SEVEN

“The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

1868February 24, U.S. House of Representatives resolves to impeach President Johnson. March 5, Senate convenes as Court of Impeachment; President Johnson is summoned to appear. May 22, the world’s first robbery of a railroad train occurs in Indiana. May 26, Senate fails to convict President Johnson. July 28, Fourteenth Amendment (equal rights to all except Indians) becomes a part of U.S. Constitution. July 25, Congress organizes Wyoming Territory out of parts of Dakota, Utah, and Idaho. October 11, Thomas Edison patents his first invention, an electrical vote recorder. November 3, Ulysses Grant elected President. December 1, John D. Rockefeller begins relentless war on competitors in oil business.

We never did the white man any harm; we don’t intend to. … We are willing to be friends with the white man. … The buffalo are diminishing fast. The antelope, that were plenty a few years ago, they are now thin. When they shall all die we shall be hungry; we shall want something to eat, and we will be compelled to come into the fort. Your young men must not fire at us; whenever they see us they fire, and we fire on them.

—TONKAHASKA (TALL BULL) TO GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK

Are not women and children more timid than men? The Cheyenne warriors are not afraid, but have you never heard of Sand Creek? Your soldiers look just like those who butchered the women and children there.

—WOQUINI (ROMAN NOSE) TO GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK

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 AT MEDICINE CHEEK LODGE

IN THE SPRING OF 1866, as Red Cloud was preparing to fight for the Powder River country, a considerable number of homesick Southern Cheyennes who had been with him decided to go south for the summer. They wanted to hunt buffalo again along their beloved Smoky Hill and hoped to see some of their old friends and relatives who had gone with Black Kettle below the Arkansas. Among them were Tall Bull, White Horse, Gray Beard, Bull Bear, and other Dog Soldier chiefs. The great war leader Roman Nose also went along, and so did the two half-breed Bent brothers.

In the valley of the Smoky Hill they found several bands of young Cheyennes and Arapahos who had slipped away from the camps of Black Kettle and Little Raven below the Arkansas. They had come into Kansas to hunt, against the wishes of their chiefs, who by signing the treaty of 1865 had given up tribal rights to their old hunting grounds. Roman Nose and the Dog Soldier chiefs scoffed at the treaty; none of them had signed it, and none accepted it. Fresh from the freedom and independence of the Powder River country, they had no use for chiefs who signed away tribal lands.

Not many of the returned exiles went on south to visit Black Kettle’s people. Among the few who did was George Bent. He especially wanted to see Black Kettle’s niece, Magpie, and not long after their reunion he made her his wife. On rejoining Black Kettle, Bent discovered that the Southern Cheyennes’ old friend, Edward Wynkoop, was now the agent for the tribe. “These were happy days for us,” George Bent said afterward. “Black Kettle was a fine man and highly respected by all who knew him.” 1

When agent Wynkoop learned that the Dog Soldiers were hunting again along the Smoky Hill, he went to see the chiefs and tried to persuade them to sign the treaty and join Black Kettle. They refused flatly, saying that they would never leave their country again. Wynkoop warned them that soldiers would probably attack them if they stayed in Kansas, but they replied that they would “live or die there.” The only promise they would give the agent was that they would hold their young men in check.

By late summer the Dog Soldiers were hearing rumors of Red Cloud’s successes against the soldiers in the Powder River country. If the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes could fight a war to hold their country, then why should not the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos fight to hold their country between the Smoky Hill and the Republican?

With Roman Nose as a unifying leader, many bands came together, and the chiefs made plans to stop travel along the Smoky Hill road. While the Cheyennes had been up north, a new stagecoach line had been opened right through the heart of their best buffalo range. Chains of stations were springing up all along the Smoky Hill route, and the Indians agreed that these stations must be rubbed out if they hoped to stop the coaches and wagon trains.

It was during this time that George and Charlie Bent came to a parting in their lives. George made up his mind to follow Black Kettle, but Charlie was an ardent disciple of Roman Nose. In October, during a meeting with their white father at Fort Zarah, Charlie flew into a rage and accused his brother and father of betraying the Cheyennes. After threatening to kill both of them, he had to be forcibly disarmed. (Charlie rejoined the Dog Soldiers and led several raids against the stage stations; in 1868 he was wounded, then contracted malaria, and died in one of the Cheyenne camps.)

Late in the autumn of 1866 Roman Nose and a party of warriors visited Fort Wallace and notified the Overland Stage Company’s agent that if he did not stop running coaches through their country within fifteen days, the Indians would begin attacking them. A series of early snowstorms, however, halted travel before Roman Nose could begin his attacks; the Dog Soldiers had to content themselves with a few raids against livestock corrals at the stations. Faced with a long winter, the Dog Soldiers decided to make a permanent camp in the Big Timbers on the Republican, and there they awaited the spring of 1867.

To earn some money that winter, George Bent spent several weeks with the Kiowas trading for buffalo robes. When he returned to Black Kettle’s village in the spring, he found everyone excited about rumors of a large force of Bluecoats marching westward across the Kansas plains toward Fort Larned. Black Kettle called a council and told his people that soldiers could mean nothing but trouble; then he ordered them to pack up and move south toward the Canadian River. This was why messengers sent out by agent Wynkoop did not find Black Kettle until after the trouble—which the chief so accurately predicted—had already started.

Wynkoop’s runners did find most of the Dog Soldier leaders, and fourteen of them agreed to come to Fort Larned and hear what General Winfield Scott Hancock had to say to them. Tall Bull, White Horse, Gray Beard, and Bull Bear brought about five hundred lodges down to Pawnee Creek, made a big camp there about thirty-five miles from Fort Larned, and then after a few days’ delay caused by a snowstorm, rode on into the fort. Several of them wore the big blue Array coats they had captured up north, and they could see that General Hancock did not like this. He was wearing the same kind of coat with shoulder ornaments and shiny medals on it. He received them in a haughty, blustery manner, letting them see the power of his 1,400 soldiers, including the new Seventh Cavalry commanded by Hard Backsides Custer. After General Hancock had his artillerymen fire off some cannons for their benefit, they decided to name him Old Man of the Thunder.

