Today In Western History: The Salt Creek Massacre

May 18, 1871

Kiowa war chief Satanta leads an attack on a wagon train at Salt Creek, Texas, killing seven of the party.

Also known as White Bear, he was the last last, of the Kiowa War Chiefs and was well known for both his prowess as a warrior, and his soaring oratorical powers
Also known as White Bear, he was the last last, of the Kiowa War Chiefs and well known for both his prowess as a warrior, and soaring oratorical powers.

In October 1867, federal officials had held a summit with Kiowa and Comanche leaders in Barber County, Kansas, resulting in the Medicine Lodge Treaty. For a number of reasons, the treaty was a failure, as were most of the treaties between the whites and the Native Americans.  As usual, many Indian bands did not recognize it as valid. Similarly, the federal government was lax about enforcing the treaty once it was signed, allowing white outlaws to prey upon reservation Indians.

The primary reason most of the treaties failed is that neither side fully understood the other’s form of governmental structure, and both expected the other to operate as they did. In the Native American culture, the chief was an elected position, but no one was obligated to do what he said if they disagreed.  He did not represent the entire tribe.  For the white culture, they expected the chief to represent the whole tribe or the entire collection of tribes.  The Native Americans didn’t understand the concept of ownership of the land, so they couldn’t understand the settlers cutting it up to farm.  This mutual misunderstanding could only lead to disaster for both sides, but mostly for the Native Americans, as the different tribes seldom fought together, the major exceptions being a little dustup in June of 1876 out in western Montana.

The late 1860s was a time of danger and conflict for everyone, Texan or Indian, as the frontier remained unsafe and unpredictable.  The forts were undermanned, making it very difficult to police the serious violations being committed by both sides on the other.   For both groups, the situation appeared no different to any significant degree from the way things were long before the war.   Unfortunately, for the Indians,  things were changing and not in a good way for the Indians.  General William T. Sherman, commander of the U.S. Army, and the commander

US General, William Tecumseh Sherman, scourge of Georgia
US General, William Tecumseh Sherman, scourge of Georgia

of U.S. troops in Texas, General Philip H. Sheridan, who were both hardened veterans of some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. Sherman and Sheridan had learned

US General Philip Sheridan, originator of the line, "Thew only good Indian is a dead Indian."
US General Philip Sheridan, originator of the line, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

not only to wage war on the battlefield but to break the enemy’s will to resist. To this end, they began a policy of encouraging the slaughter of the southern buffalo herd.

In January, 1869, General Sheridan held a conference with 50 Indian chiefs at Fort Cobb in the so-called Indian Territory (later part of Oklahoma). At that time, Sheridan, who had gained recognition as a Union officer in the Civil War, was in charge of the Dept. of the Missouri. One of his duties was to oversee the Indian Territory, making sure the Indians remained on their reservations and did not har-ass the white settlers. When Comanche chief Toch-a-way was introduced to Sheridan at the conference, the Indian said, “Me Toch-a-way, me good Indian.” Sheridan reportedly smirked and replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Later on, the remark became “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  This attitude, along with Sherman’s concept of total war, did not bode well for the Indians.

In early May, 1871, a party of more than one hundred Kiowas, Comanches, and others left Fort Sill and crossed into Texas. Led by Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree, they took up positions on the Salt Creek Prairie. A group of heavily armed white soldiers was allowed to pass unmolested; unknown to the Indians, the military escort was for General Sherman, who was conducting an inspection tour of Texas. The next group of whites to pass was a wagon train belonging to a freighting company. The Indians swept down upon the wagons and attacked. They killed the wagon master and seven teamsters and looted the wagons, then returned immediately to the reservation.

When General Sherman heard the news from a teamster who escaped the slaughter, he ordered ruthless reprisals and reversed an earlier prohibition soldiers from  Indians on to the reservations. Sherman quickly traveled to Fort Sill, where he personally arrested Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree and ordered them transported back to Texas to be tried for murder. Satank was killed during an escape attempt, but Satanta and Big Tree were put on trial. By early July both had been sentenced to hang.

As a result, hundreds of Indians began leaving the reservation to join their relatives on the Staked Plains. In an effort to avoid mass reprisals and carnage, Governor Edmund J. Davis commuted the sentences to life in prison. The Indians were eventually paroled, but it would be Satanta’s fate to commit suicide in 1878 while serving another prison term at Huntsville prison. The character of Blue Duck in Larry McMurtry’s classic novel Lonesome Dove was partially based on his life. Big Tree was more fortunate. When the Indian Wars came to a close, he counseled his people to accept peace. Big Tree converted to the Baptist faith and lived to age eighty.

The Salt Creek Massacre, also known as the Warren Wagon Train Raid, would have far-reaching consequences for Texas Indians. Because of the raid, General Sherman developed a policy of all-out offensive against the Plains Indians. The next few years would be bloody indeed.


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