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On November 27, 1868, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a Southern Cheyenne village along the Washita River in present-day western Oklahoma. The subsequent U.S. victory signaled the end of the Cheyennes’ traditional way of life and resulted in the death of Black Kettle, their most prominent peace chief.
In this remarkably balanced history, Jerome A. Greene describes the causes, conduct, and consequences of the event even as he addresses the multiple controversies surrounding the conflict. As Greene explains, the engagement brought both praise and condemnation for Custer and carried long-range implications for his stunning defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn eight years later.
HUMAN BEINGS AND SAND CREEK
December 1, 1864, dawned uneasily along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. An anxious, freezing wind whipped across the stark, treeless plain, nudged the buffalo grass as it gusted over low, snow-specked hills and through silent arroyos. It was a wind whose lifelessness mirrored the horrific scene its currents now enveloped in their course. Precisely two days earlier, a village of Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho Indians situated along Sand Creek had been suddenly attacked by mounted soldiers armed with guns, swords, and artillery. The fighting had raged for hours as the tribesmen sought desperately to save themselves. Many managed to get away; those who did not escape had been killed, an inordinate number of them noncombatants—women and children and elderly men—in an indiscriminate slaughter of profound magnitude. Their object secured, the troops marched away, leaving dozens of camp dogs to scavenge the site.
On this day the wind played over a landscape marked by death and destruction of hideous proportion. In a broad southeast-to-northwest swath incorporating Sand Creek and its adjacent lands lay ashes of the village, the hide tipis torn down and burned by the troops along with much of the property they contained. Scattered among the ruins and along their periphery lay some of the bodies—those who had attempted to curb the military assault by approaching the advancing column. They had been the first ones killed. More of the dead lay in the stream's sandy, mostly waterless, bottom immediately west of the village. But a greater number lay bunched in groups beneath the creek's shallow banks still farther upstream, where the panicked people sought shelter from the guns and swords. There they had hurriedly congregated, frantically scraping out marginally protective pits in the sand to shield them from raining bullets and exploding shells. Amid mounting hopelessness, mothers and fathers fought with guns and with bows and arrows to save their children from the pounding torrent. But there was no way out, and as casualties grew, their resistance gradually waned. Those who managed to escape and flee upstream were surrounded and cut down by the troops in similar fashion, and their bodies lay scattered about for several miles along Sand Creek northwest of the pit area.
The acts of the soldiers following their attack on the Cheyennes compounded the gruesome scene. In several instances tiny children, who had somehow thus far survived, were shot down in cold blood. Then in a seemingly conscienceless, uncontrolled orgy of brutality, many of the troops defiled the bodies of their victims, a process that continued well into the following day. Souvenir hunting certainly inspired some of their actions, yet others presented the worst perpetrations of mutilation imaginable. Most of the dead, including women and children, were scalped. Fingers were cut off hands to get rings, ears taken as trophies, and noses cut off. The genitals of men and women had been removed, those of the former for use by soldiers in making tobacco pouches, those of the latter stretched frivolously over saddle pommels and hats. In some cases women and children were clubbed, their skulls smashed so their brains protruded. Women's bellies had been knifed open—at least one containing an unborn child. Most of the troops went about their business in an extension of the mob mentality that had accompanied the attack. Few officers interfered with the desecration; some took active part in it.
Two days after the carnage and one day after the soldiers departed, the corpses strewn over the frozen ground pretty much told the story of the obscene reality of Sand Creek. The destroyed village had belonged to Black Kettle, the widely recognized peace chief of the Southern Cheyennes. Others in the village included the Cheyenne leaders White Antelope, One Eye, Bear Robe, Yellow Wolf, War Bonnet, Big Man, Bear Man, and Spotted Crow. These nine men, all major peace advocates, lay among the anonymous dead, their remains desecrated along with the rest. Among these chiefs, only Black Kettle had survived, and in the darkness of evening following the slaughter, he managed to return and rescue his wife, wounded nine times. Together that night they stole away from Sand Creek, facing the cold, indifferent wind as well as an ominous future.
The Great Plains, home to the Cheyenne Indians during the late eighteenth century and the entire nineteenth century, lie east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Mississippi River and stretch north from the Rio Grande into Canada. Geomorphologists have long referred to this region, encompassing the present state of Nebraska, the western two-thirds of Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and the Texas Panhandle, as the central part of the Great Plains Province. This central zone, major portions of which were inhabited by the Cheyennes, is essentially a region of transition between woodlands to the east and desert to the west and is variously characterized by east-to-west rising escarpments that produce an almost interminable flatness but often include dissected terrain, subhumidity and gradually increasing aridity, decreasing forest cover, diverse erosional effects, and short grasses. Elevation ranges from extremes of five thousand to six thousand feet above sea level near the Rockies to fifteen hundred feet at the region's eastern limit. The neighboring Central Lowland Province protrudes diagonally northeast to southwest from eastern Kansas through central and southwest Oklahoma, injecting its characteristic topography of hardwood forests intermixed with rolling prairie. The physiography of the Central Region also includes a provincial subdivision called the High Plains, a broad, mostly treeless plateau less eroded (and thus generally higher) than the surrounding country, which includes eastern Colorado, the Texas Panhandle, and the western parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.
