1865-9 Clearing the Central
Plains for the Railroad

"My heart is filled with joy when I see you here , as the brooks
fill with water when the snows melt in the spring; and I feel glad
as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year....
My people have never drawn the first bow or fired a gun against the whites.
There has been trouble between us ... my young men have danced the war dance.
But it was not begun by us. It was you who sent out the first soldier."
Par-roowah Sermehno, Ten Bears, Yampahreekuh, Comanche

 Par-roowah Sermehno, Ten Bears, Yampahreekuh, Comanche signatory of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek 1867

Par-roowah Sermehno, Ten Bears, Yampahreekuh,
Comanche signatory of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek 1867

1865-9 Clearing the Central Plains for the Railroad

“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. (1) 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. This was familiar to Carson for he had worked for Bent and St Vrain when they built the fort from adobe, or sun dried bricks, in the 1840s.

Snow delayed their progress, as they followed the Canadian, bivouacking in the gulches or canadas which gave the river its name. On November 25 they halted at Mule Springs, thirty miles to the west of Adobe Walls. The intention was to camp overnight but when two scouts came in and reported a large presence of ‘hostiles’ at Adobe Walls Carson moved on with the cavalry and the howitzers, leaving the infantry to accompany the wagons as they followed. Fifteen miles were covered at the dead of night in freezing conditions, and they journeyed on when dawn broke the next day. 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 acticity 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. One wonders how effective were the Ute and Apache scouts he has taken along.

The native Americans combined forces, with Kiowas 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. The following day Carson withdrew his force from the area completely; probably a wise course of action. This was recognized by General Carlton, who regarded his action a success given the odds that Carson had encountered. While Carson did well to avert disaster the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache were hardly cowed by the ‘punitive’ action craved by the army, and 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 immediately resolved to retaliate for the injustice and excesses they had experienced. Previously peaceful and ready to compromise they were so shocked by the enormity of what happened at Sand Creek that they actively sought out the more aggressive southern Cheyenne, known as the dog soldier bands, of about a hundred lodges ( 500 people) which had been ranging between the Platte and the Republican rivers. Led by Tall Bull, White Horse and Bull Bear these had remained apart from those like Black Kettle and White Antelope who had argued that they must negotiate with the new Americans. Following the massacre these peaceful chiefs were supplanted by Leg in the Water and Little Robe who led the survivors to reunite with the dog soldiers. When frontiersman Jim Beckwourth, distraught at what he had witnessed happen to his Cheyenne friends at Sand Creek, trudged wearily through the snow to their new camp at Bunch Timbers to try to make his peace. However when he tried to explain that he had been powerless to avoid the catastrophe, and himself was subjected to the threat of death, Leg in the Water was implacable:

“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.” (2)

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. On January 6th they were ready to attack Julesberg, originally established as a crossing point across the Platte for wagon trains. Now there was a stage station and the nearby Fort Rankin, one mile to the west. Julesberg was quite a large place for the location out on the plains, with a total population of forty to fifty men.

“ In 1865 Julesberg was an important place on the stage line; here the company had a large station house or ‘home station’, with an eating house, a big stable, blacksmith and repair shop, granary and storehouses, and a big corral enclosed by a high wall built of sod. Besides the stage company’s property, there was a large store selling all kinds of goods to travellers and emigrant trains, and the Overland Telegraph Company also had an office at this point” (3)

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, giving 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 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 great celebration, 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.

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. Towards the end of January, 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.

Attacks on Julesberg January/February 1865

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.

“All of this trouble was the result of Colonel Chivington’s ‘great victory’ at Sand Creek.” (4)

Originally Julesberg had been left intact so that they could return for further plunder. Now they were on the move, the warriors returned to finish the job. 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.

On the morning of February 4 the advance party of Lakota reached Mud Springs, where there was an old ranch house and telegraph station inhabited by a telegraph operator, a few soldiers and herders who looked after the stock of cattle, horses and mules. According to George Bird Grinnell “The ranch was the only place at the time occupied by whites between the South and the North Platte. (rivers). (5)

The warriors ran off the herd of cattle which were grazing a few miles from the place, and on the night of February 4 the travelling bands camped nearby. Next morning the Lakota led an attack on the buildings, into which the inhabitants had barricaded themselves. The soldiers managed to divert the warriors by setting loose their horses and mules from the corral, and they withdrew.

Early next morning after a hectic forced march through two days and nights a relief force of 150 men under Lieutenant Collins arrived from Fort Laramie, which had been telegraphed for help immediately the advance party had arrived. The native Americans crossed their families over the North Platte while hostilities continued, the reinforcements joining the fray. Finally, the encounter fizzled out, as typically the warriors did not favour full frontal assaults. Their approach to military action was designed to enabled individuals to exhibit bravery rather than to devise and carry out strategies to annihilate the opposition. They disengaged and followed their families across the river, not expecting the soldiers to follow.

After the brief engagement upon their arrival Lieutenant Collins set off ‘in pursuit’ and unfortunately for him managed to ‘catch’ them as his troops reached the river. Collins corralled his wagons and sent messengers to Fort Laramie for help. 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.

Platte Bridge Fight July 25 1865

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 were 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. Not knowing about the wagon train the warriors thought they had lured the soldiers out, and allowed them to cross the bridge. At first the soldiers tried to fight to get away from the bridge, but when they were beaten back they made a dash to cross back over, and some of them succeeded. The wagon train corralled to make a defence against the attackers, and while the mules milled about they were all captured by the simple expedient of a Cheyenne riding in and leading away the ‘bell mare’ which resulted in all the others following it. Including Lieutenant Collins, twenty nine of the soldiers died. About 250 mules were taken from the wagon train. According to the army Collins was killed as a result of returning to rescue a wounded man. Cheyenne recollections spoke of his horse bolting, that the animal was spooked by the attack and ran straight into the oncoming warriors, its rider being hit by an arrow which then protruded from his forehead. It is possible that he was shot before the horse bolted but the Cheyenne said that once captured the horse was uncontrollable, so the army may have wished to show the Lieutenant dying a valiant death. All the dead were horribly mutilated, which fuelled the anger of the US troops and gave their leaders further excuse to engage in ‘punitive’ action.

Fight on Powder River August 1865

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 Connor reached the Powder River and established a camp where it met the Bozeman Trail. Connor's men first built a small stockade of cottonwood logs about 120 feet square. The eight to ten inch diameter logs were set four feet deep in a trench leaving a wall about eight feet high. Inside the stockade were a storehouse, two barracks, two officers' quarters, a post hospital, shops, teamsters quarters, and two sutler's buildings selling food and liquor to the troops. The general called it Camp Connor but it would soon be renamed Fort Reno in November and figured, with forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith in the War over the Bozeman Trail.

Connor used a force of Pawnee scouts under Captain Frank North to patrol the North Platte River. On August 22 Connor moved out with 250 troops and 80 Pawnee scouts. North scouted ahead with 10 of the Pawnee, and, independently, Jim Bridger did the same. It was he who discovered a village which turned out to be the northern Arapaho led by Black Bear. A successful surprise attack resulted in the Arapaho fleeing the village, but while Connor’s men took control of it, together with the pony herd, 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, including what the Cheyenne called Roman Nose’s fight,. This was the occasion when Roman Nose repeatedly rode the length of the assembled troops well within firing range and was protected from injury by his War Bonnet. Finally, 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. Not only were they without guides, Walker and Cole were inexperienced at fighting native Americans and foolishly were so concerned at the prospect of losing their horses that they did not allow them to forage for grass. The result was that most of them died through the deprivation, and the other six hundred surviving animals were too weak to be of any use. While the two officers were doubtless incompetent, George Bird Grinnell puts the responsibility firmly with the Commander of the expedition: Connor, and indeed it seems that his superiors agreed, for he was quickly relieved of his command.

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. After these encounters in the Powder River country the Arkansas River southern Cheyenne began to drift southwards, which meant that they would be affected by the slaughter of the buffalo on the southern plains, while the northern Cheyenne and the Lakota would fight successfully to repel the army once again, by defeating Carrington. (For the former see The Killing of the Buffalo , for the latter see War over the Bozeman Trail).