Although their friend Tall Chief Wynkoop was there, they were suspicious from the very beginning of Old Man of the Thunder. Instead of waiting until the next day to talk, he summoned them to a night council. They considered this a bad sign, to hold council at night.

“I don’t find many chiefs here,” Hancock complained. “What is the reason? I have a great deal to say to the Indians, but I want to talk to them all together. … Tomorrow I am going to your camp.” The Cheyennes did not like to hear this. Their women and children were back in the camp, many of them survivors of the horrors of Sand Creek three years before. Would Hancock bring his 1,400 soldiers and his thundering guns down upon them again? The chiefs sat in silence, with the light of the campfire playing upon their grave faces, waiting for Hancock to continue. “I have heard that a great many Indians want to fight. Very well, we are here, and are come prepared for war. If you are for peace, you know the conditions. If you are for war, look out for the consequences.” He told them then about the railroad. They had heard rumors of it, the iron track coming out past Fort Riley, heading straight for the Smoky Hill country.

“The white man is coming out here so fast that nothing can stop him,” Hancock boasted. “Coming from the East, and coming from the West, like a prairie on fire in a high wind. Nothing can stop him. The reason for it is, that the whites are a numerous people, and they are spreading out. They require room and cannot help it. Those on one sea in the West wish to communicate with those living on another sea in the East, and that is the reason they are building these roads, these wagon roads and railroads, and telegraphs. … You must not let your young men stop them; you must keep your men off the roads. … I have no more to say. I will await the end of your council, to see whether you want war or peace.” 2

Hancock sat down, his face expectant as the interpreter completed his last remark, but the Cheyennes remained silent, staring across the campfire at the general and his officers. At last Tall Bull lighted a pipe, exhaled smoke, and passed it around the circle. He arose, folded his red-and-black blanket to free his right arm, and offered his hand to the Old Man of the Thunder.

“You sent for us,” Tall Bull said. “We came here. … We never did the white man any harm; we don’t intend to. Our agent, Colonel Wynkoop, told us to meet you here. Whenever you want to go to the Smoky Hill you can go; you can go on any road. When we come on the road, your young men must not shoot us. We are willing to be friends with the white man. … You say you are going to our village tomorrow. If you go, I shall have no more to say to you there than here. I have said all I want to say.” 3

The Old Man of the Thunder arose and put on his haughty manner again. “Why is Roman Nose not here?” he asked. The chiefs tried to tell him that although Roman Nose was a mighty warrior he was not a chief, and only the chiefs had been invited to council.

“If Roman Nose will not come to me I will go to see him,” Hancock declared. “I will march my troops to your village tomorrow.”

As soon as the meeting broke up, Tall Bull went to Wynkoop and begged him to stop the Old Man of the Thunder from marching his soldiers to the Cheyenne camp. Tall Bull was afraid that if the Bluecoats came near the camp, there would be trouble between them and the hot-headed young Dog Soldiers.

Wynkoop agreed. “Previous to General Hancock’s departure,” Wynkoop said afterward, “I expressed to him my fears of the result of his marching his troops immediately on to the Indian village; but, notwithstanding, he persisted in doing so.” Hancock’s column consisted of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, “and had as formidable an aspect and presented as warlike an appearance as any that ever marched to meet an enemy on a battlefield.”

On this march toward the Pawnee Fork, some of the chiefs went ahead to warn the Cheyenne warriors that soldiers were coming. Others rode with Wynkoop, who later said they exhibited in various ways “their fear of the result of the expedition—not fearful of their own lives or liberty … but fearful of the panic which they expected to be created among their women and children upon the arrival of the troops.” 4

Meanwhile, the Cheyenne camp had learned that the column of soldiers was coming. Messengers reported that the Old Man of the Thunder was angry because Roman Nose had not come to see him at Fort Larned. Roman Nose was flattered, but neither he nor Pawnee Killer (whose Sioux were camped nearby) had any intention of allowing the Old Man of the Thunder to bring his soldiers near their unprotected villages. Gathering about three hundred warriors, Roman Nose and Pawnee Killer led them out to scout the approaching column. All around their villages they set fire to the prairie grass so the soldiers would not find it easy to camp nearby.

During the day Pawnee Killer went ahead to meet the column and parley with Hancock. He told the general that if the soldiers would not camp too near the villages, he and Roman Nose would meet him in council the next morning. About sundown the soldiers halted to camp; they were still several miles from the lodges on Pawnee Fork. This was on the thirteenth day of April, the Moon of the Red Grass Appearing.

That night Pawnee Killer and several of the Cheyenne chiefs left the soldier camp and went on to their villages to hold council and decide what they should do. There was so much disagreement among the chiefs, however, that nothing was done. Roman Nose wanted to dismantle the tepees and start moving northward, scattering so the soldiers could not catch them, but the chiefs who had seen the power of Hancock’s soldiers did not want to provoke them to a merciless pursuit.

Next morning the chiefs tried to persuade Roman Nose to go with them to counsel with Hancock, but the warrior leader suspected a trap. After all, had not the Old Man of the Thunder singled him out, had he not marched an army of soldiers across the plains in search of Roman Nose? As the morning grew late, Bull Bear decided he had better ride to the soldier camp. He found Hancock in an arrogant mood, demanding to know where Roman Nose was. Bull Bear tried to be diplomatic; he said Roman Nose and the other chiefs had been delayed by a buffalo hunt. This only angered Hancock. He told Bull Bear he was going to march his troops up to the village and camp there until he saw Roman Nose. Bull Bear made no reply; he mounted casually, rode away at a slow pace for a few minutes, and then galloped back to the village as fast as his horse would run.

