Black Kettle
(1813-1868)

Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs meeting at Fort Weld
 
"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 travelling 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. 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. I have not come here with a little wolf bark, but have come to talk plain with you."
-Motavato (Black Kettle) speaking to Gov. Evans, Col. Chivington, Maj. Wynkoop & others
in Denver, autumn, 1864



    Black Kettle had been a great warrior in his youth. Now, in late summer of middle age, he was a widely recognized Chief of the Southern Cheyenne. Accompanied by Lean Bear, he had recently been to Washington and shook hands with the Great Father Lincoln. Lean Bear and Black Kettle had been friends since they were babies; it must have blown their minds to visit the Capitol City. It is not hard to imagine them walking amidst all the bustle and building thinking,, just what are these white folks trying to do? President Lincoln presented them with pretty medals to wear and papers stating that they were good friends of the United States. But since then, things had been getting more confusing on the plains. There was talk of soldiers attacking Cheyenne.
    One morning Lean Bear rode out to meet the Bluecoats as they approached the Cheyenne camp on Ash Creek. He wore the medal and brought the papers to show the soldiers that he was peaceful. When he was close enough, they opened fired and killed him. Black Kettle did not understand this. He and Lean Bear tried to avoid conflicts and steered their people away from the unforseen dangers encountered through too much contact with buffalo hunters, stage roads, white man's forts and railroads. The warriors of the Southern Cheyenne, the young men who comprised the Dog Soldiers, were more attracted to leaders like Roman Nose who loved a good fight, especially if there seemed to be a noble cause. As things got crazier on the plains, indiscriminate attacks became mutual fare. The Dog Soldiers believed that they could realize their ends through armed struggle and conducted a guerrila war along the Platte, launching many bloody raids against the inexorable advance of the whites across the Great Plains. In 1864, officials in Colorado issued an ultimatum; all friendly Indians should surrender by reporting to the local forts where they would be instructed on what to do and be protected. Hostile Indians and those not complying with this form of surrender would be hunted down and killed. The soldiers who killed Lean Bear had been instructed to kill Indians, period.

    Governor John Evans of the Colorado Territory, had leaned on his connections in Washington and received permission to raise a new regiment for protection against marauding Indians. The possibility of peace offered by Black Kettle, White Antelope and other Cheyenne chiefs was not what Evans had in mind. Evans wanted to satisfy his constituents and had already commited himself to a course of action. He felt it would compromise his credibility with his connections in DC as well as betray the locals who desired to avoid conscription by joining a regiment to fight poorly armed Indians rather than well-seasoned Confederate troops. As the Governor explained, "They have been raised to kill Indians, and they must kill Indians."

    On November 29, 1864, troops under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington, a former Methodist preacher  with political ambitions, attacked and destroyed the Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle and Chief White Antelope by Sand Creek, on the plains of eastern Colorado. Upon hearing the approaching soldiers in the early morning light, White Antelope went out to meet them. The Bluecoats raised their rifles and White Antelope sang a death song as the bullets tore through him. Black Kettle stood in the middle of the camp and raised his American flag as well as a white flag in case anyone thought the first one was just a souvenir. The previous year in Washington, Colonel Greenwood, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, had presented Black Kettle with this huge 34 star flag, saying that soldiers would not fire upon anyone standing under the Stars and Stripes. Black Kettle always mounted it above his tipi in the middle of the village when he stayed in one place for any length of time. He and the other chiefs in his camp had already declared themselves at peace and were led to believe they had done what they were told to do. They were now under the military protection of Fort Lyon. So the Chief held up the poles in the early November air and his breath condensed into mist as he called to his people and with prayerful confidence, told them not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them. Chivington's troops then opened fire from both sides of the camp, shooting directly into the crowd around Black Kettle and scattering them.



