- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Most of the Indian agents, whose job it was to carry out government policy toward the Indians, were dismayed at the blatantly illegal destruction of the buffalo, but without army help the agents lacked the police power to bring the poachers to justice. Only once, apparently, did an agent manage to act against the hidemen. In early February, 1874, the Cheyenne-Arapaho agent, John D. Miles, caused the arrest of some eleven buffalo hunters who were trespassing on Indian land, but the hunters evidently did some persuasive talking, for Miles soon let them go again and even returned their outfits to them. “They are all very poor,” wrote Miles, “and they say that the cries of their children for bread is what induced them to engage in the chase … I have no disposition to disbelieve. …” He added, rather naively, that he believed the hunters had learned their lesson and that the incident would deter other hidemen from entering the reservation.
Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano stated the government’s view in his annual reports of 1872 and 1873:
In our intercourse with the Indians it must always be borne in mind that we are the most powerful party. … We are assuming, and I think with propriety, that our civilization ought to take the place of their barbarous habits. We therefore claim the right to control the soil they occupy, and we assume it is our duty to coerce them, if necessary, into the adoption and practice of our habits and customs. … I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil.
Yet the majority of the Indians were in fact willing to give the white man’s road a chance. The Arapahos, for instance, had been docile since the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Among the Cheyennes there had not been an all-out war for six years—since 1868—and in 1869 that tribe’s most influential spokesman for peace, Chief Little Robe, had actually banished from his camps the militant Dog Soldier Society. Its members drifted northward for a while, and when they returned, the peace chiefs—Little Robe, White Shield, Stone Calf, and Old Whirlwind—were successful in controlling them. The Kiowas and Comanches had been officially tractable for an even longer period. When the Medicine Lodge council convened in October of 1867, its commissioners agreed that “the testimony satisfies us that since October, 1865 [when they had signed an earlier treaty], the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches have substantially complied with their treaty stipulation entered into at that time at the mouth of the Little Arkansas.”
Though the wilder war chiefs continued to sporadically make forays into Texas, most of the Kiowas and Comanches admitted that war against the whites was a hopeless proposition, especially after 1872, the year some of the chiefs went to Washington and saw the power of the whites for themselves. Among the Kiowas tempers flared when those chiefs who stayed home refused to believe the tales of huge cities and giant stone tepees so large that all the Kiowa tribe could sit in a single one. When Thomas Battey, the Quaker schoolteacher to the Kiowas, produced stereo views of the sights in the East, the war chiefs who had been skeptical before were struck dumb with amazement. As Battey reported the scene, Chief Sun Boy, who had been to Washington, said angrily to his fellow tribesmen: “What you think now? You think all lie now? You think all chiefs who been to Washington fools now?” The warriors put their fingers over their open mouths. “Look! see what a mighty powerful people they are! We fools! We don’t know anything! We just like wolves running wild on the plains!”
By 1874 most of the South Plains Indians were ready to come in to the agencies and learn the white man’s ways, but their own primitiveness worked against them. The Kiowas, for instance, would not permit a census of their people because of a tribal superstition that made them deathly afraid of being counted.
But tribal superstitions were minor indeed compared to the basic problem. Without their buffalo the Indians were entirely dependent on government rations for their survival, and when these rations were not forthcoming, the Indians sat at the agencies and quite literally starved. Had the government only provided them with some alternative source of food and supply, their transition to the white man’s ways, though painful and clumsy, might well have been bloodless. But to obtain food for them the federal authorities relied on private contractors, a system that never worked well even in the best of times. In the case of the South Plains tribes it all but broke down completely, and during the blizzard-stricken winter of 1873-74 the Indians were forced to slaughter large numbers of their ponies just to stay alive. Given insufficient provisions at the agencies when they stayed there, and accused of raiding when they left to hunt buffalo, the Indians’ attempt to follow the white road was virtually hopeless.
Even Nelson A. Miles, who during the war prosecuted his campaign against the Cheyennes with all the fervor of an ambitious colonel after his star wrote many years later: