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Massacre at Walnut Creek

In April 1973, floodwaters of Walnut Creek, near Great Bend, exposed human bones in the creek bank.  The Barton County sheriff was called to the site and he confirmed that several skeletons were present.  News broadcasts suggested that an undiscovered mass murder had been revealed.  Historical Society archeologists, suspecting that a different story was unfolding, searched 19th century archives and meticulously excavated the skeletons.  The remains of 10 adult males were discovered.  Steel arrow points, some embedded in human bones, proved that this was indeed a massacre but not a recent one.

Satanta, Kiowa chief, was sub-chief in 1864On the night of July 17, 1864, 30 teamsters with 30 wagons were encamped about seven miles east of Fort Zarah.  This fort was a small military outpost located near the Walnut Creek crossing of the Santa Fe Trail to protect wagon trains from attacks by Kiowas, Comanches, and Arapahos.  A military escort had accompanied the teamsters to Council Grove but had then returned to Fort Leavenworth with assurances that the trail was safe because of recent treaties.

A band of Kiowas had trouble with soldiers at Fort Larned on July 17 and they stole most of the fort's livestock and wounded a soldier. At about 10 a.m. July 18, 125 young Kiowa warriors attacked the 30 wagons that were then about one mile from Fort Zarah.  The teamsters had few firearms and no military escort, in spite of the fact that they were under military freighting contracts.  The soldiers at Fort Zarah witnessed the battle and attempted a rescue but were forced to turn back when they realized that a larger party of Kiowas was nearby.  Albert Gentry, a surviving teamster, was the only armed freighter. With his smooth bore firearm, he accounted for the only Kiowa casualty and escorted a number of teamsters to the fort.  Another freighter, armed with a bullwhip, kept the Kiowas at a distance until his small party could reach safety.

Man displaying scalpWhen the civilians and soldiers eventually went out to recover the bodies of their slain companions, they found the wagons plundered and 12 seemingly lifeless victims.  Ten men were indeed dead, but two were alive, though scalped and severely wounded.  The dead were buried in two graves near the crossing and it was these bones that had unveiled the massacre that was 140-year-old at the time the remains were exposed by the flood.  Robert McGee, one of the scalped survivors, was 14 years old when the attack took place.  He exhibited his scalped skull as a sideshow attraction for many years.

Relations between Native Americans and whites were tense for most of the 19th century.  Nomadic tribes native to the central United States signed treaties that forced them to give up their claims to lands they and their ancestors had roamed for hundreds of years.  Eastern tribes were relocated to lands in the area that became Kansas in the 1830s and 1840s and most were relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) when Kansas Territory was created and opened to white settlement in 1854.  A few tribes retained reservations in Kansas but the number of acres they owned was reduced drastically.

Entry: Massacre at Walnut Creek

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: March 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.