-last known words of Maj. Joel Elliott
I was selected to bring down a collection of Cheyenne tipi furnishings to a teachers' symposium at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site over the weekend. I had read about Washita in several books and so was glad to get a chance to go see the site. In talking about Fort Larned's importance, I often reach back to Sand Creek in 1864 and reach forward to Washita in 1868, two events that bookend Fort Larned's prime years.
I could recall the whole story here, but suffice to say that despite the overall success of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, some Cheyenne were still raiding and causing problems in 1868, especially later in the year. Custer, who had been relieved of command in 1867 for a year, needed to win big to redeem himself in the Army's eyes and was looking for a fight. One group of warriors provided the necessary leverage to go to war with the Cheyenne again.
Custer's 7th Cavalry came upon Black Kettle's village of Cheyenne, a small encampment west of the much larger main encampment of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and others. Custer split his command into four sections intended to envelop and converge upon Black Kettle's village. At this point, none of the army knew the larger village was still a few miles east, yet had committed to this attack. Long story short, people died on both sides including Black Kettle and his wife, Maj. Elliott charged east and found himself outnumbered and was killed with 17 of his men, Custer hurried up and burned the village and killed 800 ponies before he and his troops got out of there. It's a tragic episode for the Cheyenne well told in books such as Washita and Black Kettle, both of which are good reading, and many others. Custer also told his version of the event in his writing.
Black Kettle's encampment was in the trees along the river. Custer's troops came over the hill on the left; Elliott's troops came down through the cut on the right between the red hills while two other elements swept from this side of the river.
Necessarily, any discussion of what happened to Custer at Little Bighorn hinges on what happened at Washita. At Washita, Custer split his command. At Washita, Custer had fresh troops and the hour of day on his side. At Washita, Custer was not up against the entire village. All these things that went right at Washita went wrong at Little Bighorn. A new book, The Last Stand, does a good job paralleling just how much Washita affected Custer's other officers in the future.
It was a warm day of about 100 degrees but I got the grand tour of the site with one of the rangers. It was good that I went early because I didn't have a chance to go during the event the next day. The nature trail is an easy walk down a mowed path to the river, the village site, and the pony kill site.
Black Kettle and his wife Medicine Woman Later were shot and killed along the banks of the Washita River.
Three Cheyenne chiefs came to speak at the event, as well as several other notable tribal members to provide the teachers with perspective on Cheyenne issues and their interest in sharing and keeping their culture through children. One of the chiefs directed the action and was an essential part of our tipi construction. I got a very nice compliment from him, "You must be part Indian," while I was working on the tipi with some apparent skill. Apparently I have more knowledge than I thought.
By the time the tipi was up and my furnishings were in place, I had burned up most of the day, was sprinkled with red Oklahoma dirt, had entirely sweat through my NPS uniform (a new record), and was ready to fall over with exhaustion. It was kind of a lot of work for a few minutes of attention from the teachers, who were on a jam-packed schedule. By 2:00 I could see the clouds gathering and started packing things back up into the car to take back to Kansas.
On the way back, I drove through a few rippers of thunderstorms: rain that turned into steam as it hit the ground, and wind blowing so hard I could barely walk when I stopped for gas.
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is a nice, new park just 15 years old. It has a brand-new visitor center with great exhibits, some of which aren't quite complete yet. They have an interesting film, too, but it's a little long, clocking in at 27 minutes. Plus, they have a great air conditioning system! Very important! The bookstore has a wide selection of good books, plus armadillo stuffed animals. It's a nice place to visit if you're interested in this part of American History or if you think you ought to know. The staff is all very friendly and helpful. It's a bonus that the rolling hills of western Oklahoma with their shades of green and bright red are a nice change of scenery, too.