1864—January 13, Stephen Foster, composer of songs and ballads, dies at age 38. April 10, Archduke Maximilian, supported by a French army, becomes Emperor of Mexico. April 17, bread riot in Savannah, Georgia. May 19, Nathaniel Hawthorne dies at age 60. June 30, Secretary of the Treasury Chase resigns; charges speculators are plotting to prolong war for monetary gain. Legislator and historian Robert C. Winthrop says: “Professed patriotism may be made the cover for a multitude of sins.” September 2, Atlanta, Georgia, taken by Union Army. November 8, Lincoln reelected President. December 8, in Rome, Pius IX issues Syllabus Errorum, condemning Liberalism, Socialism, and Rationalism. December 21, falls to Sherman’s army. December, Edwin Booth playing in Hamlet at New York’s Winter Garden Theater.
Although wrongs have been done me I live in hopes. I have not got two hearts. … Now we are together again to make peace. My shame is as big as the earth, although I will do what my friends advise me to do. I once thought that I was the only man that persevered to be the friend of the white man, but since they have come and cleaned out our lodges, horses, and everything else, it is hard for me to believe white men any more.
—MOTAVATO (BLACK KETTLE) OK THE SOUTHERN CHEYENNES
IN 1851 THE CHEYENNES, Arapahos, Sioux, Crows, and other tribes met at Fort Laramie with representatives of the United States and agreed to permit the Americans to establish roads and military posts across their territory. Both parties to the treaty swore “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.” By the end of the first decade following the treaty signing, the white men had driven a hole through the Indian country along the valley of the Platte River. First came the wagon trains and then a chain of forts; then the stagecoaches and a closer-knit chain of forts; then the pony-express riders, followed by the talking wires of the telegraph.
In that treaty of 1851 the Plains Indians did not relinquish any rights or claims to their lands, nor did they “surrender the privilege of hunting, fishing or passing over any of the tracts of country heretofore described.” The Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1858 brought white miners by the thousands to dig yellow metal out of the Indians’ earth. The miners built little wooden villages everywhere, and in 1859 they built a big village which they called Denver City. Little Raven, an Arapaho chief who was amused by the activities of white men, paid a visit to Denver; he learned to smoke cigars and to eat meat with a knife and fork. He also told the miners he was glad to see them getting gold, but reminded them that the land belonged to the Indians, and expressed the hope they would not stay around after they found all the yellow metal they needed.
The miners not only stayed, but thousands more of them came. The Platte Valley, which had once teemed with buffalo, began to fill with settlers staking out ranches and land claims on territory assigned by the Laramie treaty to Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos. Only ten years after the treaty signing, the Great Council in Washington created the Territory of Colorado; the Great Father sent out a governor; and politicians began maneuvering for a land cession from the Indians.
Through all of this the Cheyennes and Arapahos kept the peace, and when United States officials invited their leaders to gather at Fort Wise on the Arkansas River to discuss a new treaty, several chiefs responded. According to later statements of chiefs of both tribes, what they were told would be in the treaty and what was actually written into it were quite different. It was the understanding of the chiefs that the Cheyennes and Arapahos would retain their land rights and freedom of movement to hunt buffalo, but that they would agree to live within a triangular section of territory bounded by Sand Creek and the Arkansas River. Freedom of movement was an especially vital matter because the reservation assigned the two tribes had almost no wild game upon it and was unsuited to agriculture unless irrigated.
The treaty making at Fort Wise was a gala affair. Because of its importance, Colonel A. B. Greenwood, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, put in an appearance to pass out medals, blankets, sugar, and tobacco. The Little White Man (William Bent), who had married into the Cheyenne tribe, was there to look after the Indians’ interests. When the Cheyennes pointed out that only six of their forty-four chiefs were present, the United States officials replied that the others could sign later. None of the others ever did, and for that reason the legality of the treaty was to remain in doubt. Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Lean Bear were among the signers for the Cheyennes. Little Raven, Storm, and Big Mouth signed for the Arapahos. Witnesses to the signatures were two officers of the United States Cavalry, John Sedgwick and J. E. B. Stuart. (A few months later Sedgwick and Stuart, who urged the Indians to peaceful pursuits, were fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War, and by one of the ironies of history they died within a few hours of each other in the battles of the Wilderness.)
During the first years of the white man’s Civil War, Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting parties found it increasingly difficult to stay clear of Bluecoat soldiers who were scouting southward in search of Graycoats. They heard about the troubles of the Navahos, and from friends among the Sioux they learned of the awful fate of the Santees who dared challenge the power of the soldiers in Minnesota. Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs tried to keep their young men busy hunting buffalo away from the white men’s routes of travel. Each summer, however, the numbers and arrogance of the Bluecoats increased. By the spring of 1864, soldiers were prowling into remote hunting grounds between the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers.
When the grass was well up that year, Roman Nose and quite a number of the Dog Soldier Cheyennes went north for better hunting in the Powder River country with their Northern Cheyenne cousins. Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Lean Bear kept their bands below the Platte, however, and so did Little Raven of the Arapahos. They were careful to avoid soldiers and white buffalo hunters by staying away from forts and trails and settlements.
Black Kettle and Lean Bear did go down to Fort Larned (Kansas) that spring to trade. Only the year before the two chiefs had been invited on a visit to see the Great Father, Abraham Lincoln, in Washington, and they were sure the Great Father’s soldiers at Fort Larned would treat them well. President Lincoln gave them medals to wear on their breasts, and Colonel Greenwood presented Black Kettle with a United States flag, a huge garrison flag with white stars for the thirty-four states bigger than glittering stars in the sky on a clear night. Colonel Greenwood had told him that as long as that flag flew above him no soldiers would ever fire upon him. Black Kettle was very proud of his flag and when in permanent camp always mounted it on a pole above his tepee.
In the middle of May, Black Kettle and Lean Bear heard that soldiers had attacked some Cheyennes on the South Platte River. They decided to break camp and move northward to join the rest of the tribe for strength and protection. After one day’s march they went into camp near Ash Creek. Next morning, as was the custom, the hunters went out early for game, but they soon came hurrying back. They had seen soldiers with cannons approaching the camp.
Lean Bear liked excitement, and he told Black Kettle he would go out and meet the soldiers and find out what they wanted. He hung the medal from the Great Father Lincoln outside his coat and took some papers that had been given him in Washington certifying that he was a good friend of the United States, and then rode out with an escort of warriors. Lean Bear rode up on a hill near camp and saw the soldiers approaching in four bunches of cavalry. They had two cannons in the center and several wagons strung out in the rear.
