"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Battle of the Washita

Yesterday, I drove out to western Oklahoma in my shirtsleeves to hike in the spring-like weather.  I've been planning to spend a day out at the Black Kettle National Grasslands, which is just this side of the Oklahoma/Texas Border in one of the areas hardest hit by last year's drought.  I'd never been there, before, and wasn't sure exactly what to expect.  The Texas border is about a two and a half hour drive from the house.  I didn't have to drive as far as the border but since it is north of I-40, it would take about the same length of time to get to the grasslands, assuming I didn't stop along the way. 

I left the house, running late, at 8:30 and drove westward down I-40, passing El Reno, Hinton, Weatherford and Clinton before turning north at Foss.  I'd expected to get into rangeland faster than I did and was surprised that they had so much winter wheat that far west.  According to the Ag reports I heard on the radio, over 67% of the winter wheat crops are rated as excellent, at this point.  So that's fantastic for the farmers who really took a beating, last year.

They've thrown up wind farms all along the I-40 corridor and I find myself both fascinated and repelled by them.  
From the car, they look like huge, silent sentinels and I find myself wanting to equate them with the traditional windmills that dot the plains that I find so charming.  I tell myself that they are merely an extension of what hardy pioneer folk used and that they are making clean, efficient use of environmentally safe energy that we have in abundance in that part of the country.  I tell myself that they have their own beauty and that they fit the plains in a near perfect match up of man's energy needs and the environment.  I want to find an intellectual place where I can view them, accurately, in a sort of romantic haze - but so far, I can't.

I have a love/hate relationship with them, actually.  I nearly wreck my car because I can hardly look away.  They draw my eye to the point where it is easy to miss the splendor that is the big sky.  Although they seem silent, to me, as I drive along the interstate and see them on the plains, I know quite a few people who live near them and they hate them.  They claim they are loud and that the sound is simply never ending.   It isn't like the ebb and flow of the wind, which is as natural as the ocean waves.  And. unfortunately, the constant, pulsating drone isn't something you can look away from.  They claim the sound creeps into their homes night and day, taking away their sense of being comfortable on their land - as if industry is shoving its way into their bedrooms and back porches.  A quick google search of wind farm noise comes up with many hits on the subject.  Not only do many people claim to be sickened by it - headaches, lack of sleep, for example - there are reports of animals also being harmed, birth defects, etc., likely caused by stress.  Anyone who ever spent any time researching animal habitat knows this isn't something minor - for people or other animals. 

People tend to be adaptable, like coyotes, and it might not oppressively bother city folk used to constant man made sound and who have made peace with it, but to those folk who aren't at home in the city and who, to find peace, need to escape the jarring clangs and crashes that accompany living in a human anthill, it is a significant step towards destroying their habitat.   
As I sped down the interstate, the big mills give me something interesting to look at.  But I am very sorry that the people who are least prone to embracing noise are the ones who tend to be affected.  Although I personally think they are somewhat beautiful, I don't believe I could stand being around them for any length of time.  

I turned north at Foss and stopped by the Foss State Park Visitor's Center.  I don't believe there are friendlier people, anywhere, than the ones who work at these types of places.  While there, I saw "Snowball," a rare, white tailed deer with a white coat who died at about age six when she was struck by a car:
The average lifespan in the wild of a White Tailed deer is only about 4-5  years (although they can live more than 15 years in captivity) so I guess she had a good run.

After I left the Visitor's Center, I continued on north over the dam.  The dam was fairly high up, overlooking the lake.   While driving, a gorgeous Bald Eagle with an enormous wingspan glided alongside the car, not ten feet from the driver's side window.  It was so close I could easily see his eye.  I couldn't take a photo but it was a wonderful twenty second or so experience that felt like we were flying, together.

Eventually, I made my way to the Washita Battle Field, just west of Cheyenne, Oklahoma.
Most Oklahomans are vaguely familiar with the Battle on the Washita but for those who aren't, it was a battle (many call a massacre) between General George Custer and his 7th Calvary, and primarily the Southern Cheyennes who were part of Black Kettle's tribe and who were in their winter camp.

A little background:

Whites and Indians had been feuding for many decades leading up to the Civil War.  As more and more settlers pushed west, the government negotiated to grant land on the Great Plains to the Native Americans, a "solution" that often failed to take into account that not all Indians were alike and that some were much more warlike than others.  And a lot of them didn't like each other.  Many of the eastern Indians pushed west (or south) ended up in constant war with other Native Americans and many of them also were battling the white settlers.  Leading up to the Civil War, the government began a policy of putting Indians on reservations to make room for whites.

