In the 1860s and ’70s, one of the best-known Plains Indians was the Kiowa war chief Satanta. In the East, he was seen as the orator of his people, a sort of rustic philosopher who represented them in treaty negotiations, and his observations on Indian-white relations were often repeated in great metropolitan newspapers. In Texas, he was regarded as the architect of the Warren Wagon Train Massacre in which seven teamsters were killed–a murderer who deservedly had been condemned to die, but who, at the last minute, had been given life imprisonment due to Reconstruction politics.
Both these views overly simplified one of the most complicated men ever to rise from the Great Plains–a highly intelligent chief, diplomat and philosopher who was also a murderer, but a man whose life story has only recently begun to receive its full measure of justice.
Satanta was already an adult of distinction when he entered the history of the southern Plains. What is known of his early life is based on tribal tradition passed down through generations of Kiowa until the present day. When or where he was born is uncertain, but based on a general agreement about his age among white contemporaries, it may be assumed he was born between 1815 and 1818, when his people ranged between the North Platte River in what is now western Nebraska and the Canadian River of what is now north Texas and central Oklahoma. His father was Red Tipi, the ranking Kiowa priest of his day; his mother appears to have been Arapaho.
As a baby, Satanta was called Big Ribs, referring to the massive physique for which he was known throughout his life. When he grew older he received his permanent name, Set-t’ainte or ‘White Bear,’ perhaps based on a vision or some sort of personal achievement. Because Set-t’ainte is virtually unpronounceable to anyone besides a Kiowa, the whites anglicized the name to ‘Satanta.’
Kiowa boys began training as warriors at a very early age and were sent out on their own as soon as they proved capable. By the age of 20, most had married and begun families of their own. Satanta, however, was not allowed this early freedom; Kiowa tradition holds that Red Tipi was so proud of his son that he kept Satanta under strict supervision long after most young men would have gone out on their own. When his father finally released him into the world, Satanta was almost 30 and thoroughly prepared for his role in the Kiowa Nation.
Satanta enters conventional history in the mid-1850s, when he first attracted the attention of soldiers attached to military expeditions in Kiowa country. Although he was still a subchief, everyone noticed his large frame and fine features. One officer, Captain Richard T. Jacob, described him as ‘a man of magnificent physique, being over six feet tall, well built and finely proportioned’–a description that would be repeated throughout Satanta’s life. Whites also noted his intelligence, forceful personality and arrogance. He had a fine sense of the dramatic, but anyone who considered his posturing nothing but show entirely underestimated the man. Beneath his theatrics, he was an outstanding warrior and leader. At the height of his prestige in the late 1860s, frontier whites hated and feared him.
Satanta figured prominently in the intertribal warfare of the 1850s, as well as in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government. During a treaty conference at Fort Atkinson, Kansas Territory, in 1853, he aired Kiowa grievances to a dragoon officer, Major Robert Hall Chilton. One of the soldiers, Private Percival Lowe, thought Chilton and Satanta were pretty well matched, both being tough and uncompromising, and each understanding the other.
By the time of this treaty, Satanta was almost 40 years old and a noted warrior. In battle he wore red paint on his upper torso, face and hair, and a buckskin vest painted red on one side and yellow on the other. Among his associates was the ancient medicine man Black Horse, who provided Satanta’s most important piece of battle equipment–one of the sacred shields used during the Kiowa Sun Dance. To accept it, Satanta had to sacrifice his own flesh to the sun by having four deep gashes cut into the back of each shoulder just above the joint with the arm, a painful and enduring offering. He carried the shield during raids against other tribes and into Mexico.
While the Kiowa might have regarded the sun shield as Satanta’s most important possession, among the whites his best-known trademark was the bugle that he blew to signal an attack or announce his presence. The Kiowa say he captured the bugle during a fight with federal troops after observing the soldiers responding to the different bugle calls. Although other Indians also carried bugles and signaled warriors with army calls during fights, whites linked it with Satanta and automatically assumed he was present if they heard a bugle during an Indian fight.
The Civil War provided new opportunities for the Indians to expand their depredations with virtual impunity. With most soldiers withdrawn for fighting in the East, the frontier was more or less undefended, and they could raid at leisure. Texas, one of their traditional marauding grounds, was a particularly attractive target. Because Texas was a Confederate state, the North not only looked the other way but actively encouraged the raiding. According to ethnologist James Mooney, the Kiowa ‘distinctly stated that they had been told by military officers of the [federal] government to do all the damage they could to Texas, because Texas was at war with the United States.’
The year 1864 was one of the bloodiest in the history of the southern Plains. Satanta began by leading a raid into the vicinity of Menard, in west Texas, where he and his warriors killed several whites and carried off one woman into captivity. Then, he joined other Plains Indians in depredations in Colorado, for which Black Kettle’s friendly Cheyenne followers subsequently were made to suffer in the senseless Sand Creek Massacre.