The surface of the Great Plains is mantled by eons of soil-creating fluvial deposition carried by streams from the mountains and laid upon a geologic marine-rock base as a graded "apron of debris." Several primary watercourses and their tributaries drain the central part of the Great Plains Province. These are, from north to south, the Platte River, one branch of which heads in the Colorado mountains before coursing northeast, then east, through southern Nebraska to ultimately feed into the Missouri River; the Republican River, tracing through eastern Colorado and along the southern fringe of Nebraska before dipping southeast into east-central Kansas, where it joins the Kansas, or Kaw, River, an affluent of the Missouri; the Smoky Hill River and its tributary Solomon and Saline Forks and their own collateral streams, all of which merge into the Kansas; the Arkansas River, knifing east from the Rockies through southern Colorado and Kansas (several of the latter stream's own tributaries—the Cimarron, North Canadian, and South Canadian—variously undulate southeastwardly across southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and northern Texas); and the Red River, which flows east from the Texas Llano Estacado to the Mississippi and today forms the south boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. The region is noted for warm summers and cold winters marked by low precipitation, frequent and strong winds, occasional drought, and rapidly changing temperatures.
Grass is the dominant natural feature of the Great Plains. Beyond the trees and shrubs bordering its water courses, much of the centralplains area is covered by vast carpets of short, shallow-rooted native grasses, known as grama, buffalo, and wire grass, that are nurtured by soils high in alkaline and low in moisture, reflective of the regional climate profile. Depending on specific area and/or moisture conditions, this vegetation is occasionally intermixed with other taller grasses as well as with sagebrush, yucca, small cactus, and other plants. The semiarid character of the region has dictated an adapted ability for many plant species to become dormant over periods of drought, pending renewal with the coming of revitalizing rains in the late summer or fall. Precipitation is a constant determinant of the vitality of grass cover on the plains; the variability of rainfall, shortages of which sometimes threaten endangerment of the sod cover, has historically affected the region.
The presence of grasses, along with their type, determined the species of animals that came to adapt themselves to the Great Plains environment, which in turn influenced the region's initial human habitation. The mammals shared similar attributes grounded in such survival qualities as speed, mobility, stamina, endurance, keen vision and/or smell, and the abilities to masticulate different kinds of forage and to conform their water needs with its inconsistent availability. Creatures such as mice, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, pronghorns, and deer—even grasshoppers—provided ready food sources for coyotes and wolves. But it was the American bison (bison americanus ), or buffalo, whose presence dominated the plains during historic times. Traveling in herds occasionally numbered in the millions, the beasts were large, ungainly, and slow, with weak vision and little fear of sound. Mostly, they grazed placidly but were capable of summoning great speed and mobility when alarmed. Readily adapted to the plains environment, the buffalo possessed stamina and endurance for climatic extremes of great cold or heat. They consumed grass, and their evolved physiology permitted them to survive long periods without food or water. On the Great Plains of the eighteenth century, they were ubiquitous, and their presence explains one important reason for the ultimate habitation of native peoples during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Humans occupied the Great Plains for thousands of years before the more recent flourishing of Plains Indian culture in the area. Prehistory witnessed a somewhat intermittent succession of habitation that began as early as 10,000 B.C. and continued into the fifteenth century. The earliest human denizens included big-game hunters who pursued mammoths and other large mammals for subsistence. Following periods of fluctuating temperature and precipitation (5000–2000 B.C.), during which the region was seemingly largely devoid of human presence, hunters and gatherers reentered the region and foraged for smaller game and vegetal foods while also hunting bison. By 250 B.C. to A.D. 1000, more woodland influences reached the Great Plains, transmitted from the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys and mostly located in the eastern parts of the region. These woodland complexes gave way around A.D.900–1000 to plains village peoples, who hunted, raised corn, and lived relatively sedentary existences in communities along rivers and streams in the eastern edge of the area but who often ventured west to the edge of the high plains to plant corn and seek game. These people manifested cultural traits that set them apart from earlier occupants, such as multifamily earthen dwellings in fixed villages (often protected with ditches and stockades), pottery, and varieties of artifacts fashioned from stone, shell, horn, and other materials. For reasons not altogether understood, but possibly because of drought conditions or enemies, later generations of the village Indians had withdrawn east and, when first encountered by whites in the sixteenth century, were living in fewer but larger communities generally along larger streams. Many of them by this time represented fusions and coalescings of earlier groups. These relatively large-populated agrarian societies, some of which embraced precursors of many of today's native peoples, seem to have peaked in the period between 1500 and 1750.