Wolf Chief, one of the young warriors escorting Lean Bear, said afterward that as soon as the Cheyennes were seen by the soldiers, the latter formed a line front. “Lean Bear told us warriors to stay where we were,” Wolf Chief said, “so as not to frighten the soldiers, while he rode forward to shake hands with the officer and show his papers. … When the chief was within only twenty or thirty yards of the line, the officer called out in a very loud voice and the soldiers all opened fire on Lean Bear and the rest of us. Lean Bear fell off his horse right in front of the troops, and Star, another Cheyenne, also fell off his horse. The soldiers then rode forward and shot Lean Bear and Star again as they lay helpless on the ground. I was off with a party of young men to one side. There was a company of soldiers in front of us, but they were all shooting at Lean Bear and the other Cheyennes who were near to him. They paid no attention to us until we began firing on them with bows and guns. They were so close that we shot several of them with arrows. Two of them fell backward off their horses. By this time there was a great deal of confusion. More Cheyennes kept coming up in small parties, and the soldiers were bunching up and seemed badly frightened. They were shooting at us with the cannon. The grapeshot struck the ground around us, but the aim was bad.” 1
In the midst of the fighting, Black Kettle appeared on his horse and began riding up and down among the warriors. “Stop the fighting!” he shouted. “Do not make war!” It was a long time before the Cheyennes would listen to him. “We were very mad,” Wolf Chief said, “but at last he stopped the fight. The soldiers ran off. We captured fifteen cavalry horses, with saddles, bridles, and saddle bags on them. Several soldiers were killed; Lean Bear, Star, and one more Cheyenne were killed, and many were wounded.”
The Cheyennes were sure that they could have killed all the soldiers and captured their mountain howitzers, because five hundred Cheyenne warriors were in the camp against a hundred soldiers. As it was, many of the young men, infuriated by the cold-blooded killing of Lean Bear, chased the retreating soldiers in a running fight all the way to Fort Larned.
Black Kettle was bewildered by this sudden attack. He grieved for Lean Bear; they had been friends for almost half a century. He remembered how Lean Bear’s curiosity was always getting him into trouble. Sometime before, when the Cheyennes paid a friendly visit to Fort Atkinson on the Arkansas River, Lean Bear noticed a bright shiny ring worn by an officer’s wife. Impulsively he took hold of the woman’s hand to look at her ring. The woman’s husband rushed up and slashed Lean Bear with a big whip. Lean Bear turned and jumped on his horse and rode back to the Cheyenne camp. He painted his face and rode through the camp, urging the warriors to join him in attacking the fort. A Cheyenne chief had been insulted, he cried. Black Kettle and the other chiefs had a hard time calming him down that day. Now Lean Bear was dead, and his death had stirred the warriors to a far deeper anger than the insult at Fort Atkinson.
Black Kettle could not understand why the soldiers had attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp without warning. He supposed that if anyone would know, it would be his old friend the Little White Man, William Bent. More than thirty years had passed since the Little White Man and his brothers had come to the Arkansas River and built Bent’s Fort. William had married Owl Woman, and after she died he married her sister, Yellow Woman. In all those years the Bents and the Cheyennes had lived in close friendship. The Little White Man had three sons and two daughters, and they lived much of the time with their mother’s people. That summer two of the half-breed sons, George and Charlie, were hunting buffalo with the Cheyennes on Smoky Hill River.
After some thought about the matter, Black Kettle sent a messenger on a fast pony to find the Little White Man. “Tell him we have had a fight with the soldiers and killed several of them,” Black Kettle said. “Tell him we do not know what the fight was about or for, and that we would like to see him and talk with him about it.” 2
By chance Black Kettle’s messenger found William Bent on the road between Fort Larned and Fort Lyon. Bent sent the messenger back with instructions for Black Kettle to meet him on Coon Creek. A week later the old friends met, both concerned over the future of the Cheyennes, Bent especially worried about his sons. He was relieved to learn that they were hunting on the Smoky Hill. No trouble had been reported from there, but he knew of two fights that had occurred elsewhere. At Fremont’s Orchard north of Denver, a band of Dog Soldiers was attacked by a patrol of Colonel John M. Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers who were out looking for stolen horses. The Dog Soldiers were herding a horse and a mule picked up as strays, but Chivington’s soldiers opened fire before giving the Cheyennes an opportunity to explain where they had obtained the animals. After this engagement Chivington sent out a larger force, which attacked a Cheyenne camp near Cedar Bluffs, killing two women and two children. The artillery soldiers who had attacked Black Kettle’s camp on May 16 were also Chivington’s men, sent out from Denver with no authority to operate in Kansas. The officer in command, Lieutenant George S. Eayre, was under orders from Colonel Chivington to “kill Cheyennes whenever and wherever found.” 3
If such incidents continued, William Bent and Black Kettle agreed, a general war was bound to break out all over the plains. “It is not my intention or wish to fight the whites,” Black Kettle said. “I want to be friendly and peaceable and keep my tribe so. I am not able to fight the whites. I want to live in peace.”
Bent told Black Kettle to keep his young men from making revenge raids, and promised he would return to Colorado and try to persuade the military authorities not to continue on the dangerous road they were taking. He then set out for Fort Lyon.
“On my arrival there,” he later testified under oath, “I met Colonel Chivington, related to him the conversation that had taken place between me and the Indians, and that the chiefs desired to be friendly. In reply he said he was not authorized to make peace, and that he was then on the warpath—I think were the words he used. I then stated to him that there was great risk to run in keeping up the war; that there were a great many government trains traveling to New Mexico and other points; also a great many citizens, and that I did not think there was sufficient force to protect the travel, and that the citizens and settlers of the country would have to suffer. He said the citizens would have to protect themselves. I then said no more to him.” 4
Late in June the governor of Colorado Territory, John Evans, issued a circular addressed to the “friendly Indians of the plains,” informing them that some members of their tribes had gone to war with the white people. Governor Evans declared that “in some instances they have attacked and killed soldiers.” He made no mention of soldiers attacking Indians, although this was the way all three fights with the Cheyennes had begun. “For this the Great Father is angry,” he went on, “and will certainly hunt them out and punish them, but he does not want to injure those who remain friendly to the whites; he desires to protect and take care of them. For this purpose I direct that all friendly Indians keep away from those who are at war, and go to places of safety.” Evans ordered friendly Cheyennes and Arapahos to report to Fort Lyon on their reservation, where their agent, Samuel G. Colley, would furnish them with provisions and show them a place of safety. “The object of this is to prevent friendly Indians from being killed through mistake. … The war on hostile Indians will be continued until they are all effectually subdued.” 5
As soon as William Bent learned of Governor Evans’ decree he started immediately to warn the Cheyennes and Arapahos to come in to Fort Lyon. Because the various bands were scattered across western Kansas for their summer hunts, several weeks passed before runners could reach all of them. During this period clashes between soldiers and Indians steadily increased. Sioux warriors, aroused by General Alfred Sully’s punitive expeditions of 1863 and 1864 into Dakota, swarmed down from the north to raid wagon trains, stagecoach stations, and settlers along the Platte route. For these actions the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos received much of the blame, and most of the attention of the Colorado soldiers. William Bent’s half-breed son George, who was with a large band of Cheyennes on the Solomon River in July, said they were attacked again and again by the troops without any cause, until they began retaliating in the only way they knew how—burning the stage stations, chasing the coaches, running off stock, and forcing the freighters to corral their trains and fight.
