In September 1864 Major Ned Wynkoop decided not to kill Indians but to discuss peace with them in western Kansas.
Dog Man Chief Bull Bear interrupted the council on a tribu- tary of the Smoky Hill River to vent his outrage over the murder of his brother that spring. On May 16, 1864, Tsistsista (Southern Cheyenne) Chief Lean Bear was shot from his saddle when he tried to head off an unprovoked soldier attack upon his and Black Kettle’s village on Ash Creek. Bull Bear wasn’t nearly through. Without warning, he leaped to his feet, charged the tall vi’ho’i (“white man”) soldier chief on the opposite side of the council fire and demanded he stand. An inwardly nervous Major Edward W. “Ned” Wynkoop of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry stood but kept his calm that September 10 morning. Bull Bear glared at him before turning to the council of Cheyenne, Dog Men and Arapaho leaders and warriors. Pointing at Wynkoop, he shouted: “This white man thinks we are children, but I tell him we are neither papooses or squaws, that we are men, warriors, chiefs; we have said to him, we want to trade; we have given many horses and many buffalo robes to other tribes for these white prisoners; we now say we will trade them for peace. And this white soldier chief, says, ‘Give me the white prisoners, and I will give you nothing in return’; does he think we are fools that he comes to laugh at us?”
The response of the other Indians was instantaneous, ear-shattering. All were seemingly against Wynkoop. The major sat down again beside John S. Smith, a white trader and interpreter married to a Cheyenne woman. Acquainted with one another since the early days of the Colorado gold rush, Wynkoop and Smith had never liked each other. But Wynkoop had been forced days earlier to enlist Smith’s services as an interpreter. When Wynkoop asked Smith to translate Bull Bear’s words, he saw fear on the interpreter’s face. Smith complied, but then told Wynkoop, “I have now got to talk for my life.” By coming to this place to meet with these aggrieved warriors in an effort to achieve peace on the Plains, Wynkoop had gambled—his life, his troops’ lives. He was acting on his own without orders, and he now realized that his desire to end an Indian war could prove fatal. The clamor grew. Listening to the screaming Indians who surrounded him, Wynkoop likened them to “snarling wolves.” Wynkoop’s opinion of Smith hadn’t changed—he was untrustworthy. Needing to know exactly what was said, Wynkoop called on the mixed-blood Cheyenne George Bent, who interpreted for Black Kettle, to confirm Smith’s translation of Cheyenne words to him and his replies to the Indians. Bent agreed.
Ned Wynkoop had reached that line in the sand he must step over or ignore. His life, his future, everything hung upon his words, his decisions, his actions.
Hostilities between whites and Southern Cheyennes had be- gun to heat up in the prime land east of the Rockies in May 1864 when Wynkoop assumed command of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado Territory. By summer the clashes had exploded into war, and the Southern Cheyennes and their allies were terrorizing the territory. In August, Wynkoop reported his intent “to kill all Indians I may come across until I receive orders to the contrary.” Although he did not know it, on the fourth day of September he would receive a proposition that would transform his life.
That day Wynkoop was meeting with post trader Dexter Colley and several officers in his office. Suddenly they were interrupted. A sergeant and two troopers headed for Denver to muster out of the service had returned to Fort Lyon with three Cheyennes. Angry to see the Indians, Wynkoop suggested he and his men rough them up. Colley agreed and was first out the door. But the trader stopped suddenly, and Wynkoop pushed past him. Before Wynkoop could do anything, Colley told the commander he knew these particular Indians. One of them had supplied his father, Cheyenne-Arapaho agent Samuel Colley, “a great deal [of] information.”
Assuming his instructions to kill all Indians had been ignored, Wynkoop yelled at the sergeant, reminding him of the orders. According to Wynkoop, the sergeant said he had fired on the Indians, but when he saw one of them “hold up a paper and make signs of peace,” he held further fire. Wynkoop looked at the Cheyenne trio: One Eye (agent Colley’s informant), One Eye’s wife and Eagle Head. The papers the sergeant mentioned were letters Black Kettle had dictated to George Bent and mixed-blood Cheyenne Edmund Guerrier.
Wynkoop led everyone into his office and read the letters. Both were dated August 29. Bent’s letter was addressed to Indian agent Colley, and Guerrier’s was addressed to the military commander of Fort Lyon. The letters offered to make peace, providing the whites also made peace with the Arapahos, Comanches, Kiowas, Plains (or Kiowa) Apaches and Lakotas (or Sioux). Bent’s letter stated, “We have seven prisoners of you, which we are willing to give up, providing you give up yours.” Wynkoop wanted to free the white hostages, but the two sentences that followed gave the commander pause: “There are three war parties out yet and two of Arapahos. They have been out some time and expect now soon.” Wynkoop knew nothing about Indians, except they could be frightening and were difficult to engage in battle.