It was these protohistoric peoples whose cultures were first affected by the presence of horses, initially introduced by Spaniards in the course of their early explorations in the New World. Bearing attributes of strength, mobility, and stamina, together with propensities for eating grass and other vegetation, the animals would modify certain traits already present in these societies and influence a radical change in lifestyle and economy. Many historic village tribes had roots that have been definitely or speculatively traced to the prehistoric occupants of earth- and grass-lodge villages in the eastern plains. Also, white men exploring the southern plains in the sixteenth century encountered semiagricultural pedestrian bison hunters who had likely entered the plains from areas in western Canada. These people seemingly were gone by 1825, perhaps driven out by horse-mounted, buffalo-hunting tribesmen entering the area from the west and east.
Among the incipient peoples who inhabited the prairies east of the Great Plains were a group of Algonquian hunters, fishermen, and agriculturalists who lived in earthen lodges. They called themselves Tsistsistsas, meaning "The Human Beings," or "The People," but in time were known as "Cheyennes," a name probably given them by a Siouan-speaking neighboring tribe and meaning "crazy talkers," a reference to their language. This semisedentary people originally lived in the area of the western Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River but had migrated west to occupy the buffalo prairies east of the Missouri River by the middle to late seventeenth century. With their acquisition of horses in the early eighteenth century, along with pressures from neighboring tribes, their migration proceeded. They joined and incorporated with another Algonquian group, the Suhtais, bison hunters who introduced some and helped solidify other religious elements of Cheyenne society, and the combined people thereafter gradually abandoned most of their horticultural lifeways and assumed the cultural characteristics of the classic buffalo-hunting, tipi-dwelling complex that typified the Great Plains Indians by the early nineteenth century. In time the ten bands of the Cheyennes occupied lands beyond the Black Hills as far north as the Yellowstone River and beyond the Platte River to the south. During the period of changing economies and migration, the Cheyennes had developed a strong friendship and relationship with the Arapahos, also Algonquian speakers possibly from the area of northern Minnesota, who themselves had relocated during the 1700s. The Cheyenne-Arapaho alliance, which included intertribal marriage, was founded as much upon mutual enmity toward the various Sioux tribes' regional domination as upon mutual trade proclivities.
In their societal organization, the Cheyennes' basic structure was the band, and it pervaded all aspects of tribal life. Spiritually, the people revered the Four Sacred Medicine Arrows of supernatural origin at the heart of their tribal religious belief. The Sacred Arrows, or Maahotse, embodied the Cheyennes' future welfare regarding subsistence and protection. They also exalted the Sacred Buffalo Hat, Esevone, which had been introduced by the Suhtais and possessed powers respecting tribal health and well being. These articles, forever in the charge of hereditarily designated keepers, coupled with the sun dance, were together the inspiration of Cheyenne existence. Politically, the Cheyennes were guided by a council of chiefs (Council of Forty-Four), consisting of older and widely respected leaders who deliberated over day-to-day matters affecting the tribe—including such actions as moving the village and determining the start of the annual buffalo hunt—and the assorted soldier societies, whose chiefs promoted tribal discipline besides monitoring hunts, overseeing ceremonies, and providing military leadership against enemies. Each of the ten bands normally contributed four chiefs to the council, while the remaining four were designated Old Man Chiefs, leaders who had previously served with distinction on the council. As band dispersal increased during the mid-nineteenth century, the Old Man Chiefs made decisions for the band that had previously been made by the full chiefs' council on behalf of the entire tribe.
During the early years of the nineteenth century, growing trade prospects connected with the Santa Fe Trail attracted some of the Cheyennes to the area of the Arkansas River valley. One band, the Hevatanuis, moved south from the Black Hills, while the others, including the Suhtai-related Cheyennes, stayed in the north, effectively creating two tribes—the Southern Cheyennes and the Northern Cheyennes—that nonetheless maintained familial, interband, and religious associations while evolving separate and distinct identities. By then too, a third group, consisting of the Dog Soldiers—a sort of hybrid military society that had evolved and expanded to include not only Cheyennes but Lakotas as well—came to occupy a zone midway between the northern and southern tribes. Thereafter, the northern bands took up residence in the area of present north-central Wyoming in the Powder River drainage and cemented enduring relationships with the Teton Sioux and Northern Arapahos, factoring significantly in contests with other tribes and with Euro-American settlers from the middle of the nineteenth century forward. By the 1830s and 1840s, the Southern Cheyennes, including the Dog Soldiers, had become a dominant force on the southern plains, horse-riding buffalo hunters with an acquired warrior complex that challenged the territorial presence of other tribes that had migrated under similar circumstances between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers. In particular, the Cheyennes developed a bitter enmity with the Pawnees, on the eastern periphery of the plains, and conducted almost continuous warfare with the Utes to the west and the Kiowas, Comanches, and Kiowa-Apaches to the south. In 1840 the Southern Cheyennes and Southern Arapahos (who had also separated from their northern kin) reached an accord with the latter groups promoting peace among them and fostering mutually beneficial trade with white Americans and Mexican traders in horses, guns, furs, manufactured merchandise, and whiskey.
Excerpted from Washita by Jerome A. Greene. Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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