- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
One of the strongest causes of unrest among [the Indians] … was the fact that the promises made to induce them to go on to reservations were not always carried out by the government authorities. They had been removed from … the ranges of the buffalo, but under distinct treaty stipulation that they were to be provided with shelter, clothing, and sustenance. … They were sometimes for weeks without their rations. Their annual allowance of food was usually exhausted in six or seven months. …
By early 1874 the food-supply problem was becoming more and more critical. In March the chief clerk of the Central Superintendency toured the agencies and reported “very discouragingly” on the supply situations, especially at Fort Sill, the Kiowa-Comanche agency. He wrote that even Satanta and Lone Wolf, conceded to be the Kiowas’ two biggest “problem” chiefs where pacification was concerned, ”… are peaceably disposed, but the want of something to eat at the very commencement of the [spring] raiding season seems to me most suicidal.”
During April and May, Agent James M. Haworth also wrote urgent letters about the lack of supplies. “Our sustenance is getting very low,” he warned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on April 8, “& unless more is purchased soon we will be left with nothing to give them and they caused to seek it in other channels, which would be very unfortunate at this season of the year.” On April 20 Haworth reported to Enoch Hoag at the Central Superintendency: “This week’s issue will exhaust our supply of flour, which now amounts to only half rations. My teams are gone on the hunt for sugar, and coffee. I hope to have them back by issue day. …” His May 6 report said almost wistfully: “Issue day is almost here, only one night off, and the sugar and coffee not here. …”
Such was the situation when Big Bow, a Kiowa war chief, came in for rations on May 7- Obviously discouraged, the chief said, according to Haworth,
We come in from our camps on issue day, to get our rations, only we find little here. We carry that home, divide around among the people. It is soon gone, and our women and children begin to cry with hunger, and that makes our hearts feel bad. A white man’s heart would soon get bad to see his wife and children crying for something to eat, when he had nothing to give them.
A couple of weeks later Haworth indicated the lack of food was also responsible for the disaffection of the* Comanches, stating that it was becoming increasingly difficult for those peaceably inclined to maintain any influence when keeping the “good path” was rewarded with hunger and priva’fcon. “If I had supplies on hand,” he wrote, “to help those who wanted to do right, it would be a great help to them. … Our scarcity of supplies is one of our greatest—- in fact, is the greatest drawback, in governing these people. Give me plenty of supplies, and I will exert a controlling influence over them.”
At the Darlington agency, meanwhile, Agent John Miles was experiencing every bit as difficult a time obtaining food for his Cheyennes and Arapahos. On March 21, 1874, an opportunity presented itself for Miles to pacify a large portion of the Cheyennes, as 140 lodges came into the agency, led by Chiefs Minimic, White Shield, and Old Whirlwind. With them, very significantly, was White Horse, head chief of the historically implacable Dog Soldiers. It was, wrote Miles, the very first time any of the Dog Soldiers had come in for rations; they said the buffalo were scarce, and Miles believed they would stay in as long as he could feed them. But, he wrote ominously to Hoag in begging for more supplies, “We will soon be out of rations, and thou can then judge of our situation.” Ten days later the warning took on an increased urgency: “We now have at this Agency over 500 lodges of Cheyennes and Arapahoes. …” Only Grey Beard and his sixty lodges were still out, and they were expected any day. “Our coffee, sugar, & bacon is exhausted,” Miles continued, “and the beef contractor is considering whether he can furnish any more beef. … We cannot afford to let these people leave the Agency just at this time. They could not find buffalo nearer than 150 miles, and that in the direction of western Texas, just the place that we do not want them to go. …”
Miles was, in addition, expecting a visit from a party of thirty Northern Arapahos under Chief Plenty Wolf. “They must be treated well,” he wrote, or they could persuade his own Indians to forsake the agency and return to the plains, a danger heightened by Plenty Wolfs report on the disappearance of the buffalo. His band’s trek southward had taken some three months, during which time “they saw but two buffalo en route.”
No additional rations came, however. By April 4 Grey Beard had arrived, accompanied by another of the less friendly chiefs, Heap of Birds, which meant that virtually every Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho belonging to Miles’s agency was present, accounted for, and hungry: “It is very important NOW that these people be fed ”
His ration supply dwindled away steadily, until by the second week in May, Miles had, however reluctantly, been obliged to release those who wished to go west and find what buffalo they could. Thus, to Miles’s intense frustration and dismay, the Cheyennes were forced to compete widi die white buffalo-hunters from Kansas for the last large segment of the Great Southern herd of buffalo, whose migration was at that time carrying it across the Staked Plains of the Texas panhandle.