Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace But Found War


Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo. Their names ring down through history as symbols of noble defiance against overwhelming odds. These great warrior chiefs challenged the might of the U.S. Army in desperate and doomed attempts to end white encroachment on their land and preserve their traditional ways of life. We honor their memories not for their success, but for their courage. There was another great chief, no less courageous, who believed that the only way to save his ...

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Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo. Their names ring down through history as symbols of noble defiance against overwhelming odds. These great warrior chiefs challenged the might of the U.S. Army in desperate and doomed attempts to end white encroachment on their land and preserve their traditional ways of life. We honor their memories not for their success, but for their courage. There was another great chief, no less courageous, who believed that the only way to save his people was by waging peace instead of war. His name was Black Kettle.

This is the first biography of one of the most intriguing figures in the history of the American West. It traces the life of Black Kettle from the days of his youth, when he proved his courage and leadership skills in battles against enemy tribes, through his elevation to chief of the Cheyennes–and his realization that, for the good of his people, he must become a statesman rather than a warrior. It documents his ceaseless efforts to achieve just treaties with the United States, even in the face of death threats from members of his own tribe, and describes his ultimate betrayal by the very authorities with whom he struggled to make peace. Black Kettle survived one betrayal, the notorious Sand Creek Massacre, but the controversial battle at Washita Creek four years later cost him his life.

This fascinating journey through the life of Black Kettle and the early days of the Cheyennes explores the social, political, cultural, and historical factors that shaped every interaction between the Cheyennes and white settlers. Author Thom Hatch analyzes important treaties, examines race relations in the nineteenth-century American West, and recreates the battles and the massacres that marked the Cheyennes’ rise and fall. He also takes a fascinating look at tribal histories and customs and presents a memorable cast of characters, both famous and lesser-known, who played a role in shaping the frontier at this crucial time in history.

Complete with sixteen stunning period photos and more than a dozen helpful maps of Cheyenne territory, Black Kettle tells a compelling and tragic story that is essential to understanding the history of the Plains Indians and the truth about how the West was lost by Native American tribes.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471445920
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 8/25/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 424,763
  • Product dimensions: 0.81 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

THOM HATCH, a former film and video writer, director, and producer, is the author of five previous books, including The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War. He has written extensively on the Plains Indians and lives in Colorado with his wife and daughter.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations.

List of Maps.


1. Early Life.

2. Warrior.

3. The Might of the U.S. Army.

4. Gold in Colorado Territory.

5. In the Way of Progress.

6. The Plains Erupt in Flames.

7. Seeds of Betrayal.

8. The Sand Creek Massacre.

9. Reaction to the Massacre.

10. Council on the Little Arkansas.

11. Treaty at Medicine Lodge.

12. Blood along the Washita.

13. Legacy.




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First Chapter

Black Kettle

The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace But Found War
By Thom Hatch

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-44592-4

Chapter One

Early Life

The north american great plains endure as a breathtaking, postcard-perfect scene of boundless prairie covered with a blanket of undulating grasses that extends without interruption to the horizon.

Meandering waterways hidden within verdant recesses and guarded by majestic cottonwoods create life-giving oases. The sky-by day the brilliance of a blue jay's tail feathers and an inky-black dome of pulsating star masses at night-can be overwhelming in its dominance. Spectacular showers of gold and red and pink explode each evening when the sun yields to the earth's rotation. These thousands of square miles, rich with esthetically appealing natural assets, provide a home to an abundance of wildlife.

The character of this land, however, can transform in the blink of an eye from one of benevolent beauty to that of a cruel adversary. Within its disposition exists the propensity to terrify and destroy.

Sudden, blinding dust storms or devastating tornadoes can carve paths of destruction across the vulnerable earth. Torrential cloudbursts can swamp the land in a matter of minutes and unleash hailstones the size of a man's fist. Storms that dump an avalanche of snow are often accompanied by bitter, barbed-wire blasts of frigid air that lower the chill factor below human endurance. Dryness and heat can combine toroast the earth to the brink of mummification and wilt the most hardy crop. And the wind-the wind is in motion to some degree most of time, inciting near madness in a person as it interminably roars across the barren flatland.

People who choose to take up residence in this forbidding land are obliged to adapt to its temperament and harsh climate. This is not the sort of place on which mankind can impose its will and hope to survive.

Yet there was an ancient race of man known as Native Americans that migrated to this land of vivid contrast and extreme weather and became its first inhabitants. Although existence at times presented extreme hardships and challenges, these people roamed this majestic realm in relative freedom and from its unspoiled wellspring invented ways to develop a unique lifestyle of self-sufficiency. One Native American tribe that learned to thrive on the Great Plains was called the Cheyennes.

In the winter months, the various bands of Cheyennes sought refuge for their camps in tree-sheltered valleys and rarely ventured any distance from those places. They survived on food that had been preserved and stored during the hunting and harvesting seasons and trusted that it would sustain them until the spring thaw.