The Treaty of Little Arkansas October1865

During the summer various people representing the new Americans tried to bring peace: Indian Agent Jesse Leavenworth, helped by Jesse Chisholm, the half Cherokee scout, and Kit Carson and William Bent. The Treaty of Little Arkansas was signed on October 14 1865. This resulted in some tempering of hostilities along the southern Santa Fe trail as the signatories included most of the Kiowa, Comanche and Kiowa-Apache chiefs. 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 to subscribe to the peace previously agreed by their compatriots. With the help of Black Kettle and Little Robe, in February the signatures of Medicine Arrows and Big Head were secured, albeit reluctantly, and in March further bands arrived, including even some of the dog soldiers. These bands were more aggressive and had always been less compromising. They readily agreed that to gain peace they were willing to cease their attacks on travellers traversing the Santa Fe Trail or the Platte Road. However, the Smoky Hill road was a different matter, they refused to give up their rights to hunt buffalo in this 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, predictably since compensation to the families suffering from the massacre at Sand Creek had still not arrived, and anyway the giving up of their hunting land was not negotiable as far as this proud elite was concerned. Impasse was reached. Ultimately it did not matter if Black Kettle and Little Robe were amenable to the idea, 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 reached the interesting conclusion that much of the Indian ‘scare’ was the result of the economic benefits to the whole infrastructure which the army presence on the plains supported. 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. Like virtually all the new Americans and all the military completely he misunderstood the lack of moral or legal authority chiefs had to make on behalf of others. This was basic to the native American culture. However, while he and others did not understand this basic point, they still chose to impose a collective responsibility upon the bands of those chiefs who did sign over those who did not. It is hard not to see this as merely an excuse to attack those who were the least aggressive and amenable rather than having the impossible task of search for genuinely hostile bands and having the prospect of a bloody fight on their hands. Also, he omitted to say 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.

Crucially Sherman saw the solution as driving the Lakota and allies north of the Platte 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”. (6)

He could have added, and once the Union Pacific meets the Central Pacific railroad in 1869, the bulk of the travel to the western states of California and Oregon. At this time, autumn 1866, the Union Pacific had reached a point about two hundred miles west of Omaha, and the other great railroad, the Kansas Pacific, was about 125 miles west of Kansas City. Herein lies the reason for the aggression of the United States army in its indiscriminate attacks on native American villages led by General Hancock and Lieutenant Colonel Custer. 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 near Fort Larned, April 1867:

Sherman justified the expedition to Washington officials by using the ‘show of strength’ argument, adding that peaceful Indians had nothing to fear. What he did not add was that if some wished to fight Hancock would be only too pleased to oblige. Furthermore if he had been bothered to ask the Cheyenne, with the memory of Sand Creek still fresh in their minds, in fact some of them had somehow survived it, they were more than likely going to be more than a little nervous of a military presence so close to their encampments.

When Hancock’s intentions became clear, the Indian Agent Wynkoop worked tirelessly to try to head Hancock off, and stop him from approaching the Cheyenne- Arapaho villages. Wynkoop was fully aware of the panic such action would induce, for he had formerly been the Major who had been replaced as commanding officer at Fort Lyon prior to the Sand Creek Massacre because he would not have co-operated with Chivington’s despicable, cowardly attack on peaceful Cheyenne in 1865. The situation was hardly improved by Hancock’s inflammatory attitude, as he wrote:

“No insolence will be tolerated from any bands of Indians whom we may encounter. We wish to show them that the government is ready and able to punish them if they are hostile, although it may not be disposed to invite war.” (7)

On April 12 1867 fourteen Cheyenne leaders met Hancock at Fort Larned, Hancock having journeyed from Fort Riley. Hancock had with him eleven troops of the newly constituted seventh cavalry, six companies of infantry, a pontoon train, fifteen Delaware scouts under Fall Leaf and three frontiersmen including Will Bill Hickock. The Cheyenne leaders included Tall Bull, Bull Bear, White Horse and Little Robe. Hancock set out the usual conditions: the Great Father in Washington wanted peace. Captives must be returned, the railroad and wagon trails must not be attacked. The chiefs should support those who favoured peace he told them, through Edmond Guerrier, who translated.