Black Kettle and the older chiefs tried to stop these raids, but their influence was weakened by the appeal of younger leaders such as Roman Nose and by the members of the Hotamitanio, or Dog Soldier Society. When Black Kettle discovered that seven white captives—two women and five children—had been brought into the Smoky Hill camps by the raiders, he ransomed four of them from the captors with his own ponies so that he could return them to their relatives. About this time, he finally received a message from William Bent informing him of Governor Evans’ order to report to Fort Lyon.
It was now late August, and Evans had issued a second proclamation “authorizing all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains, scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my call to rendezvous at the points indicated; also to kill and destroy as enemies of the country wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” 6 The hunt was already on for all Indians not confined to one of the assigned reservations.
Black Kettle immediately held a council, and all the chiefs in camp agreed to comply with the governor’s requirements for peace. George Bent, who had been educated at Webster College in St. Louis, was asked to write a letter to agent Samuel Colley at Fort Lyon, informing him that they wanted peace. “We heard that you have some prisoners in Denver. We have seven prisoners of yours which we are willing to give up, providing you give up yours. … We want true news from you in return.” Black Kettle hoped that Colley would give him instructions as to how to bring his Cheyennes across Colorado without being attacked by soldiers or roving bands of Governor Evans’ armed citizens. He did not entirely trust Colley; he suspected the agent of selling part of the Indians’ allotment of goods for his own profit. (Black Kettle did not yet know how deeply involved Colley was with Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington in their scheme to drive the Plains Indians from Colorado.) On July 26, the agent had written Evans that they could not depend on any of the Indians to keep the peace. “I now think a little powder and lead is the best food for them,” he concluded. 7
Because of his distrust of Colley, Black Kettle had a second copy of the letter written out and addressed to William Bent. He gave the separate copies to Ochinee (One-Eye) and Eagle Head, and ordered them to ride for Fort Lyon. Six days later, as One-Eye and Eagle Head were approaching the fort, they were suddenly confronted by three soldiers. The soldiers took firing positions, but One-Eye quickly made signs for peace and held up Black Kettle’s letter. In a few moments the Indians were being escorted into Fort Lyon as prisoners and handed over to the commanding officer, Major Edward W. Wynkoop.
Tall Chief Wynkoop was suspicious of the Indians’ motives. When he learned from One-Eye that Black Kettle wanted him to come out to the Smoky Hill camp and guide the Indians back to the reservation, he asked how many Indians were there. Two thousand Cheyennes and Arapahos, One-Eye replied, and perhaps two hundred of their Sioux friends from the north who were tired of being chased by soldiers. Wynkoop made no reply to this. He had scarcely more than a hundred mounted soldiers, and he knew the Indians knew the size of his force. Suspecting a trap, he ordered the Cheyenne messengers imprisoned in the guardhouse and called his officers together for a council. The Tall Chief was young, in his mid-twenties, and his only military experience was one battle against Texas Confederates in New Mexico. For the first time in his career he was faced with a decision that could mean disaster for his entire command.
After a day’s delay, Wynkoop finally decided that he would have to go to the Smoky Hill—not for the sake of the Indians, but to rescue the white prisoners. No doubt it was for this reason that Black Kettle had mentioned the prisoners in his letter; he knew that white men could not abide the thought of white women and children living with Indians.
On September 6 Wynkoop was ready to march with 127 mounted troops. Releasing One-Eye and Eagle Head from the guardhouse, he told them that they would be serving as both guides and hostages for the expedition. “At the first sign of treachery from your people.” Wynkoop warned them, “I will kill you.”
“The Cheyennes do not break their word,” One-Eye replied. “If they should do so, I would not care to live longer.”
(Wynkoop said afterward that his conversations with the two Cheyennes on this march caused him to change his long-held opinions of Indians. “I felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of a race that I heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty without feeling or affection for friend or kindred.”) 8
Five days later, along the headwaters of the Smoky Hill, Wynkoop’s advance scouts sighted a force of several hundred warriors drawn up as though for battle.
George Bent, who was still with Black Kettle, said that when Wynkoop’s soldiers appeared the Dog Soldiers “got ready for a fight and rode out to meet the troops with bows strung and arrows in their hands, but Black Kettle and some of the chiefs interfered, and requesting Major Wynkoop to move his troops off to a little distance, they prevented a fight.” 9
Next morning Black Kettle and the other chiefs met Wynkoop and his officers for a council. Black Kettle let the others speak first. Bull Bear, a leader of the Dog Soldiers, said that he and his brother Lean Bear had tried to live in peace with white men, but that soldiers had come without cause or reason and killed Lean Bear. “The Indians are not to blame for the fighting,” he added. “The white men are foxes and peace cannot be brought about with them; the only thing the Indians can do is fight.”
Little Raven of the Arapahos agreed with Bull Bear. “I would like to shake hands with the white men,” he said, “but I am afraid they do not want peace with us.” One-Eye asked to speak then, and said he was ashamed to hear such talk. He had risked his life to go to Fort Lyon, he said, and pledged his word to Tall Chief Wynkoop that the Cheyennes and Arapahos would come in peacefully to their reservation. “I pledged the Tall Chief my word and my life,” One-Eye declared. “If my people do not act in good faith I will go with the whites and fight for them, and I have a great many friends who will follow me.”
Wynkoop promised that he would do everything that he could to stop the soldiers from fighting the Indians. He said he was not a big chief and could not speak for all the soldiers, but that if the Indians would deliver the white captives to him, he would go with the Indian leaders to Denver and help them make peace with the bigger chiefs.
Black Kettle, who had been listening silently through the proceedings (“immovable with a slight smile upon his face,” according to Wynkoop), arose and said he was glad to hear Tall Chief Wynkoop speak. “There are bad white men and bad Indians,” he said. “The bad men on both sides brought about this trouble. Some of my young men joined in with them. I am opposed to fighting and have done everything in my power to prevent it. I believe the blame rests with the whites. They commenced the war and forced the Indians to fight.” He promised then to deliver the four white prisoners he had purchased; the remaining three were in a camp farther north, and some time would be required to negotiate for them.
The four captives, all children, appeared to be unharmed; in fact, when a soldier asked eight-year-old Ambrose Archer how the Indians had treated him, the boy replied that he “would just as lief stay with the Indians as not.” 10
After more parleying it was finally agreed that the Indians would remain camped on the Smoky Hill while seven chiefs went to Denver with Wynkoop to make peace with Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington. Black Kettle, White Antelope, Bull Bear, and One-Eye represented the Cheyennes; Neva, Bosse, Heaps-of-Buffalo, and Notanee the Arapahos. Little Raven and Left Hand, who were skeptical of any promises from Evans and Chivington, remained behind to keep their young Arapahos out of trouble. War Bonnet would look after the Cheyennes in camp.
