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1865-9 Clearing the Central Plains
for the Railroad: Extended Version


1865-9 Clearing the Central
Plains for the Railroad

"I love the land and the buffalo. I will not part with it. I want you to understand well what I say. A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers in these banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo. And when I see that my heart feels like bursting."
Set-t'ainte, Kiowa

Set-t'ainte,(White Bear, called Satanta by the new Americans), a Kiowa signatory of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty

Set-t'ainte,(White Bear, called Satanta by the new Americans), a Kiowa signatory of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty 1867

“Punishing the savages” on the Santa Fe Trail:
Comanche-Kiowa November 26 1864
Three days before the Sand Creek Massacre the First Battle of Adobe Walls took place much further south in the Texas Panhandle. On the orders of General James Carleton, commander of the military in New Mexico, Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson led 335 officers and men of the First Cavalry, New Mexico Volunteers and 75 Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts on a ‘punitive’ winter expedition. Carson’s orders were to strike at the Comanche and Kiowa villages which were believed to be located to the south of the Canadian River. These southern plains peoples had been attacking wagon trains traveling down the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico. Carson’s force included two howitzers, and wagons carried enough rations for forty five days. Riding out of Fort Bascom they headed towards the ruins of William Bent’s trading post at Adobe Walls on Bent’s Creek, a small tributary of the Canadian River.

Snow delayed their progress as they followed the Canadian River, on November 25 they halted at Mule Springs, thirty miles to the west of Adobe Walls. Leaving the infantry to accompany the wagons, the cavalry, with the howitzers, moved up at the dead of night in freezing conditions. At 8.30am the cavalry surprised and overwhelmed a Kiowa village at Red Bluff. Little Mountain (Dohasan)’s heroic leadership of the Kiowa warriors enabled women and children to quickly make their escape. This was just one of a number of villages in the area, and the others were alerted by the frenzied activity and shots being fired. A Comanche village of 500 lodges was only a mile away from the ruins of the old trading fort. The total number of warriors in the area was in excess of 3,000, far greater than Carson had expected.

The native Americans combined forces, with Kiowas Little Mountain (Dohasan), Stumbling Bear (Sa-tim-gear) and White Bear (Set-Tainte) taking the lead. However they were kept at bay by the howitzers. Being greatly outnumbered these probably gave Carson a lifeline, saving him from annihilation experienced by Custer at the Little Big Horn. The howitzers were set up on higher ground and as the day wore on Carson first retired to defend this position and then burned the Kiowa village they had taken early that morning. Finally, concerned for the infantry and supply train he had left behind, he withdrew his cavalry to join them and camp for the night. While Carson did well to avert disaster the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache were hardly cowed by the ‘punitive’ action craved by the army. In military terms for all the blather it was status quo. These peoples were left in control of a large area, included the main route into New Mexico territory, the Santa Fe Trail.

Aftermath of Sand Creek:
Cheyenne – Lakota – northern Arapaho Alliance

Following the massacre at Sand Creek the Cheyenne involved were enraged and resolved to retaliate for the injustice and excesses they had experienced. Leg in the Water summarised their feelings:
“What do we have to live for? The white man has taken our country, killed our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children. Now no peace….. We have raised the battle-axe until death.”

Previously peaceful and ready to compromise, Black Kettle was now supplanted by Leg in the Water and Little Robe who led the survivors to reunite with the dog soldier bands . Led by Tall Bull, White Horse and Bull Bear about a hundred lodges (500 people) had been ranging between the Platte and the Republican rivers. They had remained apart from those like Black Kettle and White Antelope who had argued that they must negotiate with the new Americans.

Early in December runners were sent out from the reunited Cheyenne to contact the Oglala Lakota led by Pawnee Killer, Brulé Lakota led by Spotted Tail and Northern Arapaho led by Black Bear, who readily accepted the pipe of war. Once assembled at Cherry Creek on the south fork of the Republican River the warriors numbered about one thousand, bristling with aggression and resentment. It was almost unprecedented to go to war in the depths of winter, it was time for resting up, wrapping up warm and staying in the tepees which glowed brightly from the fires inside. Such was the depth of anger that comfort and warmth were forsaken in order that their collective rage could be vented.

