Black Kettle — Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne

c 1803–1868

Black Kettle was a Cheyenne chief who is most well-known for his efforts to secure peace and safety for his people as Americans migrated westward. He was involved in the Sand Creek Massacre, and killed at the Battle of the Washita — two of the worse atrocities committed by the U.S. Army against the Plains Indians.

Black Kettle, Illustration

This illustration depicts Black Kettle, the Cheyenne Peace Chief. Image Source: Custer, Black Kettle, and the Fight on the Washita, Charles J. Brill, 2002, Archive.org.

Who was Black Kettle, the Cheyenne Peace Chief?

Black Kettle was a “Peace Chief” who dedicated his life to advocating for peace between his people, known as the “Southern Cheyenne,” other Native American Indian Tribes living in the Great Plains, and the United States. 

He rose to prominence as a member of the Cheyenne Council of 44 and helped negotiate various treaties with representatives of the U.S. Government, including the 1841 Treaty of Fort Wise, the 1865 Little Arkansas Treaty, and the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty. 

As Americans moved West in search of gold and new opportunities, the way of life of Black Kettle and his people dramatically changed. However, he continually worked to find ways to do what he could to keep peace between his people, American settlers, and the U.S. Government.

Despite Black Kettle’s efforts, his people were targeted by some Americans who viewed Black Kettle and his people as an obstacle to the nation’s progress, leading to the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. 

Following Sand Creek, the Plains Tribes carried out raids against American settlers living on the frontier. Black Kettle tried to protect his people by helping broker the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867. However, his village was targeted by George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry in 1868.

In November 1868, Custer and his men attacked Black Kettle’s camp near the Washita River in Indian Territory — present-day Oklahoma. During the battle, Black Kettle and his wife were both killed, ending Black Kettle’s quest to find peace and safety for the Southern Cheyenne.

Camp Weld Conference Delegation, Chief Black Kettle
The Peace Chiefs who attended the Camp Weld Conference. From row: Neva, Black Kettle, Bull Bear, White Antelope. Back Row: Bosse, Na-ta-nee, Heap of Buffalo. Image Source: Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

Black Kettle Facts

1. Black Kettle’s Cheyenne name was “Mo’ohtavetoo’o.”

2. It is believed he was born around 1803–1807 in the Dakotas to Sparrow Hawk, his mother, and Swift Hawk, his father. 

3. Black Kettle was born into the Suhtai Band, meaning “Buffalo People.”

4. He was a witness to the beginning of America’s westward expansion, the Fur Trade Era, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars.

5. Black Kettle’s early years took place around the time Thomas Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, which led to the Lewis and Clark Expedition — the first time Americans explored the upper portion of the Great Plains.

6. He became an important Cheyenne leader as a member of the Council of 44 and a Peace Chief.

7. Black Kettle’s son-in-law was George Bent, who fought for the Confederacy for about a year during the Civil War.

8. Black Kettle was involved in the negotiation and signing of various treaties with the United States, including the Treaty of Fort Wise (1841), the Little Arkansas Treaty (1865), and the Medicine Lodge Treaty (1867).

9. He was involved in two of the worst atrocities committed against the Plains Indians — the Sand Creek Massacre and the Battle of the Washita.

10. Black Kettle is linked to prominent Civil War veterans like William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Armstrong Custer, who were tasked with dealing with the Plains Indians following the Civil War.

11. He was known to have used his own horses to buy American prisoners from their captors, so they could be returned in prisoner exchanges.

Early Life of Black Kettle

Black Kettle, born around 1803–1807 in the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota, belonged to the Suhtai band, meaning “Buffalo People,” of the Cheyenne, a Plains Indians Tribe.

He was the son of Swift Hawk Lying Down (Hawk Stretched Out) and Sparrow Hawk Woman (Little Brown-Back Hawk Woman) and had siblings named Gentle Horse (Stone Teeth), Wind Woman (Iron Teeth), and Wolf (Black Dog). 

Black Kettle is known to have displayed exceptional horsemanship by the time he was 8 years old. By 12, he participated in his first buffalo hunt. He fought in his first battle when he was 14. By all accounts, he showed bravery, earning the respect of the tribe.

When he was still in his teens, he became a member of the Elkhorn Scraper Society. The members were tribal leaders who discusses matters with the chief. The chief was then responsible for discussing issues with the Council of 44 —- the chiefs of the Cheyenne tribes.

After he joined the Elkhorn Scraper Society, he married a woman named Little Sage.

Black Kettle and the Southern Cheyenne in Colorado

Black Kettle and his people settled in the Eastern Plains of present-day Colorado in the 1830s, where they became known as the “Southern Cheyenne.” They were on good terms with many of the Mountain Men and Fur Traders who frequented Bent’s Fort, near La Junta.