Tall Chief Wynkoop’s caravan of mounted soldiers, the four white children, and the seven Indian leaders reached Denver on September 28. The Indians rode in a mule-drawn flatbed wagon fitted with board seats. For the journey, Black Kettle mounted his big garrison flag above the wagon, and when they entered the dusty streets of Denver the Stars and Stripes fluttered protectively over the heads of the chiefs. All of Denver turned out for the procession.
Before the council began, Wynkoop visited Governor Evans for an interview. The governor was reluctant to have anything to do with the Indians. He said that the Cheyennes and Arapahos should be punished before giving them any peace. This was also the opinion of the department commander, General Samuel R. Curtis, who telegraphed Colonel Chivington from Fort Leavenworth that very day: “I want no peace till the Indians suffer more.” 11
Finally Wynkoop had to beg the governor to meet with the Indians. “But what shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I make peace?” Evans asked. “They have been raised to kill Indians, and they must kill Indians.” He explained to Wynkoop that Washington officials had given him permission to raise the new regiment because he had sworn it was necessary for protection against hostile Indians, and if he now made peace the Washington politicians would accuse him of misrepresentation. There was political pressure on Evans from Coloradans who wanted to avoid the military draft of 1864 by serving in uniform against a few poorly armed Indians rather than against the Confederates farther east. Eventually Evans gave in to Major Wynkoop’s pleadings; after all, the Indians had come four hundred miles to see him in response to his proclamation. 12
The council was held at Camp Weld near Denver, and consisted of the chiefs, Evans, Chivington, Wynkoop, several other Army officers, and Simeon Whitely, who was there by the governor’s order to record every word said by the participants. Governor Evans opened the proceedings brusquely, asking the chiefs what they had to say. Black Kettle replied in Cheyenne, with the tribe’s old trader friend, John S. Smith, translating:
“On sight of your circular of June 27, 1864, I took hold of the matter, and have now come to talk to you about it. … Major Wynkoop proposed that we come to see you. We have come with our eyes shut, following his handful of men, like coming through the fire. All we ask is that we may 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. 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. We must live near the buffalo or starve. When we came here we came free, without any apprehension, to see you, and when I go home and tell my people that I have taken your hand, and the hands of all the chiefs here in Denver, they will feel well, and so will all the different tribes of Indians on the plains, after we have eaten and drunk with them.”
Evans replied: “I am sorry you did not respond to my appeal at once. You have gone into an alliance with the Sioux, who are at war with us.”
Black Kettle was surprised. “I don’t know who could have told you this,” he said.
“No matter who said this,” Evans countered, “but your conduct has proved to my satisfaction that was the case.”
Several of the chiefs spoke at once then: “This is a mistake; we have made no alliance with the Sioux or anyone else.”
Evans changed the subject, stating that he was in no mood to make a treaty of peace. “I have learned that you understand that as the whites are at war among themselves,” he went on, “you think you can now drive the whites from this country, but this reliance is false. The Great Father at Washington has men enough to drive all the Indians off the plains, and whip the Rebels at the same time. … My advice to you is to turn on the side of the government, and show by your acts that friendly disposition you profess to me. It is utterly out of the question for you to be at peace with us while living with our enemies, and being on friendly terms with them.”
White Antelope, the oldest of the chiefs, now spoke: “I understand every word you have said, and will hold on to it. … The Cheyennes, all of them, have their eyes open this way, and they will hear what you say. White Antelope is proud to have seen the chief of all the whites in this country. He will tell his people. Ever since I went to Washington and received this medal, I have called all white men as my brothers. But other Indians have been to Washington and got medals, and now the soldiers do not shake hands, but seek to kill me. … I fear that these new soldiers who have gone out may kill some of my people while I am here.”
6. Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs meeting at the Camp Weld Council on September 28, 1864. Standing, third from left: John Smith, interpreter; to his left, White Wing and Bosse. Seated left to right: Neva, Bull Bear, Black Kettle, One-Eye, and an unidentified Indian. Kneeling left to right: Major Edward Wynkoop, Captain Silas Soule.
Evans told him flatly: “There is great danger of it.”
“When we sent our letter to Major Wynkoop,” White Antelope continued, “it was like going through a strong fire or blast for Major Wynkoop’s men to come to our camp; it was the same for us to come to see you.”
Governor Evans now began to question the chiefs about specific incidents along the Platte, trying to trap some of them into admitting participation in raids. “Who took the stock from Fremont’s Orchard,” he asked, “and had the first fight with the soldiers this spring north of there?”
“Before answering that question,” White Antelope replied boldly, “I would like for you to know that this was the beginning of the war, and I should like to know what it was for. A soldier fired first.”
“The Indians had stolen about forty horses,” Evans charged. “The soldiers went to recover them, and the Indians fired a volley into their ranks.”
White Antelope denied this. “They were coming down the Bijou,” he said, “and found one horse and one mule. They returned one horse before they got to Gerry’s to a man, then went to Gerry’s expecting to turn the other one over to someone. They then heard that the soldiers and Indians were fighting down the Platte; then they took fright and all fled.”
“Who committed depredations at Cottonwood?” Evans demanded.
“The Sioux; what band, we do not know.”
“What are the Sioux going to do next?”
Bull Bear answered the question: “Their plan is to clean out all this country,” he declared. “They are angry, and will do all the damage to the whites they can. I am with you and the troops, to fight all those who have no ears to listen to what you say. … I have never hurt a white man. I am pushing for something good. I am always going to be friends with whites; they can do me good. … My brother Lean Bear died in trying to keep peace with the whites. I am willing to die the same way, and expect to do so.”
As there seemed little more to discuss, the governor asked Colonel Chivington if he had anything to say to the chiefs. Chivington arose. He was a towering man with a barrel chest and a thick neck, a former Methodist preacher who had devoted much of his time to organizing Sunday schools in the mining camps. To the Indians he appeared like a great bearded bull buffalo with a glint of furious madness in his eyes. “I am not a big war chief,” Chivington said, “but all the soldiers in this country are at my command. My rule of fighting white men or Indians is to fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority. They [the Indians] are nearer to Major Wynkoop than anyone else, and they can go to him when they are ready to do that.” 13
And so the council ended, leaving the chiefs confused as to whether they had made peace or not. They were sure of one thing—the only real friend they could count on among the soldiers was Tall Chief Wynkoop. The shiny-eyed Eagle Chief, Chivington, had said they should go to Wynkoop at Fort Lyon, and that is what they decided to do.
