As national historic parks go, Washita is on the small side, and is also pretty remote—way out in western Oklahoma by the Texas border. The nearest town of any sizer is Cheyenne, which, fortunately for me, is big enough to have a 24-hour Walmart. So, already knowing something of the history of the place, I decided to do a day trip out here on my way from Oklahoma City to Kansas.
The 1868 fight at the Washita River in Oklahoma is now largely forgotten. It was essentially a massacre of an unprepared village of Native Americans who were not in any way hostile. But in its time, the “Battle of the Washita” was celebrated as a huge victory that marked the reputation of George Custer as a great “Indian fighter”.
In 1840, the US passed the Indian Removal Act, which essentially declared a policy of “ethnic cleansing”: all of the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi would be forcibly rounded up and deported to an area of the West labeled “Indian territory”, now the state of Oklahoma. After the Civil War ended, expansion West began in earnest, and new areas were invaded by white settlers. Many of the Plains tribes resisted by attacking wagon trains and isolated farms and settlements. In response, the US sent in troops, and simultaneously began negotiating peace treaties with various Native American nations.
The stage for conflict was set in October 1867, when the US Army met with a number of Native chiefs from the Cheyenne and Arapaho to negotiate an end to the raids. Under the proposed Medicine Lodge Treaty, the various natives, in exchange for peace, would be settled on reservations set aside for their exclusive use, and would be provided with food, blankets, and other equipment by the American Government. Many of these reservations were in the Indian Territory. One of the Cheyenne chiefs who was present was the elderly Black Kettle, who led a band of about 250 people. Black Kettle’s band had already been attacked by the US Army at the Sand Creek massacre, and, recognizing that the white men were too many and too well-armed and that the Cheyenne would never be able to successfully resist them, he now signed the Treaty and agreed to be relocated to a reservation along the Washita River in what is now western Oklahoma.
But within a year, tensions grew. Several key chiefs had refused to sign the Treaty and continued to resist white encroachment into their lands, especially in Kansas. The US Army launched a number of small campaigns into western Kansas to stop the Cheyenne raids, but the lightly-equipped natives were always able to slip away and evade the troops.
On November 20, 1868, Black Kettle, hoping to avoid trouble, went to see the American commander at nearby Fort Cobb to ask for Army protection for his band. He was told that only the Commander of the Department of Missouri, General Philip Sheridan, had the authority to do that. Black Kettle returned to his village on the Washita River on November 24. Flying a white flag from the top of his tipi to indicate his non-hostile intent, he made plans to go see General Sheridan to work something out.
He never got the chance. General Sheridan had already launched a military expedition into the area, reasoning that with the onset of winter weather the Natives would all be encamped in their villages where they would be easier to surround and strike. The first column to reach the Indian Territory was the US 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lt Col George Custer, with 700 troopers.
On November 26, Custer’s scouts found Black Kettle’s village on the banks of the Washita, and he decided to attack at dawn the next day. Had he done some reconnaissance first, he might have realized that the village was not hostile; on the other hand, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, given the American propensity to lump all “Indians” together as enemies. Black Kettle, meanwhile, thinking he was safe and expecting no trouble, did not have any lookouts in the camp. He had no idea what was coming.
At dawn on the 27th, Custer attacked while most of the village was still asleep. His plan was simple—he sent one group of soldiers towards one side of the village to draw away the armed warriors, while he and the rest of the troops rode around to attack the other side, now undefended. The fighting lasted only fifteen minutes. Custer reported killing over 100 Cheyenne warriors: Native accounts report less than 20 men killed—the rest were noncombatants. Among those killed, however, were Black Kettle and his wife. Around 50 women and children were taken as prisoners and marched back to Custer’s camp. To prevent the band from re-forming, Custer burned all the tipis and the entire food supply, and shot all 800 of the band’s horses.
During the raid, a group of around 18 cavalrymen, led by Major Joel Elliott, became separated. Custer waited for a few hours, but when Elliott’s detachment failed to reappear, he assumed that they had been ambushed by a nearby larger group of Cheyenne and Arapaho. Having already won what he regarded as a victory, Custer did not want to risk his regiment in another fight with a larger force of Natives, and withdrew without looking for Elliott. The incident only increased the distrust of Custer by his officers, who now viewed him as abandoning a fellow officer on the battlefield.
In 1876, Custer’s habit of recklessly charging without any reconnaissance would lead to his entire detachment being wiped out at the Little Big Horn.
Some photos from the Washita site:
The Visitors Center
Overlooking the battle site
The exact site of Black Kettle’s village isn’t known, but it was somewhere near here.
Custer observed the fighting from this little knoll
The Washita River. Many of the Cheyenne tried to flee across the river, but were ambushed by troops. Black Kettle and his wife died here.
A number of survivors were able to stay hidden in this patch of long grass
This is the spot where the band’s horses were all shot. The bones lay here for decades before they were ground up and sold as fertilizer.