meet up with their warriors that were hunting buffalo. They had to do it on foot (as the Cheyenne’s horses were killed at Sand Creek) in winter. When news of the massacre finally arrived with the survivors the warriors mourned. “They cried and wailed. Even the warriors. Many consumed with grief were gashing themselves with knives.” This understandably led to more warriors who may have been aligned to Black Kettle and the peace chiefs join with Roman Nose and the Dog Soldiers in their war with the whites.
Medicine Lodge Treaty
Black Kettle warned against retaliatory attacks. He was as angry as any about Sand Creek but felt that an all out war would not bode well for the Cheyenne. The chief was present with other chiefs of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Apache. Black Kettle signed a peace treaty but in the process gave up more land and agreed to move his tribe down to a reservation in Oklahoma. The Dog Soldiers did not sign the agreement and it seems that Black Kettle’s influence over the Cheyenne, started to wane (particularly with the younger warriors). For the next few years the Roman Nose and his Dog Soldiers waged war on the plains of Kansas, Colorado and Texas.
Battle of Washita River
In November 27, 1868, almost 4 years to the day of the Sand Creek Massacre, General George Custer (the same Custer that was killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn) marched his soldiers into the Cheyenne camp on the banks of Washita River, Oklahoma. He was under orders of General Sheridan, who supposedly muttered the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Custer was to kill any Cheyenne warriors but was told to spare women, children and the elderly. It was an order he and his troops found difficult to follow. As the soldiers stormed the camp and the first gun shots rang out Black Kettle ran to get his rifle, he knew there would be no huddling around an American flag. He shot the rifle in the air and told his people to run. This could not be another Sand Creek. The chief put his wife on a horse and as he pulled himself up to get away he was shot in the neck. Black Kettle was dead. A moments later he was joined on the other side by his wife, she was shot down from the horse and killed. As their bodies lay on the banks of the river, the horses hooves trampled them and sprayed mud all over their lifeless bodies. Black Kettle’s quest for peace had ended there at Washita river. There was more of a battle this time around, there were some warriors in camp and Custer lost quite a few men. But the Cheyenne were no match for the highly trained troops of General Custer. Estimates of the death toll vary. Some say as many as 300 Cheyenne died that day while others say as little as 30. Most historians agree that a large percentage of total deaths were of women and children.
Black Kettle was a tragic figure of the American West. He wanted peace and gave up Cheyenne land to achieve it. He lost the respect from some of his own people who thought he was weak because he didnt go down the war path like other Cheyenne. In an cruel twist of fate the chief faced the same fate as those who advicated war.
All he wanted was to live side by side with the whites. It was a fruitless endeavour. He tried, but he couldn’t protect his people. The man was betrayed, not once but twice and that betrayal cost him his life.
Further Reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Dee Brown. Cannot recommend this book enough. Talks heavily about the Cheyenne but also other tribes who waged war defending their land.