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Discover Mid-America — July 2004

Washita breaks the big picture apart into real pieces

The U.S. Army attack against Black Kettlešs Cheyenne village at Sand Creek in 1864 was possibly the saddest moment in the Indian Wars because it led to so much more.

To call Colonel John Chivingtonšs attack at a creek bend on the eastern Colorado plains a massacre is to relegate it to the realm of the unreal, an unimaginable horror that couldnšt be repeated. But Chivingtonšs raid at Sand Creek set the stage for campaigns against the Plains Indians for the next two and a half decades. It solidified in the minds of the military people involved the efficacy of the surprise attack on a sleeping population, which Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer would use in his only successful Indian raid at the Washita River in Oklahoma in the winter of 1868 ‹ an attack which would put an end to traditional Cheyenne society.

Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869, by Jerome Greene; University of Oklahoma Press (Campaigns and Commanders series), 2004, 304 pages, 23 illus., 3 maps, $29.95, hardcover, 0806135514,

The opening pages of Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869 capture the complexities of Indian and American societies prior to Sand Creek. Jerome Greene’s research is brilliant. At Greene’s pen, however, historical fact garnered from primary and secondary sources buoys the writing, creating a compelling narrative packed not only with action, but also with intrigue, personality and verve.

Greene accomplishes what few historians have. He has written a work that explores the deep cultural, economic and emotional aspects of internecine conflict, both on the side of the Americans and the Indians without preaching or taking sides. This is quite a feat since few modern Americans think of their culture or of the Indians’ as being that of multiple fractures mended over time rather than united fronts in conflict.

Greene begins with the idea that mid-19th century American and Indian cultures were multifaceted and often at conflict within themselves. At the time, those Americans facing the Indians were traders, frontiersmen, mountain men, disparate Army units and politicians, each vying for their own interests and none solidified in their goals.

The Army at the time of Sand Creek was fighting a Civil War, trying to create safe passage for wagon trains and settlers crossing Indian territory, and attempting to fulfill treaty obligations negotiated with various tribes and bands of various tribes. Each general, colonel and administrator has his own idea on how to do things, and who to stroke or roll over to get what they wanted.

Similarly, the Indians represented separate nations, rarely untied, and often shifting in alliances. Treaties, in particular, had divided the nomadic and fiercely independent Cheyenne into northern and southern tribes in the early years of the 19th century. And these tribes were divided again into bands along family lines, with a new offshoot of Dog Soldier bands that vigorously fought any white incursion into traditional Cheyenne territories—the vast prairies extending from the Rockies to the Missouri River and south to Texas.

Army personnel, trying to settle the plains, placate federal, state, and territorial interests — and to keep the states and territories from taking on the Indians on their own — tried to fit the Indians into a stereotype, creating a policy of “total war” and making whole tribes punishable for the depredations of a few renegade members.

In this setting, Sand Creek, and the Americans’ imagination-defying acts of violence, murder and mutilation devastate what might have been the best chance for peace on the Great Plains at the time. Black Kettle, ironically, advocated peace with the Americans. At his village, Chivington’s troops, many inexperienced irregulars, killed the majority of Cheyenne and Arapaho peace chiefs. This, and the bloodletting loosed on the elderly, women and children possibly created the circumstances for continuing warfare with the Cheyenne and the tribes’ allies — including Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and various Sioux tribes — until the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee ended Indian resistance on the Plains.

Sand Creek began and Washita solidified the severing of Cheyenne generational leadership and material ties to a culture that had developed over centuries. Washita brought Custer to the forefront and possibly created his demise.

After Dog Soldiers and Kiowa and Kiowa-Comanche renegades committed a series of raids on whites in western Kansas, the army set out to attack Indians while the natives were bedded down for winter. The intent was to punish the raiding tribes, destroy their material goods and kill their warriors. Custer’s force, lead by Osage scouts — traditional enemies of many of the Plains tribes, including the Ute, Kaw, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa — found Black Kettle’s village on a bend in the Washita River the morning of Nov. 27, 1868, and attacked.

To tell the outcome of the Washita battle is to give away the story, so much of Greene’s narrative reads like a good novel. Washita is a book that has few flaws. It’s pacing, revelations and conflicts are about as good as any reader could ask. And it’s a book that gives Americans a view into themselves, not merely as an amalgam of people, ideas and philosophies, but as a fusion of universals that exist between cultures.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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