Choosing to speak with the Indian emissaries, Wynkoop sent for John Smith. Smith’s ethics (and those of the Colleys, father and son) might have been questionable, but Wynkoop didn’t know this. Nor did he care. He needed someone to translate, and when Smith arrived at his office, the commander appointed him post interpreter.
Through Smith, Wynkoop asked One Eye why he had risked his life to deliver the letters. “I thought I would be killed,” One Eye said, “but I knew that paper would be found upon my dead body, that you would see it, and it might give peace to my people once more.” Wynkoop asked whether the Cheyennes were sincere and would give up prisoners. One Eye guaranteed his people’s sincerity with his life. Twelve years later Wynkoop would romanticize his interrogation of the Cheyennes, saying, “I was bewildered with an exhibition of such patriotism on the part of two savages and felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of a race that I had heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous and bloodthirsty.” Perhaps the major had read too many James Fenimore Cooper novels, or perhaps he was searching for justification for his actions.
Wynkoop next learned of a massive village of mostly Cheyennes and Arapahos. With fall approaching, a number of tribal bands had begun to congregate on the Smoky Hill just inside the Kansas line some 140 miles northeast of Fort Lyon, and that is where Black Kettle had dictated the letters. A state of war existed. As he lacked sufficient troops to mount a force large enough to survive possible treachery, it was foolish for Wynkoop to even consider meeting the Indians. But he had a chance to free captives and obtain peace. When he hesitated, One Eye told him he needed to move quickly, before the village broke up and moved. Wynkoop refused to be pushed. Needing time to think about what he should do, he locked up the Cheyennes. He had been a miner, sheriff, bartender and land speculator; he had confidence in his ability to survive. He would make his decision based on what he thought was right and without anyone’s help.
Wynkoop informed his officers he would meet the Indians. They called him a fool and the mission suicide. Wynkoop ignored them. The chance of rescuing prisoners and ending war was a heady thought, and he had no intention of missing the opportunity. Speed was imperative, but he wanted complete control. To guarantee this, he made no attempt to inform his superiors of his intentions.
Leaving a detachment of infantry from the Department of New Mexico to defend Fort Lyon, Wynkoop set out on September 6 with 127 mounted men, including Smith, and two howitzers. He also took the three Cheyenne prisoners and another Cheyenne known around Fort Lyon as “The Fool.” He told the Indians he would kill them if met with treachery.
On the third day of the march the soldiers found clear signs of Indians, and Wynkoop sent Eagle Head ahead to announce the purpose for his visit. When Eagle Head returned, Wynkoop moved to the left and set up camp. The next morning, September 10, he continued his march. He had traveled only four miles when suddenly a battle line of some 700 screaming warriors confronted him. His officers’ suicide warning ringing in his head, Wynkoop yelled for his men to form their own battle line. He then continued his advance, which agitated the Indians.
Before getting too close to the Indian line, Wynkoop halted and directed One Eye to ride between the lines and tell the warriors the major had come to speak about ending the war. Anxious minutes passed. Wynkoop and his men watched as warriors brandished their weapons and shouted obscenities, some in broken English. It soon became obvious One Eye wouldn’t return. Wynkoop felt certain the Indians would attack.
Then Black Kettle yelled above the din. What did the soldiers want? Smith translated the words, and Wynkoop told Smith to say he had come to talk. The chief didn’t believe Smith’s reply. If the vi’ho’i wanted to talk, why had he brought howitzers and soldiers prepared to fight? After hearing the translation, Wynkoop told Smith to tell Black Kettle he only intended to defend himself if attacked.
Black Kettle accepted his explanation, and Wynkoop agreed for the Indians to escort his command to the village. The warriors closed on the white men, surrounding them. Little more than prisoners, they followed the warriors toward the village. The parties rode about two miles when the warriors halted. Wynkoop still couldn’t see the village, which may have contained somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 people. Here the soldiers made camp, while Wynkoop, Captain Silas Soule, Lieutenants Joseph Cramer and Charles Phillips, and interpreter John Smith rode with the warriors to a heavily wooded area near a tributary of the Smoky Hill. There Wynkoop would meet Cheyennes Black Kettle, White Antelope and Big Wolf; Arapahos Left Hand, Big Mouth, Little Raven and Neva; and Dog Man Bull Bear. The Tsistsistas called the Cheyenne warrior society “Dog Men” (the more frequently heard “Dog Soldiers” is a white term). They had been banished in the late 1830s when one of their leaders killed a tribal member. However, by the late 1850s and certainly by the early 1860s the Dog Men had evolved into a third, or central, division within the tribe. They ranged between the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers and welcomed any warrior willing to fight white aggression.