Black Kettle and the Fur Trade Era

Black Kettle rose to prominence in his band during the Fur Trade Era. Following the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, some Americans moved west in hopes of finding riches by trading with the Plains Indians for beaver pelts and bison hides.

Bent’s Fort and William Bent

The fort was owned by William Bent, an American who was involved in the Fur Trade. Bent married a Cheyenne woman named Owl Woman, which contributed to his friendly relationship with Black Kettle’s people. Together, Bent and Owl Woman had four children — Robert, Mary, George, and Julia.

Bent’s Fort — a fortified trading post — was built in 1833 by Bent, his brother, Charles Bent, and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain. They chose the location to help them maintain control of the Fur Trade along the Santa Fe Trail, which started in Independence, Missouri. The trail went west through Kansas to Bent’s For. From there, it diverged southeast to Santa Fe.

As more Americans moved into the region in hopes of engaging in the lucrative Fur Trade, the Plains Indians fought with each other for control of their side of the business. The Cheyenne fought with various Plains Tribes, including the Kiowa, Comanche, Crow, Pawnee, Shawnee, and Ute.

Bent himself is considered by some to have been the most powerful and influential American living on the frontier at the time. In fact, some of the most prominent explorers and Mountain Men of the Fur Trade Era worked for him, including Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Kit Carson, and James Beckwourth.

Bent's Old Fort, Interior, Reconstruction, NPS
Interior of Bent’s Old Fort, a reconstruction of Bent’s Fort. Image Source: National Park Service.

Fort John and the American Fur Company

In 1834, William Sublette and Robert Campbell, who started their own company to compete with the American Fur Company, established Fort William — later Fort John, then Fort Laramie — at the confluence of the Laramie River and North Platte River in present-day Wyoming. 

Although Fort William was approximately 350 miles north of Bent’s Fort, it also served as a gathering place for various Plains Tribes, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux. Just like at Fort John, the tribes traded valuable animal pelts with the Americans for various goods, including guns. 

To produce the pelts they needed, Black Kettle and his people followed the massive herds of buffalo across the Plains, which also served as an important source of food.

John Jacob Astor, Portrait, Jarvis
John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Black Kettle’s Son-in-Law George Bent is Born

In 1843, William Bent and Owl Woman had a son. They named him George. When Owl Woman died in 1846, William married her sister, Yellow Woman, which was according to Cheyenne customs. 

George grew up living among the Cheyenne, and his stepmother taught him the language and customs of their people.

In 1866, Bent married Magpie, who was raised by Black Kettle.

George Bent, with Magpie, 1867, NPS
George Bent and his wife, Magpie. Image Source: National Park Service.

Black Kettle and Manifest Destiny

Black Kettle was an eyewitness to the westward expansion of the United States. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, more Americans were able to migrate west along the Oregon Trail and other roads. While many of those Americans were simply looking for a new start, they were also granted land by the government, or dreamed of finding gold in places like California or Colorado.

The Mexican-American War Opens the West for Manifest Destiny

During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Bent’s Fort was used by part of the U.S. Army, under the command of Colonel Stephen Watts Kearney, to prepare for its invasion of Mexican Territory. When the war was over, William Bent tried to sell the fort to the U.S. Army.

Following the Mexican Cession, which was the territory Mexico ceded to the U.S. as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States controlled most of the territory between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

Americans were free to migrate west, without fear of being attacked by Mexican forces. However, attacks from Plains Indians were still a threat.

The California Gold Rush and Cholera Epidemic

After President James K. Polk announced that gold was found in California in 1848, Americans started moving westward in large numbers. Many made their way to Fort John, along the Great Platte River Road. 

California Gold Rush, Gold Miners, El Dorado
Gold miners in California. Image Source: Library of Congress.

They brought cows with them to pull wagons and had an impact on the grass that was the food source for the buffalo. The cows ate grass, and they trampled it, along with the wagons and settlers walking on foot. The buffalo were forced to find new pastures for grazing — and the Indians were forced to follow them.

The migrants caused further issues for the Plains Tribes, by hunting the buffalo and cutting down trees to use for timber. 

Plains Indians responded by attacking Wagon Trains. However, tribal leaders soon learned they could trade with the migrants as well, and received, food, gifts, and guns in return for safety.

Black Kettle believed the arrival of cows was the realization of an old prophecy that said a horned animal would replace the buffalo.

Settlers from the East Coast and Midwest also carried diseases with them, like cholera. Many of the Southern Cheyenne suffered and died, however Black Kette and Little Sage survived.

That same year, Bent’s Fort burned to the ground, although the cause of the fire is unclear. Some believe the U.S. Army was unwilling to pay Bent what he wanted for it. Others believe the cholera outbreak led him to burn it down himself.

Black Kettle and the Treaty of Fort Laramie

In 1849, the government bought Fort John and renamed it Fort Laramie. It was intended to help an attempt to establish the U.S. government and military in the region, which would protect migrants using the westward trails, including the Santa Fe Trail.

Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick — another legend of the Fur Trade Era — used the fort as his base of operations, and traveled throughout the region, visiting the leaders of the various Plains Tribes in 1850. The purpose of the visits was to convince tribal leaders to attend a council in 1851, which would be held at Horse Creek, 35 miles east of Fort Laramie.

Black Kettle was among the tribal leaders who believed it was necessary to make peace with the United States. The nine tribes who attended the meeting were the Oglala Sioux, Assiniboin, Arapaho, Shoshone, Brule Sioux, Mandan, Crow, Arikara, Rees, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, and Snake. The Comanche, Apache, and Kiowa were invited but refused.

On August 31, 1851, Black Kettle joined an estimated 9,000 Plains Indians from the nine nations at Horse Creek. The tribal leaders met with Fitzpatrick and D. D. Mitchell, the  Superintendant of Indian Affairs.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, which was intended to establish peace between the tribes and the government. The treaty also was aimed at protecting American settlers, creating a military presence for the United States in the region, and safeguarding the roads and trails, including the Oregon Trail.

Under the provisions of the treaty, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were given land in the Platte River Basin, provided they refrained from harassing migrants and allowed the government to build forts and roads. Other tribes that were given land were the Arikara, Assiniboine, Crow, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Shoshone, and Lakota.

One of the provisions of the treaty stipulated the tribes would remain at peace with each other. 

Despite the treaty, the Plains Tribes fought with each other.

While Black Kettle was in Mexico Territory fighting another tribe, Little Sage was captured and carried away by warriors from the Ute Tribe. Black Kettle never saw her again.

Black Kettle and Events Leading to the Civil War

Black Kettle saw the effects of the events that led to the Civil War in the Western Territories of the United States. Following the Annexation of Texas (1845), the Mexican Cession (1848), and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), sectional differences over slavery spilled over the Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory. In 1861, the Colorado Territory was created, which was where Black Kettle and the Southern Cheyenne were usually located.

Bent’s New Fort

After the first fort burned down in 1849, William Bent moved 35 miles to the east. 

In 1853, he built a new fort — called Bent’s New Fort — at Big Timbers. The new fort overlooked the Arkansas River.

By then the Fur Trade was dying out and Bent became an Indian Agent for the Upper Arkansas Indian Agency. Stationed at Bent’s New Fort, he worked on behalf of the Cheyenne and other Plains Tribes with the Federal Government.

George Bent Goes to Missouri

In 1853, William Bent decided to send George and his other children to Missouri to live with Colonel Albert G. Boone. He was the grandson of Daniel Boone — the legendary frontiersman — who had been a friend and business associate of Bent’s. 

In Missouri, George and his siblings attended a boarding school in Westport. Although they received their education, they were also exposed to teachers who looked down on the Cheyenne and others who were considered to be non-Christian.

Bleeding Kansas

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, creating the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and instituted “Popular Sovereignty” in Kansas, giving the people in the territory the ability to decide if Kansas would be a Free State or Slave State.

It led to violence on the frontier, known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions fought with each other. Although most of the violence took place in the Kansas Territory, it spilled over into Western Missouri.

John Brown, Abolitionist
Abolitionist John Brown played a key role in the Kansas-Nebraska War. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Black Kettle Joins the Council of 44

Soon after Little Sage was carried off by the Ute, Black Kettle married a member of the Watupia Band. Her name was Medicine Woman Later. Her father, Bear with Feathers, was the chief of the band. In 1854, Bear with Feathers died, and Black Kettle replaced him. As chief, Black Kettle became a member of the Cheyenne Council of 44.

George Bent Attends Webster College

In 1857, after finishing his primary education, George went to St. Louis to live with Robert Campbell, another prominent businessman of the Fur Trade Era. George attended Webster College

Pike’s Peak Gold Rush

Despite the Treaty of Fort Laramie, tensions between the Plains Tribes, American settlers, and government troops increased during the 1850s. The situation was made worse when gold was discovered in Colorado in several locations.

This led to the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush — also known as the Colorado Gold Rush — and an influx of American settlers into the area, especially the land that had been given to the Cheyenne and Arapaho by the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Black Kettle and the Treaty of Fort Wise

As the nation prepared for the possible outbreak of the civil war, the Buchanan Administration took measures to secure safe access to the gold fields in Colorado and the roads and trails that led to them. 

The Treaty of Fort Laramie granted safe passage through the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, but it did not give Americans permission to settle in the territory or mine gold.

A negotiator, Alfred Burton “A.B.” Greenwood, was sent to Bent’s New Fort to meet with the chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including Black Kettle. Unfortunately, Greenwood was unwilling to wait for all the chiefs to arrive and started the negotiations. Black Kettle protested the decision, but Greenwood ignored him and moved forward.

