Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War (Book Review)

Reviewed by Chrys Ankeny
By Thom Hatch
John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J., 2004

Although not as well known as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Cochise or Geronimo, who all had some measure of success fighting white intruders, the peace chief extraordinaire, Black Kettle, is hardly a stranger to anyone with a passing interest in the Indian wars. The Cheyenne leader’s name comes up anytime the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre or the 1868 Battle of the Washita are mentioned, because his villages were attacked in each of those controversial events. At Sand Creek, Black Kettle survived the slaughter of Cheyenne men, women and children. At the Washita, he was attacked by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer but did not live to tell the tale.

On occasion, Black Kettle has been the center of attention in magazine articles (see "Warriors and Chiefs" in the December 2004 Wild West). However, this is the first book-length biography about him. "While other chiefs have captured the imagination of historians by their defiance and violent temperaments," writes Thom Hatch in the introduction to his 308-page book, "Black Kettle has been overlooked due to the misconception that his story does not portray the thrilling exploits that have become the hallmark of frontier sagas."

Hatch argues that Black Kettle was anything but passive. In his early years, he led Cheyenne war parties against enemy tribes and, at least once, against Mexicans. He became a prominent member of the Elkhorn Scrapers, who carried the war pipe, and distinguished himself in many battles. Earlier than most, Black Kettle recognized that the weapons and manpower of the Plains Indians were no match for the might of the U.S. Army and that the disappearance of the buffalo would necessitate a change in lifestyle for the Cheyenne Nation. He accepted the challenge of trying to bring about an honorable peace with the white man. To stand up to his fellow tribesmen who disdained peace took bravery, as did riding into the middle of a battle to prevent the slaughter of white soldiers. Black Kettle, with a determination few could match, continuously put his life on the line for peace. In the end, his stance made him a victim, a tragic symbol of the Indian wars, but in arguing that war was not the only answer, he was ahead of his time…maybe even our own time.

As is often the case when it comes to 19th-century Indians, information about the early life of Black Kettle is sketchy. This biography would hardly be book length if it did not also include general information about Cheyenne society, politics, customs and culture. That takes nothing away from this much-needed volume.

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