   Conservative estimates figure the Indian dead at 105 women and children and 28 men. The Army also drove off about six hundred horses and mules. In a few nauseating hours, a gang of white devils had "destroyed the lives and power of every Cheyenne and Arapaho chief who had held out for peace." (Dee Brown) The slaughter would soon caused a massive public reaction, but what exactly had happened on the banks of Sand Creek was not immediately obvious to the general public.
    The soldiers, many of them drunk, had killed indiscriminately. After the battle, they went on to scalp, bash in skulls and otherwise mutilate the dead. Officers and enlisted men alike cut off the private parts of men, women and children and kept them as souvenirs. Others cut off fingers to obtain rings. Women and children prisoners were killed and scalped by the Bluecoats who were "wading in gore" as Chivington had promised.  A full two weeks after the massacre, the Colonel was honored with a big parade through the streets of Denver. He even appeared onstage displaying some of his grisly trophies. A Denver editorial boasted, "Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results." They go on to state, "Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory."

    Caught up in his own demented illusions, Chivington decided to publicize the cowardice of Captain Silas Soule (1839-1865) and other officers at Fort Lyon who denounced the treacherous attack, saying that it would be murder and a disgrace to the Army to participate in such a thing. Ordered to accompany the expedition or face court-martial, they went along, but ordered their troops to stand down unless fired upon. When Chivington oinked in Denver about Soule, Captain Soule's men could no longer contain themselves and in proud defense of their leader, spoke about what they had seen and heard that day. Soule wrote, that it was "... hard for me to see little children on their knees begging for their lives, to have their brains beaten out like dogs." This led to an investigation into Chivington's conduct which was not a popular move in Denver that year and proceedings were conducted under a cloud of intimidation. But Soule, who had previously schemed with the Jayhawks, and helped the Underground Railroad, and who had fought alongside Chivington against the Confederates at Glorieta Pass, had seen too much that was contrary to his ideals at Sand Creek that day to be shut down. He knew Black Kettle and his people and that this was a peaceful band seeking refuge. It was deceit to consider the Army's actions as anything but cold-blooded murder. Soule spoke out against the deeds of his old commander and alerted the world to the holocaust happening in the American west. Soon afterwards, he was shot by a friend or supporter of Chivington who moved to California and was never brought to justice. Major Wynkoop, an eyewitness to events preceding the slaughter at Sand Creek, offered this report to the American Geographical and Statistical Society at the Cooper Institute, on Christmas Eve, 1864. It appeared on page one of the New York Tribune;

    In regard to the causes of the Indian war which has existed, at intervals, since 1863, speaking alone from my own personal knowledge, I would say, without hesitation that the initiative has in every instance been taken by our own people. Ten years ago I was one of a party of 17 adventurers who started from the Territory of Kansas to seek their fortunes in the region of the Rocky Mountains that was then known as the Pike's peak country, now the Territory of Colorado. During our journey thither we passed through numerous bands of Indians, viz.: Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Apaches. Thousands of them were camped along the Arkansas River, all the way to the Rocky Mountains. We were treated hospitably by them and with the utmost kindness; we were the vanguard of an army of emigrants, who were soon to take possession of their hunting grounds, and it would have been but a simple effort for them to have crushed us at that time had they felt so disposed. But, on the contrary when the nucleus which we formed had gathered together hundreds of gold seekers at the mouth of Cherry Creek where now stands the city of Denver and the Indians knew that the supposed treasures of these mountains would attract thousands who must necessarily encroach upon their rights, still their intercourse was of the most pacific character.
    As the emigration continued to flow in during the years '58, '59, '60, '61 and '62, I know of no instance in which the friendly relations, existing between the Indian and the white man were interrupted. But during the year 1863 that country was cursed with the presence of a man in power, the commander of a military District, in which was included the Territory of Colorado, whose position gave him absolute sway, and whose name is synonymous with infamy, Col. J. M. Chivington. Having had his command reduced by frequent calls of troops to take the field against those who were endeavoring to dissever our Union, found that it was necessary to do something to retain him in the most exalted position he had ever held--that of a commander of a military district where troops were not really required. He, therefore, thought it was politic to inaugurate an Indian war. Finding a good opportunity, on the pretense that a certain hunting party of Cheyenne Indians had run off some stock which they had found on the prairie, and at the time were driving toward a ranch to return to their lawful owners, he ordered a detachment of his troops to make an attack upon them.

