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Oklahoma Journeys

Battle of the Washita, November 27, 1868


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The collision of two cultures this week. As white culture moved across the North American continent inevitably they ran into Native cultures already settled there for thousands of years. As always happens when two cultures meet, they either must meld together or battle for dominance. One such battle occurred in this week of 1868. That's the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

It was in this week of 1868 that the U.S. Cavalry, under command of Lt. Colonel George Custer, engaged in a pre-dawn attack on the Cheyenne Camp of Chief Black Kettle. In the frozen blackness of November 27th, the country blanketed by over a foot of fresh snow, U.S. forces charged into the Cheyenne Camp, located on the banks of the Washita River near the present-day town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma, killing everyone and anything they could find. Between 50 and 100 Cheyenne were killed with 50 more captured while the cavalry suffered only two losses. To add further injury over 800 Indian horses and ponies were systematically slaughtered by U.S. troops, and all 51 lodges and contents were incinerated. Fearing retaliation from large bands of Arapahos, Kiowas, and Cheyennes camped further downstream. Custer gathered up the captives and headed back to his base at Fort Supply.

The events leading up to the Battle of Washita involved the collision of two cultures; the desire of whites to conquer and control every possible bit of land; and the nomadic wandering culture of the plains Indians. The plains tribes including Chief Black Kettle, also known as a Peace Chief, had signed a variety of treaties between 1864 and 1867 stating that they would accept life on reservations and stop their nomadic lifestyle. Under the provisions of the 1867 Medicine Lodge treaty the Cheyennes, Kiowas, Commanches, Arapahos and other plains tribes agreed to live peacefully on allotted reservation lands. In return the tribes were to receive from the government various food and equipment annuities. A problem occurred in that these treaties were obeyed by some of the tribal members but not by all. While most of the plains tribes quietly accepted the reservation life that was to be their fate, other "war parties" made up usually of younger members refused to abide by the laws and treaties and continued roaming and raiding.

It was in retaliation for these raids that the U.S. Army conducted the Washita attack. Although Black Kettle was flying the U.S. Flag at his Washita camp and thought that he was on good terms with the white government, the U.S. Army paid little attention to such details. By destroying one Cheyenne camp, whether or not it was guilty or innocent, a message was sent to all plains tribes: stay on the reservations or face harsh punishments.

The Washita Battle site is now a national historic site, and the National Park Service opened a new visitor's center recently to tell the story. The Oklahoma History Center features an exhibit on the battle that includes several artifacts from the area. The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.