The council began. With Indians staring at him, Wynkoop said (with Smith translating) he had read Black Kettle’s letters. As he “had come for peace and not for war,” he hoped to work out an understanding between them. The major said if the chiefs gave him their white prisoners, it would demonstrate they wanted to end the war. Wynkoop then explained he couldn’t make peace, as he didn’t have the power to do so. However, he could escort them to Denver to meet Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs John Evans, with whom he felt certain they could make peace. Wynkoop guaranteed their safety if they traveled with him to that city. He then reminded the chiefs of Evans’ proclamation, telling them they should bring their people to Fort Lyon to prove they were peaceful and not associating with Indians still at war.
When Wynkoop finished speaking, the chiefs stated their case. They wanted those of their people held captive by the vi’ho’i returned to them. Wynkoop said he didn’t know of any, and even if there were prisoners, he didn’t have the power to release them. Hoping to deflect additional requests, he told the leaders he acted on his own and wouldn’t promise them anything he couldn’t deliver. The question again came up, why had the major brought his men and guns if he came to make peace? Through Smith, Wynkoop said he knew there were bad Indians, and he wanted to have enough men in case of trouble.
Unknown to Wynkoop, after the council began, warriors had invaded the soldier camp. According to Sergeant B.N. Forbes there were “probably five Indians to one white man.” If so, more than 500 warriors with bows strung and arrows ready held the troops hostage. Some of the warriors knew English curse words and verbally assaulted the soldiers. Adding to an already tense situation, warriors forced the troops away from the howitzers and took what they wanted from the provision wagon.
Fearing the situation would get out of hand, Lieutenant George Hardin rode to the council and updated Wynkoop. An angry Wynkoop interrupted the proceedings and demanded the warriors leave his camp. Black Kettle himself rode to the soldier camp, told the warriors to leave and then returned to the council. They did, but upon their departure, they set the surrounding prairie afire. As flames and smoke swept toward the camp, the soldiers hastily left, riding almost 12 miles before halting to set up a new camp.
Back at the council Bull Bear charged Wynkoop and screamed in anger over the murder of Lean Bear. Wynkoop glanced at Black Kettle, who remained calm, dignified and even smiled at the outburst. There have been many pronunciations of Black Kettle’s Tsistsista name, but Wynkoop called him “Maketava-tah.” As a warrior Make-tava-tah had led raids, but by then, at 52, his main concern was to protect his followers.
Wynkoop felt Black Kettle saw his confusion and anxiety and “gave [him] a look of encouragement.” This eased his fear…somewhat. Wynkoop would later claim he had come “through the fire” to meet the Cheyennes in council. Vigilant, teetering on the periphery, he knew his life perhaps depended on his every word. Certainly the major couldn’t have guessed the future, that he would become linked with Black Kettle through the end of the decade. At the moment his only concerns were obtaining the white prisoners, getting the chiefs to Denver and surviving.
Left Hand was next to voice his anger. A peaceful leader, he had even offered to help recover stock stolen from Fort Larned. The soldiers had ignored his offer, and in the summer when he had approached the fort, the soldiers had fired at him. After that the Arapahos joined the warring Dog Men and Kiowas. “There could be no peace with the treacherous whites,” Little Raven said, agreeing with Bull Bear. Seeing an opportunity, Bull Bear went for the kill. “The only thing left [is] to fight!” he yelled. The tone of the voices around him put Wynkoop on edge—he didn’t need a translation. “The whites [are] not to be trusted!” Bull Bear bellowed.
As the outcry grew, One Eye pushed his way forward, surprising Wynkoop, who hadn’t seen him since he rode between the lines. One Eye said he felt “ashamed” and didn’t want to live if the Tsistsistas harmed the vi’ho’i.
Black Kettle told One Eye to sit. He then demanded silence. Standing up, he wrapped a blanket around himself, crossed to Wynkoop and pulled him upright. The chief hugged the major twice before leading him to the center of the council circle. “This white man is not here to laugh at us, nor does he regard us as children, but…he comes with confidence in the pledges given by the [Tsistsistas]. He has been told… that he should come and go unharmed.” The chief continued: “His words are straight and his heart single. Had he told us that he would give us peace, on the condition of our delivering to him the white prisoners, he would have told us a lie. For I know that he cannot give us peace; there is a greater chief in the far-off camp of the white soldiers.”
Suddenly it was over. After diffusing the nerve-racking situation and ending the council, Black Kettle told Wynkoop to move his camp. He and the other chiefs would discuss what to do. Black Kettle shook hands with Wynkoop and Soule, and then, according to John Smith, the chief said he was and always had been “a friend to the whites” and would try to end the war. Black Kettle assurred Wynkoop that he and his men would not be attacked as they returned to Fort Lyon.
