‘This is the West, sir. When legend becomes a fact, print the legend.’ Those lines come from the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Wayne was the man who shot hard case Liberty Valance, but the legend pointed to Jimmy Stewart, and Stewart wanted the truth to be known. The media knew the importance of myth and legend, however, and when the inglorious truth was about to be exposed, the media opted for a continuation of the legend.
A similar situation exists with the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. He has been portrayed as an honest man, a strong-willed man, an effective leader, a friend to the whites, a visionary and a man of peace. It is the stuff of legend and myth, but it is not all truth. When the hard evidence does not match the legend, it is time to drop the John Ford approach. Black Kettle was not effective in helping his people. His poor decision-making and inability to control his warriors were disastrous for the tribe. General Philip H. Sheridan said Black Kettle was ‘a worn out and worthless old cipher.’ Today, that assessment seems insensitive; in the 19th century, it was an accurate appraisal.
Black Kettle was born sometime between 1801 and 1807, but where, and who his parents were, is speculative. Little is known about his warrior years except that he participated in a few Cheyenne disasters or Pyrrhic victories, losing many of his men and even his wife on one occasion. Yet in 1854, Black Kettle was chosen to be a member of the Council of Forty-Four, a prestigious group of chiefs who were entrusted to lead their people with wisdom.
Black Kettle enters the white historical record in 1858. In July of that year, several Southern Cheyenne chiefs, including Black Kettle, told Agent Robert C. Miller that they wished to make a new treaty. Was great prescience involved in a desire for peace with the white man, or were there other motives? The Cheyennes had taken heavy losses in a disastrous battle with the white soldiers on Solomon’s Fork in 1857, and now they were in desperate need of their annuities. They told Miller they could not defeat the whites and thus would have to talk peace. Miller distributed the annuity goods and happily forwarded the news of desire for a treaty.
In September 1860, when Congress finally appropriated the money, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Alfred B. Greenwood arrived at Fort Wise (in what would become Colorado), but only Black Kettle and a few other chiefs showed up. Most Cheyennes opposed a new treaty. Regardless, Black Kettle accepted Greenwood’s gifts and signed the papers. With the preliminaries done, Greenwood departed. The compromising leaders returned to their villages only to find that the rest of the chiefs wanted no part of a treaty that would surrender their lands.
The chiefs’ anger did not deter Black Kettle. The government representatives returned in February 1861. A new agent, Albert G. Boone, presented the written articles, and Black Kettle led the list of the six Cheyenne council chiefs to make their marks, participating in the proceedings against the wishes of their people. The traditional interpretation argues that Black Kettle’s actions represent foresight, a sincere desire for peace, and having the best interests of his people in mind. In reality, for some trinkets and promises he had just sold his tribe down the river.
The Northern and Southern Cheyennes usually camped together during the winter, but not after Black Kettle signed the Fort Wise Treaty. The northerners were angry that the southerners sold their land and took all the annuities. Black Kettle had made a poor decision, and angry tribesmen would not let him forget it. In August 1863, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans tried to make another peace treaty with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, but the leading chiefs did not show up. Evans sent Elbridge Gerry to bring them to the council or find out what was wrong. Gerry found Black Kettle and White Antelope’s people camped with a Dog Soldier village. A few chiefs talked with Gerry, but not Black Kettle. Several reasons are given: He was ill, he was angry with the white men or the other chiefs would not allow him to attend. The latter reason is the most likely. Black Kettle, if he was the friend of the whites and a man of peace as legend claims, would never have missed an opportunity to bargain for his people, but the other chiefs did not want him around to compromise their hard-line stand. The chiefs said they had been swindled at the Fort Wise Treaty. White Antelope said he and Black Kettle never signed the document, but both chiefs had indeed signed it. Bull Bear said he would never stoop low enough to follow the white man’s road. Gerry told Evans that the Cheyennes no longer cared about peace. Evans would remember, and he would take a similar hard-line stand with the Cheyennes the next time they met at the Camp Weld Council in September 1864. Black Kettle had started a downward spiral that would lead to disaster.
Warriors of Black Kettle’s and associated bands made devastating raids along the Little Blue and Platte rivers in early August 1864. Besides killing more than 50 people, they also took three women and four children captive, abusing them all and raping the women.
On August 29, with the raiding season ending and knowing that Governor Evans had recently sent the Indians an ‘amnesty,’ Black Kettle had a letter written to the white authorities saying that he would like to trade his’seven prisoners’ for peace, indicating that the women and children were held hostage in his village. Black Kettle freely allowed hostage-taking renegades into his camp, or he could not prevent it; in either case it shows poor judgment or inability to control the situation. Taking captives and then offering them as bargaining chips was another major mistake.
The ‘peace’ letter went to Major Edward W. Wynkoop at Fort Lyon, who could follow protocol no better than Black Kettle and tried to make a separate peace with an enemy in direct violation of his orders. Wynkoop and 125 soldiers tried to get the captives back. At a council on the Smoky Hill River in Kansas, several Indians bullied Wynkoop and Black Kettle and would not give up all their prisoners. Black Kettle could not stand up to them, and he had to change his story; the seven captives suddenly became four. It was a lie. He crumbled under pressure and proved to be no more truthful or honest a man than some of his white counterparts.
The tragic denouement of Black Kettle’s and Wynkoop’s indiscretions came at the bloody battle at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864, where the Colorado volunteers took 76 casualties, and the Indians lost upward of 120 killed and numerous wounded. Black Kettle and Wynkoop had reaped the whirlwind. As a result, Wynkoop was chastised and temporarily removed from command. Black Kettle likewise incurred the wrath of his tribe, while the Dog Soldiers ridiculed him for trying to make peace. His status as council chief was threatened. When the council debated a war of vengeance for Sand Creek, Black Kettle urged for peace, but the majority of council chiefs voted for war. When the great gathering of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota villages moved north to fight, Black Kettle and 80 families moved south. The great majority of his people had repudiated him.
Nine months later, Black Kettle was at it again. On the Little Arkansas River in October 1865, he and three other chiefs signed a treaty that gave away their homeland between the Arkansas and Platte rivers. Once more, the Dog Soldiers were enraged. At Fort Zarah in October 1866, Black Kettle, Little Robe and a few other chiefs told the authorities that they had changed their minds; they could not approve any treaty that forced the tribe to leave the Smoky Hill country. Apparently the vocal warrior societies had finally convinced the peace chiefs that they meant business. Regardless of the setback, Wynkoop and other officials, knowing that Black Kettle still could be the primary lever to catch the ear of the militant Indians, wined and dined him and promised $14,000 worth of gifts if he would attend another council in November. The hapless old man was being used by both sides, and he caved in again. Black Kettle and a few southern chiefs once more made their marks on the amended treaty. They signed away the cherished land of the Dog Soldiers and for it they received their pieces of silver.
Because of Black Kettle’s irresponsible actions, the inevitable fighting and killing occurred between whites, who thought they had access to the territory, and Indians, who insisted they had not given the land away. Fighting increased in 1867, and once again there was need for a new treaty. Despite the ridicule heaped on Black Kettle and the lack of influence he had outside his own band, he attended the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in October 1867. This time, however, there were many tribes and thousands of Indians present. Black Kettle by now had become a pariah, ostracized and able to do little more than accuse other tribes of causing all the difficulties with the whites. His following had shrunk to 25 lodges. Soldier societies threatened him. Tall Bull ordered him to explain exactly why the Cheyennes should agree to the new treaty, and if he failed to do that, they would kill all his horses. At the council, Black Kettle finally learned to keep quiet and make no agreements on his own.
After all the efforts of both sides, the treaty lasted only until the spring of 1868. Both chiefs and young warriors ignored the agreement that stated they would stop killing and taking hostages. A Cheyenne foray that began as an attack against the Kaws near Council Grove, Kan., degenerated into attacks against settlers, culminating in robbery, rape, destroyed property and stolen stock. When the government withheld annuities because of the broken treaty, about 200 Cheyennes, with Lakota allies, went on a destructive raid in north-central Kansas. When it was over, 40 settlers had been killed or wounded, at least four women were raped, and one woman and two children were captured.
Some of the raiders came from Black Kettle’s camp. As was the case on numerous previous occasions, his village was open to terrorists. When the raiders returned, Black Kettle made a run south of the Arkansas River. General Sheridan promised Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford that he would remove the hostile Indians from his state. The raiding continued for three more months and resulted in a winter campaign that led to the Battle of the Washita. Even George Bent, a mixed-blood white-Cheyenne, admitted that the raids were a bad mistake, and believed the Indians were at fault.
In October 1868, Cheyennes attacked a wagon train along the Arkansas River in eastern Colorado Territory and captured Clara Blinn and her little boy Willie. The raiders took their captives to Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita River. The Indians believed they had good bargaining chips with which to deal for peace, much as they had attempted to do with their captives in the late summer of 1864. Blinn wrote a letter pleading for someone to rescue them, and it reached Colonel William B. Hazen, in charge at Fort Cobb. On November 20, Black Kettle, Big Mouth and a number of chiefs representing the Cheyennes and Arapahos, came to see Hazen to discuss peace and talk about ransoming the white captives. Since these tribes were currently at war with the United States, Hazen, unlike Major Wynkoop in 1864, knew he could not make a separate peace with them. Although Black Kettle was ostensibly at Fort Cobb to discuss peace, he did say, as Hazen recorded it, ‘that many of his men were then on the war path, and that their people did not want peace with the people above the Arkansas.’ Hazen directed them to go back to their villages and deal directly with General Sheridan.
It was too late. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and the 7th Cavalry were already in Indian Territory hunting the Cheyennes. Once again, marauding warriors headed for sanctuary in Black Kettle’s village. Custer followed their tracks right into it. He did not know about the white captives in the village, nor did he know whose village it was that his cavalry struck at the icy cold dawn of November 27, 1868. As the troopers splashed across the Washita, chaos erupted and gunfire reverberated in the frigid air. Some Indians fought, but most of them scattered. Custer captured the camp, burned the tepees and reported killing 103 Indians and capturing 53, with a loss of 21 soldiers killed and 16 wounded. The Cheyennes killed Clara and Willie Blinn. Clara was shot above the left eyebrow, and scalped. Black Kettle and his wife mounted a pony and fled. Bullets from the cavalrymen struck them as they crossed the river. Black Kettle was hit in the stomach, but he kept riding. Another bullet hit him in the back, and he fell into the icy water, the first Indian killed that day. His wife was killed moments later. The soldiers rode over them as they charged into the village.
Thus ended the life of Black Kettle. His traditional portrayal as an honest, strong-willed man, an effective leader and a visionary do not all stand up to the evidence. That he tried to be a man of peace and a friend to the whites, at least in the last decade of his life, appears to be correct. Much of this depiction, however, comes from Major Wynkoop, who had endeavored to negotiate with an enemy in time of war, and whose very career henceforth depended on his portrayal of Black Kettle and his band as peaceful. Black Kettle’s integrity and judgment are questionable, for he lied to the whites, disregarded his people’s wishes and was not averse to accepting gifts for his cooperation. He could not control his warriors, which was a problem almost every chief had. He opened his village to warriors who had killed and captured whites. He acceded to his warriors’ depredations or he was helpless to stop them; in either case it reflects badly on him. Black Kettle was used by other, more strong-willed Indians, forced to either talk peace when they wanted it, or to keep quiet when they didn’t. Black Kettle may have saved a few lives in the short run by trying to keep some of his men off the warpath, but selling out his territory and his people in treaties that they did not want only led to a greater number of deaths on both sides. In this respect his ineffectiveness as a leader had the most negative and far-reaching impact.
General William T. Sherman, who obviously understood his times better than we of the 21st century, declared that Americans ‘cannot be humbugged into the belief that Black Kettle’s camp was friendly with its captive women and children, its herds of stolen horses and its stolen mail, arms, powder, etc., trophies of war.’ Sherman, however, did not have the obscuring fog of more than a century of myth to cut through. Today, Americans’ perceptions of the past are the result of continuous bombardment by films and books that perpetuate myths but do not provide the historical accuracy that would enable us to understand our past. It is time to drop the legend and print the fact, even if the reputations of such legendary figures as Black Kettle must suffer.
This article was written by Gregory Michno and originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Wild West magazine.
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