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During the decades prior to and subsequent to the Civil War, the culture clash between pioneers and Indians found new heights on the Great Plains. In an attempt to segregate the Indian tribes from the white settlers, the U.S. Government established an Indian Territory in the region that today comprises Oklahoma. While a portion of the Plains tribes was able to adapt to life on reservations, many others, including the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche, were not. They continued to hunt and live on traditional lands outside the Indian Territory. Initially, this decision created minimal conflict, however once the Civil War had officially ended, land-hungry settlers began inundating the plains in droves, without a second thought to their encroachment upon tribal hunting grounds. The whites were no longer out of retreating distance, which caused many of the Indians to feel they had no choice but to defend their freedom and their lands. It was either that, or resign to a lifelong existence on the barren Indian reservation.

The events that led up to the Battle of the Washita included the Sand Creek Massacre and the Medicine Lodge Treaty of October 1867. Under treaty terms the Arapahos, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches were assigned to reservations in the Indian Territory. Once in place, they were supposed to receive permanent homes, farms, agricultural implements, food, blankets, and clothing. Some historians claim that the treaty was doomed to fail before it even got off the ground. Not only did quite a few tribal officials refused to sign the treaty, but most of those who did sign did not retain sufficient authority to order their people to comply with the agreement. War parties, which were comprised mostly of young men who were vehemently opposed to reservation life, continued to raid white settlements in Kansas.

As a consequence, the commander of the Department of the Missouri, Major General Philip H. Sheridan, introduced and implemented the philosophy that "punishment must follow crime." As a form of punishment for the Kansas raids, Gen. Sheridan organized a strategic move to attack the Indians in the dead of winter, when the Indian horses would be weak and unfit for battle.

In November of 1868 Black Kettle and Arapaho Chief Big Mouth journeyed to Fort Cobb on a mission to ask General William B. Hazen for his help in providing peace and protection to the Indian people. A respected leader of the Southern Cheyenne, Black Kettle had signed the Little Arkansas Treaty in 1865 and the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867. After giving the two chiefs flour, blankets, and other goods, Hazen informed them that he could not permit them to bring their people to Fort Cobb for protection because only General Sheridan or Lt. Col. George Custer, his field commander, had that authority. The chiefs were discouraged and angry as they headed back to their home at the encampments on the Washita River with their “consolation prizes” in hand.

In the meantime, as part of Sheridan's winter campaign strategy, the 7th cavalry was busy establishing a forward base of operations at Camp Supply, Indian Territory. Following orders dispatched by Sheridan, Custer and nearly 800 troopers trudged through almost a foot of snow, beginning on November 23. Four days later they arrived at the Washita valley. The solders quietly positioned themselves adjacent to an Indian encampment that their scouts had discovered earlier, at a bend in the river. By the time Black Kettle had returned home from Fort Cobb, his wife and several members of his tribe were pleading with him to move their camp downriver, where they would be closer to the larger encampments of the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Apaches tribes. Naively, Black Kettle refused to believe that Sheridan would be so callous as to order an attack without first pursuing any available options for peace.

On November 28, 1868, before the sun had even finished rising above the horizon, the troopers attacked the 51 lodges, brutally slaying dozens of men, women, and children. Custer later bragged that he and his men had killed over a hundred Indians. However, historical evidence shows that the actual count was closer to thirty.

Additionally, in excess of fifty Cheyenne were captured, primarily consisting of women and children. Custer, on the other hand lost only two officers and nineteen enlisted men, the majority of which were part of Major Joel Elliott's detachment. This was due to the Major’s failure to fend off the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors who had come to Black Kettle's aid. Unfortunately, however, their efforts were moot; Both Chief Black Kettle and his wife were slain in the attack.

Shadowing Sheridan's plan to thwart any efforts of resistance, General Custer ordered the slaughter of more than 800 animals, including the Indian pony and mule herds. The lodges of Black Kettle's people, along with all their entire winter supply of food and clothing, were set aflame. Custer, who was now very well aware that substantial numbers of Indians were threatening to attack from the east, feigned an attack toward their downriver camps, then quickly retreated to Camp Supply with his hostages.

The Battle of Washita might have had a very different conclusion had the larger encampments to the east been in closer proximity to Black Kettle's camp. As it happened, the impact of losing all of their winter supplies, along with the knowledge that cold weather no longer provided protection from attack, convinced many bands to abandon their defensive attitudes and simply accept life on the reservation as inevitable.