Black Kettle

Chief Black Kettle, Motavato or Moke-ta-ve-to to his people, was born near the Black Hills of South Dakota. Chief Black Kettle is believed to have been born between 1801 an 1813. By 1832, Black Kettle had roamed south and joined with the Southern Cheyenne tribe. Very little other information is known about him until 1854 when he was made a chief of the Council of Forty-four, or the central government of the Cheyenne. After displaying strong leadership skills, Black Kettle became chief of the Wuhtapiu Cheyenne in 1861.

Prior to Black Kettle rising to the level of chief, the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush caused a flood of Whites to enter the Indian lands in Colorado. These lands had been guaranteed to the Cheyenne under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Frequently you’ll see a quote posted on the web from an unnamed US Indian Commissioner stating "We have substantially taken possession of the country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support.". Instead of enforcing the Laramie Treaty by removing the White settlers, the US Government sought to resolve the situation by pressuring the Southern Cheyenne to sign a new treaty ceding most of their land, except what became known as the small Sand Creek Reservation in southeastern Colorado. The new treaty, signed in 1861, was known as the Treaty of Fort Wise.

The Sand Creek Reservation could not sustain the Indians who were forced to live there. The land was of poor quality for agriculture and the Indians frequently had to travel up to two hundred miles to find a herd of buffalo. Many Cheyenne had been openly against the Treaty of Fort Wise from it’s inception and the poor living conditions furthered their contempt of it. Many Cheyenne Warriors, including the Dog Soldiers, began to raid the White settlers. Black Kettle now began his trek into historical controversy, did he oppose the attacks, tolerate them, or encourage them? Views are vast and emotions run high on this controversy.

The raids usually consisted of attacks on settlers, mining camps, and the taking of livestock to feed the hungry. Passing wagon trains were also the targets of the Warriors. Kiowa and Arapaho allies also participated in the raids. By 1864 tensions were reaching the snapping point, both Red and White. The Hungate massacre of a family of White settlers on July 11, 1864 enraged many Whites after pro-war Whites put their mutilated bodies on display in Denver, Colorado. Colorado governor John Evans thought the massacre had been ordered by reservation chiefs and pledged a full-scale war.

Governor Evans ordered all the Indians in Colorado to report to forts or reservations, otherwise they would be considered hostiles. With the US Civil War raging in the east, there were not enough Soldiers available to round up non-reporting Indians. Governor Evans asked the War Department to allow him to mobilize the 3rd Colorado Cavalry. Colonel John Chivington, a preacher, led the Cavalry volunteers. Most of the enlistments were for one hundred days, hence the Soldiers were known as "100-daysers".

Black Kettle long feared the power of the US Army and did not desire to go to war with them. On September 28 Black Kettle met with the Commander at Fort Weld, near Denver, securing a promise of safety in exchange for leading his followers back to the Sand Creek reservation. The agreement required Black Kettle to first report to Fort Lyon, formerly know as Fort Wise.

On November 28, the notorious Colonel Chivington arrived at Fort Lyon with the 3rd Colorado Cavalry. While out in the field Colonel Chivington had failed to make any major engagements with Indian raiders. Still looking for a fight, Colonel Chivington learned that Black Kettle’s followers had camped at the Sand Creek Reservation and made plans to quickly attack. At dawn on November 29, Chivington attacked the Sand Creek Reservation.

Black Kettle had been told at Fort weld to fly a white flag and an American flag over his teepee to signify his status as a non-raiding camp. The camp was totally unsuspecting of an attack. Out for blood, Colonel Chivington’s 3rd Colorado Cavalry attacked in a frenzy. Depending on the source, between 120 and 200 Indians were killed in the battle and the camp was torched. Numerous Indian women and children were killed. The 3rd Colorado Cavalry suffered 76 casualties as the Indians put up stiff resistance. Colonel Chivington displayed "trophies" of the battle, including body parts, in Denver for months. Much is made of Chivington's men mutilating and scalping many of the dead but if the Indians had been victorious, the same thing would have been done to the Whites. Black Kettle survived the attack but his spouse was shot several times.

After the Sand Creek Massacre Black Kettle pushed his followers to make peace with the Whites. Many say it was because he knew resisting the US Army was pointless and just as many, if not more, say it was because he really desired peace. I don’t know enough about Black Kettle as a man to form a firm opinion. There is much evidence to support either view.