These people never stayed for any length of time at one particular campsite during the summer season. Their prime motivation for frequently moving was the need to follow the buffalo and other game herds. Also, they moved from place to place as each offered up its harvest of edible roots and vegetables or wild fruits and berries. Another reason for this nomadic lifestyle was that the resources in one area could not support a village and a sizable pony herd for very long.

Commonly, each Cheyenne band traveled over a traditional route or trail, arriving at approximately the same hunting, harvesting, and gathering times and places from year to year. This seasonal route was occasionally altered, due to the presence of stronger enemies or if game herds shifted from their usual habitat, but otherwise the bands' movements were predictable.

No matter the location of the Cheyenne camp, the bleached-white, buffalo-hide lodges, or tepees, could be found arranged in a circle, broken only by an opening that faced the rising sun, with water and timber close by. Daily camp life was also structured, and each person abided by long-standing rituals of proper etiquette.

Accordingly, the day that Black Kettle was born would have been like any other in the Cheyenne camp.

At first light the women began their daily chores by visiting the nearby stream and filling containers with fresh water-they believed that yesterday's water was dead, and the Cheyennes would drink only living water. The water-bearers wore dresses, or smocks, that fell to midway between the knee and the ankle, with capelike sleeves that hung loosely around the elbows. These everyday work clothes, designed with freedom of movement in mind, had been handmade from the skins of deer, elk, or antelope and were quite plain. On ceremonial occasions, however, the women adorned themselves in skin garments decorated with colorful beads, bells, porcupine quills, and perhaps teeth from an elk.

When the first golden rays of the sun spread across the land, the men and the boys, with toddlers in tow, straggled to the stream and, regardless of the weather, washed away all sickness and were made hardy and healthy with a morning bath. Upon completion of this ritual, the male members of the tribe returned to their lodges and without fail pulled on their breechcloths-those scanty pieces of animal skin that covered their loins and hips. Custom dictated that a man would lose his manhood if he did not wear his precious breechcloth. Boys, as soon as they could walk, wrapped around their tiny waists the string to which the breechcloth would someday be attached.

The camp was bustling with activity by the time the sun peeked above the horizon. Women, assisted by daughters and other female members of the extended family, attended to the morning meal, their cooking pots hanging over smoking fires, the pleasant aromas teasing the men, who chatted nearby while anxiously waiting to be fed. Boys rode out to drive the pony herd toward fresh grazing grass and selected certain mounts-usually the war horses-to be tied in front of lodges, in the event that they might be needed at a moment's notice.

While families settled in to eat breakfast, the Crier strolled through the camp, beginning at the opening of the circle, and announced the news of the day. In a loud voice, repeating his words as he moved along, he relayed orders from the chiefs, perhaps about how long the camp would remain in that place, to notify everyone that a certain soldier band planned a dance for that evening, or to mention items that had been lost or found. Most anticipated were the latest tidings of a personal nature-possibly about a child having been born during the night or the previous day. In this manner, the camp had been informed about the birth of Black Kettle.

With breakfast completed, a number of the men readied their horses and weapons and rode out to hunt. Cheyenne men were exclusively big game hunters, favoring buffalo, antelope, deer, elk, and wild sheep, in that order. Wolves and foxes were hunted only for their fur, and other smaller animals were usually ignored by the men. Small game, however, was hunted by the boys as a learning exercise.

Men who chose to remain in camp that day gathered around lodges or under shade trees to smoke and gossip, while repairing a bow, fashioning a pipe, making arrows, or working on some other necessary implement. The older men entertained the workers by recounting tales of tribal history, contacts with neighboring tribes or the white man, and other notable events, both real and mysterious, which were discussed and debated for hours.

Several curious boys could be found sitting at a respectful distance, listening to the grown-ups talk. Most of the boys, however, assembled in small groups to engage in various spirited activities. Swimming was a favorite, as were running foot races, wrestling, practicing with bow and arrows, riding ponies, throwing sticks at targets, and other games that symbolized their status as warriors-in-training.

The unmarried young men did not normally participate in the morning discussions with their elders or play with the boys, choosing instead to devote considerable time to improving their personal appearance. Each morning they painstakingly plucked every visible strand of hair from their faces and eyebrows and patiently combed and braided their long hair. They finally dressed in their finest clothing, perhaps wearing their "war shirts," which fell to the knees and may have been ornamented with beads or quills or, more commonly among the Cheyennes, with colorful designs and dark-green fringes. Afterward, they paraded around the camp for everyone-particularly the young ladies of courting age-to see and admire.

