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Kiowa - Suffering of the 1840s

A new smallpox epidemic swept through Kiowa camps during the winter of 1839 and 1840. This outbreak is believed to have killed one-third of the Native American population across the plains. Several tribes fled to the Texas panhandle in hopes of escaping the illness. The Kiowa stopped an ongoing fight with the Cheyenne in 1840. They agreed to share hunting grounds and recognized the Arkansas River in present-day Kansas as the border between the tribes. This agreement formed a merger between the Kiowa and Comanche alliance, including the Kiowa-Apache, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho alliance. This new alliance helped strengthen the number of warriors in the wake of the most recent epidemic.

Euro-American settlers were encroaching on Kiowa lands and brought a new illness, cholera. The illness caused severe diarrhea that spread the pathogen through water contamination. With no effective sewage systems or method of water sanitation, cholera spread through communities with little resistance. Native Americans had no acquired immunity and were more susceptible by blood type to the bacterium responsible. Half of the Kiowa died during the first outbreak in 1849. There were even cases of individuals committing suicide to escape the epidemic.

Euro-American settlers were responsible for the decimation of the bison herds on which many tribes relied. When Euro-Americans plowed their grasslands for farming, they destroyed the bison’s food source. Euro-Americans also slaughtered the bison for sport at such high rates that the herds could not recover. As the tribes became increasingly dependent on trade, they started to overhunt the bison to produce trade goods. In 1841 there were too few bison to hold the Sun Dance. The tribe had to hunt antelope instead of bison by 1848 because they were facing starvation. In desperation, raids on settlements in Mexico and Texas increased, resulting in growing tensions.

The Kiowa and Comanche alliance was strained during the 1840s. The Comanche chief, Mankaguadal (Red Sleeve), called the Kiowa cowards for not joining the Comanche in raids on United States citizens. The Kiowa did not want to break the terms of the treaty of 1837. Mankaguadal was wounded during an attack on traders along the Santa Fe Trail in 1847 and called to the Kiowa to come to his aid. The Kiowa refused to rescue Mankaguadal because of his insults, and he was left to die.

The tribe’s raids into Texas after it became a part of the union in 1845 were a violation of the treaty of 1837. The United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, and after the United States won, it acquired New Mexico in 1848. With the bison populations rapidly declining, the tribe’s raids on settlements became a necessity. Most territories where the tribe conducted its raids were populated by United States citizens by the end of the 1840s. The tribe’s diplomatic policies had to change because the distinction between the United States, Texas, and Mexico was changing.

Kiowa Diplomacy in the 1850s

The Santa Fe Trail was subject to raids from various tribes in the 1850s. The United States tried to use the military to protect the Texas frontier and Santa Fe Trail, along which nearly two million dollars of merchandise travelled annually. It was clear that the military could not adequately defend the frontier, so diplomatic actions were taken. Thomas Fitzpatrick was appointed as the federal agent for the southern plains tribes. Fitzpatrick brought the Kiowa, Comanche, and Kiowa-Apache to a treaty council at Fort Atkinson near present-day Davis, Oklahoma, in July 1853.

The Fort Atkinson Treaty called for peace with the United States and Mexico, the right for the United States to construct roads and military forts in tribal territories, and an end to attacks on wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail. In return, the tribes would receive cash and trade goods worth $18,000 annually for a 10-year period. The Kiowa were reluctant to sign, but the band chief, Setangya (Sitting Bear), signed for the tribe. Dohasan and other leaders did not agree to the treaty, and the Kiowa and Comanche raids into Texas and Mexico continued.

Intrusions and the Era of Extermination

An allied war party of 1,500 Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho attacked a group of Sac and Fox who had camped in the Smoky Hills region of Kansas in 1854. The Sac and Fox had been removed by the United States to Kansas Territory from their home territory in Illinois. The Kiowa and other allied tribes were concerned about food shortages and resolved to drive the encroaching Sac and Fox from the southern plains. The Sac and Fox only had 100 warriors but had United States government-issued rifles, while the attackers had only bows and arrows. The attacking tribes suffered a major defeat.

Euro-Americans continued to invade Kiowa lands through the 1850s. The bison herds were disrupted by settlers, and the Kiowa could no longer rely on hunting to sustain their needs. The gold rush to Pike’s Peak in present-day Colorado in 1858 brought thousands of Euro-Americans through Kiowa territory. Settlements were quickly being built illegally on tribal lands, and the United States made no attempt to stop treaty violations made by the Euro-Americans. The Kiowa resorted to violence to defend their territory and way of life, but the United States threatened to end treaty payments and send a military response.

A force of Texas Rangers, Wichita, Caddo, and Tonkawa attacked a group of Kiowa and Comanche camped south of the Arkansas River in 1860. Rising Bird, a prominent Kiowa, was killed in the attack. The Kiowa staged a retaliatory attack on the Tonkawa in 1861, pushing the Tonkawa back into central Texas. The Colorado territorial governor, John Evans, initiated a policy of Indian extermination. Roughly 500 friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho were ordered to camp and were granted asylum on Sand Creek by Fort Lyon in Colorado Territory. The Cheyenne and Arapaho surrendered their arms to the authorities and were promised protection; a United States flag was flown over the principal leader’s tipi as a symbol of the United States’ promise of protection. Colonel John Chivington led the Colorado militia in a sneak attack on the camp on November 29, 1864, while many men had left to hunt. More than 130 Indians were killed, primarily women and children. News of the Sand Creek Massacre spread across the plains, proving that the United States could not be trusted.

Kit Carson led a raid on Kiowa and Comanche camps in the Texas panhandle around 1864. The attack took place in the winter, when food and supplies were needed most. Carson’s troops attacked the first camp, but several members of the tribe escaped to warn the other camps. The tribes managed to defend the camps from Carson’s raid, but the first camp was destroyed. The camp had been burned. A total of 176 tipis were destroyed along with all food and supplies. Many people were left without shelter, clothing, or food that winter.

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Entry: Kiowa - Suffering of the 1840s

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: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

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