“Only once did the Cheyennes break their silence, and then to express disbelief when Hancock promised to punish whites guilty of crimes against the Indians” (8)

The following day, April 13 Hancock moved closer, 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 he arrived he was frustrated to find the village deserted, which Hancock referred to as an act of ‘treachery’. Hancock was clearly someone who always wished to get his own way. When Custer trailed the Cheyennes using Delaware scouts, he sent back a report of the destruction of the station at Lookout, which Hancock used as an excuse for burning the Cheyenne village, saying that it was “a nest of conspirators”. This was a classic of people often accusing others of acts which shows more about their own propensities than those of whom they accuse. In fact, in laying the blame for the attack on Lookout on these Cheyenne, Hancock chose to ignore the very explicit wording in Custer’s report: neither he nor his Delaware scouts had” the slightest clue as to what tribe committed the act”. (9)

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. (10) A peace commission was established.

In a sense Sherman was right, for those who were fighting would not talk. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were wary of soldiers so they agreed to meet as long as the meeting took place away from the forts. Medicine Lodge Creek was chosen as it had plentiful supplies of water, grass for the ponies and wood. It was a well know place for native Americans to camp. 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 ‘hostiles’ were camped three days ride away to the west, and Edmond Guerrier was despatched bearing a message. He brought Roman Nose, Grey Beard and eight other warriors with him, who listened to what the peace commissioners had to say. Grey Beard’s response was sardonic and implied that he considered there to be a hidden agenda behind the meeting and the gifts that were offered:

“a dog will rush to eat provisions. The provisions you bring make us sick, we can live on buffalo but the main articles we need we do not see: powder, lead and caps. When you bring us these we will believe you are sincere.” (11)

The dog soldiers returned to their camp, saying that they would ask Medicine Arrows and follow his direction.

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 included dog soldiers Bull Bear, Gray Head, Tall Bull, White Horse, and Whirlwind, as well as Black Kettle and Little Robe. Significantly, however, they did not include Medicine Arrows. Roman Nose, although an influential war leader, was not a chief. 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. General Philip Sheridan took over as commander of the military department of Missouri in March 1868. He charged Lieutenant Beecher to keep a close watch on the native Americans. He did not wish to let an opportunity slip to have a further show of strength. The Cheyenne had their hands full in a full blown conflict with their traditional adversaries, the Kaw. Beecher observed this war and conceded that it was not impacting on the new American settlers or travellers. Until August 1868, that is. The commitment of all Cheyenne to the peace was always doubtful, but, starting in August and extending into September and beyond, “depredations” of settlers and their property took place. It was a hopeless situation, as recognized by Wynkoop in his letter of resignation. To hold the ‘tribe’ accountable for the actions of a few was resulting in innocent lives being lost “for the faults of the guilty”. Once again a treaty was being used to legitimize aggression by the US army. Authors such as Berthrong, as detailed and informative may be their research, give far too much prominence to these treaties reflecting the cultural value placed upon them. In doing so they ignore the motives of individuals such as Sherman who accepted that the ‘Indians’ must be “exterminated” – his own words. They also pass over the main reason for this: that the new Americans wanted their land: in this case 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. Berthrong entitles a whole chapter in his book: “The Treaty of Medicine Lodge : Another Peace Fails” , this in book totalling only sixteen chapters. If ever any truth be fathomable in History this was a foregone conclusion, and one which sidesteps why the treaty was seen as necessary. It was ‘negotiated’ to prove that it was the ‘indians’ ‘own fault’ if they were annihilated and/or run off their land.