Cheyennes were not hasty about getting married, and the formal courtship process could extend for as long as four or five years. When a female child reached puberty, she was initiated into womanhood by a ceremony, usually performed by her grandmother, and no longer talked to her older brothers or associated with the boys in her age group. At that time she began receiving instructions from her mother regarding proper conduct with respect to relationships. Premarital sex was strictly forbidden among the Cheyennes, and a young lady who brazenly flirted with a potential suitor was considered immoral. George Grinnell states:

The women of the Cheyennes are famous among all western tribes for their chastity. In old times it was most unusual for a girl to be seduced, and she who had yielded was disgraced forever. The matter at once became known, and she was taunted with it wherever she went. It was never forgotten. No young man would marry her.

A young man courted the girl of his choice with such romantic acts as playing his flute for her, which was thought to be a means of casting a love spell over a reluctant maiden; whistling at her from a distance; and eventually lingering near her lodge for a chance to speak with her when she returned from her chores.

When a match had been made, an elderly relative of the young man would discuss the marriage arrangement with the girl's father, which might include gifts of horses and other valuable items. If the young woman's family approved of the union, family members would send presents to the young man and, if well-to-do, would perhaps also give the daughter horses to serve as her dowry. The young lovers would be married several days later, in what was often an elaborate ceremony with gifts and food. The groom occasionally carried the bride on a blanket to his father's lodge, which was where the couple would reside until the two constructed their own home.

The primary responsibility of a Cheyenne man was to provide food and other material needs for his family. The men were also obliged to protect their wives and children, as well as the collective interests of the tribe, from any outside threat. The noted anthropology professor Dr. E. Adamson Hoebel here describes the typical Cheyenne man:

Reserved and dignified, the mature adult Cheyenne male moves with a quiet sense of self-assurance. He speaks fluently, but never carelessly. He is careful of the sensibilities of others and is kindly and generous. He is slow to anger and strives to suppress his feelings, if aggravated. Towards his enemies he feels no merciful compunctions, and the more aggressive he is, the better. He is neither flighty nor dour. Usually quiet, he has a lightly displayed sense of humor. His thinking is rationalistic to a high degree and yet colored with mysticism. His ego is strong and not easily threatened. He is serene and composed, secure in his social position, capable of warm social relations.

Cheyenne women exhibited many of the same characteristics as the men but were more artistically creative. The woman was by all means accomplished in domestic relations and was expected to care for the children and perform every household duty. Contrary to the customs of some Plains tribes, the relationship between the Cheyenne husband and the wife was an equal partnership-the women were not considered chattels-and most marriages endured for life. Women were the rulers of the camp and, although not permitted to participate in tribal councils, made their wishes known through their husbands, who obediently acted on any request, whether with respect to the tribe or to the family.

While the men pursued their morning endeavors, the women, assisted by the older girls, resumed their daily housekeeping routine. With babies on cradle-boards and toddlers close by, they might prepare or sew skins for clothing or a new lodge, pound berries for use in pemmican, or decorate robes-usually in the company of friends. Women who had decorated at least thirty robes without assistance were highly respected and were initiated into a quilling society, which permitted them to learn certain ceremonies and work on ceremonial robes, lodges, and other special items.

At some point during the morning, small parties of women and girls ventured off into the hills to gather firewood, berries, or roots. Their basic tool was the dibble, or digging stick, which was given to them by the Great Medicine Spirit. This was a time of laughter and merriment for the women, who viewed the work not as a tiresome chore but as an outing, an opportunity to discuss camp news, gossip, and engage in practical jokes.

Occasionally, men or boys charged out of camp on horseback to "attack" the women and the girls who were returning with their bundles of roots or berries. The men attempted to "count coup," touch their "enemy," while their intended victims pelted them. Any man struck by a thrown missile was eliminated from the game, and only a man who had distinguished himself in warfare was permitted to actually capture any roots or berries for himself.

By midday, as the sun beat down on the camp, most people sought refuge inside their lodges to escape the heat. Later in the afternoon, men who had gone out hunting rode back into camp. They dismounted in front of their lodges, handed over their kill to the women for washing and preparing, and then relaxed, perhaps gathering here and there to boast about their hunting skills, pass along information, or speculate about the location and the availability of game.

The camp came alive once more when the sun began its descent. Daily tasks were set aside in favor of leisurely and festive amusements. Preparation for the evening meal commenced, fires were ablaze, and children could be seen scurrying around the circle of lodges with invitations to guests for dinner. The boys drove the horses in to a safe, fresh grazing area, while turning out other mounts for the night.

Eventually, the sound of music and drumming could be heard, and people of all ages wandered around the camp to share a feast, attend a social dance, play games, court that special young woman, gamble, or simply enjoy the companionship of their fellow tribe members. Storytelling was a big part of the evening, as certain men known for their talent to entertain with tales drew audiences to their lodges. This bustle of activity was punctuated by frequent shouts and laughter, combined with the incidental whinny of a horse, the bark of a dog, or the howl of a distant coyote.


Excerpted from Black Kettle by Thom Hatch Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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