On November 27, 1868, Black Kettle, a Cheyenne peace chief, and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, were shot in the back and killed by United States Cavalry fire as they tried to escape an army attack during the Washita Massacre along the Washita River in Oklahoma. Black Kettle’s witness as a Cheyenne chief who pushed so hard for peace that he was even ostracized by large portions of his tribe left a fertile soil of peace-making that later helped the Mennonite faith to grow among the Cheyenne.
Chief Black Kettle emerged as a peace chief and a principal chief for treaty councils sometime between 1857 and 1860. In the complex leadership structure of the Cheyenne tribes, a peace chief was expected to be a peacemaker. Sweet Medicine, the tribal hero who instituted the system, charged them, “though your son may be killed in front of your teepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke.”
In the early 1860s as the American Civil War raged to the east, whites continued to pour into western territories inhabited by the Cheyenne and other Native Americans, keeping tensions high. Finally in the summer of 1864 numerous conflicts erupted between settlers and Cheyenne soldiers. Black Kettle wrote to and met with various American military commanders in Colorado and in September with the governor of Colorado in an effort to end the fighting, arguing “all we ask is that we may have peace with the whites; we want to hold you by the hand.”
Despite Black Kettle’s efforts, on November 29, 1864, Colorado cavalry units led by Colonel John Chivington attacked his camp. When he heard the attack was coming he raised a large US flag as well as a white flag to a lodge pole and stood waving it in front of his tipi. The attack continued unabated. Medicine Woman Later was hit with multiple bullets while Black Kettle managed to escape. She survived, but over half the one hundred dead were women and children. This battle is memorialized as a part of Colorado’s contribution to the Civil War in a controversial statue in front of the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver.
Black Kettle’s efforts to make peace thus led to his disgrace and the lost of many of his clan. He persisted nonetheless in attempts to make peace with whites, signing a new treaty at Medicine Lodge in 1867 and moving as required to Indian Territory, later the state of Oklahoma. Raids and fighting between whites and Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other tribes nonetheless continued.
In November 1868 Black Kettle was camped with his people along the Washita River there, but at some distance from the main body of Cheyenne due to his estrangement from the rest over his peace policy. His camp was the first to be spotted by soldiers under Lt. Col. George Custer, who attacked the settlement on November 27, 1868, resulting in the deaths of Black Kettle, Medicine Woman Later, as well as roughly forty men, twelve women, and six children. About fifty women and children were taken away as hostages. Less than two dozen US soldiers were killed as well.
In the 1880s when Mennonites from Kansas began mission and education work among the Cheyenne in Oklahoma, they were working with survivors of these massacres. Some of their descendants became leaders among the emerging Mennonite churches there, including John Peak Hart, son of Afraid of Beavers , who survived. John’s son, Lawrence Hart, later became a Mennonite minister and Cheyenne peace chief, combining these two traditions.
Sources: Raylene Hinz-Penner, Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite (Cascadia Publishing House, 2007), 38-52; http://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm; http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=4745
Submitted by Mark Jantzen.