Black Kettle (d. 1868)
biographical details are known about the Southern Cheyenne
chief Black Kettle, but his repeated efforts to secure a peace with honor for
his people, despite broken promises and attacks on his own life, speak of him
as a great leader with an almost unique vision of the possibility for
coexistence between white society and the culture of the plains.
lived on the vast territory in western Kansas
and eastern Colorado that had been guaranteed
to the Cheyenne
under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Within less than a decade, however, the 1859
Pikes Peak gold rush sparked an enormous population boom in Colorado,
and this led to extensive white encroachments on Cheyenne land. Even the U.S. Indian
Commissioner admitted that "We have substantially taken possession of the
country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support."
evict white settlers, the government sought to resolve the situation by
demanding that the Southern Cheyenne sign a new treaty ceding all their lands
save the small Sand Creek
reservation in southeastern Colorado.
Black Kettle, fearing that overwhelming U.S.
military power might result in an even less favorable settlement, agreed to the
treaty in 1861 and did what he could to see that the Cheyenne obeyed its provisions.
As it turned
out, however, the Sand Creek reservation could not sustain the Indians forced
to live there. All but unfit for agriculture, the barren tract of land was
little more than a breeding ground for epidemic diseases which soon swept
through the Cheyenne
encampments. By 1862 the nearest herd of buffalo was over two hundred miles
away. Many Cheyennes,
especially young men, began to leave the reservation to prey upon the livestock
and goods of nearby settlers and passing wagon trains. One such raid in the
spring of 1864 so angered white Coloradans that they dispatched their militia,
which opened fire on the first band of Cheyenne
they happened to meet. None of the Indians in this band had participated in the
raid, however, and their leader was actually approaching the militia for a
parlay when the shooting began.
touched off an uncoordinated Indian uprising across the Great
Plains, as Indian peoples from the Comanche in the South to the
Lakota in the North took advantage of the army's involvement in the Civil War
by striking back at those who had encroached upon their lands. Black Kettle,
however, understood white military supremacy too well to support the cause of
war. He spoke with the local military commander at Fort
Weld in Colorado and believed he had secured a
promise of safety in exchange for leading his band back to the Sand Creek
But Colonel John Chivington, leader of the Third Colorado
Volunteers, had no intention of honoring such a promise. His troops had been
unsuccessful in finding a Cheyenne
band to fight, so when he learned that Black Kettle had returned to Sand Creek,
he attacked the unsuspecting encampment at dawn on November 29, 1864.
Some two hundred Cheyenne died in the ensuing
massacre, many of them women and children, and after the slaughter, Chivington's men sexually mutilated and scalped many of the
dead, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.
miraculously escaped harm at the Sand Creek Massacre, even when he returned to
rescue his seriously injured wife. And perhaps more miraculously, he continued
to counsel peace when the Cheyenne
attempted to strike back with isolated raids on wagon trains and nearby
ranches. By October 1865, he and other Indian leaders had arranged an uneasy
truce on the plains, signing a new treaty that exchanged the Sand Creek
reservation for reservations in southwestern Kansas
but deprived the Cheyenne of access to most of
their coveted Kansas