The news that the soldiers were coming stirred the Indian camp into immediate action. “I will ride out alone and kill this Hancock!” Roman Nose shouted. There was no time to dismantle the lodges or pack anything. They put the women and children on ponies and sent them racing northward. Then all the warriors armed themselves with bows, lances, guns, knives, and clubs. The chiefs named Roman Nose their war leader, but they assigned Bull Bear to ride beside him to make sure that in his anger he did nothing foolish.

Roman Nose put on his officer’s blouse with gold epaulets as shiny as Hancock’s. He thrust a carbine into his dragoon scabbard and two pistols into his belt, and because he had little ammunition he added his bow and quiver. At the last moment he took along a truce flag. He formed his force of three hundred fighters into a line front extending a mile across the plain. With pennanted lances up, bows strung, rifles and pistols at the ready, he led them out slowly to meet the 1,400 soldiers and their big thundering guns.

“This officer they call Hancock,” Roman Nose said to Bull Bear, “is spoiling for a fight. I will kill him in front of his own men and give them something to fight about.” 5

Bull Bear replied cautiously, pointing out that the soldiers outnumbered them almost five to one; they were armed with fast-shooting rifles and big guns; the soldiers’ ponies were sleek and fat from grain, while the ponies their women and children were fleeing on were weak after a winter without grass. If there was a fight, the soldiers could catch them and kill all of them.

In a few minutes they saw the column coming, and they knew the soldiers had sighted them, because the troops formed into a line front. Hard Backsides Custer deployed his cavalry for fighting and they came into line at a gallop with sabers drawn.

12. Roman Nose, of the Southern Cheyennes. Either photographed or copied by A. Zeno Shindler in Washington, D.C., 1868. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Roman Nose calmly signaled the warriors to halt. He raised his truce flag. At this the soldiers slowed their pace; they moved up to about a hundred and fifty yards of the Indians and also halted. A high wind made the flags and pennants snap along both lines. After a minute or so the Indians saw Tall Chief Wynkoop riding forward alone. “They surrounded my horse,” Wynkoop said afterward, “expressing their delight at seeing me there, saying that now they knew everything was all right, and they would not be harmed. … I conducted the principal men, and met General Hancock, with his officers and their staffs, nearly midway between the two lines.” 6

Roman Nose drew up near the officers; he sat on his horse facing the Old Man of the Thunder and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Do you want peace or war?” Hancock asked sharply.

“We do not want war,” Roman Nose replied. “If we did, we would not come so close to your big guns.”

“Why did you not come to the council at Fort Larned?” Hancock continued.

“My horses are poor,” Roman Nose answered, “and every man that comes to me tells me a different tale about your intentions.”

Tall Bull, Gray Beard, and Bull Bear had gathered close by. They were worried because Roman Nose was acting so calmly. Bull Bear spoke, asking the general not to bring his soldiers any nearer the Indian camp. “We have not been able to hold our women and children,” he said. “They are frightened and have run away and they will not come back. They fear the soldiers.”

“You must get them back,” Hancock ordered harshly, “and I expect you to do so.”

When Bull Bear turned away with a gesture of frustration, Roman Nose spoke softly to him, telling him to take the chiefs back to the Indian line. “I’m going to kill Hancock,” he said. Bull Bear grabbed the bridle of Roman Nose’s horse and led him aside, warning him that this would surely bring death to all the tribe.

The wind had increased, blowing sand and making conversation difficult. After ordering the chiefs to start out immediately to bring back their women and children, Hancock announced that the council was ended. 7

Although the chiefs and warriors obediently rode away in the direction their women and children had taken, they did not bring them back. Nor did they return. Hancock waited, his anger rising, for a day or two. Then, after ordering Custer to take the cavalry in pursuit of the Indians, he moved the infantry into the abandoned camp. In a methodical manner the lodges and their contents were inventoried, and then everything was burned—251 tepees, 962 buffalo robes, 436 saddles, hundreds of parfleches, lariats, mats, and articles for cooking, eating, and living. The soldiers destroyed everything these Indians owned except the ponies they were riding and the blankets and clothing on their backs.

The frustrated rage of the Dog Soldiers and their Sioux allies at the burning of their villages exploded across the plains. They raided stage stations, ripped out telegraph lines, attacked railroad workers’ camps, and brought travel to a halt along the Smoky Hill road. The Overland Express issued an order to its agents: “If Indians come within shooting distance, shoot them. Show them no mercy for they will show you none. General Hancock will protect you and our property.” 8 The war that Hancock had come to prevent, he had now foolishly precipitated. Custer galloped his Seventh Cavalry from fort to fort, but he found no Indians.

“General Hancock’s expedition, I regret to say, has resulted in no good, but, on the contrary, has been productive of much evil,” wrote Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas Murphy to Commissioner Taylor in Washington.

“The operations of General Hancock,” Black Whiskers Sanborn informed the Secretary of the Interior, “have been so disastrous to the public interests, and at the same time seem to me to be so inhuman, that I deem it proper to communicate my views to you on the subject. … 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 unparalleled, a national crime most revolting, that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the judgment of Heaven.”

The Great Warrior Sherman took a different view in his report to Secretary of War Stanton: “My opinion is, if fifty Indians are allowed to remain between the Arkansas and the Platte we will have to guard every stage station, every train, and all railroad working parties. In other words, fifty hostile Indians will checkmate three thousand soldiers. Rather get them out as soon as possible, and it makes little difference whether they be coaxed out by Indian commissioners or killed.” 9

Sherman was persuaded by higher government authorities to try coaxing them out with a peace commission, and so in that summer of 1867 he formed the commission of Taylor, Henderson, Tappan, Sanborn, Harney, and Terry—the same group which tried to make peace with Red Cloud at Fort Laramie later in the autumn. (See preceding chapter.) Hancock was recalled from the plains, and his soldiers were scattered among forts along the trails.

