In the spring of 1866, a large group of Southern Cheyennes migrated south with Red Cloud. One of these was George Bent, the son of William Bent. George returned to the Kansas area, where he learned the Southern Cheyennes’ old friend Edward Wynkoop had become a tribal agent. Emboldened by Wynkoop’s support, and the stories of Red Cloud’s victories against the U.S. army, Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos began to plan war with the U.S.
Red Cloud’s success sent a clear, symbolic message that resonated across the country: the Native Americans wouldn’t submit to U.S. aggression, and would fight to the death for the right to continue living in their current homes.
In the autumn of 1866, Roman Nose led a group of soldiers, including Charlie Bent, to Fort Wallace, while another chief, Black Kettle, led a second group of soldiers, including George Bent. At Fort Wallace, Roman Nose threatened to attack U.S. shipping companies’ supply routes unless the U.S. stopped crossing through Cheyenne country. When they got no response, Roman Nose’s soldiers began raiding military posts; however, the cold, stormy weather prevented them from mounting ambitious attacks.
Red Cloud’s victories inspired the Native American population to lead other violent uprisings against symbols of US. Expansion, such as Fort Wallace. That both Bent siblings fought under Native American chiefs against the U.S. is a reminder that the Sand Creek Massacre left a lasting, horrific impression on both of them.
Later in the winter, Roman Nose agreed to send representatives to meet with General Winfield Scott Hancock, though Hancock was angry that Roman Nose hadn’t agreed to meet personally. Hancock informed Black Kettle’s men that he wanted to speak to all of Roman Nose’s followers. Roman Nose’s men found this request suspicious—perhaps he was trying to wipe them out.
The lengthy precedent of violence made it difficult for either the U.S. or the Native Americans to negotiate effectively—both sides thought that the other would act treacherously.
Following his aborted negotiations with the Native Americans, General Hancock marched his men out to the Cheyennes’ settlement. Worried, Roman Nose led his soldiers to defend the village. He boasted that he would “ride out alone and kill this Hancock.”
Roman Nose’s plot to kill Hancock is a good example of how the legacy of violence polarized the Native American leadership. Chiefs like Roman Nose, who might have been considered too violent in the antebellum period, now rose to great power.
The U.S. soldiers (one of whom was General George Armstrong Custer) approached Roman Nose’s men. Roman Nose waved a truce flag, and rode toward General Hancock. Arrogantly, Hancock told Roman Nose to ride away and summon his entire community. Roman Nose conferred with his men and said that he was going to kill Hancock. However, one of his followers convinced him otherwise—killing Hancock “would surely bring death to all the tribe.” Instead, Roman Nose led his followers away.
In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and Roman Nose chose not to kill Hancock. This might suggest that, for the time being, Roman Nose and his followers believed that they had something to gain by cooperating and negotiating with the U.S.—they weren’t yet at the point where they felt that they were truly fighting for their lives.
When General Hancock realized that Roman Nose had no intention of bringing his people to the U.S. army, he became angry. He sent George Armstrong Custer to track down the Native Americans. Meanwhile, the Nathaniel Taylor commission sent envoys to beg for peace (as discussed in the previous chapter). In the plains, Taylor understood, a peace agreement could only be arranged with Roman Nose’s help.
George Custer is one of the most famous and infamous figures in Native American history, a symbol of the violence of U.S. expansion. However, there were other U.S. officials, such as Taylor, who adopted a gentler, more political approach to dealing with the Native Americans.
On September 27, Roman Nose arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek for peace arrangements. After October 16, Black Kettle, as well as representatives of the Arapahos, Comanches, Kiowas, and Prairie Apaches joined the peace talks. By October 21, the Kiowas and Comanches had accepted a treaty: they’d share a reservation with the Cheyennes and Arapahos. However, no Cheyenne chiefs signed.
The fact that some, but not all, chiefs signed the U.S. peace treaty suggests that Native American tribes were at a crossroads—some were still willing to use politics to interact with the U.S. government, while others had already concluded that the U.S. would only respond to force.