With the army tied down with their battles back east during the Civil War, many Plains Indians were better able to strike back at settlers who were crossing and settling on their traditional hunting grounds and/or the land promised to them by the government.   During this time, the number of white settlers increased because many were fleeing the south and east to start a new life after their old life had been decimated by war.  In many places, the plains ran red with the blood of red and white people and a reading of much of the savagery that took place is not for the fainthearted. 

In Colorado, the war with the Indians reached a fever pitch culminating, in 1864, in the Massacre at Sand Creek where the military attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp and engaged in wholesale slaughter and mutilation of men, women and children.  As it turned out, many of the chiefs murdered at Sand Creek had been espousing peace with the whites.  The stories that come out of the Massacre of Sand Creek would make any person with a heart weep and any American hang their head in shame.  Black Kettle, a chief who had been urging cooperation, flew the American flag outside his tee pee in an attempt to show the soldiers that they were peaceful.  What ended up happening was that when he and his wife eventually tried to escape the slaughter, the soldiers shot her nine times.  Seeing that she still lived, he threw her over his shoulder and raced away.  Later, he dug out all nine bullets and she survived. 

After Sand Creek, many of the younger warriors in all the plains tribes couldn't be held back by their older chiefs.  In retaliation, they engaged in numerous brutal raids against settlers that included acts of slaughter, torture, brutal rape, mutilation, and kidnapping of women and children.    Sand Creek didn't start these tactics but it escalated them among bands from tribes that historically didn't engage in such acts.

Following the Civil War, the victorious Union Army turned its eye westward and used its formidable organization to subdue the Plains Indians, once and for all.  Their strategy, at that time, was to send the Indians to reservations in order to keep them separated from white people.  Many of the Indians resisted for obvious reasons, and also because they didn't believe it was safe to be placed in the same areas as their traditional Indian enemies. 


The Battle of the Washita, or the Washita Massacre as it is commonly called, was between the United States Army and the Southern Cheyennes whose main chief was the same Black Kettle who had survived Sand Creek.  The Army had not been very successful in subduing the Indians in its summer campaigns and decided to attack them at their winter camp along the Washita River.  Black Kettle's camp was furthest to the west but a number of other Indian tribes (including additional Cheyennes, Kiowas, Arapahoes and Kiowa-Apaches) had winter villages set up about four miles to the east. 

The Washita River isn't very big in that area.  It looks more like a creek:
 In places, I could splash across it in five or six steps and wouldn't get wet past my shins.

Black Kettle, along with some of the other senior chiefs, had left the camp in the previous week to travel to Fort Cobb to speak to Government officials.  He was counseling cooperation with government authorities.  In the middle of a strong snowstorm that left about a foot of snow, he returned to his village on November 26th.  Unfortunately, the previous day, a number of young warriors had taken it upon themselves to take a war party out to kill, rape and kidnap a group of white settlers, enraging the army.  Black Kettle had been warned that the army was coming to their area and he made plans to relocate the camp closer to the other villages to the east, the following morning.  Reportedly, his wife, Maiyuna, the one who had been severely injured at Sand Creek, urged them to move that night but her advice was not taken. 

Indian names are always interesting to me and the following names of people involved strike me as particularly beautiful and/intriguing:

Old Whirlwind
Wolf Looking Back
Cranky Man (A name Mr. Wonderful could adopt, at times)
Scabby Man (he sounds like a hottie)
Bear Tongue
Half Leg
Swift Hawk Lying Down
Little Sage Woman
Little Robe
Spotted Wolf
Big Mouth
Medicine Arrows
Hard Rope
Little Beaver
Red Hair

The United States 7th Calvary, led by George Custer (who famously left his scalp at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in later years) attacked in the snow on the morning of November 27th, 1868.   Some of the Cheyenne villagers managed to escape in time to warn the other Indian tribes to the east but most were gunned down.  There doesn't seem to be a consensus on the number of dead due to the way it was counted.  Custer said about 103 people were killed but the Indians claimed it was far less.  Custer had some Osage scouts and he blamed most of the indiscriminate slaughter on them rather than the regular soldiers.  Many women and children were captured and the other tribes stood impotently on the red hills overlooking the grassy valley watching them, afraid to attack for fear that they would be harmed if they did. 
Following the massacre, Custer had over 600 Indian ponies slaughtered as part of a "scorched earth" strategy.  They couldn't control the horses and didn't want to abandon them when other warriors were in the vicinity and would surely round them up.  The death of the ponies, in full view of the women and children, was particularly horrific because they were so much a part of their culture.  It also enraged the warriors on the surrounding hilltops who could do nothing to stop it. 