The new peace plan for the southern plains included not only the Cheyennes and Arapahos but the Kiowas, Comanches, and Prairie Apaches. All five tribes would be established on one great reservation south of the Arkansas River, and the government would provide them with cattle herds and teach them how to grow crops.

Medicine Lodge Creek, sixty miles south of Fort Larned, was chosen as the site of a peace council, the meetings to be held early in October. To make certain that all important chiefs were there, the Bureau of Indian Affairs stockpiled presents at Fort Larned and sent out a number of carefully chosen messengers. George Bent, who was now employed as an interpreter by Tall Chief Wynkoop, was one of the emissaries. He had no difficulty in persuading Black Kettle to come. Little Raven of the Arapahos and Ten Bears of the Comanches were also willing to travel to Medicine Lodge Creek for a council. But when Bent went to the Dog Soldier camps, he found their leaders reluctant to listen to him. The Old Man of the Thunder had made them wary of meetings with soldier chiefs. Roman Nose said flatly that he would not go to Medicine Lodge Creek if the Great Warrior Sherman was going to be there.

Bent knew and the commissioners knew that Roman Nose was the key to any Cheyenne peace settlement. The warrior leader now commanded the allegiance of several hundred fighting men from all the Cheyenne societies. If Roman Nose did not sign the treaty, it would be meaningless so far as peace in Kansas was concerned. Probably at Bent’s suggestion, Edmond Guerrier was chosen to visit Roman Nose and convince him that he should come to Medicine Lodge Creek for at least a preliminary discussion. Guerrier, who had survived Sand Creek, was married to Bent’s sister; Roman Nose was married to Guerrier’s cousin. With such family ties, diplomacy was not difficult.

On September 27 Guerrier arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek with Roman Nose and Gray Beard. Roman Nose had insisted that Gray Beard come along as his spokesman; Gray Beard understood a few words of English and could not be so easily deceived by interpreters. Superintendent Thomas Murphy, who was handling arrangements preceding arrival of the commissioners, greeted the Cheyenne leaders warmly, told them the forthcoming council would be most important to them, and promised that the commissioners would guarantee them provisions and take them “by the hand and make a good road for peace.”

“A dog will rush to eat provisions,” Gray Beard said in reply. “The provisions you bring us make us sick. We can live on buffalo but the main articles that we need we do not see—powder, lead, and caps. When you bring us these we will believe you are sincere.”

Murphy replied that the United States gave presents of ammunition only to friendly Indians and wanted to know why some of the Cheyennes were so unfriendly as to continue raiding. “Because Hancock burned our village,” Roman Nose and Gray Beard both replied. “We are only revenging that one thing.” 10

Murphy assured them that the Great Father had not authorized the burning of the village; the Great Father had already removed Hancock from the plains for doing this bad thing. As for the Great Warrior Sherman, whose presence Roman Nose objected to, the Great Father had also recalled him to Washington. Roman Nose finally agreed to a compromise. He and his followers would camp sixty miles away on the Cimarron; they would watch the council from that distance, and if it pleased them they would come in and participate.

It was the Moon of the Changing Season, October 16, when the council began in a beautiful grove of tall trees on Medicine Lodge Creek. The Arapahos, Comanches, Kiowas, and Prairie Apaches camped along the wooded bank beside the council grounds. Black Kettle chose the opposite side of the stream. In case of trouble he would at least have the creek between him and the two hundred cavalrymen who were guarding the commissioners. Roman Nose and the Dog Soldier chiefs kept runners in Black Kettle’s camp to inform them of the peace talks. These runners were as watchful of Black Kettle as they were of the commissioners; they did not intend to permit Black Kettle to sign a bad treaty in the name of the Cheyenne people.

Although more than four thousand Indians were gathered at Medicine Lodge, so few Cheyennes were present that it began almost entirely as a Kiowa-Comanche-Arapaho affair. This worried the commissioners, whose main objective was to secure a peace with the hostile Dog Soldiers by convincing them that their best interests lay in the proposed reservation below the Arkansas. Black Kettle, Little Robe, and George Bent won over some of the reluctant chiefs, but others became so hostile they threatened to kill all of Black Kettle’s horses unless he withdrew from the council.

On October 21, the Kiowas and Comanches signed the treaty, promising to share in a reservation with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, and among other things to confine their buffalo hunting to ranges below the Arkansas and to withdraw all opposition to construction of the railroad being built along the Smoky Hill route. Black Kettle, however, would not agree to sign until more Cheyenne chiefs came to Medicine Lodge; Little Raven and the Arapahos would not sign until the Cheyennes signed. The frustrated commissioners agreed to wait one more week while Black Kettle and Little Robe went to the Dog Soldier camp to carry on their persuasive diplomacy. Five days passed, but no Cheyennes appeared. Then, late in the afternoon of October 26, Little Robe returned from the Dog Soldier camp.

The Cheyenne chiefs were coming, Little Robe announced, with about five hundred warriors. They would be armed and would probably fire off their guns to express their desire for ammunition needed in the autumn buffalo hunts. They would harm no one, and if they received gifts of ammunition they would sign the treaty.

At noon the next day under a warm autumn sun, the Cheyennes came in at a gallop. As they crested a ridge south of the council grounds they formed four abreast like Hard Backsides’ cavalrymen. Several were dressed in captured Army blouses; others wore red blankets. Their lances and silver ornaments glittered in the sunlight. As the column came opposite the council grounds, the warriors wheeled into a platoon front, facing the commissioners across the creek. One of the Cheyennes sounded a bugle call, and the ponies leaped forward in a charge, five hundred voices shouting “Hiya hi-i-i-ya!” They brandished their lances, lifted their strung bows, fired a few rifles and pistols into the air, and plunged into the creek with a spray of water. The front ranks whipped their ponies up the bank to within a few feet of White Whiskers Harney, who stood motionless to receive them. The other commissioners were scurrying for cover. Reining their mounts to quick halts, the chiefs and warriors slid off, surrounded the startled commissioners, and began laughing and shaking hands. They had satisfactorily demonstrated the dash and bravery of the fighting Cheyennes.

After preliminary ceremonies were out of the way, the speeches began. Tall Bull, White Horse, Bull Bear, and Buffalo Chief all spoke. They did not want war, they said, but would accept it if they could not get an honorable peace.

Buffalo Chief made one final plea for use of the hunting grounds along the Smoky Hill. The Cheyennes would leave the railroad alone, he promised, and then added in a voice of reason: “Let us own the country together—the Cheyennes should still hunt there.” But the white men of the council did not believe in sharing any of the country north of the Arkansas. Next morning, after coffee was served, the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs listened to a reading of the treaty, with George Bent interpreting. At first Bull Bear and White Horse refused to sign, but Bent took them aside and convinced them it was the only way to keep their power and live with the tribe. After the signing, the commissioners issued presents, including ammunition for hunting. The Medicine Lodge council was ended. Now most of the Cheyennes and Arapahos would move south as they had promised. But there were others who would not go. Three or four hundred were already heading north from the Cimarron, their fortunes cast with a warrior who would not surrender. The name of Roman Nose was not signed to the treaty. 11

During the winter of 1867–68, most of the Cheyennes and Arapahos were camped below the Arkansas near Fort Larned. From their autumn hunts they had enough meat to survive the cold moons, but by springtime the food shortage grew serious. Tall Chief Wynkoop came out from the fort occasionally to distribute what scanty supplies he was able to obtain from the Indian Bureau. He told the chiefs that the Great Council in Washington was still arguing over the treaty and had not provided money to buy food and clothing for them as promised. The chiefs replied that if they had arms and ammunition they could go down on Red River and kill enough buffalo to supply their people. But Wynkoop had no arms or ammunition to give them.

As the warm spring days lengthened, the young men grew increasingly restless, grumbling because there was not enough to eat, cursing the broken promises of the white men at Medicine Lodge. In small bands they began drifting northward toward their old Smoky Hill hunting grounds. Tall Bull, White Horse, and Bull Bear gave in to demands of their proud Dog Soldiers, and also crossed the Arkansas. Along the way, some of the wild young men raided isolated settlements in hopes of finding food and guns.

Agent Wynkoop hastened to Black Kettle’s village, begging the chiefs to be patient and keep their young men off the warpath, even though the Great Father had broken faith with them.

“Our white brothers are pulling away from us the hand they gave us at Medicine Lodge,” Black Kettle said, “but we will try to hold on to it. We hope the Great Father will take pity on us and let us have the guns and ammunition he promised us so we can go hunt buffalo to keep our families from going hungry.” 12

Wynkoop was hopeful that arms and ammunition could be obtained now that the Great Father had sent out a new Star Chief, General Philip Sheridan, to command the soldiers in the Kansas forts. The agent arranged for several leaders, including Black Kettle and Stone Calf, to meet with Sheridan at Fort Larned.

When the Indians saw Sheridan, with his short legs and thick neck and long swinging arms, they thought he looked like a bad-tempered bear. During the council Wynkoop asked the general if he could issue arms to the Indians. “Yes, give them arms,” Sheridan growled, “and if they go to war my soldiers will kill them like men.”

Stone Calf retorted: “Let your soldiers grow long hair, so that we can have some honor in killing them.”

It was not a friendly council, and although Wynkoop was able to obtain a few obsolete rifles for them, the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained to hunt below the Arkansas were very uneasy. Too many of their young men and most of the Dog Soldier bands were still north of the river, some of them raiding and killing white men wherever they could find them.

By late August most of the Cheyennes in the north were gathered along the Arikaree fork of the Republican River. Tall Bull, White Horse, and Roman Nose were there with about three hundred warriors and their families. A few Arapahos and Pawnee Killer’s Sioux were camped nearby. From Bull Bear, who was camped with his band on the Solomon, they heard that General Sheridan had organized a company of scouts to hunt down Indian camps, but these Indians were too busy gathering meat for winter to worry about scouts or soldiers finding them.

And then one day in the Moon When the Deer Paw the Earth, September 16, a hunting party of Sioux from Pawnee Killer’s camp saw about fifty white men going into camp on the Arikaree, about twenty miles below the Indian camps. Only three or four of the white men wore blue uniforms; the others were dressed in rough frontier clothing. This was the special company organized by Sheridan to search out Indian camps; they were known as Forsyth’s Scouts.

As soon as the Sioux hunters alerted their people, Pawnee Killer sent runners to the Cheyenne camp to ask them to join in an attack on the white scouts who had invaded their hunting grounds. Tall Bull and White Horse immediately sent criers through their camps, urging the warriors to make ready their war rigs and put on their battle paint. They went to see Roman Nose, who was in his tepee undergoing purification ceremonies. A few days before, when the Cheyennes had gone to feast with the Sioux, one of the Sioux women had used an iron fork to cook fried bread, and Roman Nose did not discover this until after he had eaten the bread. Any metal touching his food was against his medicine; Roman Nose’s magic power to escape the white men’s bullets was worthless until he had completed the purification ceremonies.

