If there is a more tragic figure in the 19th Century West than the great Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle, I have yet to find him.
In my earlier blogs, I related how John Chivington and the Colorado Volunteers massacred the Peace Chief’s Sand Creek village in November, 1864. Killing over a hundred, mostly women, children, and old men not out on the hunt as they awoke at dawn. Black Kettle’s wife, Medicine Woman, somehow survived nine bullet wounds. This despite the fact that Black Kettle had traveled to Denver to seek peace and flew a giant American flag and a great white flag given to him at that peace conference. And that he had moved his village to where he was instructed to keep the peace.
Undaunted, Black Kettle convinced his people to continue seeking peace. He moved his village over the ensuing four years to areas ordered by Indian agents and the Army. November 1868 found them in a village in Indian Territory in Oklahoma roughly 300 miles southeast of the horror that had been Sand Creek.
His village of 50 lodges and approximately 250 Cheyenne was the western-most of a series of five villages of around 6,000 Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa-Apache running for ten to fifteen miles along the Washita River—or, as the Cheyenne called it, the Lodgepole River.
To be fair, whereas many of the Indians had been seeking peace, the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and many of the young braves who sneaked out of peaceful villages continued to attack the settlers in Kansas and Colorado. General Phil Sheridan was ordered to bring the Indians in and to stop the attacks on the settlers once and for all.
On September 23, 1868 Sheridan reinstated Colonel George Armstrong Custer to active duty and ordered him back to the West to lead one of the three columns against the Indians. Custer had been court-martialed the year before for abandoning his Seventh Cavalry command in the culmination of what at best can be viewed as a failed first command against the Plains Indians.
The characteristically eager Civil War hero kissed his wife, Lilly, good bye, jumped on the first west bound train, and reported to Sheridan one week later at Fort Hays. He rejoined his Seventh Cavalry five days later, and then on November 12, he led them, some 800 strong, south for the march to find the Indians. He drove the Seventh and all its wagons and supplies one hundred miles in six days in the bitter Kansas winter to set up a supply camp.
The Indians knew in general that the Army was coming, but were not aware of any specific plans. Many Kiowas and Comanches had moved their villages to Fort Cobb to be sure that their peaceful intentions were clear. Black Kettle decided to also travel to Fort Cobb to ensure that his peaceful intentions were known to the Indian Agency and the Army. He and several other chiefs rode a hundred miles to meet with the Fort Cobb authorities specifically to ask them if they should move their villages to Fort Cobb. On November 20, they were told “no,” they must make their peace with Sheridan. The soldiers told them that moving to Fort Cobb risked the safety of the Indians already there if Sheridan followed and attacked them. Black Kettle’s repeated claims of peaceful intent and requests for guidance were denied. He was told to go find Sheridan and make his peace.
Black Kettle’s small band rode the hundred miles in the snow back to the Washita, arriving there on November 26th.
Custer’s Seventh Cavalry left the supply camp on November 23rd and marched fifteen miles south in a blinding snow storm. They then marched through feet of snow and bitter cold another forty-five miles in the next two days. At dawn on the 26th they moved out and shortly ran across tracks of a hundred and fifty braves returning from hunting or raiding.
Custer, who had split his command, both columns riding all day through the snow, reunited them at 9:00 pm—at about the time Black Kettle was finishing his council with his Cheyenne village a few miles south. Black Kettle’s Cheyenne had decided that, in the morning, they would move their village southwest, away from all the other Indian villages.
In total darkness, as the Indians slept in their tipis, Custer and his scouts crawled on all fours through the snow to look into the Washita valley below. Custer saw and heard nothing. Then what looked like a herd of deer below. Then he heard a dog bark. Then a lone baby cry.
Custer had found his Indians.
He and Black Kettle would meet a few hours later, at dawn on November 27, 1868.
Custer, the Civil War hero and failed Indian fighter, now, characteristically, refused to wait for any reconnaissance. He split his forces into four columns, ordered the taking of horses and women prisoners, and a dawn attack.
At dawn, some of the Indian dogs began barking, and an Indian boy shot his rifle into the surrounding woods. From four directions the Seventh Cavalry charged the sleeping Indians, the band’s attempt to play Garryowen thwarted, as their lips froze to their instruments.
By midafternoon, Black Kettle and Medicine Woman, and somewhere between forty and more than a hundred of their village lay dead in the snow. Custer burned the tipis and slaughtered seven hundred of their horses in front of both the fifty-three captured women and children and the hundreds of warriors watching from the hills above. The Seventh had a handful of wounded and one dead in the village, but all of their overcoats had been stolen by the Indians and, unbeknownst to Custer, twenty of his “Grey Company” were being overwhelmed and butchered a few miles to the south.
The growing hundreds of warriors watching from above was evidence of the much larger set of neighboring villages. Whereas Custer had outnumbered Black Kettle 5:1, he now found himself in the reverse situation in the very same village. However, when the Seventh, encircling their captive women, children, and ponies, marched toward, rather than away, from them, the watching warriors retreated to their villages.
Despite the lack of surveillance, proven cavalry tactics, surprise, and “Custer Luck” had, as it always had before for Custer, won the day. He drove the Seventh and his captives back to the supply camp in the freezing snow.
Black Kettle’s luck however, and his quest as the greatest of the Cheyenne Peace Chiefs, had run out on the snow-covered banks of the Lodgepole River.
The Sand Creek Battle plays a role in my historical fiction novel, Where They Bury You (Sunstone Press). Both Custer and the Washita Battle play prominent roles in the forthcoming sequel, Chief of Thieves (June 15, Sunstone Press).