One of the worst raids was in Young County, Texas, in October 1864. Although the Comanche Chief Little Buffalo led the war party, one of the captives later told her rescuers that a Kiowa chief called ‘Satine’ had blown a bugle to signal the others. There is little doubt this was Satanta. In a later raid he kidnapped several members of a Texas family named Box and, pleased with the ransom paid by the government, remarked that trafficking in white women was more profitable than horse stealing.
In 1867, raids by Satanta and others in the south, combined with the Red Cloud War in the north, prompted the government to try to negotiate treaties with the various Plains tribes. This was the second peace effort in two years. The earlier Treaty of the Little Arkansas, in which Satanta participated, had accomplished nothing. Now, once again, the federal commissioners met with the tribes, this time near Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas in October 1867.
The commissioners gathered at Fort Larned, where Satanta and several other chiefs met them and accompanied them the 80 miles to the conference site. During the council, Satanta commanded the attention of the news correspondents, including young Henry Morton Stanley, who would later gain fame as the greatest of all African explorers.
Satanta spoke often, at one point making a speech that later became required reading in American literature classes. He said: ‘I have heard that you intend to set apart a reservation near the mountains of [western Oklahoma]. I don’t want to settle; I love to roam over the prairie; I feel free and happy; but when we settle down we get pale and die….A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the [Arkansas] river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. The soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo; and when I see that my heart feels like bursting; I feel sorry.’
While his words may have impressed later generations, at the time they had little affect on the peace commissioners, who, according to Stanley, gave Satanta ‘a rather blank look.’ Nevertheless, in this and subsequent statements, the chief succeeded in discomfiting the commissioners about the government’s failure to live up to the obligations of past treaties. The fact that Satanta himself violated treaties when it suited him did not become a major issue. In the end, the Kiowa agreed to sign the treaty and accept the reservation Satanta found so objectionable. They also agreed to accept schools, annuities and supplies from the government and to shift from raiding to agriculture.
Like so many other treaties, the Medicine Lodge pact was unworkable. The government attempted to keep faith but was hampered by bureaucracy. The Kiowa war faction, headed by Satanta and Lone Wolf, was not really interested in making it work. Despite allegations by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, however, documented evidence shows that Satanta was elsewhere when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked the Plains Indian camps along the Washita during Sheridan’s winter campaign of 186869. And being absent, he likewise was not responsible for the death in that fight of white captive Clara Blinn, for which Sheridan specifically blamed him. Even so, Sheridan ordered Custer to arrest Satanta and Lone Wolf, and they were kept in close confinement for several weeks. Upon release, Satanta went back to his old habit of raiding.
Satanta finally pushed his luck too far when he participated in the Warren Wagon Trail Massacre near Fort Richardson, Texas, on May 18, 1871. Returning to the KiowaComanche Agency near Fort Sill (southwestern Oklahoma), he bragged about the raid and the killings to Agent Lawrie Tatum and incriminated several other chiefs, including the aging war chief Satank and the teenage subchief Big Tree. Tatum reported the boasts to Fort Sill, where General W.T. Sherman was on inspection, having just arrived from Fort Richardson. Sherman was aware of the Warren raid, and he had narrowly missed death at the hands of the same war party, which had spotted him the day before the massacre. Sherman arrested Satanta and Satank and ordered them, together with Big Tree, to Texas for trial.
Old Satank (who is often confused with Satanta because of their similar names) jumped a guard at Fort Sill and was killed. Satanta and Big Tree were tried by a Texas jury and convicted of seven counts of murder in the Warren massacre. The jury fixed their sentences at death by hanging. At the behest of Agent Tatum, a Quaker, and Judge Charles Soward, who presided over the trial, Governor Edmund Davis commuted their sentences to life imprisonment, and on November 2, 1871, Satanta and Big Tree entered the state penitentiary at Huntsville.
Although Tatum advocated sending more hostile chiefs to prison, his superiors in the Quaker committee that administered all the southern Plains agencies immediately began lobbying for a pardon for the two chiefs. Davis, a Reconstruction governor, balked at the idea, but after 23 months of wrangling and pressure from Washington, finally agreed to parole Satanta and Big Tree against the good behavior of the Kiowa as a whole.
Much of the fighting spirit had left Satanta when he returned to his people, and, when the Kiowa debated whether to enter the Red River War of 1874, he publicly stated his position by resigning his office as a war chief and giving his symbolic medicine lance and shield to other warriors. Even so, he was present when fighting erupted. Although he may not have participated in it, he did consort with hostile chiefs, and Kiowa involvement in the war was, itself, considered a parole violation. He was arrested and returned to Huntsville.
As time passed, Satanta seemed to lose the will to live and became a sympathetic figure. Even Thomas J. Gorree, superintendent of the penitentiary, advocated his release. The government, however, was adamant that he remain confined. Finally, on October 11, 1878, he slashed his wrists. As he was taken to the second floor of the prison hospital, he jumped off the landing. The fall killed him.
Satanta’s descendants believe he was pushed off the landing, because suicide was not in his nature. Still, it would have been in character for Satanta, in his last act as a Kiowa warrior, to deprive the whites of victory by taking his own life. They had his corpse, but not his obedience. And for a warrior, that is an honorable death.
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