The Cheyenne chiefs accepted this belief as a matter of course, but Tall Bull told Roman Nose to hurry up the ceremonies to restore his medicine. Tall Bull was sure the Cheyennes and Sioux together could destroy fifty white scouts, but there might be companies of Bluecoats nearby, and if so, the Indians would soon need Roman Nose to lead them in the charges. Roman Nose told them to go ahead. When he was ready he would come.

Because of the long distance to the soldier scouts’ camp, the chiefs decided to wait until next daylight to attack. Riding their best war ponies and armed with their best lances, bows, and rifles, five or six hundred warriors moved down the Arikaree Valley. The Sioux wore their eagle-feather bonnets; the Cheyennes wore their crow-feather bonnets. Not far from the scouts’ camp they halted, the chiefs issuing strict orders that no small parties were to go out alone to attack the enemy. All would attack together, as Roman Nose had taught them; they would ride over the scouts and rub them out.

In spite of the warnings, six Sioux and two Cheyennes—all very young men—slipped out before sunrise and tried to capture the white men’s horse herd. They charged in just at dawn, yelling and waving blankets to stampede the stock. A few animals were captured, but the young braves had alerted Forsyth’s Scouts to the presence of Indians. Before the main body of Sioux and Cheyennes could charge the exposed camp, the scouts had time to move to a small island in the dry bed of the Arikaree and there take cover among the willow brush and high grass.

Across the misted valley, the Indians charged in a broad front, their ponies’ hooves drumming on the earth. When they were close enough to see the scouts hurrying to the brushy island, one of the Cheyenne warriors sounded a blast on a bugle. They had intended to overrun the camp. Now they had to swerve into the dry stream bed. A burst of fire from the scouts’ Spencer repeating rifles raked the first ranks, and the charging warriors divided, some to the left and some to the right, thus sweeping around the island.

For most of the morning the Indians circled the island. The only targets were the scouts’ horses standing in the high grass, and as the warriors shot the animals down, the scouts used them for breastworks. A few warriors made individual charges upon the island, dismounting and trying to creep up on the scouts through the brush. But the quick rifle fire was too strong for them. A Cheyenne named Wolf Belly made two mounted charges right through the defense ring of scouts. He was wearing his magic panther skin, and it gave him such strong medicine that not a single bullet touched him.

Early in the afternoon Roman Nose arrived on the field and took a position on high ground overlooking the island. Most of the warriors stopped fighting and waited to see what Roman Nose would do. Tall Bull and White Horse went to talk with him, but did not ask him to lead them in battle. Then an old man, White Contrary, came by and said: “Here is Roman Nose, the man we depend upon, sitting behind this hill.”

Roman Nose laughed. He had already made up his mind what he was going to do that day, and he knew he was going to die, but he laughed at what the old man said.

“All those people fighting out there feel that they belong to you,” White Contrary went on, “and they will do all that you tell them, and here you are behind this hill.” 13

Roman Nose went off to one side and prepared himself for battle, painting his forehead yellow, his nose red, his chin black. Then he put on his single-horned war bonnet with the forty feathers in its tail. When he was ready, he mounted and rode down to the dry riverbed, where the warriors were waiting in formation for him to lead them in a victorious charge.

They started out in a slow trot, increased speed to a gallop, and then lashed their ponies without mercy so that nothing could stop them from riding over the island. But once again the fire power of Forsyth’s Scouts cut down the front ranks, reducing the force of the desperate charge. Roman Nose reached the outer fringes of willows; then crossfire caught him above the hips, a bullet penetrating his spine. He fell into the brush, lying there until dusk, when he managed to crawl to the bank. Some young warriors were there searching for him. They carried him up to the high ground, where Cheyenne and Sioux women had come to take care of the wounded. During the night Roman Nose died.

For the young Cheyenne warriors, the death of Roman Nose was like a great light going out in the sky. He had believed and made them believe that if they would fight for their country as Red Cloud was doing, they would someday win.

Neither the Cheyennes nor the Sioux had any taste for more fighting, but they kept Forsyth’s Scouts besieged there in the brush and sand for eight days. The scouts had to eat their dead horses and dig in the sand for water. On the eighth day, when a relief column of soldiers came, the Indians were ready to leave the stench of the island.

The white men made much of this fight; they called it the Battle of Beecher’s Island, after young Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, who was killed there. The survivors boasted they had killed “hundreds of redskins,” and although the Indians could count no more than thirty, the loss of Roman Nose was incalculable. They would always remember it as the Fight When Roman Nose Was Killed.

After they had rested from the siege, a considerable number of Cheyennes started moving south. With soldiers hunting everywhere for them now, their only hope of survival lay with their relatives below the Arkansas. They looked upon Black Kettle as a beaten old man, but he was still alive, and he was chief of the Southern Cheyennes.

They had no way of knowing, of course, that the soldier chief who looked like an angry bear, Sheridan, was planning a winter campaign below the Arkansas. When the snows of the cold moons came, he would send Custer and his pony soldiers to destroy the villages of the “savage” Indians, most of whom had kept their treaty obligations. To Sheridan, any Indian who resisted when fired upon was a “savage.”

During that autumn Black Kettle established a village on the Washita River forty miles east of the Antelope Hills, and as the young men drifted back from Kansas he scolded them for their errant ways, but like a forgiving father accepted them back into his band. In November, when he heard rumors of soldiers coming, he and Little Robe and two Arapaho leaders made a journey of almost a hundred miles down the valley of the Washita to Fort Cobb, headquarters for their new agency south of the Arkansas. General William B. Hazen was commander of the fort, and on their summer visits the Cheyennes and Arapahos had found him to be friendly and sympathetic.