A treaty was hammered out and signed on February 15, 1861, at Fort Wise. Black Kettle was there, along with a handful of tribal leaders. One of the U.S. representatives was J.E.B. Stuart, who joined the Confederacy a few months later.

The provisions of the treaty reduced the territory of the tribes and created an Indian Reservation on the Upper Arkansas River for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The tribes also agreed to give up their nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life and turn to traditional agriculture.

The chiefs, including Black Kettle, signed the treaty. However, most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho continued their way of life and did not move to the reservation. The refusal to follow the treaty was followed by violence, as Plains Indians clashed with American settlers.

On February 28, 1861, less than two weeks after the Treaty of Fort Wise was signed, the Colorado Territory was established.

Black Kettle’s American Flag

At some point during 1860–1861, Black Kettle was given an American Flag. Accounts vary as to when it was given to him and who gave it to him. Some say it was given to him by A.B. Greenwood in 1860 or 1861. 

Others say it was given to him in 1863 when Black Kettle and other Peace Chiefs visited President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. However, accounts disagree over who was part of the delegation, and Black Kettle might not have made the trip.

Regardless of how he came to have the flag, Black Kettle believed if his people were threatened by U.S. forces he could wave the flag and they would be spared.

The Civil War Leads George Bent to Black Kettle

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, tensions were high on the frontier. In May, Union troops were marching Confederate prisoners along a street in St. Louis when someone fired a shot. The Union troops responded by firing into the crown.

The incident was witnessed by George Bent and many of his classmates at Webster College. Upset over what they had seen, many of them volunteered to join the Confederacy, including George.

As a private in the First Missouri Cavalry, George fought in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (August 10, 1861), the First Battle of Lexington (September 13–20, 1861), and the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 7–8, 1862).

On August 30, 1862, George was near Memphis, Tennessee, and taken to the Gratiot Street Military Prison — in St. Louis — where he was well-known by many people. After agreeing to the Oath of Allegiance, he was paroled and released into the custody of his father, William Bent.

Despite signing the oath, Bent still favored the Confederacy, which led him to decide to live with the Cheyenne side of his family instead of the American side.

In April 1863, he joined Black Kettle and the Southern Cheyenne. Not only did he live with them, but he joined in raids against other tribes as a member of the Crooked Lances, a Cheyenne warrior society. George was eventually joined by his younger half-brother, Charley.

Black Kettle and Events Leading to the Indian War of 1864

Black Kettle and his people were engaged in conflicts with the United States on the frontier, during the Civil War. During this time, many government officials treated the Plains Indians poorly. Even President Abraham Lincoln suggested they would be better off giving up their traditional way of life by embracing agriculture and other aspects of the traditional American way of life.

The Dog Soldiers

As tensions between the Cheyenne and American settlers increased, rumors spread that George and Charley Bent were leading raids against settlers. However, the Cheyenne warriors responsible for the attacks were known as the “Dog Soldiers,” and were from bands other than the Southern Cheyenne. They were also joined by warriors from other bands, including the Lakota Sioux.

John Evans Becomes Governor of the Colorado Territory

On March 26, 1862, John Evans was appointed the second Governor of the Colorado Territory. Evans was an Illinois businessman who supported building railroads through the territory. Evans, who also served as the Superintendant of Indian Affairs for the territory, is often portrayed as favoring treaties that transferred land from the Plains Indians to American settlers.

Peace Chiefs Visit President Lincoln

In Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln and other government officials were worried about the influence of the Confederacy in the Colorado Territory. 

It raised the possibility that the Plains Indians could form an alliance with the Confederate States. Lincoln responded by calling for a meeting with leaders from the Plains Tribes.

On March 27, 1863, Lincoln met with the delegation from the Plains Tribes, who were known as the Peace Chiefs. They were the older chiefs from the tribes, who sought peace instead of conflict. The Southern Cheyennes were White Antelope, War Bonnet, and Standing-in-Water.

Peace Chiefs, 1863, Lincoln's Summer House
This photograph shows members of the delegation of Plains Indians that met with President Lincoln. Image Source: White House History.

Some accounts indicate Black Kettle was a part of the delegation but this is disputed.

During the meeting, President Lincoln delivered a speech to the Peace Chiefs. He told them that he saw their best chance to “become as numerous and prosperous as the white race” was to leave their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind and embrace “cultivation of the earth.”

Lincoln gave each of the Peace Chiefs a medal, indicating his desire to have peaceful relations with the Plains Tribes.

John Chivington — the “Fighting Parson”

In November 1862, John Chivington, who was known as the “Fighting Parson,” was appointed Commanding Colonel of the Military District of Colorado. Chivington played a key role in the  Union victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (March 26–28, 1862), which led to his appointment.

Chivington was a Methodist pastor from Ohio and a “Free Soiler” who opposed the expansion of slavery. He moved west in 1853, where he served as a missionary to the Wyandot People in western Missouri. 