“So now we broke up our camp on the Smoky Hill and moved down to Sand Creek, about forty miles northeast of Fort Lyon,” George Bent said. “From this new camp the Indians went in and visited Major Wynkoop, and the people at the fort seemed so friendly that after a short time the Arapahos left us and moved right down to the fort, where they went into camp and received regular rations.” 14
Wynkoop issued the rations after Little Raven and Left Hand told him the Arapahos could find no buffalo or other wild game on the reservation, and they were fearful of sending hunting parties back to the Kansas herds. They may have heard about Chivington’s recent order to his soldiers: “Kill all the Indians you come across.” 15
Wynkoop’s friendly dealings with the Indians soon brought him into disfavor with military officials in Colorado and Kansas. He was reprimanded for taking the chiefs to Denver without authorization, and was accused of “letting the Indians run things at Fort Lyon.” On November 5, Major Scott J. Anthony, an officer of Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers, arrived at Fort Lyon with orders to relieve Wynkoop as commander of the post.
One of Anthony’s first orders was to cut the Arapahos’ rations and to demand the surrender of their weapons. They gave him three rifles, one pistol, and sixty bows with arrows. A few days later when a group of unarmed Arapahos approached the fort to trade buffalo hides for rations, Anthony ordered his guards to fire on them. Anthony laughed when the Indians turned and ran. He remarked to one of the soldiers “that they had annoyed him enough, and that was the only way to get rid of them.” 16
The Cheyennes who were camped on Sand Creek heard from the Arapahos that an unfriendly little red-eyed soldier chief had taken the place of their friend Wynkoop. In the Deer Rutting Moon of mid-November, Black Kettle and a party of Cheyennes journeyed to the fort to see this new soldier chief. His eyes were indeed red (the result of scurvy), but he pretended to be friendly. Several officers who were present at the meeting between Black Kettle and Anthony testified afterward that Anthony assured the Cheyennes that if they returned to their camp at Sand Creek they would be under the protection of Fort Lyon. He also told them that their young men could go east toward the Smoky Hill to hunt buffalo until he secured permission from the Army to issue them winter rations.
Pleased with Anthony’s remarks, Black Kettle said that he and the other Cheyenne leaders had been thinking of moving far south of the Arkansas so that they would feel safe from the soldiers, but that the words of Major Anthony made them feel safe at Sand Creek. They would stay there for the winter.
After the Cheyenne delegation departed, Anthony ordered Left Hand and Little Raven to disband the Arapaho camp near Fort Lyon. “Go and hunt buffalo to feed yourselves,” he told them. Alarmed by Anthony’s brusqueness, the Arapahos packed up and began moving away. When they were well out of view of the fort, the two bands of Arapahos separated. Left Hand went with his people to Sand Creek to join the Cheyennes. Little Raven led his band across the Arkansas River and headed south; he did not trust the Red-Eyed Soldier Chief.
Anthony now informed his superiors that “there is a band of Indians within forty miles of the post. … I shall try to keep the Indians quiet until such time as I receive reinforcements.” 17
7. Little Raven, chief of the Arapahos. Photographer not recorded, but taken prior to 1877. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
On November 26, when the post trader, Gray Blanket John Smith, requested permission to go out to Sand Creek to trade for hides, Major Anthony was unusually cooperative. He provided Smith with an Army ambulance to haul his goods, and also a driver, Private David Louderback of the Colorado Cavalry. If nothing else would lull the Indians into a sense of security and keep them camped where they were, the presence of a post trader and a peaceful representative of the Army should do so.
Twenty-four hours later the reinforcements which Anthony said he needed to attack the Indians were approaching Fort Lyon. They were six hundred men of Colonel Chivington’s Colorado regiments, including most of the Third, which had been formed by Governor John Evans for the sole purpose of fighting Indians. When the vanguard reached the fort, they surrounded it and forbade anyone to leave under penalty of death. About the same time a detachment of twenty cavalrymen reached William Bent’s ranch a few miles to the east, surrounded Bent’s house, and forbade anyone to enter or leave. Bent’s two half-breed sons, George and Charlie, and his half-breed son-in-law Edmond Guerrier were camped with the Cheyennes on Sand Creek.
When Chivington rode up to the officers’ quarters at Fort Lyon, Major Anthony greeted him warmly. Chivington began talking of “collecting scalps” and “wading in gore.” Anthony responded by saying that he had been “waiting for a good chance to pitch into them,” and that every man at Fort Lyon was eager to join Chivington’s expedition against the Indians. 18
Not all of Anthony’s officers, however, were eager or even willing to join Chivington’s well-planned massacre. Captain Silas Soule, Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, and Lieutenant James Connor protested that an attack on Black Kettle’s peaceful camp would violate the pledge of safety given the Indians by both Wynkoop and Anthony, “that it would be murder in every sense of the word,” and any officer participating would dishonor the uniform of the Army.
Chivington became violently angry at them and brought his fist down close to Lieutenant Cramer’s face. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he cried. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” 19
Soule, Cramer, and Connor had to join the expedition or face a court-martial, but they quietly resolved not to order their men to fire on the Indians except in self-defense.
At eight o’clock on the evening of November 28, Chivington’s column, now consisting of more than seven hundred men by the addition of Anthony’s troops, moved out in column of fours. Four twelve-pounder mountain howitzers accompanied the cavalry. Stars glittered in a clear sky; the night air carried a sharp bite of frost.
For a guide Chivington conscripted sixty-nine-year-old James Beckwourth, a mulatto who had lived with the Indians for half a century. Medicine Calf Beckwourth tried to beg off, but Chivington threatened to hang the old man if he refused to guide the soldiers to the Cheyenne-Arapaho encampment.
As the column moved on, it became evident that Beckwourth’s dimming eyes and rheumatic bones handicapped his usefulness as a guide. At a ranch house near Spring Bottom, Chivington stopped and ordered the rancher hauled out of his bed to take Beckwourth’s place as guide. The rancher was Robert Bent, eldest son of William Bent; all three of Bent’s half-Cheyenne sons would soon be together at Sand Creek.
The Cheyenne camp lay in a horseshoe bend of Sand Creek north of an almost dry stream bed. Black Kettle’s tepee was near the center of the village, with White Antelope’s and War Bonnet’s people to the west. On the east side and slightly separated from the Cheyennes was Left Hand’s Arapaho camp. Altogether there were about six hundred Indians in the creek bend, two-thirds of them being women and children. Most of the warriors were several miles to the east hunting buffalo for the camp, as they had been told to do by Major Anthony.
