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Plains Wars

Custer's Last RallyAlthough hostilities between whites and Indians occurred throughout the West before the end of the Civil War, the Plains Indian Wars became of major concern to Kansans after 1865. Various Plains tribes associated with Kansas, such as the Cheyenne and Kiowa, clashed with white settlers who encroached upon their traditional hunting grounds during the years following the war. Thus, Kansans of all races experienced warfare of a different variety during the late 1860s and 1870s as white Americans sought to conquer the American West.

Many factors came together to cause the hostilities between Indians and whites on the Plains of Kansas. The wanton destruction of the American buffalo, however, was central to the conflict. To many people, the buffalo were simply a barrier to westward expansion. With this animal eliminated, they reasoned, the Plains tribes would be forced to settle on reservations and become wards of the state. In addition, the rich pastureland of the West could then be utilized for domestic cattle production. Thus, few white Americans protested as hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo for their hides and meat between 1865 and 1880.

To the Plains Indian, however, the great beast was a way of life, the life blood of their culture. The buffalo provided the various tribes with food, clothing, and shelter, and influenced the way they lived and what they believed. As Red Cloud, a Sioux chief, explained, the buffalo's "meat sustained life; it was cut in strips and dried, it was chopped up and packed in skins, its tallow and grease were preserved--all for winter use; its bones afforded material for implements and weapons; its skull was preserved as great medicine; its hide furnished blankets, garments, boats, ropes, and a warm and portable house; its hoofs produced glue, its sinews were used for bowstrings and made a most excellent substitute for twine." It was the buffalo that made the Plains Indians of Kansas the nomadic people who encountered and often opposed white settlement after the Civil War. Most whites gave little thought to the possible extermination of the buffalo and killed them for profit and "sport." The Indian, however, recognized this slaughter as a threat to his very existence.

From 1866 to 1867, General Hancock commanded the U. S. Army's Department of the Missouri which was headquartered at Fort Leavenworth.

General Hancock led a major expedition to western Kansas in the spring of 1867. The only event of consequence came in mid-April when the general's army torched an abandoned Indian village near Fort Larned. Rather than bring peace to the Plains with a show of force as he had hoped, most authorities agree that Hancock managed to provoke a full scale war.

After a long spring and summer of warfare throughout the West, the U. S. government initiated a major peace effort in July of 1867. Congress created a peace commission which was to negotiate settlements with the northern and southern Plains tribes. The commission consisted of seven members --Nathaniel G. Taylor, John B. Henderson, Samuel F. Tappan, John B. Sanborn, and Generals William T. Sherman, William S. Harney, and Alfred H. Terry. The commissioners traveled to Wyoming in August to meet with the powerful Sioux and other northern tribes. Unable to gather the most prominent Indian leaders at Fort Laramie, the conference was postponed. The commission moved south to keep its appointment on Medicine Lodge Creek.

Both feared and respected by most of his adversaries, Satanta was known to many as the "orator of the Plains." He played a prominent role at the peace conference on Medicine Lodge Creek.

Chiefs representing five tribes ultimately signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Like so many of these efforts to end the white-Indian conflict, however, "peace" brought only a momentary lull in Plains warfare.

General Phil Sheridan was commander of the Department of the Missouri from 1867 to 1869. He conceived a plan for a winter offensive against the Plains tribes that was initiated in November 1868. According to the New York Times, November 24, 1868: "the 'objective,' so to speak, of the campaign is their Winter quarters. It is a new experiment, often urged, but never yet fairly tried." Ten days later, the Times praised the success of the campaign.

A member of General Sheridan's staff, Forsyth became something of a national hero after leading fifty Kansas recruits in a desperate fight on the Arikaree fork of the Republican River. Several hundred Cheyenne and Sioux kept the company pinned down on "Beecher Island" for a week. During the battle, which began on September 17, 1868, Colonel Forsyth was badly wounded and nearly half his company were killed or wounded. Indian losses were even greater. After three days of intense fighting, the Indians broke off the attack and on September 25 the frontier scouts were rescued by some of their comrades from Fort Wallace.

The turning point in Sheridan's winter offensive came with Colonel Custer's defeat of the Cheyenne in the Washita River valley on November 23, 1868.

The famous Southern Cheyenne "peace chief" escaped the infamous Chivington Massacre at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 but was killed on the Washita four years later.

Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford received authorization to raise a regiment of volunteers to assist in the campaign of 1868. He then resigned as governor to take command of the 19th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry which marched south to Indian Territory. Delayed by a snow storm, the 19th arrived too late to participate in the Battle of the Washita.

After the winter campaign of 1868-1869, the worst of the Kansas Plains Indian warfare was over. Scattered incidents continued but things were relatively calm on the Kansas frontier until 1875. In April of that year some 75 Northern Cheyenne were traveling through western Kansas on their way back to the Black Hills. They were intercepted by troops out of Fort Wallace as they passed through present Sherman County. During the ensuing battle on Sappa Creek, most of the Indians were killed. Three years later, the so-called "Last Raid" in Kansas, also involving the Northern Cheyenne, proved to be the last serious incident of Indian-white conflict in the state.

The "Raid" occurred in September 1878 when a band of some 300 Cheyenne, led by Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, fled Indian Territory for their homeland north of Kansas. On their flight through the state, forty settlers were killed and a great deal of property was stolen or destroyed. After surrendering to military authorities in Nebraska, seven of Dull Knife's followers were turned over to civilian authorities and taken to Dodge City to stand trial.



Entry: Plains Wars

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: November 2001

Date Modified: March 2013

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