John Chivington, Fighting Parson, Glorieta Pass, Sand Creek Massacre
John Chivington. Image Source: The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West by Don E. Alberts, 1998, Archive.org.

After being involved in the Kansas-Nebraska Wars, Chivington was sent to Omaha, Nebraska, and then to Denver, Colorado. In August 1861, he accepted a commission as a Major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers.

Despite his religious background, Chivington believed the only path forward with the Cheyenne was to eliminate them. He said, “…the Cheyennes will have to be roundly whipped — or completely wiped out — before they will be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them.”

Black Kettle and the Indian War of 1864

Black Kettle and the Southern Cheyenne were caught up in the Indian War of 1864 — also known as the Colorado War.

The Battle of Fremont’s Orchard Starts the Indian War of 1864

Despite Lincoln’s peace offering, hostilities between the Plains Indians and the U.S. Army continued. Starting in April, the army carried out raids on four Cheyenne villages. The Cheyenne retaliated by attacking Wagon Trains of migrants, Stagecoach Stations, and farms.

On April 12, the 1st Regiment Colorado (US) Volunteer Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Clark Dunn, fought with a group of Indians. 

According to the report filed by Captain George Sanborn, there were 15-20 Indians, and each of them was “armed with a rifle, a Colt revolver, and bows and arrows.” Further, Sanborn accused them of being on the “war-path.”

These events are viewed as the start of the Indian War of 1864 in which the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes fought the Colorado Militia and the U.S. Army.

A little more than a month later, Lean Bear, a Peace Chief, was killed when the 1st Regiment attacked another Cheyenne village. Lean Bear was wearing the peace medal given to him by President Lincoln when he was shot.

Oregon Trail, Wagon Train Breaking Camp, Painting, Miller
Breaking up Camp at Sunrise by Alfred Jacob Miller depicts a Wagon Train. Image Source: The Walters Art Museum.

The Huntgate Massacre 

On June 11, 1864, a group of Indians, rumored to have been Dog Soldiers, attacked and brutally murdered the Huntgate Family. The family was living on a ranch owned by Isaac Van Wormer, southeast of Denver. 

The bodies of Nathan Huntgage, Ellen Huntgate, their 2-year-old daughter Laura, and their 5-month-old daughter Florence were found by a posse that was out hunting for cattle thieves. The Huntgates had been scalped and their bodies were mutilated. The posse collected the bodies and took them to Denver.

Governor Evans, believing the attack to be an act of war, notified Edwin M. Stanton, the U.S. Secretary of War, and asked for permission to raise a regiment of volunteers to fight the Indians.

Evans responded by issuing two proclamations.

On June 27, he ordered all “friendly” Plains Indians to report to their local Indian Agent. The Agent would direct them to a designated place where they would be safe from further reprisals. William Bent was given the task of spreading the message to the leaders of the Plains Tribes.

On August 11, he issued a proclamation to Americans living in the territory. He gave them permission to kill hostile Indians, which was intended to mean any Indians who did not seek shelter per his first proclamation. 

The Bloodless Third

Not long after issuing the proclamation, Evans received permission from Congress and the U.S. War Department to organize a volunteer militia for 100 days of service. 

The 3rd Regiment is known as the “Bloodless Third” and the “Hundred-daysers” due to their lack of experience in battle and 100 days of service.

Black Kettle Writes a Letter to Wynkoop

After Governor Evans issued his proclamation, Black Kettle wrote letters to S.G. Colley, an Indian Agent, and Major Edward Wynkoop, the commander of Fort Lyon (formerly Fort Wise). George Bent transcribed the letters on behalf of Black Kettle and the other Peace Chiefs who wanted to ensure the safety of their people. In the letter, Black Kettle offers a prisoner exchange as a sign of good faith.

Black Kettle Meets with Wynkoop Near Smokey Hill River

The letters were carried to Fort Lyon by Chief One Eye and delivered on September 4. Seeing an opportunity to keep the peace, Wynkoop rode out on September 6 to meet with Black Kettle and some of the other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders at Smokey Hill River.

At the meeting, the Indians agreed to release four American children who had been taken as prisoners. Wynkoop agreed to escort Black Kettle and the others to Denver, where they could meet with Governor Evans. 

Black Kettle and the others went with Wynkoop to Fort Lyon.

On September 18, Wynkoop wrote a letter to Evans, informing him he was on his way to Denver with the freed children and seven of the chiefs from the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including Black Kettle.

When Wynkoop arrived in Denver, Evans initially refused to meet with Black Kettle and the others, because he considered them to be at war with the United States. However, Wynkoop was able to convince him to go through with it, since they had traveled roughly 400 miles to discuss a resolution to the ongoing violence.

Black Kettle Meets with Governor Evans at the Camp Weld Conference

On September 28, Black Kettle and the delegation of chiefs met with Evans and others including Chivington. 

Black Kettle spoke on behalf of the chiefs and said they had complied with the first order issued by Evans, noting they released prisoners and traveled to Fort Lyon.

Evans made it clear that he considered them to be at war with the U.S. and accused them of forming an alliance with the Sioux — which was nothing more than a rumor. Black Kettle and the others disputed the accusation, but Evans ignored their pleas.

Evans told them they needed to show their support for the government and the way to do that was to take direction from Chivington and provide support for the U.S. forces against any Indians who were fighting against them.

Chivington told Black Kettle and the others that if they wanted peace, they needed to surrender to Wynkoop at Fort Lyon. Black Kettle and the others agreed and even had their pictures taken. It was the only time pictures were taken of Black Kettle.

Camp Weld Conference, 1864, Chief Black Kettle
This photograph from the Camp Weld Conference includes Black Kettle (seated, in the center of the middle row). In the front row, kneeling, are Major Edward Wynkoop (left) and Captain Silas S. Soule. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Black Kettle Returns to Fort Lyon

Black Kettle and the chiefs returned to their people at Fort Lyon. Wynkoop followed a few days later. When he arrived, he met with Black Kettle and the others. Wynkoop told them they were free to go out to their villages and bring their people back to Fort Lyon, which they did.

Black Kettle and the Camp at Sand Creek

By mid-October, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had established a camp along Sand Creek, on the northern edge of the Upper Arkansas Reservation. It is estimated there were 750 people living there. Among them were Black Kettle, George Bent, and many of the Peace Chiefs.

Black Kettle and the Events Leading to the Sand Creek Massacre

Black Kettle worked to ensure the safety of his people during the sequence of events that led to the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Wynkoop is Removed from Command

In early November, sometime between the 2nd and 5th, Major Scott Anthony arrived at Fort Lyon with orders to replace Wynkoop as the commanding officer. Wynkoop was apparently relieved from his command due to his kind treatment of the Indians and accusations he had provided them with food rations.

Anthony was under orders not to deal with the Indians, or even allow them into the fort. However, after Wynkoop briefed him on the negotiations with Black Kettle and the others, Anthony traded food with a group of Araphahoes in exchange for many of their weapons.

Before Wynkoop left, he told Black Kettle and the other chiefs that Anthony would treat them well. Anthony also told the Indians he found the situation at Fort Lyon to be much better than he had been told. However, he was not allowed to provide them with rations but hoped to receive new orders that would allow it.

Anthony suggested they remain at their village at Sand Creek, which would allow them to hunt buffalo. Black Kettle agreed to remain at Sand Creek. 

According to some accounts, Anthony gave Black Kettle a white flag. It was meant to show that the Sand Creek village was peaceful and not at war with the United States.

Soon after, more Cheynnes and Arapahoes moved to the village.

Chivington Prepares to Attack Black Kettle’s Village

Meanwhile, the 1st Regiment and 3rd Regiment started gathering at Camp Fillmore, near present-day Boone, Colorado, on November 18. 

With them was James Beckwourth, a well-known Fur Trader and Mountain Man who was a chief in the Crow Tribe. Beckwourth was hired to serve as a guide and interpreter for the 3rd Regiment.

James Beckwourth, Mountain Man, Portrait
James Beckwourth. Image Source: Wikipedia.

On November 24, the 3rd Regiment, under the command of Chivington, started its march to Fort Lyon. Two days later, Wynkoop departed Fort Lyon and went east to his new position, which was at Fort Riley in Kansas.

On the 28th, Chivington arrived at Fort Lyon, where he posted guards around the fort so that no one could enter or leave. It is believed he did this to keep anyone from alerting the Sand Creek Village that he had arrived.

Around 8:00 that night, Chivington approximately 675 men from the 3rd Regiment and the 1st Rement toward the Sand Creek village.

Although Jim Beckwourth may have been with them, they were guided to the camp by George Bent’s older brother, Robert. Bent, who was employed at Fort Lyon as a guide and interpreter had been ordered by Chivington to lead the way. Bent later testified that Chivington had 900-1,000 men under his command.

The Sand Creek Massacre Begins

Chivington’s men took positions around the Sand Creek Camp and attacked at dawn. However, when the order was given, two officers refused to engage and ordered their men to hold their fire. They were:

  • 1st Colorado Cavalry, Company D, under the command of Captain Silas Soule.
  • 1st Colorado Cavalry, Company K, under the command of Lieutenant Joseph Cramer. 

The remainder of Chivington’s force carried out the attack as ordered.

Black Kettle and the Sand Creek Massacre

When the attack started, Black Kettle’s American Flag and the white flag were run up a pole. According to Robert Bent:

“When we came in sight of the camp I saw the American flag waving and heard Black Kettle tell the Indians to stand round the flag, and there they were huddled — men, women, and children. This was when we were within fifty yards of the Indians. I also saw a white flag raised. These flags were in so conspicuous a position that they must have been seen.”