So confident were the Indians of absolute safety, they kept no night watch except of the pony herd which was corralled below the creek. The first warning they had of an attack was about sunrise—the drumming of hooves on the sand flats. “I was sleeping in a lodge,” Edmond Guerrier said. “I heard, at first, some of the squaws outside say there were a lot of buffalo coming into camp; others said they were a lot of soldiers.” Guerrier immediately went outside and started toward Gray Blanket Smith’s tent. 20
George Bent, who was sleeping in the same area, said that he was still in his blankets when he heard shouts and the noise of people running about the camp. “From down the creek a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot … more soldiers could be seen making for the Indian pony herds to the south of the camps; in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise—men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms. … I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camp.” 21
Meanwhile young Guerrier had joined Gray Blanket Smith and Private Louderback at the trader’s tent. “Louderback proposed we should go out and meet the troops. We started. Before we got outside the edge of the tent I could see soldiers begin to dismount. I thought they were artillerymen and were about to shell the camp. I had hardly spoken when they began firing with their rifles and pistols. When I saw I could not get to them, I struck out; I left the soldier and Smith.”
Louderback halted momentarily, but Smith kept moving ahead toward the cavalrymen. “Shoot the damned old son of a bitch!” a soldier shouted from the ranks. “He’s no better than an Indian.” At the first scattered shots, Smith and Louderback turned and ran for their tent. Smith’s half-breed son, Jack, and Charlie Bent had already taken cover there. 22
By this time hundreds of Cheyenne women and children were gathering around Black Kettle’s flag. Up the dry creek bed, more were coming from White Antelope’s camp. After all, had not Colonel Greenwood told Black Kettle that as long as the United States flag flew above him no soldier would fire upon him? White Antelope, an old man of seventy-five, unarmed, his dark face seamed from sun and weather, strode toward the soldiers. He was still confident that the soldiers would stop firing as soon as they saw the American flag and the white surrender flag which Black Kettle had now run up.
Medicine Calf Beckwourth, riding beside Colonel Chivington, saw White Antelope approaching. “He came running out to meet the command,” Beckwourth later testified, “holding up his hands and saying ‘Stop! stop!’ He spoke it in as plain English as I can. He stopped and folded his arms until shot down.” 23 Survivors among the Cheyennes said that White Antelope sang the death song before he died:
Nothing lives long
Only the earth and the mountains.
From the direction of the Arapaho camp, Left Hand and his people also tried to reach Black Kettle’s flag. When Left Hand saw the troops, he stood with his arms folded, saying he would not fight the white men because they were his friends. He was shot down.
Robert Bent, who was riding unwillingly with Colonel Chivington, said that when they came in sight of the camp “I saw the American flag waving and heard Black Kettle tell the Indians to stand around the flag, and there they were huddled—men, women, and children. This was when we were within fifty yards of the Indians. I also saw a white flag raised. These flags were in so conspicuous a position that they must have been seen. When the troops fired, the Indians ran, some of the men into their lodges, probably to get their arms. … I think there were six hundred Indians in all. I think there were thirty-five braves and some old men, about sixty in all … the rest of the men were away from camp, hunting. … After the firing the warriors put the squaws and children together, and surrounded them to protect them. I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all. I saw one squaw lying on the bank whose leg had been broken by a shell; a soldier came up to her with a drawn saber; she raised her arm to protect herself, when he struck, breaking her arm; she rolled over and raised her other arm, when he struck, breaking it, and then left her without killing her. There seemed to be indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, and children. There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side. Captain Soule afterwards told me that such was the fact. I saw the body of White Antelope with the privates cut off, and I heard a soldier say he was going to make a tobacco pouch out of them. I saw one squaw whose privates had been cut out. … I saw a little girl about five years of age who had been hid in the sand; two soldiers discovered her, drew their pistols and shot her, and then pulled her out of the sand by the arm. I saw quite a number of infants in arms killed with their mothers.” 24
(In a public speech made in Denver not long before this massacre, Colonel Chivington advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. “Nits make lice!” he declared.)
Robert Bent’s description of the soldiers’ atrocities was corroborated by Lieutenant James Connor: “In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner—men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c; I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on the hand; according to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J. M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them; I heard of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in the feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance left on the ground to perish; I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.” 25
A trained and well-disciplined regiment of soldiers undoubtedly could have destroyed almost all of the defenseless Indians at Sand Creek. Lack of discipline, combined with heavy drinking of whiskey during the night ride, cowardice, and poor marksmanship among the Colorado troops made it possible for many Indians to escape. A number of Cheyennes dug rifle pits below high banks of the dry creek, and held out until nightfall. Others fled singly or in small groups across the plain. When the shooting ended, 105 Indian women and children and 28 men were dead. In his official report Chivington claimed between four and five hundred dead warriors. He had lost nine killed, 38 wounded, many of the casualties resulting from careless firing by the soldiers upon each other. Among the dead chiefs were White Antelope, One-Eye, and War Bonnet. Black Kettle miraculously escaped by running up a ravine, but his wife was badly wounded. Left Hand, although shot down, also managed to survive.
Captives at the end of the fighting totaled seven—John Smith’s Cheyenne wife, the wife of another white civilian at Fort Lyon and her three children, and the two half-breed boys, Jack Smith and Charlie Bent. The soldiers wanted to kill the half-breed boys because they were wearing Indian dress. Old Medicine Calf Beckwourth rescued Charlie Bent by concealing him in a wagon with a wounded officer, later turning him over to his brother Robert. But Beckwourth could not save Jack Smith’s life; a soldier shot the trader’s son by firing at him through a hole in the tent where the boy was being held prisoner.
The third Bent son, George, became separated from Charlie early in the fighting. He joined the Cheyennes who dug rifle pits under the high banks of the creek. “Just as our party reached this point,” he said, “I was struck in the hip by a bullet and knocked down; but I managed to tumble into one of the holes and lay there among the warriors, women, and children.” After nightfall the survivors crawled out of the holes. It was bitter cold, and blood had frozen over their wounds, but they dared not make fires. The only thought in their minds was to flee eastward toward the Smoky Hill and try to join their warriors. “It was a terrible march,” George Bent remembered, “most of us being on foot, without food, ill-clad, and encumbered with the women and children.” For fifty miles they endured icy winds, hunger, and pain of wounds, but at last they reached the hunting camp. “As we rode into that camp there was a terrible scene. Everyone was crying, even the warriors, and the women and children screaming and wailing. Nearly everyone present had lost some relatives or friends, and many of them in their grief were gashing themselves with their knives until the blood flowed in streams.” 26
As soon as his wound healed, George made his way back to his father’s ranch. There from his brother Charlie he heard more details of the soldiers’ atrocities at Sand Creek—the horrible scalpings and mutilations, the butchery of children and infants. After a few days the brothers agreed that as half-breeds they wanted no part of the white man’s civilization. They renounced the blood of their father, and quietly left his ranch. With them went Charlie’s mother, Yellow Woman, who swore that she would never again live with a white man. They started north to join the Cheyennes.
