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Mo-chi: First Female Cheyenne Warrior

By Linda Wommack and John L. Sipes Jr.
5/15/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Also known as Buffalo Calf Woman, she survived the attacks by soldiers at Sand Creek in 1864 and the Washita River in 1868 and vowed vengeance against those who murdered her family and her people.

On a bitter cold November day on the southeast- ern plains of Colorado Territory, life as the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes had once known it changed forever. Sunrise on November 29, 1864, brought sounds of small-arms fire and cannon fire, billows of hazy smoke, screams and mass confusion to an awakening Indian village at Sand Creek. Soldiers—members of the 1st and 3rd Colorado Cavalry regiments under the command of ambitious Colonel John M. Chivington—seemed to be coming at the Indians from all directions.

An organized defense was slow to develop in the village, which included the 115 lodges of the Cheyenne leaders Black Kettle and White Antelope and the eight lodges of Arapaho leader Left Hand. Most traditional accounts say that the soldiers achieved total surprise, and that it took awhile for the few men in camp to gather what weapons they could find. Some recent accounts suggest that only partial surprise was achieved, and that the first casualty was actually a 1st Colorado cavalryman whose horse had bolted ahead. In any case, the elderly, the women and the children were soon running for their lives, and many of them fell during the bloody engagement. By 3 p.m. almost all the Indian survivors had fled, and Chivington’s men destroyed the lodges. At least 130 Indians died at Sand Creek, while about 15 soldiers were killed. The exact numbers are still disputed today.

As the sun set over the carnage, a 23-year-old Cheyenne woman named Mo-chi (“Buffalo Calf Woman”) emerged from the smoke and ashes. She was uninjured but stunned, and her body trembled as she walked among the less fortunate. The sight of her dead husband, Standing Bull, filled her with grief, but she pressed on through her tears. Finally, she found the body of her father. Her grief intensified and then turned to anger.

Mo-chi seized her dead father’s highly regarded Hawken rifle, a gift from a white man, and pledged revenge. It would not happen immediately. Her village was ruined and the soldiers, now in total control, were taking no Indian prisoners. Mo-chi and the other Sand Creek survivors found hiding places nearby, but they were only temporary.

After darkness fell, Mo-chi worked up the courage to leave her hiding place and begin her journey north, along the creek bed. As she departed, she heard the soldiers’ voices and laughter and smelled the smoke of the burning village. The cold winter night chilled her to the bone, and her nearly frozen feet trod gingerly over the crusted, dried snow. She came across other survivors, so at least she was not alone.

According to the Old Ones, in Cheyenne oral history, the survivors followed the creek north from the slaughter, approximately four miles, then headed northeast, some 40 miles, to the headwaters of the Smoky Hill River, known by our people as the Bunch of Trees River. They were welcomed into the camp of a group of Dog Soldiers, where they were fed, clothed and their various wounds tended to. The Dog Soldiers sent out Wolves [scouts] to search for others who might have been lost or wounded along the river trail. Mo-chi remembered it as the worst night of her life. —John L. Sipes, Mo-chi’s great-great-grandson

The survivors rested a few days before Dog Soldiers guided them to a large Sioux (or Lakota) camp on the Solomon River and from there to Cherry Creek, a tributary that flows into the South Fork of the Republican River. The Cherry Creek camp included the Sioux bands of Spotted Tail and Pawnee Killer, as well as several Northern Arapahos.

Meanwhile, anger over the massacre at Sand Creek spread like wildfire across the Plains, and the traditional war pipe was sent out by runners to all Indian camps. The Dog Soldiers and virtually all other Indian leaders in the area smoked the pipe and declared war. The devastation at Sand Creek was the driving force in uniting many bands of Plains Indians, including the Arkansas River and Dog Soldier bands, whose union ended decades of warring between the two. The chiefs held a council and concluded that war against the white man was the only way to avenge the honor of their dead and save their homeland.

The tradition of the war pipe, when necessary, was sent out in the spring, but after the slaughter at Sand Creek, the war pipe went out in the winter, December. To my knowledge, from the Old Ones, never before had the war pipe been sent in winter until Sand Creek. — John L. Sipes

When the war councils concluded, preparations for raids along the Platte River were made, including a massive raid on Julesburg in northeastern Colorado Territory. Revenge wasn’t the only motive. The survivors of Sand Creek had been left with nothing, and they needed food and blankets and other basic necessities.

After several small raids along the Platte River, Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors joined together in force to hit Julesburg, where there was a stage station, store and warehouse. Camp Rankin was one mile to the west. The attacking force on January 7, 1865, included about 1,000 warriors, as well as many women, who were leading the extra horses that were needed to carry any stolen supplies back to their camp. Among these women was Mo-chi, who was always ready to help her people. She would prove herself worthy.