Robert Bent
Sand Creek Massacre, 1864, Illustration, Howling Wolf
This illustration depicts the Sand Creek Massacre. It was drawn by Howling Wolf, a Southern Cheyenne who was an eyewitness and fought against the Colorado Cavalry. Image Source: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College.

However, Chivington’s men ignored the flags. The camp, which was occupied primarily by old men, women, and children who could not hunt, was overrun. Many Indians were brutally killed in the attack. Black Kettle’s wife was shot multiple times.

It is estimated that at least 230 people living in the camp were killed by Chivington’s Men, including Left Hand, an Arapaho leader. In the aftermath, the Americans scalped many of the victims and mutilated the bodies.

Black Kettle escaped from the camp and joined the warriors who were using their rifles to shoot at the soldiers. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the survivors, including Black Kettle, fled the camp and traveled roughly 100 miles north to the camp of the Dog Soldiers. 

Among the survivors were George Bent and Charley Bent, although George was shot in the hip. Black Kettle’s wife also survived the attack, despite her wounds.

Black Kettle’s band, the Wutapiu, is believed to have suffered the most casualties in the attack.

Unfortunately, eight members of the Council of 44 — some of whom were Peace Chiefs — were killed at Sand Creek. They were: White Antelope, One Eye, Yellow Wolf, Big Man, Bear Man, War Bonnet, Spotted Crow, and Bear Robe.

The Colorado War Escalates

Many tribal leaders of the Cheyenne and Arapaho were outraged over the Sand Creek Massacre. They were upset with the U.S. because of the attack on a peaceful village, but they were also upset with Black Kettle. Many felt the approach of brokering peace with the Americans was the cause of the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Over the winter of 1864–1865, warrior bands, including the Dog Warriors, carried out raids on American settlements. In January 1865, the town of Julesburg was burned to the ground.

George and Charley Bent participated in raids, as members of the Dog Soldiers, including the attack on Julesburg.

Black Kettle and the Little Arkansas Treaty

Despite the Sand Creek Massacre, Black Kettle remained committed to doing what he could to peacefully resolve issues between his people and the United States.

After accounts of the massacre spread through the media, the government ordered an investigation, which was conducted by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Despite the committee’s recommendations, no charges were filed against Chivington or others. 

However, the government sent a commission to meet with Black Kettle and the surviving chiefs. The commission included Colonel Henry Leavenworth, Kit Carson, and William Bent. The U.S. delegation arrived on October 4, 1865. The Cheyenne, led by Black Kettle, and the Arapaho, led by Little Raven, arrived on October 11.

Over the course of three days, a new peace treaty was negotiated. It established peace between the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the United States, and also set aside land in Indian Territory as a reservation for them to live on. 

The treaty also provided reparations to many of the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, including Black Kettle.

The treaty was signed by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and U.S. on October 14, 1865. A second treaty, between the Comanche, Kiowa, and U.S. was signed on October 18.

William Bent, Little Raven, Fort Dodge, c 1865, Soule
This photo by William S. Soule, circa 1865, shows Little Raven, an Arapaho Chief (far left), sitting with William Bent. Image Source: Plains Indian Raiders by Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, 1968, Archive.org.

Failure of the Little Arkansas Treaty

Despite the promise of a new reservation for Black Kettle and the Cheyenne, they had to stay in Colorado Territory, because the was occupied by other Indian tribes, which had been moved there by the government.

The reparations, as stipulated in the treaty, also failed to materialize. Although the tribes received some of the money, individuals like Black Kettle never received their payments.

Hancock’s War

Unfortunately, the Little Arkansas Treaty also failed to appease the Dog Soldiers, who did not agree to it. Hostilities between them and the U.S. Army continued and the Army built new forts in Kansas, further agitating the Cheyenne. 

In the spring of 1867, General Winfield Scott Hancock was sent to Kansas. When he arrived, he ordered the burning of an Indian camp near Fort Larned. This led to a series of battles and skirmishes known as “Hancock’s War.”

Winfield Scott Hancock, Civil War General
Winfield Scott Hancock. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Black Kettle and the Medicine Lodge Treaty

In order to restore peace, the government sent a peace commission in the fall to meet with Indian leaders, although the true goal was to secure the region for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The peace commission included:

  • Nathaniel G. Taylor, Commission of Indian Affairs
  • Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri
  • General William T. Sherman
  • Samuel F. Tappan, a well-known abolitionist, and supporter of Indian rights

From October 21 to October 28, treaties were negotiated and signed with the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Arapaho, and Southern Cheyenne.

The treaties, known as the Medicine Lodge Treaty, created two new reservations in Indian Territory for the tribes and also required their children to attend boarding schools run by the U.S. to “insure the civilization of the tribes.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, Seated, Portrait, Brady
William T Sherman. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Failure of the Medicine Lodge Treaty

There were two significant issues, among others, with the Medicine Lodge Treaties.