It was now January, the Moon of Strong Cold, when Plains Indians traditionally kept fires blazing in their lodges, told stories through the long evenings, and slept late in the mornings. But this was a bad time, and as news of the Sand Creek massacre spread across the plains, the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Sioux sent runners back and forth with messages calling for a war of revenge against the murdering white men.
By the time Yellow Woman and the young Bent brothers reached their relatives on the Republican River, the Cheyennes were supported by thousands of sympathetic allies—Spotted Tail’s Brulé Sioux, Pawnee Killer’s Oglala Sioux, and large bands of Northern Arapahos. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers (now led by Tall Bull) who had refused to go to Sand Creek were there, and also Roman Nose and his following of young warriors. While the Cheyennes mourned their dead, the leaders of the tribes smoked war pipes and planned their strategy.
In a few hours of madness at Sand Creek, Chivington and his soldiers destroyed the lives or the power of every Cheyenne and Arapaho chief who had held out for peace with the white men. After the flight of the survivors, the Indians rejected Black Kettle and Left Hand, and turned to their war leaders to save them from extermination.
8. George Bent and his wife, Magpie. Photographed in 1867. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado.
At the same time, United States officials were calling for an investigation of Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington, and although they must have known it was too late to avoid a general Indian war, they sent Medicine Calf Beckwourth as an emissary to Black Kettle to see if there was any possibility of peace.
Beckwourth found the Cheyennes but soon learned that Black Kettle had drifted off somewhere with a handful of relatives and old men. The leading chief was now Leg-in-the-Water.
“I went into the lodge of Leg-in-the-Water,” Beckwourth said. “When I went in he raised up and he said, ‘Medicine Calf, what have you come here for; have you fetched the white man to finish killing our families again?’ I told him I had come to talk to him; call in your council. They came in a short time afterwards, and wanted to know what I had come for. I told them I had come to persuade them to make peace with the whites, as there was not enough of them to fight the whites, as they were as numerous as the leaves of the trees. ‘We know it,’ was the general response of the council. ‘But what do we want to live for? The white man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We loved the whites until we found out they lied to us, and robbed us of what we had. We have raised the battle ax until death.’
“They asked me then why I had come to Sand Creek with the soldiers to show them the country. I told them if I had not come the white chief would have hung me. ‘Go and stay with your white brothers, but we are going to fight till death.’ I obeyed orders and came back, willing to play quits.”27
In January, 1865, the alliance of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux launched a series of raids along the South Platte. They attacked wagon trains, stage stations, and small military outposts. They burned the town of Julesburg, scalping the white defenders in revenge for the scalping of Indians at Sand Creek. They ripped out miles of telegraph wire. They raided and plundered up and down the Platte route, halting all communications and supplies. In Denver there was panic as food shortages began to grow.
9. Edmond Guerrier, interpreter. Photographer not recorded, but taken prior to 1877. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
When the warriors returned to their winter camp in the Big Timbers on the Republican, they had a big dance to celebrate their first blows for revenge. Snow blanketed the Plains, but the chiefs knew that soldiers would soon come marching from all directions with their big-talking guns. While the dances were still going on, the chiefs held a council to decide where they should go to escape the pursuing soldiers. Black Kettle was there, and he spoke for going south, below the Arkansas, where summers were long and buffalo were plentiful. Most of the other chiefs spoke for going north across the Platte to join their relatives in the Powder River country. No soldiers would dare march into that great stronghold of the Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyennes. Before the council ended, the alliance agreed to send runners to the Powder River country to tell the tribes there that they were coming.
Black Kettle, however, would not go, and some four hundred Cheyennes—mostly old men, women, and a few badly wounded warriors—agreed to follow him southward. On the last day before the camp moved out, George Bent said farewell to this last remnant of his mother’s people, the Southern Cheyennes. “I went around among the lodges and shook hands with Black Kettle and all my friends. These lodges under Black Kettle moved south of the Arkansas and joined the Southern Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches.” 28
With about three thousand Sioux and Arapahos, the Cheyennes (including Yellow Woman and the Bent brothers) moved northward, exiled into a land that few of them had seen before. Along the way they had fights with soldiers who marched out from Fort Laramie, but the alliance was too strong for the soldiers, and the Indians brushed them off as though they were coyotes snapping at a mighty buffalo herd.
When they reached the Powder River country, the Southern Cheyennes were welcomed by their kinsmen, the Northern Cheyennes. The Southerners, who wore cloth blankets and leggings, traded from white men, thought the Northerners looked very wild in their buffalo robes and buckskin leggings. The Northern Cheyennes wrapped their braided hair with strips of red-painted buckskin, wore crow feathers on their heads, and used so many Sioux words that the Southern Cheyennes had difficulty understanding them. Morning Star, a leading chief of the Northern Cheyennes, had lived and hunted so long with the Sioux that almost everyone called him by his Sioux name, Dull Knife.
At first the Southerners camped on the Powder about half a mile apart from the Northerners, but there was so much visiting back and forth that they soon decided to camp together, pitching their tepees in an old-time tribal circle with clans grouped together. From that time on, there was little talk of Southerners and Northerners among these Cheyennes.
In the spring of 1865, when they moved their ponies over to Tongue River for better grazing, they camped near Red Cloud’s Oglala Sioux. The Cheyennes from the south had never seen so many Indians camped all together, more than eight thousand, and the days and nights were filled with hunts and ceremonies and feasts and dances. George Bent later told of inducting Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses, a Sioux, into his Cheyenne clan, the Crooked Lances. This indicated how close the Sioux and Cheyennes were in that time.
Although each tribe kept its own laws and customs, these Indians had come to think of themselves as the People, confident of their power and sure of their right to live as they pleased. White invaders were challenging them on the east in Dakota and on the south along the Platte, but they were ready to meet all challenges. “The Great Spirit raised both the white man and the Indian,” Red Cloud said. “I think he raised the Indian first. He raised me in this land and it belongs to me. The white man was raised over the great waters, and his land is over there. Since they crossed the sea, I have given them room. There are now white people all about me. I have but a small spot of land left. The Great Spirit told me to keep it.” 29
Through the springtime the Indians sent scouting parties down to watch the soldiers who were guarding the roads and telegraph lines along the Platte. The scouts reported many more soldiers than usual, some of them prowling northward along Bozeman’s Trail through the Powder River country. Red Cloud and the other chiefs decided it was time to teach the soldiers a lesson; they would strike them at the point where they were farthest north, a place the white men called Platte Bridge Station.
Because the Cheyenne warriors from the south wanted revenge for the relatives massacred at Sand Creek, most of them were invited to go along on the expedition. Roman Nose of the Crooked Lances was their leader, and he rode with Red Cloud, Dull Knife, and Old-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses. Almost three thousand warriors formed the war party. Among them were the Bent brothers, painted and dressed for battle.