It was an incredible attack—thoughtfully planned and brilliantly executed. The warriors, led by the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, rode to the sand bluffs south of the Platte River and hid. There, the warriors readied lances, shields, bows and arrows and a few firearms. At sunrise on the 7th, a separate group of warriors, led by Big Crow, quietly approached Camp Rankin (renamed Fort Sedgwick later that year) and rushed the guards outside the fort walls. The soldiers returned fire, and then the fort gates opened. A force of about 40 mounted soldiers under Captain Nicholas J. O’Brien pursued Big Crow’s party. The decoy worked perfectly. Soon, the Indian scouts sent the signal, and hidden warriors converged upon the fort and nearby sutler quarters. With many soldiers away in pursuit of Big Crow, these warriors had no trouble claiming their plunder—containers of flour, sugar and molasses; sacks of cornmeal; beans; sides of bacon; and canned goods. A short time later, the women, led by Mo-chi, arrived and began loading the goods onto the packhorses. Mo-chi and others also herded the horses stolen from the fort.

O’Brien and his soldiers followed Big Crow’s party for a while before realizing they were riding into a trap. A spirited fight ensued as the soldiers made their way back to the fort, at one point staging an ineffective counter-fight. The warriors suffered no casualties while killing about 15 soldiers and several civilians. Many of the warriors counted coup on a mortally wounded bugler. The Cheyenne Medicine Water took the bugler’s horse as his prize. When the two successful warrior parties rejoined, Medicine Water turned his prize horse loose with Mo-chi’s horse herd. It was their first meeting. From that time on, the two forged an inseparable bond, bound by sorrow and revenge, eventually entwined by love, family and the Cheyenne spirit of endurance.

During the Moon of the Strong Wind, the attack of Julesburg took place, according to oral history. The Old Ones taught young Medicine Water to respect his elders, to be peaceful with others and to learn to make arrows for possible war. Within the village were a few women warriors, like Mo-chi. They had their own way to prepare for battle. All the while keeping the lodge, having babies, paying attention to passing on the traditions. Mo-chi sang her own songs, painted her own war shield, made her own medicine, all taught to her by the Old Ones. —John L. Sipes

The attacks along the South Platte River continued, including another successful plundering of Julesburg on February 2, 1865. It proved to be a highly unsettling year, to say the least, for the white settlers and emigrants. Several ranches were raided, many were burned., The Cheyenne-led warriors, including Medicine Water and his partner Mo-chi, wreaked further havoc by raiding the overland stages and destroying some 70 miles of telegraph wire. The route to Denver was practically shut down. With no travel, communications or goods coming into the city, the citizens were isolated and hungry. Things did not get better fast. Eventually, the United States was ready to negotiate for peace.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 required the Cheyenne people to move to smaller reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they would receive provisions from the federal government. Black Kettle, who survived the attack on his village at Sand Creek, was one of 14 Cheyenne chiefs to sign the treaty. He settled his people on their new southern reservation, on the banks of the Washita River, but never received the promised provisions. Other Cheyennes, particularly the young followers of Roman Nose, simply ignored the treaty and continued to create havoc in their old hunting grounds. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who commanded the Division of the Missouri, believed that these “hostiles” needed to be punished and forced onto the reservations. Roman Nose struck back furiously, and the result was a standoff that hindered travel and commerce across western Kansas.

The Old Ones say a member of the Dog Soldiers stepped up to the table at the Medicine Lodge Treaty, where he took his knife and stuck it through the treaty papers and into the table and left the knife there. The Old Ones said that was his signature and he walked off. —John L. Sipes

General Phil Sheridan joined in Sherman’s efforts on the Plains and directed Major George A. Forsyth to organ- ize a detachment of 50 frontiersmen to seek out and punish the Cheyennes who were raiding in Kansas. In mid-September 1868, Forsyth’s force marched up the Arikaree Fork of the Republican River (near present-day Wray, Colo.). On the 17th, after Indians drove off some of his horses, Forsyth took up a defensive position on an island to try to hold off at least 500 Cheyenne and Sioux warriors led by Chief Tall Bull and Roman Nose. Bowstring Warrior Society member Medicine Water and his brothers Iron Shirt and Man on Cloud were part of the Cheyenne contingent. Roman Nose was killed in one of the Indians’ unsuccessful frontal charges. Forsyth was wounded at least three times, while his second-in-command, Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, was mortally wounded. According to Cheyenne oral tradition, when Medicine Water took part in the charges, he had Mo-chi by his side.