Several days later, the Cheyenne delegation arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek. To show their strength, Cheyenne warriors fired their weapons high into the air—when the white men cowered, the Cheyennes laughed. The rest of the Medicine Lodge council proceeded with the Cheyennes present. The chiefs decided that accepting the treaty was the only way to ensure their survival. After the chiefs signed, the U.S. commissioners offered the chiefs guns and other gifts. However, Roman Nose never signed the treaty.
Some of the Native American tribes that signed the treaty with the U.S. did so only reluctantly—they didn’t want to work with the U.S., but also understood that doing so was the best way to protect their people from extermination (even though moving onto a tiny, barren reservation was, in many ways, a form of extermination).
In the winter of 1867-68, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes had mostly relocated to below the Arkansas River. They received none of the arms or supplies the U.S. government promised them. Wynkoop was able to obtain some obsolete guns and ammunition for them, but nothing else. General Philip Sheridan, the man responsible for the approving the shipment of guns to the Cheyennes, was alleged to have said, “Give them arms, and if they go to war my soldiers will kill them like men.”
Sheridan’s comments may seem shocking, but they were hardly uncommon among U.S. generals at the time. Many of these generals and colonels believed that they were doing their country a great service by murdering Native Americans, and relished the chance to exterminate entire tribes, clearing the way for white settlers, the true inheritors of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”
In September 1868, a group of Sioux hunters spotted a group of white soldiers. This group had been organized by General Sheridan to find and destroy Native American camps. The hunters rushed to meet with Roman Nose. Roman Nose ordered for Cheyenne and Sioux warriors to prepare for battle. The next morning, Roman Nose’s troops circled the soldiers’ camp. Roman Nose led his men in a charge on the soldiers. The soldiers fired back, killing Roman Nose and many of his men.
Tragically, Roman Nose died like many other Native American chiefs—leading a charge against better armed and arguably better trained American soldiers.
The soldiers later called the fight the Battle of Beecher’s Island. They boasted about killing “hundreds of redskins,” and celebrated Roman Nose’s death. The battle broke the Cheyennes’ resistance, and many of them migrated south. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Cheyenne tribe, the U.S. military was preparing a column of soldiers, led by Custer, to wipe out all Native Americans in the territory, even those who’d kept their treaty obligations.
The U.S. soldiers clearly felt no compunction about killing Roman Nose—they saw him as an enemy of the state and nothing more. They had no sympathy for his point of view—that the U.S. was breaking its word by expanding westward, and that Roman Nose was morally justified in defending his territory from white settlers. Meanwhile, Custer prepared for outright genocide.
Black Kettle had become the de facto leader of the surviving Cheyennes. He rode out to Fort Cobb and begged for shelter, but the fort’s commanders refused, knowing that the military was planning a massacre. Shortly afterwards, Custer’s forces arrived at Black Kettle’s village. Custer led a charge, while his military band played music. In only a few minutes, hundreds of Native Americans were dead, only a few of them warriors. Among the dead was Black Kettle.
The scene is especially sickening because there’s music playing during the slaughter of the Native Americans. In a way, that’s what Manifest Destiny was—the glitzy, patriotic music that played during the long genocide of the Native American population.
Following the massacre, the survivors of Black Kettle’s band arrived at Fort Cobb, begging for food. Yellow Bear, an Arapaho chief, also brought his men to Fort Cobb. When he arrived, he told General Sheridan, who was stationed in the fort, that he was a “good Indian.” Sheridan infamously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
In 1869, the government mandated that Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos be concentrated in a reservation near Fort Sill. During this migration, some of the Southern Cheyennes broke off and rode north under the leadership of Tall Bull. For months, Tall Bull’s forces attacked supply trains and ranches, often kidnapping women and children in retaliation for crimes against Native Americans. However, Tall Bull was killed by Pawnee mercenaries. With the Cheyennes’ leaders dead, “the ranks of the proud Cheyennes were thinning to extinction.”
Like most of its predecessors, the chapter ends with the twilight of a Native American tribe, in this case the Cheyennes.