Wynkoop repeated it was not in his power to ensure peace. Black Kettle told the major he would have the chiefs’ decision the next day. Wynkoop promised to wait, mounted and with his officers and Smith rode to where the camp had been. Though the ground lay deserted, the trail was easy to follow. On arrival at the new camp on Hackberry Creek, Wynkoop found his men frightened and wanting to return to Fort Lyon immediately. But the major had no intention of turning tail and running. That night he and his officers spent a sleepless night walking guard, but no one tried to desert. The next day proved long. Nothing happened until noon when Neva and several Arapahos appeared. Wynkoop received a 16-year old girl named Laura Roper, whom the Cheyennes had captured on the Little Blue River in Nebraska Territory on August 7.
When Black Kettle didn’t appear or send a message that day, Wynkoop spent another night wondering what might happen. On the second day, when Wynkoop heard that Black Kettle was approaching, he rode out to meet the chief, who had brought warriors and women with him. Black Kettle said he and other chiefs would go to Denver to discuss ending the war. Wynkoop looked about and saw three white children. “The feelings I then experienced I would be powerless to fully describe,” Wynkoop later wrote. “Such happiness I never experienced before, never since, and do not expect to in this world.”
Wynkoop greeted 9-year old Daniel Marble, who had been captured in Nebraska on August 8 when Arapahos and Bull Bear’s Dog Men attacked a wagon train and killed about a dozen whites. Only Daniel and a pregnant Nancy Morton survived while watching family and friends killed and mutilated. Wynkoop met another boy, uncommunicative Ambrose Asher, who was a couple of years younger than Daniel.
Then Wynkoop saw a Cheyenne woman holding a child, the little girl’s face and blonde hair almost hidden by the folds of a blanket. He rode to her, and as he drew close, she reached out to him. When he picked her up and set her on his saddle, she wrapped her arms around him. “I want to see my mama,” she whimpered. This was Isabelle Eubank (or Eubanks), who was all of 3 years old. (Wynkoop later wrote that the “poor child…never saw her mama in this world”; Isabelle would die in Denver on March 18, 1865, before a reunion with her mother, Lucinda, could be arranged.) With young Isabelle on his saddle, Wynkoop had no intention of allowing anyone see him cry and galloped back to camp.
Wynkoop had acted without orders; he had also succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. He may not have obtained seven prisoners, but he had four. The Indians hadn’t turned over Nancy Morton or Isabelle’s infant brother and mother—Willie and Lucinda. Morton had been in the village but was not released. Lucinda had been traded to a Lakota warrior (Two Face) shortly after her capture and wasn’t present.
A triumphant Wynkoop reached Fort Lyon on September 17, 1864. He had seven Indian leaders with him—Cheyennes Black Kettle and White Antelope; Dog Man Bull Bear; and Arapahos Neva, No-ta-nee, Heap of Buffalo and Bosse— and perhaps as many as 30 warriors. Many other Cheyennes and Arapahos followed Wynkoop and their leaders at a distance and camped near the fort.
On September 18 Wynkoop wrote his report to the District of the Upper Arkansas, stating what he had done and that he would escort the Indians to Denver to meet Governor Evans, whom he also contacted.
But much had happened of which Wynkoop wasn’t aware—perhaps the most important being the situations of Governor Evans and Wynkoop’s former commander Colonel John Chivington. Their efforts to become senator and congressman, respectively, when Colorado achieved statehood had suffered a monstrous defeat at the polls on September 13 when voters defeated statehood. Moreover, the 100-day enlistment period for the 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, a regiment created for the sole purpose of killing Indians, was almost half over. Evans had campaigned heavily for organization of the regiment to save the territory from the Cheyenne threat of annihilation, and the governor needed a major victory on the battlefield to vindicate the regiment’s existence. Chivington wanted to become an Indian fighter.
His preparations complete, Wynkoop set out for Denver on September 20. He brought wife Louise, the chiefs, John Smith, the freed white captives, at least two of the officers that had accompanied him to meet the Indians and a 40-man escort. Wynkoop was hopeful the war was about to end and probably could not imagine his plans for peace (including the Camp Weld council near Denver on September 28) would shatter before winter came to the Rockies. Certainly he never could have guessed that in a short while he would fall from his position as a popular person in the territory to an outcast when he spoke out against Chivington’s brutal attack on Black Kettle and Left Hand’s combined village at Sand Creek on November 29— an act he considered the murder of innocent people. Risking his life to work for peace in September 1864, even though he had once believed it was his job to kill Indians, had been a brave act. And speaking out against the “massacre” at Sand Creek was an equally brave act by a man who allowed his conscience to dictate the course he would follow.
Wild West contributor Louis Kraft won a 2012 Western Heritage Award for the article “When Wynkoop Was Sheriff,” published in the April 2011 Wild West, and he was a 2012 Western Writers of America Spur finalist for his 2011 book Ned Wynkoop and the Lonely Road From Sand Creek. Those are recommended for suggested reading along with Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War, by Thom Hatch, and The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes, by Stan Hoig.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.