Black Kettle

Black Kettle

Black Kettle, d. 1868, chief of the southern Cheyenne in Colorado. His attempt to make peace (1864) with the white men ended in the massacre of about half his people at Sand Creek. Despite this treachery on the part of the whites, he continued to seek peace with them, and in 1865 he signed the Treaty of the Little Arkansas. The government ignored its guarantees, and Black Kettle tried again to negotiate, signing the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. The Cheyenne might have retired to the reservation provided for them, had it not been for Gen. George Armstrong Custer. On Nov. 27, 1868, Custer and his 7th Cavalry attacked Black Kettle's camp on the Washita River without warning and killed the chief and hundreds of Native Americans.

Chief Black Kettle (Cheyenne, Moke-tav-a-to) (born ca. 1813, died November 27, 1868) was a Cheyenne leader who unsuccessfully attempted to resist white settlement from Kansas and Colorado territories. He survived the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 but died in the 1868 at the Battle of Washita River.

Early life

Little is known of Black Kettle's life prior to 1854, when he was made a chief of the Council of Forty-four, the central government of the Cheyenne.

Cheyenne-American relations had been governed by the Treaty of Fort Laramie since 1851. However, American expansion into the Great Plains continued apace, especially after the Pike's Peak Gold Rush beginning in 1859. The Cheyenne continued to be displaced from their lands.

Black Kettle was a pragmatist who believed that American military power was overwhelming, and accepted the highly unfavorable Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861, which confined the Cheyenne to the Sand Creek Reservation, a small corner of Southeastern Colorado. The land was unfit for agriculture and far away from any buffalo. Many Cheyenne warriors including the Dog Soldiers would not accept this treaty, and began to launch punitive attacks against White settlers. Whether Black Kettle opposed these actions, tolerated them, or encouraged them is the subject of historical controversy.

The Colorado War

By the summer of 1864 the situation was at boiling point. Cheyenne hardliners and the allied Kiowa and Arapaho continued raiding American settlements, sometimes taking prisoners including women and children. On 11 July 1864, the Hungate massacre of a family of settlers further inflamed matters, especially after pro-war whites publicly exhibited the bodies in Denver. Colorado governor John Evans believed the attack had been ordered by tribal chiefs and presaged a full-scale war.

Evans proclaimed that all "Friendly Indians of the Plains" must report to military posts or be considered hostile. He received authorization from the War Department to establish the Third Colorado Cavalry. The unit, composed of "100-daysers" who had signed on specifically to fight Indians, was led by John Chivington.

Black Kettle decided to accept Evans' offer, and entered negotiations. On September 28 he concluded a peace settlement at Fort Weld outside Denver. The agreement confined the Cheyenne to the Sand Creek reservation and required them to report to Fort Lyon, formerly Fort Wise. Black Kettle believed this agreement would ensure the safety of his people. He was mistaken.

Betrayal at Sand Creek

On November 28, Chivington arrived at Fort Lyon with his men. According to an eyewitness, "he stopped all persons from going on ahead of him. He stopped the mail, and would not allow any person to go on ahead of him at the time he was on his way from Denver city to Fort Lyon. He placed a guard around old Colonel Bent, the former agent there; he stopped a Mr. Hagues and many men who were on their way to Fort Lyon. He took the fort by surprise, and as soon as he got there he posted pickets all around the fort, and then left at 8 o'clock that night for this Indian camp."

At dawn on the 29th, Chivington attacked the Sand Creek reservation. Following instructions, Black Kettle flew an American flag and a white flag from his tipi, but the signal was ignored. One hundred sixty-three Cheyenne were shot or stabbed to death, and the settlement was put to the torch. Most of the victims were women and children. Chivington proudly displayed trophies of his "battle", including body parts, in Denver for months following.


Black Kettle escaped the massacre, and returned to rescue his badly injured wife. Even after this outrage, he continued to counsel pacifism, believing that military resistance was doomed to fail. The majority of Cheyenne tribes disagreed, and launched all-out warfare in alliance with the Comanche and Kiowa. Black Kettle instead moved south and continued to negotiate.

Black Kettle's efforts resulted in the Treaty of Little Arkansas River on 1864-10-14. This document promised "perpetual peace" and lands in reparation for the Sand Creek massacre. However, its practical effect was to dispossess the Cheyenne yet again. Black Kettle's influence continued to wane, and the hard line favored by Roman Nose and his Dog Soldiers became dominant.

Medicine Lodge treaty

Black Kettle's dwindling band proclaimed their desire to live peacefully alongside Americans. Black Kettle signed yet another treaty, the Medicine Lodge Treaty on 1867-10-28. However, Dog Soldiers continued their raids and ambushes across Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. The exact relationship between the two groups is a subject of dispute. According to Little Rock, second-in-command of Black Kettle's village, most of the warriors came back to Black Kettle's camp after their massacres. White prisoners including children were held within his encampment. By this time Black Kettle's influence was waning, and it is questionable whether he could have stopped any of this.

Washita Battle

In response to the continued raids and massacres, General Philip Sheridan devised a plan of punitive reprisals. His troops would respond to Indian attacks by entering winter encampments, destroying supplies and livestock, and killing those who resisted. At dawn on the morning of 1868-11-27, Chief Black Kettle, along with other members of his village, were camped on the battle that killed more than 100 Indians, Black Kettle was shot in the back along with his wife while trying to cross the river.


Black Kettle has been called a great peacemaker, especially by Native Americans. Some historians have accused him of duplicity for failing to stop raids and massacres being committed from his camp.


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