From I-40 take exit 20 (Sayre) and travel north on US-283 to
Cheyenne. Park Headquarters and The Black Kettle Museum are located
near the intersection of US-283 and SH-47. The site is 2 miles west
of Cheyenne on SH-47A. Follow the National Historic Site signs to
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site protects and
interprets the site of the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief
Black Kettle that was attacked by the 7th U.S. Cavalry under Lt.
Col. George A. Custer just before dawn on November 27, 1868. At the
time, military and many civilians hailed the controversial strike as
a significant victory aimed at reducing Indian raids on frontier
settlements. Washita remains controversial because many Indians and
whites labeled Custer's attack a massacre. They still honor Black
Kettle as a prominent leader who never ceased striving for peace
even though it cost him his life.
The cultural collision between pioneers and Indians reached its
peak on the Great Plains during the decades before and after the
Civil War. U.S. Government policy sought to separate tribes and
settlers from each other by establishing an Indian Territory
(present-day Oklahoma). Some Plains tribes accepted life on
reservations. Others, including the Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches,
did not. They continued to hunt and live on traditional lands
outside the Indian Territory. At first, this choice produced little
conflict. But following the Civil War, land-hungry settlers began
penetrating the plains in increasing numbers, encroaching upon
tribal hunting grounds. Indians could no longer retreat beyond the
reach of whites, and many chose to defend their freedom and lands
rather than submit to reservation life.
Events leading to the Battle of the Washita began with the Sand
Creek Massacre of 1864. On November 29, troops under the command of
Col. J.M. Chivington attacked and destroyed the Cheyenne camp of
Chief Black Kettle and Chief White Antelope on Sand Creek, 40 miles
from Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory. Black Kettle's band flew an
American flag and a white flag, and considered themselves at peace
and under military protection. The terrible slaughter caused a
massive public outcry. In response, a federal Peace Commission was
created to convert Plains Indians from their nomadic way of life and
settle them on reservations.
On the Southern Plains, the work of the Commission culminated in
the Medicine Lodge Treaty of October 1867. Under treaty terms the
Arapahos, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches were
assigned to reservations in the Indian Territory. There they were
supposed to receive permanent homes, farms, agricultural implements,
and annuities of food, blankets, and clothing. The treaty was doomed
to failure. Many tribal officials refused to sign. Some who did sign
had no authority to compel their people to comply with such an
agreement. War parties, mostly young men violently opposed to
reservation life, continued to raid white settlements in Kansas.
Major General Philip H. Sheridan, in command of the Department of
the Missouri, adopted a policy that �punishment must follow crime.�
In retaliation for the Kansas raids, he planned to mount a winter
campaign when Indian horses would be weak and unfit for all but the
most limited service. The Indians� only protection in winter was
the isolation afforded by brutal weather.
Black Kettle and Arapaho Chief Big Mouth went to Fort Cobb in
November 1868 to petition General William B. Hazen for peace and
protection. A respected leader of the Southern Cheyenne, Black
Kettle had signed the Little Arkansas Treaty in 1865 and the
Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867. Hazen told them that he could not
allow them to bring their people to Fort Cobb for protection because
only General Sheridan, his field commander, or Lt. Col. George
Custer, had that authority. Disappointed, the chiefs headed back to
their people at the winter encampments on the Washita River.
Even as Black Kettle and Big Mouth parlayed with Gen. Hazen, the
7th Cavalry established a forward base of operations at Camp Supply,
Indian Territory as part of Sheridan's winter campaign strategy.
Under orders from Sheridan, Custer marched south on November 23 with
about 800 troopers, traveling through a foot of new snow. After four
days travel the command reached the Washita valley shortly after
midnight on November 27, and silently took up a position near an
Indian encampment their scouts had discovered at a bend in the
Black Kettle, who had just returned from Fort Cobb a few days
before, had resisted the entreaties of some of his people, including
his wife, to move their camp downriver closer to larger encampments
of Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Apaches wintered there. He refused to
believe that Sheridan would order an attack without first offering
an opportunity for peace.
Before dawn, the troopers attacked the 51 lodges, killing a
number of men, women, and children. Custer reported about 100
killed, though Indian accounts claimed 11 warriors plus 19 women and
children lost their lives. More than 50 Cheyennes were captured,
mainly women and children. Custer's losses were light: 2 officers
and 19 enlisted men killed. Most of the soldier casualties belonged
to Major Joel Elliott's detachment, whose eastward foray was overrun
by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors coming to Black Kettle's
aid. Chief Black Kettle and his wife were killed in the attack.
Following Sheridan's plan to cripple resistance, Custer ordered
the slaughter of the Indian pony and mule herd estimated at more
than 800 animals. The lodges of Black Kettle's people, with all
their winter supply of food and clothing, were torched. Realizing
now that many more Indians were threatening from the east, Custer
feigned an attack toward their downriver camps, then quickly
retreated to Camp Supply with his hostages.
The engagement at the Washita might have ended very differently
if the larger encampments to the east had been closer to Black
Kettle's camp. As it happened, the impact of losing winter supplies,
plus the knowledge that cold weather no longer provided protection
from attack, convinced many bands to accept reservation life.