The Cheyenne Arapaho and Lakota go to War
Early in 1865 the town of Julesberg was sacked while the soldiers in nearby Fort Rankin looked on. On January 6 the warriors acted as a cohesive, relatively disciplined force and employed decoys. Captain O’Brien was lured out of Fort Rankin by ten Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Big Crow, he gave chase with sixty men, of whom about one third were killed in the engagement. Julesberg, left unprotected, was sacked and looted. The women brought up extra ponies which were loaded down with food supplies such as flour, corn, bacon and sugar. So overladen were the animals that it took three days to return to the camp at Cherry Creek. Then there was a great celebration, with scalp dances and drumming. A mood of festivity took over in contrast to the sombre atmosphere of mourning which had previously continued ever since the massacre at Sand Creek.
From January 28 to February 2 warriors ran amok on the road between Valley Station and Julesberg, burning every ranch and stage station. Lakota attacked east of Julesberg while Cheyenne also raided to the west of Valley. Telegraph lines were ripped down.

George Bent pointed out, “All of this trouble was the result of Colonel Chivington’s ‘great victory’ at Sand Creek.”

In the first attack Julesberg was left intact so that they could return for further plunder. When the decision was taken to move north, the warriors returned. On February 2 once supplies such as corn had been taken, Julesberg was burned to the ground. The soldiers seemed to have learned from the previous encounter and could not be tempted out of the safety of Fort Rankin. Then the large amalgamation moved northwards.

Black Kettle, initially blamed for the events at Sand Creek, by this point had regained the respect in which he was held by the more peaceful southern Cheyenne. When the main body started to move north, Black Kettle detached himself with about eighty lodges and moved south, to rejoin Little Raven’s southern Arapaho, who had also stayed out of the hostilities throughout. On February 4 they attacked an old ranch house and telegraph station at Mud Springs and saw off the rescue party from Fort Laramie led by Lieutenant Collins: in two engagements he lost two men and sixteen were wounded. A further ten were disabled by frostbite. The native Americans now split: the Brulé Lakota went eastwards, the northern Arapaho went westwards to the Tongue River and the rest: Oglala Lakota, northern Cheyenne and southern Cheyenne met up in the Powder River country.

In the summer a war council was held and the chiefs decided to attack the army post at Platte Bridge. The crossing was protected by a garrison of 120 soldiers under Major Martin Anderson. On the morning of 25 July there were attempts to run off their horses and lure them out of the stockade, neither of which was successful. However, early next day a small wagon train arrived from the Sweetwater Bridge station. Lieutenant Collins led a force of twenty five men out to meet them, a somewhat courageous or foolhardy act considering he was attacked by hundreds of Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho warriors. Including Lieutenant Collins, twenty nine of the soldiers died.
Brigadier General Connor had planned to move out from Fort Laramie, which he did on July 30, as part of a three pronged movement, with the other columns led by Lieutenant Walker and Colonel Nelson Cole. On August 11 1865 Connor reached the Powder River and established a camp where it met the Bozeman Trail.

On August 22 Connor moved out with 250 troops and 80 Pawnee scouts under Captain Frank North. Jim Bridger discovered a village and a surprise attack resulted in the northern Arapaho fleeing the village. While Connor’s men took control of it, the Arapaho warriors turned and fought while their people retired. The Pawnee took sixty scalps and Connor’s force captured about a thousand ponies, but their attack was repulsed and Connor returned to the village to ignite and destroy it. He then led his troops to the Tongue River where he was supposed to rendezvous with Colonel Cole on September 1.

The two other columns did not fare so well. Both were attacked by first the Cheyenne and then by the Lakota, and when the troops of Cole and Walker were discovered by the Pawnee scouts on September 11th, they were lost, starving and demoralised. It seems that Connor knew what he was doing in having these Pawnees, old adversaries of the Lakota and their allies, accompany his expedition.

The troops were withdrawn from the Powder River country until the following year, 1866, when Colonel Carrington built Fort Phil Kearny to protect miners on the Bozeman Trail.

Meanwhile representatives of the United States government met leaders of the peaceful southern Cheyenne, together with most of the Kiowa, Comanche and Kiowa-Apache chiefs and they signed The Treaty of Little Arkansas on October14 1865. However, as Black Kettle pointed out, the southern Cheyenne represented only eighty lodges while some two hundred – the Arkansas River and dog soldier bands- were still north of the Platte River. As the Arkansas River southern Cheyennes began to drift south early in 1866 their chiefs were encouraged by Agent Wynkoop, Black Kettle and Little Robe to subscribe to the peace. The dog soldiers would not give up their rights to hunt buffalo in the Smoky Hill road area. In fact it was this area, between the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers that the dog soldiers inhabited, so it was hardly surprising that while the others would concede it, the dog soldiers would not. Attempts to bribe them with annuity goods met with rebuff. Impasse was reached. Ultimately it did not matter if Black Kettle and Little Robe were amenable to the idea of peace, for they had no control over the dog soldier societies whatsoever.

Clearing the way for the railroad: Sherman’s strategy 1866
In 1866 General Sherman, Commander of the Military division of the Missouri, decided to inspect the situation in the west for himself. He put the causes of the problem down to mutual distrust, that the chiefs had no control of their young braves, that miners killed Indians as they would “beasts” and that the Indians disregarded treaties as if they were “waste paper”. While the last mentioned was rather harsh the others were very near the mark. Once some chiefs had signed a treaty they were held responsible for others who did not sign or abide by it. This ignored the fact that the United States had no more or less control over its citizens, as evidenced by his third mentioned cause, that miners indiscriminately attacked the native Americans in lands ‘allocated’ to them. It is hard not to see the treaties as merely an excuse to attack those who were the least aggressive and amenable rather than having the impossible task of searching for genuinely hostile bands and having the prospect of a bloody fight on their hands. Crucially Sherman saw the solution as driving the Lakota and allies north of the Platte River and the southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche Kiowa and Kiowa Apache south of the Arkansas. He recorded this in his report to the Secretary of War early in November. He wrote that it would create a:

“wide belt between the Platte and the Arkansas, in which lie the two great railroads , over which passes the bulk of the travel to the mountain territories”.

The plan was for General Hancock to lead an expedition into the Cheyenne-Arapaho heartlands, ostensibly as a show of strength, but in reality as a way of provoking the native Americans into a response which would justify the army pursuing and “exterminating” them and their villages. Sherman wrote to his brother in December 1866:

“they must be exterminated, for they cannot and will not settle down, and our people will force us to do it”.

Clearing the way for the railroad:
Sherman’s strategy executed by Hancock:

The Cheyenne, with the memory of Sand Creek still fresh in their minds were going to be more than a little nervous of a military presence so close to their encampments, but Hancock was not worried by such considerations, he was confrontational. Hancock’s intention was to make a show of strength so that native Americans would be afraid to continue raiding the traveller’s routes.

On April 13 1867 Hancock moved close to a Cheyenne village, but that night the Cheyenne families slipped away and the following day Hancock was delayed by six dog soldier leaders as he journeyed towards the encampment: Roman Nose, Bull Bear, Grey Beard, Tall Bull, Medicine Wolf and White Horse. When eventually Hancock arrived he was frustrated to find the village deserted, which he referred to as an act of ‘treachery’.

Hancock used the attack on Lookout station as an excuse to burn their belongings and dwellings although there was no clear evidence that this particular group of Cheyenne were to blame. This action was hardly likely to convince the Cheyenne that Hancock’s intentions in coming near their village in the first place had been innocent.

Council at Medicine Lodge Creek October 1867
As a result of Hancock’s treachery, between May 22 and June 24 construction of the Kansas- Pacific Railroad virtually came to a stop. The dog soldiers and Brule Lakota were committed to protecting the Smoky Hill River country, and Hancock’s action had made them even more active and resolved. Sherman would have liked to enforce a ‘solution’; Washington preferred to use a more subtle approach, “the same old senseless twaddle” in Sherman’s view. A peace commission was established.