No doubt Roman Nose’s death had been a blow to the Indian side, and the fight (which became known as the Battle of Beecher’s Island) continued for five more days. Also killed were White Horse, Dry Throat, White Bear and Old Lodge Skin. By September 21, many of the Indians had gone away, but enough remained to keep the starving soldiers under siege. Several scouts had managed to get off the island and seek help, and on September 25, reinforcements arrived, in the form of buffalo soldiers from Company H, 10th Cavalry. Forsyth’s small force saw half a dozen men killed and perhaps three times that number wounded. The Indians lost 30 men and had about 60 wounded.

Medicine Water and Mo-chi, who by this time were wed in the Cheyenne way (their union produced three girls), were not seriously hurt in the fight. But the battle had accomplished nothing, and the death of Roman Nose was a personal tragedy, since that formidable warrior was related by marriage to Medicine Water. In the days that followed, Medicine Water and Mo-chi rode together as warriors and continued to fight for their way of life, but things remained fairly peaceful in their lodge until two months later.

At dawn on a frigid snowy day, November 27, 1868, Lt. Col. George A. Custer and 700 men of the 7th Cavalry attacked Chief Kettle’s village on the Washita River. Black Kettle had talked peace recently with Colonel W.B. Hazen at Fort Cobb, and he had not posted any wolves (scouts) to guard the village, even though two warriors, Iron Shirt and Man on Club, had warned of troop movement in the area. At least many of the warriors, including Medicine Water and his wife, had kept their war horses tied up closeby in case of emergency.

Mo-chi was horrified as she watched her village attacked, reliving the same unbelievable circumstances of Sand Creek, just four years earlier and almost to the day. Custer’s attack on the 50-lodge village was swift, and the troops cut down many of the Indians as they fled their tepees. How many Indians were killed is uncertain (about 100, according to Custer; only half that according to the Cheyennes), but Chiefs Black Kettle and Little Rock were both killed, as were many Indian women and children. The freezing river banks were littered with dead bodies. Soldiers’ casualties would have been light had not Major Joel Elliot gone off with 18 men to chase some Indians. None of his small force returned. During the battle, the Cheyennes may have killed a couple of white captives. Custer burned the tepees and shot 800 ponies in the head; then he left the area, because there were other Indian camps downriver that posed a threat to him.

Medicine Water and Mo-chi struggled with their children (whether all three girls had been born by that time is uncertain) through the horrifying attack. At one point, a bullet struck their oldest child, Measure Woman, who was under 5 years old, in the hip. Mo-chi was able to get Measure Woman and the others out of further danger with the help of a family friend, Red Bird. The young warrior held vigil as best he could at the river, protecting and aiding Mo-chi and Measure Woman as they crossed to the other side. Red Bird, with his war horse at his side, kept firing at the soldiers, until return fire finally brought him down. Seeing Red Bird fall, Medicine Water turned his own horse toward the river and shot Red Bird’s horse, a Cheyenne custom so that a man and his favorite mount could be together in the spirit world.

Custer captured 53 women and children in the fight, but Mochi and her children got safely away. Members of Red Bird’s family returned to the site after the troops departed and wrapped his body in a sacred robe before giving him a warrior’s burial on a wooden scaffold. Chief Black Kettle had not managed to survive both the attack at Sand Creek in 1864 and the one on the Washita, but Mo-chi had. Her invisible scars, however, had deepened. She wanted vengeance more than ever. Although she had accompanied her husband into battle before, she now saw herself as truly a Cheyenne warrior.

“This day, I vow revenge for the murder of my family and my people,” Mo-chi said, according to Cheyenne oral history. “This day, I declare war on veho—white man. This day I become a warrior, and a warrior I will be forever.” She knew of no other way…but to fight back, the Old Ones said. — John L. Sipes

Mo-chi continued to ride by her husband’s side in the aftermath of the Battle of the Washita. Medicine Water had become chief of the Bowstrings and, like his wife, had vowed to avenge the slaughter of their people. Medicine Water continually engaged the buffalo-hide hunters in battle to protect his homeland and the few remaining buffalo herds scattered about the high Plains. He knew that without the buffalo, the Cheyennes faced starvation in the coming winters.

Medicine Water found plenty of support for his cause. After smoking the war pipe with Quanah Parker’s Quahade (sometimes seen as Kwahadi) band of Comanches, along with some Kiowa bands, Medicine Water and his Bowstring warriors waged war against the buffalo hide hunters. Things came to a head in the Texas Panhandle at Adobe Walls, on the South Canadian River in what would become Hutchinson County, Texas. The crumbling adobe buildings served as headquarters for the buffalo hunters. On June 27, 1874, some 300 warriors—Quanah’s Comanches, Kiowas and Southern Cheyennes—assaulted Adobe Walls. Medicine Water and Mo-chi were part of the Cheyenne contingent. Among the 28 men and one woman defending the post were a young Bat Masterson, who would go on to become one of the most famous lawmen and gamblers in the Wild West, and Billy Dixon, who used a .50-caliber Sharps to kill an Indian at long range during the siege. A wounded Quanah and the other attackers eventually withdrew, but the Battle of Adobe Walls led to more fighting in the Red River War.