    They naturally defended themselves, and the consequence was a skirmish, in which some lives were lost; and from that arose the cry of an Indian war. Under the orders of this monster, the troops then took the field to kill all Indians that they might meet. The Indians, in retaliation for the wrongs had been imposed upon them, naturally committed depredations whenever they had an opportunity; but after this state of affairs had existed for a couple of months, under the influence of the older and wiser heads of their race, retired from the highways and the vicinity of the settlements, and sued for peace. An armistice existed for a short time, and then came the fearful massacre of Sand Creek, with the details of which almost every one is familiar, where Indian women and children were murdered in cold blood by United States troops and their bodies mutilated in the most horrible manner.

 

    A year later, Black Kettle, still determined to find a way to live in peace with white men,
                 again met with US government treaty makers at the mouth of the Little Arkansas River in Kansas...
 

    "Although the troops have struck us, we throw it all behind and are glad to meet you in peace and friendship. What you have come here for, and what the President has sent you for, I don't object to, but say yes to it... The white people can go wherever they please and they will not be disturbed by us, and I want you to let them know... We are different nations, but it seems as if we were but one people, whites and all... Again, I take you by the hand, and I feel happy. These people that are with us are glad to think that we can have peace once more, and can sleep soundly, and that we can live."
-Motavato (Black Kettle), October, 1865

    The chiefs present at the meeting on the Little Arkansas, signed away all claims of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho to the Territory of Colorado and agreed to 'perpetual peace'. As agreed, they moved south of the Arkansas River where they enjoyed a few good seasons, able to resume some semblance of their former lives and attempt to raise their families on the grassy plains. "These were happy days for us," recalled George Bent, a half-breed who married Black Kettle's niece. But there were soon problems. The government did not hold up their part of the bargain and failed to supply the Indians with arms and ammunition as promised. Game was becoming scarcer every day; and unable to procure subsistence for their families, with no means to acquire the absolute necessities of life, some became desperate.
    According to Major Wynkoop, "Some of the wilder spirits, incensed at treatment which they supposed to be most unjust, started on the war-path against the whites, but they were the outlaws of their tribe, and were so declared by those chiefs whom I saw after they had committed their depredations. Their whole race should not have been made responsible for the evil doings of a few, for the head men of their tribe, with whom I held council, considered that those outlaws had done more injury to their own people than to mine, and were willing and anxious to deliver them up to us to be handed over to justice; but the troops were in the field and the Indians in flight before the same could be consummated."

    The next council was at Fort Larned, Kansas in the fall of 1866, General Winfield Scott Hancock presiding.  The Indians called him Old Man of the Thunder, and he was intent on getting something done. Maybe it was the shadow of defeat hanging over him from the Civil War, the repeated insults to his warrior's pride suffered under Confederate clout, but Hancock was not a good man to have sent west. Back in '62, the press had dubbed him Hancock the Superb for his military exploits. This was the man who wasted Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg . But by the fall of '64 he left his field command because of discouragement and burn out. His men had been severely butchered, his guns had been overrun, the glory had faded in a series of defeats during the Virginia campaign. Grant had sent Hancock's men to the slaughter in a futile charge at Cold Harbor. Discouraged with the quality of the new troops under his command, Hancock was no longer in the mood to rebuild and chose to move on. Having come west, he was intent on a no-nonsense session that would produce results. He had presidential ambitions and actually ran against Garfield in 1880, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, he must enact the heroic deeds which would make his name a household word. The General especially wanted to meet with the leaders of the Dog Soldiers. He was angry and insulted that the great warrior Roman Nose had not come to the council. In response, Hancock marched his troops out toward the Indian camp. The Indians, many of whom had been at Sand Creek, could quickly see where this was leading and sent most of the women and children away on ponies. Hancock told the remaining young men to bring the others back. The warriors rode off, but did not return. Hancock waited a few days, then inventoried and burnt over 300 lodges, turning everything these people possessed to ashes. Now whole families were destitute, in a starving condition, and without shelter on the open prairie. The enraged Dog Soldiers struck back with renewed vigor. General J.B. Sanborn, one of the Indian Comissioners wrote, "For a mighty nation like us to be carrying on a war with a few straggling nomads, under such circumstances, is a spectacle most humiliating, an injustice unparallelled, a national crime most revolting, that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the judgement of heaven."

