“Chief Satanta, I Presume?”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In the summer of 1867, after more than a year of relative peace between Indians and whites, the southern Plains were in a shambles. It was an old story of blood and blunder by then. Consider this brief scenario: at dawn on November 29,1864, Colonel John Chivington, 1st Colorado Cavalry, had led his men in a surprise attack on a sleeping camp of some seven hundred Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado. At least one hundred and fifty Indians were killed that morning—and, according to a congressional report, killed with a feral intensity: “Fleeing women holding up their hands and praying for mercy were brutally shot down; infants were killed and scalped in derision; men were tortured and mutilated.…” Indian reprisals had followed in the spring and summer of 1865, and the military, depleted after the Civil War, could not control the situation.

Peace overtures were offered, and in October, 1865, United States commissioners met with representatives of the southern tribes—the Kiowas, Comanches, Kiowa-Apaches, Arapahoes, and Cheyenne—on the Little Arkansas River. Treaties were made, and peace, of a kind, settled on the Plains for the next year. But not in the uncertain heart of General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the Department of the Missouri. An occasional Indian “outrage” set his mind to whirling; furthermore, stories drifted around that the Indians were planning a major outbreak for the spring of 1867. In April of that year, determined to nip the supposed outbreak in the bud, he led a force of fourteen hundred west out of Fort Harker, Kansas, with the intention of showing the Indians “that the government is ready and able to punish them if they are hostile.…” The Indians were not intimidated; they met belligerence with belligerence, and, by the end of the summer, settlements and transportation lines were in a state of disruption. Once again, for all of Hancock’s bristly declarations, the military was helpless; once again, a peace initiative seemed the only answer; once again, a commission was organized to treat with the Indians—this time at Medicine Lodge Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River, in October, 1867.

 

On hand to write it up for the Weekly Missouri Democrat (St. Louis) was Henry Morton Stanley, a young man who already had made a bit of a name for himself as a roving reporter. Born John Rowlands in Wales in 1841, he had emigrated to this country in 1859 after a childhood and youth made miserable by poverty and family rejection. A New Orleans merchant informally adopted him, and Stanley took the merchant’s name as his own. During the Civil War, he served with the Confederates, then, after being captured, with the Federals. Footloose after the war, he started wandering—first to Denver and Salt Lake City, then to Asia Minor, penning letters and finally feature stories for various newspapers. In 1867 he was back in the West and had joined General Hancock’s ineffectual show of force in the spring. Now he was with the peace commission, which, with an Army escort, a full press corps, and a gaggle of interested civilians, arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek on October 12.

They found waiting for them some five thousand Indians—not including a contingent of Cheyenne, who, with the stench of Sand Creek fresh in their memories, were waiting to come in until sure it was safe. “Monday morning about ten o’clock,” Stanley wrote, “we came in sight of the great encampment of the Southern Indians. A natural basin, through which meandered Medicine Lodge creek … was the place selected for their winter camp. The basin, hedged in by commanding elevations, was intersected by small undulating hills, deep ravines, pyramidical mounds.… Thousands of ponies covered the adjacent hills, while in the valley grazed the cattle.… All these camps were pitched so as to form a circle, in the center of which sported the boys and girls, and little papooses in a complete state of nudity. Thousands of warriors, braves, young bucks, papooses, damsels, and squaws, from the different villages, hurried up to satisfy their curiosity, viewing the commissioners. The escorts were all left to come on after us in an hour or so. This was a wise plan, as so many treacherous deeds have been done whenever the troops have come up, that the Indians have come to regard the whites as snakes.”