Few biographical details are known about the Southern Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, but his repeated efforts to secure a peace with honor for his people, despite broken promises and attacks on his own life, speak of him as a great leader with an almost unique vision of the possiblity for coexistence between white society and the culture of the plains.
Black Kettle lived on the vast territory in western Kansas and eastern Colorado that had been guaranteed to the Cheyenne under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Within less than a decade, however, the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush sparked an enormous population boom in Colorado, and this led to extensive white encroachments on Cheyenne land. Even the U.S. Indian Commissioner admitted that "We have substantially taken possession of the country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support."
Rather than evict white settlers, the government sought to resolve the situation by demanding that the Southern Cheyenne sign a new treaty ceding all their lands save the small Sand Creek reservation in southeastern Colorado. Black Kettle, fearing that overwhelming U.S. military power might result in an even less favorable settlement, agreed to the treaty in 1861 and did what he could to see that the Cheyenne obeyed its provisions.
As it turned out, however, the Sand Creek reservation could not sustain the Indians forced to live there. All but unfit for agriculture, the barren tract of land was little more than a breeding ground for epidemic diseases which soon swept through the Cheyenne encampments. By 1862 the nearest herd of buffalo was over two hundred miles away. Many Cheyennes, especially young men, began to leave the reservation to prey upon the livestock and goods of nearby settlers and passing wagon trains. One such raid in the spring of 1864 so angered white Coloradans that they dispatched their militia, which opened fire on the first band of Cheyenne they happened to meet. None of the Indians in this band had participated in the raid, however, and their leader was actually approaching the militia for a parlay when the shooting began.
This incident touched off an uncoordinated Indian uprising across the Great Plains, as Indian peoples from the Comanche in the South to the Lakota in the North took advantage of the army's involvement in the Civil War by striking back at those who had encroached upon their lands. Black Kettle, however, understood white military supremacy too well to support the cause of war. He spoke with the local military commander at Fort Weld in Colorado and believed he had secured a promise of safety in exchange for leading his band back to the Sand Creek reservation.
But Colonel John Chivington, leader of the Third Colorado Volunteers, had no intention of honoring such a promise. His troops had been unsuccessful in finding a Cheyenne band to fight, so when he learned that Black Kettle had returned to Sand Creek, he attacked the unsuspecting encampment at dawn on November 29, 1864. Some two hundred Cheyenne died in the ensuing massacre, many of them women and children, and after the slaughter, Chivington's men sexually mutilated and scalped many of the dead, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.
Black Kettle miraculously escaped harm at the Sand Creek Massacre, even when he returned to rescue his seriously injured wife. And perhaps more miraculously, he continued to counsel peace when the Cheyenne attempted to strike back with isolated raids on wagon trains and nearby ranches. By October 1865, he and other Indian leaders had arranged an uneasy truce on the plains, signing a new treaty that exchanged the Sand Creek reservation for reservations in southwestern Kansas but deprived the Cheyenne of access to most of their coveted Kansas hunting grounds.
Only a part of the Southern Cheyenne nation followed Black Kettle and the others to these new reservations. Some instead headed north to join the Northern Cheyenne in Lakota territory. Many simply ignored the treaty and continued to range over their ancestral lands. This latter group, consisting mainly of young warriors allied with a Cheyenne war chief named Roman Nose, angered the government by their refusal to obey a treaty they had not signed, and General William Tecumseh Sherman launched a campaign to force them onto their assigned lands. Roman Nose and his followers struck back furiously, and the resulting standoff halted all traffic across western Kansas for a time.
At this point, government negotiators sought to move the Cheyenne once again, this time onto two smaller reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) where they would receive annual provisions of food and supplies. Black Kettle was again among the chiefs who signed this treaty, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, but after his people had settled on their new reservation, they did not receive the provisions they had been promised, and by year's end, more and more of them were driven to join Roman Nose and his band.
In August 1868, Roman Nose led a series of raids on Kansas farms that provoked another full-scale military response. Under General Philip Sheridan, three columns of troops converged to launch a winter campaign against Cheyenne encampments, with the Seventh Cavalry commanded by George Armstrong Custer selected to take the lead. Setting out in a snowstorm, Custer followed the tracks of a small raiding party to a Cheyenne village on the Washita River, where he ordered an attack at dawn.
It was Black Kettle's village, well within the boundaries of the Cheyenne reservation and with a white flag flying above the chief's own tipi. Nonetheless, on November 27, 1868, nearly four years to the day after Sand Creek, Custer's troops charged, and this time Black Kettle could not escape: "Both the chief and his wife fell at the river bank riddled with bullets," one witness reported, "the soldiers rode right over Black Kettle and his wife and their horse as they lay dead on the ground, and their bodies were all splashed with mud by the charging soldiers." Custer later reported that an Osage guide took Black Kettle's scalp.
On the Washita, the Cheyenne's hopes of sustaining themselves as an independent people died as well; by 1869, they had been driven from the plains and confined to reservations.
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