The Treaty of Little Arkansas River, signed on October 14, 1865 promised perpetual peace and gave the Indians land in reparation for the Sand Creek massacre. The new treaty basically exchanged the Sand Creek Reservation for reservation lands in southwestern Kansas but denied the Cheyenne access to most of the best Kansas hunting grounds. The treaty was a poor deal for the Indians (surprised by that aren’t you? Well not really&ldots;.) and caused Black Kettle’s power to wane. The Dog Soldiers and hard line Warriors like Roman Nose began to fill the power void.

Roman Nose and his followers angered the government by their refusal to obey a treaty they had not signed. They merely ignored the treaty and continued to range over their ancestral lands or headed north to join the Northern Cheyenne in Lakota territory. General William Tecumseh Sherman, a devout Indian hater, was sent to reign the non-reporting Indians in. Roman Nose and his followers struck back so fiercely that all westbound White traffic through western Kansas nearly came to screeching halt.

Things did not go as well as the US Government had hoped so another treaty was brought forth, the Medicine Lodge Treaty signed on October 28, 1867. The Cheyenne once again were uprooted, this time onto two smaller reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and promised ample annual food provisions and supplies. Black Kettle had signed this latest treaty and his sphere of influence further waned when they did not receive the provisions they had been promised. The US Government said it withheld the provisions because of the Indian raids. Ignoring Black Kettle as leader, more and more of the young Warriors left to join Roman Nose and his band of raiders.

The Dog Soldiers continued to raid across Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. The US Army was called in once again to reign in the raiding Indians. General Philip Sheridan devised a plan where Troops would respond to Indian attacks by entering winter encampments, destroying supplies and livestock, and killing all who resisted. General Philip H. Sheridan called Black Kettle "a worn out and worthless old cipher".

In October 1868, Cheyenne Warriors attacked a wagon train along the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado. Clara Blinn and her little boy Willie were taken by the raiders to Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita River. Clara Blinn somehow managed to get a letter, pleading for someone to rescue them, to Colonel William B. Hazen at Fort Cobb. On November 20 Black Kettle, Big Mouth and other chiefs went to see Colonel Hazen to discuss peace and the White captives. Colonel Hazen, rightfully so, stated he could not make a separate peace with them outside the current treaty. Colonel Hazen referred them to General Philip Sheridan.

Setting out in a snowstorm, General George Armstrong Custer followed the tracks of a raiding party to a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River, where he ordered an attack at dawn on November 27, 1868. The Indian camp was Black Kettles. Even though Black Kettle was flying a white flag of truce, White captives were being held in his camp and raiding parties were still allowed to come and go. Black Kettle had to know of this since the camp was not a huge one. I believe that by this time his power had so waned that even if he had wanted to do something about it, Black Kettle would have been unable to do so.

General Custer’s famed US 7th Cavalry attacked in bitter cold and icy conditions. During the confrontation Black Kettle and his wife mounted a horse and attempted to flee across the river. Black Kettle was shot first in the stomach, kept riding, and another bullet hit him in the back, killing him. Some say he was the first Indian killed that day. Double Wolf who had awakened and fired his gun to alert the village was also possibly the first to die, a more likely candidate in my opinion. Black Kettle's wife was also shot and killed. General Custer stated that an Osage US Army Indian Scout took Black Kettle's scalp. Clara Blinn was shot in the forehead and scalped. Her small child Willie was swung by his feet and his head smashed into a tree. For a more detailed description of the Battle of The Washita, click here. To see photographs of the Battle of The Washita, click here.

The following day, survivors of the battle hid Black Kettle's body. General William T. Sherman, stated that he "cannot be humbugged into the belief that Black Kettle’s camp was friendly with its captive women and children, its herds of stolen horses and its stolen mail, arms, powder, etc., trophies of war". Was Black Kettle a peace chief as many say? Or was he attempting to play both sides to retain or regain his power? I don’t have the answer for you. Please read as much as you can about Black Kettle from reliable sources from both points of view. Try to envision their writings in 19th century eyes, not our 21st century eyes. Regardless of your point of view about him, Black Kettle was an important part of the settling of the west and Indian and White relationships.

In 1934 a skeleton wearing his jewelry was discovered by Works Progress Administration workers trying to stabilize a bridge over the Washita River. Black Kettle was buried by his Cheyenne people in the Indian Cemetery at Colony, Oklahoma.

Chief Black Kettle


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