On July 24 they reached the hills overlooking the bridge across the North Platte. At the opposite end of the bridge was the military post—a stockade, stage station, and telegraph office. About a hundred soldiers were inside the stockade. After looking at the place through their field glasses, the chiefs decided they would burn the bridge, cross the river at a shallow ford below, and then lay siege to the stockade. But first they would try to draw the soldiers outside with decoys and kill as many as possible.
Ten warriors went down in the afternoon, but the soldiers would not come out of their stockade. Next morning another set of decoys lured the soldiers out on the bridge, but they would come no farther. On the third morning, to the Indians’ surprise, a platoon of cavalrymen marched out of the fort, crossed the bridge, and turned westward at a trot. In a matter of seconds, several hundred Cheyennes and Sioux were mounted on their ponies and swarming down the hills toward the Bluecoats. “As we went into the troops,” George Bent said, “I saw an officer on a bay horse rush past me through the dense clouds of dust and smoke. His horse was running away from him … the lieutenant had an arrow sticking in his forehead and his face was streaming with blood.” (The fatally wounded officer was Lieutenant Caspar Collins.) A few of the cavalrymen escaped and reached a rescue platoon of infantrymen on the bridge. Cannon from the fort broke off further pursuit by the Indians.
While the fighting was going on, some of the Indians still on the hills discovered why the cavalrymen had marched out of the fort. They had been riding to meet a wagon train approaching from the west. In a few minutes, the Indians had the wagon train surrounded, but the soldiers dug in under the wagons and put up a stubborn fight. During the first minutes of the fighting. Roman Nose’s brother was killed. When Roman Nose heard of this, he was angry for revenge. He called out for all the Cheyennes to prepare for a charge. “We are going to empty the soldiers’ guns!” he shouted. Roman Nose was wearing his medicine bonnet and shield, and he knew that no bullets could strike him. He led the Cheyennes into a circle around the wagons, and they lashed their ponies so that they ran very fast. As the circle tightened closer to the wagons, the soldiers emptied all their guns at once, and then the Cheyennes charged straight for the wagons and killed all the soldiers. They were disappointed by what they found in the wagons; nothing was there but soldiers’ bedding and mess chests.
That night in camp Red Cloud and the other chiefs decided they had taught the soldiers to fear the power of the Indians. And so they returned to the Powder River country, hopeful that the white men would now obey the Laramie treaty and quit prowling without permission into the Indians’ country north of the Platte.
Meanwhile, Black Kettle and the last remnants of the Southern Cheyennes had moved south of the Arkansas River. They joined Little Raven’s Arapahos, who by this time had heard of the Sand Creek massacre and were mourning friends and relatives lost there. During the summer (1865) their hunters found only a few buffalo below the Arkansas, but they were afraid to go back north where the big herds grazed between the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers.
Late in the summer, runners and messengers began coming from all directions looking for Black Kettle and Little Raven. Suddenly they had become very important. Some white officials had journeyed from Washington to find the Cheyennes and Arapahos and tell them the Great Father and his Council were filled with pity for them. The government officials wanted to make a new treaty.
Although the Cheyennes and Arapahos had been driven from Colorado, and settlers were claiming their lands, it seemed that the titles to the lands were not clear. By the law of the old treaties it could be proven that Denver City itself stood upon Cheyenne and Arapaho land. The government wanted all Indian land claims in Colorado extinguished so that white settlers would be certain they owned the land once they had claimed it.
Black Kettle and Little Raven would not agree to meet with the officials until they heard from the Little White Man, William Bent. He told them that he had tried to persuade the United States to give the Indians permanent rights to the buffalo country between the Smoky Hill and Republican, but the government refused to do this because a stage line and later a railroad would pass through that country, bringing more white settlers. The Cheyennes and Arapahos would have to live south of the Arkansas River.
In the Drying Grass Moon, Black Kettle and Little Raven met the commissioners at the mouth of the Little Arkansas. The Indians had seen two of these treaty makers before—Black Whiskers Sanborn and White Whiskers Harney. They believed Sanborn to be a friend, but they remembered Harney had massacred the Brulé Sioux at the Blue Water in Nebraska in 1855. Agents Murphy and Leavenworth were there, and a straight-talking man, James Steele. Rope Thrower Carson, who had separated the Navahos from their tribal lands, was also there. Gray Blanket Smith, who had endured the ordeal of Sand Creek with them, came to translate, and the Little White Man was there to do the best he could for them.
“Here we are, all together, Arapahos and Cheyennes,” Black Kettle said, “but few of us, we are one people. … All my friends, the Indians that are holding back—they are afraid to come in; are afraid they will be betrayed as I have been.”
“It will be a very hard thing to leave the country that God gave us,” Little Raven said. “Our friends are buried there, and we hate to leave these grounds. … There is something strong for us—that fool band of soldiers that cleared out our lodges and killed our women and children. This is hard on us. There at Sand Creek—White Antelope and many other chiefs lie there; our women and children lie there. Our lodges were destroyed there, and our horses were taken from us there, and I do not feel disposed to go right off to a new country and leave them.”
James Steele answered: “We all fully realize that it is hard for any people to leave their homes and graves of their ancestors, but, unfortunately for you, gold has been discovered in your country, and a crowd of white people have gone there to live, and a great many of these people are the worst enemies of the Indians—men who do not care for their interests, and who would not stop at any crime to enrich themselves. These men are now in your country—in all parts of it—and there is no portion where you can live and maintain yourselves but what you will come in contact with them. The consequences of this state of things are that you are in constant danger of being imposed upon, and you have to resort to arms in self-defense. Under the circumstances, there is, in the opinion of the commission, no part of the former country large enough where you can live in peace.”
Black Kettle said: “Our forefathers, when alive, lived all over this country; they did not know about doing wrong; since then they have died, and gone I don’t know where. We have all lost our way. … Our Great Father sent you here with his words to us, and we take hold of them. 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 have peace once more, and can sleep soundly, and that we can live.” 30
And so they agreed to live south of the Arkansas, sharing land that belonged to the Kiowas. On October 14, 1865, the chiefs and head men of what remained of the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos signed the new treaty agreeing to “perpetual peace.” Article 2 of the treaty read: “It is further agreed by the Indian parties hereto … that henceforth they will, and do hereby, relinquish all claims or rights … in and to the country bounded as follows, viz: beginning at the junction of the north and south forks of the Platte River; thence up the north fork to the top of the principal range of the Rocky Mountains, or to the Red Buttes; thence southwardly along the summit of the Rocky Mountains to the headwaters of the Arkansas River; thence down the Arkansas River to the Cimarone crossing of the same; thence to the place of beginning; which country they claim to have originally owned, and never to have relinquished the title thereto.” 31
Thus did the Cheyennes and Arapahos abandon all claims to the Territory of Colorado. And that of course was the real meaning of the massacre at Sand Creek.
a Horse Nation.