First, the Dog Soldiers were not represented and did not believe the provisions applied to them. As a result, hostilities with the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers continued — including young warriors from the Southern Cheyenne. Other tribes, including the Lakota Sioux and Kwahada Comanche, also fought the U.S. Army.

Second, the new reservations did not include their hunting grounds. The tribes were permitted to hunt outside of the reservations, but only as long as the buffalo existed. This led the tribes to continue to follow buffalo herds for long distances and they failed to embrace the agricultural lifestyle the government preferred.

Black Kettle and Events Leading to the Battle of Washita

By the late 1860s, Black Kettle was growing old and losing influence over the younger members of his people. However, he still tried to ensure their safety when the U.S. Army decided to send Lieutenant General George Amstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry to deal with the  Southern Cheyenne and other tribes.

Sheridan Plans a Winter Campaign

President Ulysses S. Grant responded to the ongoing hostilities by placing Major General Philip Sheridan in command of the Department of the Missouri. 

Sheridan intended to bring order to the region by moving all Indians to reservations where the government would be responsible for their care. Any Indians that were found outside of reservations would be considered hostile and punished.

General Philip Sheridan, USA, Civil War, LOC
Philip H. Sheridan. Image Source: Library of Congress.

In order to subdue the warring factions, he decided to change the military strategy and planned a winter campaign. The idea behind it was that the Indians would be sheltered for the winter, making them unprepared to defend against attacks. Further, the villages would be occupied by more than warriors — the elderly, women, and children — making it difficult to escape the attacks.

In November 1868, Sheridan ordered three columns of U.S. Army cavalry and infantry troops to engage the war parties of the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho. By that time, Black Kettle, the Southern Cheyenne, and the Southern Arapaho were in the western portion of Indian Territory, in the Washita River Valley.

At the head of the army assembled by Sheridan were Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th U.S. Cavalry. Custer moved out of Fort Dodge into Indian Territory, where he established Camp Supply.

Black Kettle Seeks Protection and Goes into the Washita River Valley

On November 20, Major General William B. Hazen, the commander of the Southern Indian District, warned Black Kettle that his people were in danger.

Black Kettle went to Fort Cobb and asked for protection. However, he was told he would have to negotiate with Custer.

Black Kettle decided to move his people into the Washita River Valley, where there were other Cheyenne camps.

Black Kettle and the Battle of the Washita River

Despite heavy snow, Custer set out to find the Cheyenne and Arapaho on November 23. Advance scouts found a trail that led to an Indian camp — which happened to be Black Kettle’s village.

Nearly all accounts indicate that Black Kettle was in Indian Territory and should have been safe from an attack. However, Custer was determined to carry out his mission.

During the night of the 26th and 27th, Custer moved his men into position with help from Osage scouts. By dawn, the 7th U.S. Cavalry was assembled on a ridge to the rear of the village.

Just as the order to attack was given, someone in the village saw them. A shot was fired in the camp as a warning, alerting everyone. Custer’s men rushed the camp and quickly overran the village. 

Battle of the Washita River, Attack on Black Kettle's Village, 1868
This illustration depicting the Battle of Washita River was published in Harper’s Weekly on December 19, 1868. Image Source: Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

Black Kettle and his wife tried to escape on horseback but were shot and killed. Many of the Cheyenne living in the village who died in the attack were survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre.

Custer had his men burn the village and kill a herd of horses so they could not be used by the Dog Warriors and others. 

The fighting continued as warriors from the other Cheyenne villages came to help the people in Black Kettle’s village. The battle lasted until 3:00 in the afternoon when Custer decided to pull out and return to Camp Supply

The Battle of the Washita River marked the end of Black Kettle and his devotion to finding peace and safety for his people. 

It was also the beginning of Custer’s post-Civil War career as an Indian fighter.

Black Kettle’s Legacy

Black Kettle’s legacy is one of peace and tragedy. He tried to protect his people and their way of life after he rose to prominence as a member of the Cheyenne Council of 44 and a Peace Chief. 

However, he was part of two of the most well-known examples of violence perpetrated against the Plains Indians by the United States — the Sand Creek Massacre and the Battle of the Washita River.

Although very little is known about his early life, Black Kettle’s life is interesting because it is linked to so many key moments in American history.

Black Kettle APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study America’s Manifest Destiny and the Indian Wars for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Black Kettle Definition APUSH

Black Kettle was a prominent leader of the Southern Cheyenne tribe during the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. He advocated for peace and cooperation with white settlers, seeking to protect his people and their way of life amidst increasing tensions. However, tragedy struck in 1864 when his peaceful encampment was attacked by Colonel John Chivington’s forces in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre, resulting in the deaths of many Cheyenne, including women and children. Despite ongoing efforts to secure peace and safety for his people, Black Kettle was killed at the Battle of the Washita in 1868, roughly four years after he survived the attack at Sand Creek.