On September 11, 1874, Medicine Water and his warriors—including Mo-chi and his brothers Iron Shirt and Man On Cloud— encountered a white family camping just northwest of the Smoky Hill River on Kansas land the Cheyennes considered their own by treaty. It was there that the couple took perhaps their most personal revenge for wrongs done their people at Sand Creek and the Washita. John and Lydia German, emigrants headed from Georgia to Colorado Territory, were traveling with their seven children. After one of the warriors shot John in the back, Mo-chi finished him off with a hatchet blow to the head. Lydia was next to die, apparently tomahawked by another warrior. Next, the Cheyennes killed three of the German children; keeping four of the sisters as captives. Soldiers searched for the missing girls and recovered two of them in November. The older two—17- year-old Catherine and 12- year-old Sophia—were returned to the white world in March when a large group of Cheyennes surrendered, including Mo-chi and Medicine Water. The fighting couple and many of their tribesmen faced the possibility of starvation and realized that resisitng the relentess soldiers was futile.

The Old Ones say Medicine Water realized it was for the betterment of the family survival to surrender, rather than face another massacre and he knew the soldiers would not hesitate to murder his entire family. —John L. Sipes

Before surrendering, Medicine Water, Mo-chi and several other warriors made sure that Stone Forehead (also known as Stone Calf), the Keeper of the Sacred Arrows (the center of the Cheyenne culture), was safely relocated to the Smoky Hill River in Kansas. The surrender took place on March 5, 1875, at the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory. Afterward, the soldiers escorted the prisoners, including the elderly and children, to their quarters. However, Medicine Water and Mo-chi were placed in leg irons and led to the guardhouse. Military reports sent to Fort Leavenworth stated, “Medicine Water was in irons and put in the guard house and the war should be over.” And young Sophia German had identified Mo-Chi as “the woman who chopped my mother’s head open with an axe!” Catherine German revealed that she had been raped often and that Mo-chi had “seemed delighted to see us tortured or frightened.” No doubt Mo-chi and Medicine Water viewed their actions as being no different than the cruelty performed by soldiers at Sand Creek and Washita.

Medicine Water, Mo-chi and 30 other Indian prisoners were charged with a variety of crimes, including murder, kidnapping and illegal detention. Without trial or tribunal, they were loaded into rail cars and taken to St. Augustine, Fla., a six-week journey in chains and shackles. Mo-chi was the only female prisoner. They were held at Florida’s Fort Marion prison for three years and then were returned, in 1878, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before eventually being sent back to Darlington.

The Old Ones, including my great-uncle Pete Bird Chief Jr., said that Medicine Water had permanent scars on his ankles from the irons. The Old Ones would listen to Medicine Water’s stories of Fort Marion. He would point to the scars and say, “This is what the government did to us to get control of our land, buffalo, ways of life as people and…our freedom as Cheyennes.” —John L. Sipes

Returning to their homeland after their imprisonment was another cultural shock for the couple. The Indian Territory reservation was a hard adjustment; their traditional way of life had been lost. What’s more, Mo-chi was ill, having contracted tuberculosis while in prison. She died in 1881 at age 41. She was laid to rest along the Washita River with all honors of a Cheyenne Indian warrior woman. Even though he had lost his soul mate, Medicine Water lived another 45 years. He found work with the government, hauling supplies between Caldwell, Kan., and Darlington. He remained true to his people, serving with the Native American Church and working to better educate the tribal youth. In 1891 he received a land allotment near Watonga, Oklahoma Territory, where he lived into old age. When Medicine Water died in 1926, at age 90, he was buried with all the honors of a head war chief of the Cheyenne Bowstring Warrior Society.

It is said that death and the will to fight runs strong in lives such as Mo-chi and Medicine Water. The Old Ones have taught us that to endure the hardships of surviving, while maintaining the love and courage to stand beside each other in overwhelming odds, was tremendous. In the end, it was the love and dedication to their people, their family and their Cheyenne way of life. —John L. Sipes

It is through oral history that the Cheyenne people of modern times have been able to stay in touch with the survival spirit of their ancestors.

 

Linda Wommack, from Littleton, Colo., is the author of several books on Colorado history. John L. Sipes, from Norman, Okla., is tribal historian for the Cheyenne Nation. He provided the oral history of his great-great-grandparents, Mo-chi and Medicine Water. Suggested for further reading: The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875- 1907 and The Southern Cheyennes, both by Donald J. Berthrong; The Fighting Cheyennes, by George Bird Grinnell; and The Sand Creek Massacre, by Stan Hoig.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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