One of Custer's men, Major Joel Elliot, became separated from the main group while chasing some escaping Cheyennes.  He was attacked by bands of warriors from the eastern villages and all of his men were slaughtered.  Their bodies were mutilated by the women.  There was some discussion that Custer had abandoned Elliot to his fate although he could hear the battle going on, but that was not proven.  At one point, it was touch and go as to whether Custer's troops would be able to hold out against the other Indians as they were running low on ammunition.  More ammunition arrived, however, and they managed to prevail.

Black Kettle and his wife were both shot down and killed.

With that horrific story in mind, I was in a contemplative state of mind as I walked through the battlefield that has been so beautifully maintained.
 It is a mixture of tall and short native grasses:

As I was walking along the trail, I noticed a game trail heading off towards the Wichita so I angled down it to see the water.  After strolling along the bank for a few minutes, something bright green caught my eye up ahead and I stopped to look.  At first, it looked like a teeshirt hanging on a tree.  I walked closer and then stopped dead in my tracks.  A tree along the bank was festooned with about ten "shirts" of different colors, including white, red, green, purple and yellow.  They hung from the branches and looked, for all the world, like bodies.  At that moment, it was as if the world stopped.  The wind dropped down to nothing, even the birds seems to stop making bird noises.  I felt a strong sense that I was being watched to the point where I almost turned around.  I opted to remain still, all the time thinking to myself that only a fool wouldn't look behind her when it seemed like someone was there.  I backed up and returned to the trail.  Once there, I saw this sign:
I had not realised that Native Americans sometimes drape prayer cloths on trees as part of their religious ceremonies but the spirit surrounding the tree was certainly strong enough that I was aware that something otherworldly was taking place.  I abided by the park's request to not take photos but made my own sketch to try to give a feel for what it looked like:
I couldn't make it any more distinct - to do that would have made it just look like clothes hanging on a tree and it was much more than that. 

During the rest of my walk, I began noticing tiny bits of cloth tied to tree branches that I'd never noticed, before.  It was a powerful reminder that I was walking on sacred ground.  Oklahoma has been called the buckle on the bible belt but anyone who thinks there isn't room for deep spiritual beliefs outside the Christian faith hasn't spent much time walking its lands. 

I thoroughly loved the walk out west but was thrilled to get home to Mr. Wonderful and the Girls.  Pearly, by the way, had a VERY good check up on Tuesday and the specialist said that although she could have a relapse (although she might not) that her condition was treatable and since she responds so well with medication, she should be fine.  She doesn't have to go back for another month. 

Happy Quilting, Penny, Evelyn and Pearl


swooze said...

I loved everything about this post. The imagery is spectacular.

Carol S said...

Penny, sounds like you had quite a trip. The Little Bighorn battlefield has that same eerie feeling, you just know inside that something bad happened upon that ground.
Glad the puppy is getting better. The nephew's quilt is stunning.

Florida Farm Girl said...

Wow, what a moving experience that must have been! Glad to hear Pearly is doing better.

suz said...

This is a great post. I appreciate the history, the beautiful pictures (and that you were sensitive to when not to take them), and the writing. Thank you.

Sarah or Semmy said...

Thank you Penny for this post, Our state is a beautiful state and most people think we live in a desolate area of the US. They all need to visit the entire state. We have wonderful history, although much of it is bloody. Ft. Sill, in South West Oklahoma has so much Indian History on display and even has a burial grounds open to the public where some very prominent Indians and their families are buried.

Penny said...

And Sarah or Semmy, I should point out that, contrary to popular belief likely based on the Grapes of Wrath, the dust bowl actually was centered in SE Colorado with only the Panhandle and parts of far west Oklahoma included in the worst of it. The Washita area, btw, as beautiful as it is, was also affected by the Dust Bowl. Oklahoma is not a black and white photo from those hard times - it is rich, lush and beautiful.

Karin said...
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Penny said...
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elsie123 said...

Excellent post Penny. Paying attention to the history of any area adds to the appreciation. Glad you brought this to us.

brandi said...

Dear Blogger,
I was googling images for the Battle of Washita site and found your photos. I posted one of them on my blog, and credited the source back to your blog and this post.

Thank you fellow Oklahoma Blogger, for the great article!
Brandi in OKC

anonymous said...

I followed Brandi's link. Thank you so very much for your story. Is there any atonement, any redemption?