Medicine Lodge Creek was chosen as it had plentiful supplies of water, grass for the ponies and wood for fuel. From the south, Ten Bears led the Comanches, while Satank and Set-Tainte brought the Kiowa. Most of these peoples were willing to cease raiding on the Santa Fe Trail. Two branches of the Comanches, however, took no part: the Kwerhar-rehnuh and the Kuhtsoo-ehkuh, who together constituted about one third of the Comanche. Of the Cheyenne, only Black Kettle’s one hundred and fifty Cheyenne turned up.

The Kiowa and Comanche chiefs signed on 21st October 1867, but there were too few Cheyenne present so the signing with them was delayed, and finally took place one week later. Signatories did not include Medicine Arrows, a very important chief of the dog soldiers. The Cheyenne and Arapaho signatories of the treaty agreed to a reservation between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers. The Comanche, Kiowas and Kiowa Apache area was drastically reduced, for it did not include the Texas Panhandle, extending from the Arkansas to the Red River which formed the Texas border. It is difficult to contemplate the Comanche agreeing or seriously meaning to abide by this.

At first the terms of the treaty seemed to be observed. The Cheyenne had their hands full in a full blown conflict with their traditional adversaries, the Kaw. However, army leaders like Sherman accepted that the ‘Indians’ must be “exterminated” – his own word. The new Americans wanted their land: to be able to build a railroad to link east and west for transport and communications. To accept the explanations proffered by such as Sherman for their actions, that ‘indians’ broke treaties is to ignore both the motives and the reasons which lay behind them.

Sherman’s strategy continued by Forsyth:
Fight at Beecher Island September 1868

Once again the army went on the offensive. With Sherman’s backing Philip Sheridan organized an expedition of specially enlisted frontiersmen under Major Forsyth. He left Fort Hays on August 29 1868 with orders to pursue ‘hostiles’ in the area. On September 16 Forsyth was caught unawares when about six hundred warriors attacked his force just before dawn. Aided by Lieutenant Beecher, Forsyth quickly established a defensive position on an island in the Arikaree River; the warriors fired at the frantic troopers as they scrambled to dig rifle pits in the sand using any available makeshift tools. The Cheyenne and Lakota warriors circled and lay siege. That day, somehow the bedraggled force withstood three attempts to storm their position. Two frontiersmen, Jack Stilwell and Pierre Trudeau volunteered to go for help, returning to rescue the desperate troops on September 26. One fatality among the Cheyenne stood out, the dog soldier Roman Nose, whose fearless exploits were renowned among his people. The loss of such a talismanic leader was a great blow to them. Lieutenant Beecher also died, and the US army named the battle after him.

Sherman’s strategy continued by Custer: The Washita November 1868
As if Black Kettle and his peaceful Cheyennes had not suffered enough, later in 1868 Custer was sent out in the depths of winter. It was a deliberate attempt to catch the native Americans unawares at a time of year when they were settled in one place to see out the chillingly cold weather. Sheridan organized three expeditions under Major Eugene Carr, out of Fort Lyon, who could find no Indians to fight; General Sully from Camp Supply, from where Custer was despatched with his seventh cavalry; and Colonel Crawford who was supposed to join forces at Camp Supply but got lost in the snow.

Eleven troops of the Seventh Cavalry under Custer’s command attacked the southern Cheyenne on the Washita River. According to George Bent there were forty seven lodges with Black Kettle, plus two Arapaho and two Lakota. Custer had the audacity to call this cowardly attack on a peaceful village a ‘battle’. What Custer did not know when he attacked the village of fifty one lodges, apart from whether or not its inhabitants were peaceful, was that this village was one of a series strung out along the river. In fact, once the warriors began to arrive from these other camps Custer beat a hasty retreat, so hasty that he left some of his men behind, thereby offering evidence that he was perhaps not quite so foolish as most of his actions suggested. Unfortunately, by this time Black Kettle’s wife, Medicine Woman Later, having miraculously survived nine gunshot wounds at Sand Creek, was dead. The pony herd, as was army policy, had been destroyed in a few minutes of sickening carnage.

