We spent the afternoon exploring the Washita Battlefield and Visitor Center. The Visitor Center did a good job of laying out the pre battle strategies for both sides and how both sides arrived at their positions. Then the interpretation of the battle was given from the perspective of both sides. Lastly, the outcome of the events were discussed. After viewing the museum displays, we watched a 30 minute film that added some additional details of the battle. We then drove to the actual encampment where the battle took place and took the 1.5 mile hike of the battlefield.
The Indian Wars came into focus following the American Civil War as many people began to push west in chase of gold and new lives. One interesting display discussed the treaties that were made with the Indians. From 1778 to 1871, the US had negotiated about 800 treaties with various Indian tribes. The US Senate ratified less than 400 of these treaties. Of those ratified, the US only honored them for a twinkle of an eye. One of the early massacres of Cheyenne happened in 1864 at Sand Creek, Colorado. Chief Black Kettle survived this event and went on to be one of the Chiefs in search of peace.
He is is quoted as saying, “All we ask is that we may have peace with the whites.
However, many of his brothers were not so quick to forgive and began trying to defend their homeland from the encroaching white man. These battles and Indian raids continued in the southern plains into 1868. Finally, the US Army had had enough and decided on a campaign of total destruction in the winter of 1868-1869. Lt Col George A Custer was called on to lead the winter campaign.
The attack at Washita took place on the morning of November 27, 1868. The surprise attack caught the Cheyenne completely unprepared. The battle stopped after about two hours. Depending on who you listen to, the casualty reports vary wildly. Custer has the number of Indians killed over 100; however, oral tradition of the Cheyenne put the number closer to 30. Chief Black Kettle and his wife were part of the casualties for the Cheyenne. Both sides agree that the number of Cavalry killed was 20. Of those, Major Elliot (second in command) and 17 of his soldiers were killed as they pursued fleeing Indians and were caught in an ambush from Indians from another camp that came to aid Black Kettle.
In the aftermath of the battle, Custer had all the belongings of the Indians burned. Including their tepees, extra clothing, and some 650 ponies that were shot and killed. This total destruction had the desired effect. Another peace treaty was signed and the southern Cheyenne moved onto reservations. During the peace treaty and smoking of the peace pipe, one of the Cheyenne Chief's emptied the ashes of the peace pipe on One of Custer's boots. He then warned Custer that if he ever tried to ambush and kill Cheyenne again that they would take no prisoners and kill him. This prophesy was filled in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The walking tour of the Battleground brought all the information into better focus. The Cheyenne considers this ground sacred and come and hang colorful prayer cloths in the trees near the river. They ask that you not photograph the hanging prayer cloths. But it did drive home the idea that they have not forgotten what happened here to their people.
Along the hike, there were 15 stops where you could listen to an audio guide who would explain what happened in the areas you were standing. Anyone can phone the guide and listen to the tour at 580.354.7453.
One thing that stood out to me was that the strategy used by Custer at Washita, was the same strategy he deployed in Little Bighorn. He divided his troops into 4 groups, tried to surround the village, and tried to ride through the village. However, the outcome at Little Bighorn was more in-tune with what happened to Major Elliott at Washita.