On this urgent occasion, however, Hazen was not cordial. When Black Kettle asked for permission to move his 180 lodges near Fort Cobb for protection, Hazen refused to grant it. He also refused permission for the Cheyennes and Arapahos to join the Kiowa and Comanche villages. He assured Black Kettle that if his delegation would return to their villages and keep their young men there, they would not be attacked. After issuing his visitors some sugar, coffee, and tobacco, Hazen sent them away, knowing that he would probably never see any of them again. He was fully aware of Sheridan’s war plans.

Facing into a raw north wind that turned into a snowstorm, the disappointed chiefs made their way back to their villages, arriving on the night of November 26. Weary as he was from the long journey. Black Kettle immediately called a council of the tribe’s leaders. (George Bent was not present; he had taken his wife, Black Kettle’s niece, on a visit to William Bent’s ranch in Colorado.)

This time, Black Kettle told his people, they must not be caught by surprise as they had at Sand Creek. Instead of waiting for the soldiers to come to them, he would take a delegation to meet the soldiers and convince them that the Cheyenne village was peaceful. Snow was deep and still falling, but as soon as the clouds left the sky they would start to meet the soldiers.

Although Black Kettle went to bed late that night, he awoke just before dawn as he always did. He stepped outside his lodge, and was glad to see that the skies were clearing. A heavy fog blanketed the valley of the Washita, but he could see deep snow on the ridges across the river.

Suddenly he heard a woman crying, her voice becoming clearer as she came closer. “Soldiers! soldiers!” she was shouting. Reacting automatically, Black Kettle rushed inside his lodge for his rifle. In the few seconds that passed before he was outside again he had made up his mind what he must do—arouse the camp and put everyone to flight. There must not be another Sand Creek. He would meet the soldiers alone at the Washita ford and parley with them. Pointing his rifle skyward, he pulled the trigger. The report brought the village wide awake. As he shouted commands to everyone to mount and ride away, his wife untied his pony and brought it to him.

He was preparing to hurry toward the ford when a bugle blared out of the fog, followed by shouted commands and wild yells of charging soldiers. Because of the snow there was no thunder of hoofbeats, but only a rattle of packs and a jingle of harness metal, a hoarse yelling, and bugles blowing everywhere. (Custer had brought his military band through the snow and had ordered them to play “Garry Owen” for the charge.)

Black Kettle expected the soldiers to come riding across the Washita ford, but instead they were dashing out of the fog from four directions. How could he meet four charging columns and talk to them of peace? It was Sand Creek all over again. He reached for his wife’s hand, lifted her up behind him, and lashed the pony into quick motion. She had survived Sand Creek with him; now, like tortured dreamers dreaming the same nightmare over again, they were fleeing again from screaming bullets.

They were almost to the ford when he saw the charging cavalrymen in their heavy blue coats and fur caps. Black Kettle slowed his pony and lifted his hand in the sign gesture of peace. A bullet burned into his stomach, and his pony swerved. Another bullet caught him in the back, and he slid into the snow at the river’s edge. Several bullets knocked his wife off beside him, and the pony ran way. The cavalrymen splashed on across the ford, riding right over Black Kettle and his wife, splattering mud upon their dead bodies.

Custer’s orders from Sheridan were explicit: “to proceed south in the direction of the Antelope Hills, thence toward the Washita River, the supposed winter seat of the hostile tribes; to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children.” 14

In a matter of minutes Custer’s troopers destroyed Black Kettle’s village; in another few minutes of gory slaughter they destroyed by gunfire several hundred corralled ponies. To kill or hang all the warriors meant separating them from the old men, women, and children. This work was too slow and dangerous for the cavalrymen; they found it much more efficient and safe to kill indiscriminately. They killed 103 Cheyennes, but only eleven of them were warriors. They captured 53 women and children.

By this time, gunfire echoing down the valley brought a swarm of Arapahos from their nearby village, and they joined the Cheyennes in a rearguard action. A party of Arapahos surrounded a pursuit platoon of nineteen soldiers under Major Joel Elliott and killed every man. About noontime, Kiowas and Comanches were arriving from farther downriver. When Custer saw the increasing number of warriors on the nearby hills, he rounded up his captives and without searching for the missing Major Elliott started back north in a forced march toward his temporary base at Camp Supply on the Canadian River.

At Camp Supply, General Sheridan was eagerly awaiting news of a Custer victory. When he was informed that the cavalry regiment was returning, he ordered the entire post out for a formal review. With the band blaring triumphantly, the victors marched in, waving the scalps of Black Kettle and the other dead “savages,” and Sheridan publicly congratulated Custer for “efficient and gallant services rendered.”

In his official report of victory over the “savage butchers” and “savage bands of cruel marauders,” General Sheridan rejoiced that he had “wiped out old Black Kettle … a worn-out and worthless old cypher.” He then stated that he had promised Black Kettle sanctuary if he would come into a fort before military operations began. “He refused,” Sheridan lied, “and was killed in the fight.” 15

Tall Chief Wynkoop, who had already resigned in a gesture of protest against Sheridan’s policies, was far away in Philadelphia when he heard the news of Black Kettle’s death. Wynkoop charged that his old friend had been betrayed, and “met his death at the hands of white men in whom he had too often fatally trusted and who triumphantly report the fact of his scalp in their possession.” Other white men who had known and liked Black Kettle also attacked Sheridan’s war policy, but Sheridan brushed them aside as “good and pious ecclesiastics … aiders and abettors of savages who murdered, without mercy, men, women, and children.” 16

The Great Warrior Sherman gave Sheridan his support, however, and ordered him to continue killing hostile Indians and their ponies, but at the same time advised that he establish the friendly Indians in camps where they could be fed and exposed to the white man’s civilized culture.

In response to this, Sheridan and Custer moved on to Fort Cobb, and from there sent out runners to the four tribes in the area, warning them to come in and make peace or else they would be hunted down and killed. Custer himself went out in search of friendly Indians. For this field operation he requisitioned one of the more attractive young women from his Cheyenne prisoners to go with him. She was listed as an interpreter, although she knew no English.