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

Nevertheless, in the now time honoured tradition 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. After a week he called in at Fort Wallace where he was informed that hostiles had attacked a wagon train a few miles to the east near Sheridan City. On 10th September his men mounted up again and, six days later, they camped on the banks of the Arikaree River, at a point where the river divided to pass round an island in midstream. Only twelve miles upstream was a large encampment consisting of two Lakota villages, one of Cheyenne dog soldiers and a few lodges of Arapaho. Forsyth mistakenly thought they were downstream, and so was caught unawares when about six hundred warriors attacked his force from the other direction just before dawn. Aided by Lieutenant Beecher, Forsyth quickly assembled his men on the island to assume a defensive position. The Cheyenne and Lakota warriors circled the island at first firing at the frantic troopers as they scrambled to dig rifle pits in the sand using any available makeshift tools. That day, somehow the bedraggled force withstood three attempts to storm their position. When night fell two of the frontiersmen, Jack Stilwell and Pierre Trudeau volunteered for the hazardous task of walking the eighty five miles to Fort Wallace, for help. In the following days there were no more frontal assaults, it was not the warrior’s style of warfare, individual bravery and accomplishment was the aim of battle rather than disciplined annihilation of opponents. Sporadic fire was kept up over the next few days as the island was held under siege. The scouts ate some of their horses and dug a well for water. Finally the warriors withdrew on 24th September and the weakened force was left midstream among rotting horseflesh. To the survivors’ great relief the following day Stilwell and Trudeau arrived with troopers from Fort Wallace. The final tally of the dead was six, while fifteen recovered from their wounds. Forsyth claimed that his scouts had killed in excess of thirty Indians, although in the circumstances it is difficult to understand how he could have made this judgment. Native American accounts put the figure at nine: six Cheyenne, two Lakota and one Arapaho. One fatality 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.

In October, two further sorties by Major William Royall from Fort Harker and Major Eugene Carr out of Fort Wallace resulted in engagements which Sheridan argued were successful in keeping the Indians on the move. As winter approached he sought and gained permission from the War Department to send out punitive expeditions to further harass the ’hostiles’.

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. (12) Custer had the audacity to call this cowardly attack on a peaceful village a ‘battle’, and I am surprised that George Bent and George Bird Grinnell who relied upon Bent heavily as a source, followed suit. 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. Apologists for Custer who seek to glorify this scoundrel are on the same level as the US senator who sought to support another scoundrel, Richard Nixon at the time of his resignation when the senator said: “Don’t confuse me with the facts”.

In mid September 1867, shortly before the Medicine Lodge Treaty was signed, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was court martialled on seven charges, including deserting his command, ordering deserters to be shot, damaging army horses, failing to pursue Indians attacking his escort and not recovering bodies of soldiers killed by Indians. He was suspended from his rank and command for one year. Those generals who allowed this reckless, irresponsible foolish man to remain in the army and, worse still, rushed him back to active service against peaceful native Americans did not cover themselves in glory either. Unfortunately, as history records time and again, these amoral individuals rarely, if ever, are held to account for their ‘misjudgements’, regardless of the pain, suffering and loss of life that their decisions, far away from the point of contact, have caused.

General Sherman was not best pleased when Sully’s expedition out of Fort Dodge was forced to retreat back from where it came by the disciplined guerrilla tactics and ambuscades of the Cheyenne dog soldiers. This was not part of the script. Sherman wrote to the Secretary of War on September 17 that:

“All the Cheyennes and Arapahoes are now at war. Admitting that some of them have not done acts of murder, rape etc, still they have not restrained those who have, nor have they on demand given up the criminals as they agreed to do.” (13)

It was the same nonsensical equivalent of the vicar ranting at the congregation because of poor attendance at church. Only in this case not only was it unjust, but it meant unnecessary loss of life of the innocent. When General Sheridan arrived at Camp Supply Custer had rejoined the seventh cavalry and was arguing with Sully over who was in charge. Sheridan solved this problem by sending Sully back to Fort Harker. Custer left Camp Supply on November 23 with very clear orders from Sheridan: he was to seek out ‘hostiles’- ie any Indians - hang any warriors not killed, take women and children prisoner, and destroy all villages and belongings including ponies. When the seventh rode out to the rousing tune of ‘Garry Owen’, heavy snow had fallen so there was it crunched underfoot to a depth of twelve inches. Drifting into hollows it made travel by horse hazardous, and trails had been obliterated. The air was chilling, below freezing, and the troops could see their breath as they exhaled. Major Elliot scouted ahead with three troops and sent back word of finding a trail. Custer, who had a reputation for obsessively driving his men on, caught them up. Osage scouts, acting independently, discovered a village on the Washita. Under cover of darkness, Custer, receiving the news, withdrew his troops for they had almost blundered into it, and were less than a mile away. Fearing that the Cheyenne would escape, not unreasonably since that was what usually happened, - until this point Custer had never actually engaged Indians in a battle - he divided his command in four, so they could come at them from all sides. While this ‘strategy’ resulted in Custer quickly taking control of the village, there were so many warriors in the area that as they poured in to help so Custer was in danger of being wiped out, as a result of poor reconnaissance and charging in. (Déjà vu?) In the course of the fighting Major Elliot’s eighteen troopers became detached from the rest of Custer’s force, probably in a deliberate ploy by the warriors. The odds were such that there was a real risk of annihilation, so Custer made a dash for safety. This was yet another forced march, in which Custer seemed to specialise. For once it was probably well judged for he saved his and his men’s skins, literally in the case of the tops of their heads. The respite was to be temporary, however, for it seems that Custer was neither aware of his limitations nor quick to learn from his experience. His demise was merely held over for about eight years. (see the Battle of the Little Bighorn).

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. For example Red Moon Little Robe, Minimic (Eagle Head) and Grey Eyes told the agent Colyer in April 1869 that the deaths had been thirteen men, sixteen women and nine children. 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. Among the prisoners was a beautiful young Cheyenne girl named Monahseetah. Custer persuaded Sheridan to let her stay with him as an interpreter, even though she did not speak or understand English. (14)

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. Both Set-Tainte and Lone Wolf had been present at Medicine Lodge Creek but while Set-Tainte had been a signatory, Lone Wolf had refused to add his mark. 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 they 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

While he was at Fort Cobb, on December 20 1868 Sheridan sent out a message to the Cheyenne and Arapaho villages to the west that they should come into the reservation at Fort Sill. On 31 December a delegation of leaders arrived at Fort Cobb, including Little Robe, Cheyenne and Yellow Bear, Arapaho and nineteen other leaders. By January 20 1869, these two chiefs had surrendered, along with their people. They were persuaded to accompany Custer in an effort to hasten a peace settlement, for Sheridan refused to talk until all the bands were in. However, those Cheyenne still free did not wish to talk, and Custer returned to Fort Sill.

Riding out in March Custer managed to make contact with the dog soldier bands led by Little Robe and Medicine Arrows. Intially rebuffed, Custer fell back on the treacherous capture of four warriors under the flag of truce. He threat to hang three of them, and the other was sent to the dog soldier villages to communicate their plight. In this way Custer extracted promises that the dog soldiers would come in to the reservation at Camp Supply. Even Custer himself probably attached little significance to such promises made under unethical duress, but he was forced to take them at their word and withdraw owing to a lack of food. Needless to say the whole chain of events had little perceptible effect, at least on the Cheyenne coming in to the reservation. One would imagine that any remaining trust for the army’s concept of honour they might have had was now gone.

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. Early in July they camped on the Republican River where Cherry Creek runs into it. Dog soldiers led by Tall Bull were camped at the head of Cherry Creek with a few Lakota. When they became aware of the presence of the troops the dog soldiers attacked them, but largely owing to the skills of the Pawnee scouts in alerting the troopers, the Cheyenne were beaten off.

Tall Bull moved north to Summit Springs (White Butte), and decided to rest up for two days. However, he had underestimated Carr’s Pawnee trackers, and in a surprise attack chaos was created in the village. The inhabitants made a run for it and many 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 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.


1. If you look carefully at a map at the time, that land which is designated Indian Territory - which was to become Oklahoma - is in the shape of a ‘pan’, the handle of which extends to the west. Requiring more imagination, but deriving from the former description, the Texas Panhandle extended northwards from the western side of Texas, projecting into Indian Territory. 2. Berthrong, The Southern Cheyennes, p224
3. The Life of George Bent, Edward Hyde p. 169
4. George Bent p 180
5. George Bird Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes, p 195
6. Andrist,The Long Death, p 135
7. Grinnell p247
8. Berthrong p 274
9. Berthrong p278
10. Berthrong p 288
11. Berthrong p.294
12. George Bent, p315
13. Berthrong p322

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1865-9 Clearing the Central
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© Chris Smallbone March2006