Friday, June 29, 2012

Lead-up to Battle of Washita

These are the Black Kettle Grasslands, which the Cheyenne
would have called home.

Leaving Black Kettle Lake, my next stop would be the National Park at the Washita (WA-sha-taah) Battlefield. Just north of there and the town of Cheyenne, OK, is where the 2,000 mile California Trail crossed Oklahoma to carry settlers and those seeking their fortunes in the Gold Rush. From here the trail swung northwest to the Antelope Hills, which I pictured on the 20 June post on Lake Lloyd Vincent. It then continued northwest to join the trail leading from Independence, Missouri. The trail was heavily used from 1845 until 1869, when the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad made travel west faster and safer. The trail then just as quickly fell from wide use. The Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail followed the California Trail and split off further west.

Arriving on the Cheyenne lands, the settlers would dig into a ridge and
erect such a structure of local materials until lumber could be shipped
from the East.  Grass thatch and 3" of sod would go on the roof beams,
and the floor and back wall would remain dirt.  Wood is scarce on the Plains,
so buffalo manure was a popular fuel for heating and cooking.

I’ve learned a lot about the importance of this area, the Indian Territories, in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, I find little for an honest, objective observer of history to take pride in. The more I learn, the greater the apparent dichotomy between reality and what our kids are taught in school. In short, while the history is interesting, I left Washita with a strong sense of injustice, guilt, and embarrassment, if not shame.

Custer's forces hid behind the ridge to the left awaiting dawn.  Elliott's forces
were behind the ridge to the right, and Thompson's forces were further to the left
out of the picture.  Custer's men were to charge through the village, and Elliott's
and Thompson's men were flanking forces to minimize escapes.  The village was
set in the meadow between the two lines of trees, on the Washita River.

War crimes were not defined until the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and crimes against humanity were not defined until 1945. I learned that the massacre under Col. George Custer would be defined as both war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was indeed the second such massacre, the first under Col. Chivington at Sand Creek and then the Custer attack on the village at Washita. My response is not a na├»ve, innocent reaction out of the full context of history. Even at the time, the public reaction was that the events “made one’s blood chill and freeze with horror.” Senator James R. Doolittle, of Wisconsin, directed a Congressional inquiry, and Territorial Governor John Evans, of Colorado, was removed from office for his inaccurate, biased, and inflammatory reports to Washington for political and financial gain, which helped set the stage for these atrocities toward the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes.

This is the approximate position of the village.  Due to the minimal impact
of Indian life on the land, archeologists have never been able to set the
exact layout of the village.

To lay the foundation of what led to Washita, Gov. Evans appointed the Reverent John Chivington as colonel of the Colorado Volunteers and sent him with 800 cavalry to “quiet” the Indians and remove them from lands Evans and other business interests wanted for the laying of the railroad to Denver. Chivington knew of a village of unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho along Sand Creek. The men, under Chief Black Kettle, the leading chief seeking peace talks, were off on a hunt, and the village was populated mostly by women, children, and the elderly. On November 28, 1864, Chivington ordered his men to attack the village, killing 53 unarmed men and 110 women and children, and wounding many others. Under cover of darkness that night, while the volunteers were still committing desecrations and mutilations of the dead and wounded, Chief Black Kettle slipped into camp to find his wife to either rescue her or claim her body. She managed to survive in spite of sustaining nine wounds.

This is the mound from which Custer observed the battle.  The village
would be on the light green area among the trees to the right of the mound.

Governor Evans decorated Chivington for his “valor in subduing the savages.” In an effort to cover-up the incident, to avoid all-out war on the Plains, Pres. Andrew Jackson, on July 18, 1865, asked Evans to remove himself from office. Because of his bravado and ability to continually agitate and provoke the public to “kill Cheyennes wherever and whenever found,” Evans amazingly remained popular in the territory. In spite of his complicity in the atrocities, a mountain was named for him, and a liberty ship was christened the SS John Evans during World War II. It’s amazing how much history can be colored, or spun, as we would now say. 

This is what the Indians feared more than anything else: more than Washington,
more than the 7th Cavalry, more than disease or the other tribes.  This was the
railroad bed from that period.  This is what told the Indians that the white
man would never stop coming in ever greater numbers.
More than a century old, discarded ties lie alongside the
old railroad bed.

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