Late in December the survivors of Black Kettle’s band began arriving at Fort Cobb. They had to come on foot, because Custer had killed all of their ponies. Little Robe was now the nominal leader of the tribe, and when he was taken to see Sheridan he told the bearlike soldier chief that his people were starving. Custer had burned their winter meat supply; they could find no buffalo along the Washita; they had eaten all their dogs.

Sheridan replied that the Cheyennes would be fed if they all came into Fort Cobb and surrendered unconditionally. “You cannot make peace now and commence killing whites again in the spring,” Sheridan added. “If you are not willing to make a complete peace, you can go back and we will fight this thing out.”

Little Robe knew there was but one answer he could give. “It is for you to say what we have to do,” he said. 17

Yellow Bear of the Arapahos also agreed to bring his people to Fort Cobb. A few days later, Tosawi brought in the first band of Comanches to surrender. When he was presented to Sheridan, Tosawi’s eyes brightened. He spoke his own name and added two words of broken English. “Tosawi, good Indian,” he said.

It was then that General Sheridan uttered the immortal words: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” 18 Lieutenant Charles Nordstrom, who was present, remembered the words and passed them on, until in time they were honed into an American aphorism: The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

13. Tosawi, or Silver Knife, chief of the Comanches. Photographed by Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., 1872. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

During that winter the Cheyennes and Arapahos and some of the Comanches and Kiowas lived off the white man’s handouts at Fort Cobb. In the spring of 1869 the United States government decided to concentrate the Comanches and Kiowas around Fort Sill, while the Cheyennes and Arapahos were assigned a reservation around Camp Supply. Some of the Dog Soldier bands had remained far north in their camps on the Republican; others under Tall Bull had come south for rations and protection.

While the Cheyennes were moving up the Washita from Fort Cobb to Camp Supply, Little Robe quarreled with Tall Bull, accusing him and his young men of causing much of the trouble with the soldiers. The Dog Soldier chief in turn accused Little Robe of being weak like Black Kettle, of bowing before the white men. Tall Bull declared that he would not settle down within the confines of the poor reservation chosen for the Cheyennes below the Arkansas. The Cheyennes had always been a free people, he said. What right had the white men to tell them where they should live? They should remain free or die.

Little Robe angrily ordered Tall Bull and his Dog Soldiers to leave the Cheyenne reservation forever. If they failed to do so, he would join with the whites and drive them out. Tall Bull proudly replied that he would take his people north and join the Northern Cheyennes, who with Red Cloud’s Sioux had driven the white men from the Powder River country.

And so, as they had done after Sand Creek, the Southern Cheyennes divided again. Almost two hundred Dog Soldier warriors and their families started north with Tall Bull. In May, the Moon When the Ponies Shed, they joined the bands who had stayed through the winter on the Republican. As they were preparing for the long and dangerous march to the Powder River country, Sheridan sent a cavalry force under General Eugene A. Carr to search them out and destroy them. Carr’s soldiers found the Dog Soldier camp and attacked it as forcefully as Custer had struck Black Kettle’s village. This time, however, a band of warriors sacrificed their lives in a delaying action and thus managed to keep their women and children from being captured.

By scattering in small groups, the Indians escaped Carr’s pursuit parties. After a few days Tall Bull reassembled the warriors and led them on a revenge raid to the Smoky Hill. They ripped out two miles of track along the hated railroad, and attacked small settlements, killing as mercilessly as the soldiers had killed their people. Remembering that Custer had taken Cheyenne women as prisoners, Tall Bull took two surviving white women from a ranch house. Both were German immigrants (Maria Weichel and Susannah Allerdice), and none of the Cheyennes could understand any words they said. These white women were troublesome, but Tall Bull insisted that they be taken along as prisoners and treated as the Cheyenne women had been treated by the Bluecoats.

To avoid the pony soldiers who were searching everywhere now, Tall Bull and his people had to keep changing camps and moving about. They worked their way gradually westward across Nebraska into Colorado. It was July before Tall Bull could bring his band together at Summit Springs, where he hoped to cross the Platte. Because of high water in the river, they had to make a temporary camp. Tall Bull sent some of the young men to mark a crossing in the stream with sticks. This was in the Moon When the Cherries Are Ripe, and the day was very hot. Most of the Cheyennes were resting in the shade of their lodges.

By chance that day Major Frank North’s Pawnee scouts found the trail of the fleeing Cheyennes. (These Pawnees were the same mercenaries who four years before had gone into the Powder River country with General Connor and had been chased out by Red Cloud’s warriors.) With scarcely any warning, the Pawnees and General Carr’s Bluecoats charged into Tall Bull’s camp. They came in from east and west, so the only way of escape for the Cheyennes was to the south. Ponies were running in every direction; the men were trying to catch them, and the women and children were fleeing on foot.

Many could not get away. Tall Bull and about twenty others took cover in a ravine. Among them were his wife and child and the two German women captives. When the Pawnee mercenaries and the soldiers charged into the camp, a dozen warriors died defending the mouth of the ravine.

Tall Bull took his hatchet and cut holes in the side of the ravine so that he could climb up to the top and fire at the attackers. He fired once, then ducked down, and when he rose to fire again, a bullet smashed into his skull.

During the next few minutes the Pawnees and the soldiers overran the ravine. All the Cheyennes except Tall Bull’s wife and child were dead. Both of the German women had been shot, but one was still alive. The white men said that Tall Bull had shot the white captives, but the Indians never believed that he would have wasted his bullets in such a foolish way.

Roman Nose was dead; Black Kettle was dead; Tall Bull was dead. Now they were all good Indians. Like the antelope and the buffalo, the ranks of the proud Cheyennes were thinning to extinction.

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