Custer claimed to have killed 103 men, but more reliable sources put the figure at between nine and twenty, with the number of women and children killed double, at eighteen to forty. Needless to say Custer’s report mentioned no deaths of women or children, and, unlike Chivington at Sand Creek, he was sensible enough to take some prisoners, fifty three in all, thereby avoiding the charge of taking innocent lives.

Sherman’s strategy continued:
Sheridan and Custer imprison Kiowa Leaders Set-Tainte (White Bear) and Guipago (Lone Wolf), December 17 1868

After the attack of Black Kettle’s village on the Washita, the Kiowa, only a hundred miles to the south, were rightly nervous that the same thing might happen to them. When Sheridan rode out with Custer looking for more Indians to attack, to Sheridan’s annoyance he received a despatch from General Hazen at Fort Cobb that the Kiowa were ‘friendly’. The courier was accompanied by Kiowa Leaders Set-Tainte (White Bear) and Guipago (Lone Wolf), to show their good faith, and they came in bearing the white flag of truce. Treacherously Sheridan and Custer took them prisoner and took them, under armed guard, to Fort Cobb, to be used as hostages. Runners were sent to all the Kiowa villages that if they did not immediately come in to Fort Cobb the two leaders would be hanged. Eventually all the Kiowa responded, although a couple of small bands of Kicking Bird and Woman Heart travelled south west to join the Comanche. Three months later in February 1869 Set-Tainte and Guipago were released when Kicking Bird returned and promised to report to the reservation.

Sherman’s strategy continued: Surrender of the southern Cheyenne and Arapaho December 1868- January 1869
Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders, including Little Robe and Yellow Bear, and nineteen others, arrived at Fort Cobb on 31 December in response to Sheridan’s request to negotiate. By January 20 1869, these two chiefs had surrendered, along with their people. When Custer made contact with the dog soldier bands led by Little Robe and Medicine Arrows in March, they refused to come in to Fort Sill. Again Custer captured four warriors under the flag of truce. By threatening to hang three of them he extracted meaningless promises from the Cheyenne to surrender. Custer had to withdraw his troops owing to a lack of food, but the dog soldiers were even less likely to trust the US army in the future.

Sherman’s strategy continued: Carr attacks the dog soldiers at Summit Springs (White Butte), July 11, 1869
Early in the summer General Eugene Carr rode out of Fort McPherson, Nebraska, with the Fifth cavalry and Pawnee scouts led by Major North. Dog soldiers, led by Tall Bull, attacked them early in July at their camp on the Republican River where Cherry Creek runs into it. Largely owing to the skills of the Pawnee scouts in alerting the troopers, the Cheyenne were beaten off and pursued. In the resulting surprise attack at Summit Springs (White Butte), many warriors were shot down, including Tall Bull. Carr reported the capture of eighteen women and children, but the fifty two deaths he claimed did not differentiate between men, women and children.

The great buffalo herds of the Great Plains had been separated by the vast numbers of wagons on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, but they had been concerned to get to California and Oregon for fertile land or gold. In the 1860s the nation wished to unite its eastern and western parts and the way this was done was by building two great railroads, the Kansas Pacific and the transcontinental Union Pacific/Central Pacific. As they were built the lands of the native Americans were encroached upon which resulted in armed conflicts. Sherman’s policy was a realistic, if selfish, way of achieving the new Americans’ desire for the United States to take control of the whole continent. Lakota and northern Cheyenne and Arapaho were to be driven north, while the southern Cheyenne and Arapaho would be pushed southwards with the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa- Apache. By 1869 this had been largely achieved. In the north there had been a War over the Bozeman Trail. On the central and southern plains the majority had been cowed to apparently accept smaller areas or ‘reservations’ in which to hunt. The problem here was a significant minority refused to cede their lands and fought actively against encroachment, a problem which was to be addressed significantly by the Killing of the Buffalo.

1865-9 Clearing the Central Plains for the Railroad:
Extended Version

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006