    Hancock was recalled and his troops were sent elsewhere. General Sherman arranged the council next fall. The government wanted the Indians to share a reservation south of the Arkansas and would provide land and cattle to assisst in their assimilation. Over four thousand Indians were present for the discussions at Medicine Creek Lodge, although the lack of Cheyennes at this gathering disturbed the US commisioners. Their main goal was to convince the Dog Soldiers to accept the land south of the Arkansas as a move in the direction of peaceful co-existence. Roman Nose was not interested in accepting these limits and his band moved north. Still, many leaders of the Dog Soldiers were coaxed into attentding;



"We were once friends with the whites but you nudged us out of the way by your intrigues,
and now when we are in council you keep nudging each other.
Why don't you talk, and go straight, and let all be well?"

-Motavato (Black Kettle) to the Indians gathered at Medicine Creek Lodge, October, 1867

    When the gallant Roman Nose was killed in a wreckless charge against a group of scouts in the fall of 1868, many of these young warriors lost heart in the struggle and headed south to join Black Kettle's band. Black Kettle was glad to see them return and warmly accepted the braves back into his fold. No doubt he spoke with them about the futility of making war against the whites. He had just returned from Fort Cobb a few days before. There he had met with General Hazen who assured him that his village would not be attacked. The General issued them some coffee, sugar and tobacco, knowing that he would probably never see them again. Hazen was well aware of Sheridan's plans. Black Kettle had resisted the entreaties of some of his people, including his wife, to move their camp downriver closer to larger encampments of Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Apaches wintered there. He refused to believe that Sheridan would order an attack without first offering an opportunity for peace. This was a serious miscalculation.

    Abraham Lincoln had commented that Sheridan was, "One of those long-armed fellows with short legs, that can scratch his shins without having to stoop over." The Indians thought the stocky commander looked like a little bear with a bad attitude. A Comanche who had surrendered walked up to Sheridan, and smiling, pointed to himself, and said; "Tosawi, good Indian." Sheridan is then reported to have said ,"The only good Indian is a dead Indian."  Sheridan would one day become Commander in Chief of the entire US army (1884-1888).

 

Washita

    Before dawn, the cavalry stormed the 51 lodges, killing men, women, and children. Hard Backside Custer reported over 100 killed, although only 11 of these were warriors. This was Custer's first major engagement with the Indians. According to Bent,
 
    Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman, both rushed out of the lodge at the first booming of the guns. Black Kettle mounted a horse and helped his wife up behind him and started to cross the Washita River, but both the chief and his wife fell at the river bank riddled with bullets; the horse was also killed at the same time. Red Shin tells me that the soldiers rode right over Black Kettle and his wife and their horse as they lay dead on the ground, and that their bodies were all splashed with mud by the charging soldiers...

    Following Sheridan's plan to cripple resistance, Hard Backside ordered the slaughter of the Indian pony and mule herd estimated at near 900 animals. The lodges of Black Kettle's people, with all their winter supply of food and clothing, were torched. The loss of winter supplies, and the loss of heart through sheer misery, convinced many bands to accept reservation life.
 


Note: In April 1996, the United Methodist Church, at its national convention in Denver, formally apologized to the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indian tribes for the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. 

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