Myth of the West: The Battle of the Washita

Essential Question

How do the rhetoric and reality of Manifest Destiny differ?



In this lesson, students watch excerpts from the episode Chief Black Kettle, to learn about The Battle of the Washita, part of the Indian Wars. They then analyze the narrative of the Indian Wars by examining a collection of images that demonstrate the differences between the reality and the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.


Related Episode: Chief Black Kettle

When George Bryson was a boy, he once wore a Native American neckpiece and leggings for show-and-tell. Those Native American artifacts had been passed down in his family for generations, beginning with an uncle who claims to have fought against the Cheyenne and the Arapaho with General Custer at the Battle of the Washita. Bryson asks host Wes Cowan to find out whether the artifacts were once the belongings of Chief Black Kettle, the Cheyenne chief. 


Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for students in grades 9-10 but can be adapted for any grade 6-12. Suggestions for adaptation include: limit the number of images in the slideshow, include more assets from the Indian Wars (see Resources) in the slideshow, or ask students to do their own research into Manifest Destiny to further investigate both the rhetoric and reality.





Powder Keg of Tension

History Detective Wes Cowan meets with Jerry Greene, a historian of the Indian Wars.

History Detective Wes Cowan meets with Jerry Greene, a historian of the Indian Wars, who provides background on the Battle of the Washita. Greene explains the conflicts within the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes as well as the conflict with the white settlers.

Washita Battlefield

Wes Cowan meets with Joel Shockley, a park guide at the Washita Battlefield.

Wes Cowan meets with Joel Shockley, a park guide at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, who describes what took place at the Battle of the Washita.


Slide show:

To view Manifest Destiny and the Indian Wars slideshow, click here.

To print slideshow, click here.



The Rhetoric and Reality of Manifest Destiny


Estimated Time Required

1-2 class periods



The Battle of the Washita was part of a series of conflicts known as the Indian Wars, which stretched from the seventeenth century into the twentieth. The Indian Wars were fought between the United States, both as a colony of Great Britain and an independent nation, and various tribes of Native Americans and were primarily territorial disputes.

The Battle of the Washita took place in western Oklahoma in 1868. At the time, many Americans believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to spread across the entire North American continent. In their settlement of the West, American colonists often came into conflict with the Native American tribes who already lived on that land. Unfortunately for many, the high-flying rhetoric of Manifest Destiny rarely matched the hardscrabble and bloody reality of settling the West.


Discussion Questions

Have students watch the "Powder Keg of Tension" video while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion: 

  • What did Black Kettle believe about white settlers?
  • How did his tribe members feel about the white settlers? Why?
  • What was the relationship between the Cheyenne and the settlers? What were they fighting about?
  • What would you have done if you were one of the settlers? What if you were one of the Cheyenne or Arapaho?



After watching the "Powder Keg of Tension" video from the History Detectives episode Chief Black Kettle, lead a discussion about what the students already know about Manifest Destiny and the Indian Wars. Be sure to cover the following:

  • Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was destined to stretch across the North American Continent
  • The Indian Wars refers to a disorganized series of conflicts between white settlers and/or the United States Federal government and the Native American tribes indigenous to North America. They lasted from the 1770s and into the early 1900s. They were primarily conflicts over who owned the land.
  • In the Policy of Indian Removal, Native Americans were forced to leave their ancestral lands for designated reservations further west.
  • The myth of cowboys and Indians.

Invite students to discuss what kind of stories classroom textbooks tell about this period in history.

  • How have your history books presented Manifest Destiny? The Indian Wars?
  • What did you learn about the Trail of Tears? How does this story portray Native Americans? (As victims)
  • What did you learn about the settlers and frontiersman? How do these stories portray Americans in the West? (As heroes)
  • Do you think either of these versions of the story is the whole truth? Why or why not?
  • Who wrote your textbook? Why would they want to tell a version of the story that is not quite the whole truth? What is their purpose in creating this textbook?
  • What other sources do you want to study to better understand this period in history?

Show students the "Washita Battlefield" video and then the slide show of Images of Manifest Destiny and the Indian Wars and direct them to takes notes using The Rhetoric and Reality of Manifest Destiny. The images in the slide show are drawn from the Library of Congress collection.

Once students have viewed the slideshow, lead a discussion on the difference between the reality of westward expansion and the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. Allow students time to review portions of The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions, a guidebook published in 1859 to help settlers make the trek across the plains, for background on the realities of crossing the continent. Review with students the definition of “rhetoric” (the skilled use of language or communication, often used to persuade or manipulate a person’s beliefs) or the idea of Manifest Destiny, and how it differed from reality. Ask:

  • What images showed the most realistic portrait of the time period? Why?
  • Which images showed more rhetoric than reality? How so?
  • How was the rhetoric different from the reality?
  • How can we use these images to tell a well-balanced, realistic version of the Indian Wars and the settlement of the west?


Going Further

Once students have finished their investigation into the rhetoric and reality of Manifest Destiny, ask students to create a page for their history textbook that tells a well-balanced, realistic version of the events related to Manifest Destiny. Their page for the textbook should include 1-2 paragraphs and 1-2 images with captions. Ask: How were you able to balance the various elements of the story? Why did you choose to include the details you did?


More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to support/enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom. 





  • The Price of Freedom: America at War. Interactive exhibit from the National Museum of American History with text, video, images and artifacts that includes chapters on the Eastern and Western Indian Wars of the 1800s
  • Native American Warriors and Battles. Slide show of images related to the Indian Wars. Includes further related video and photo content from



National History Standards

Historical Thinking

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research


US History Content Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

  • Standard 1: United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans
  • Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Era 6: the Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

  • Standard 4: Federal Indian policy and United States foreign policy after the Civil War


Common Core State Standards


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.



CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.



CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


Grades 6-12

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.