Perhaps the most famous Southern Cheyenne leader during the mid-1800s was the peace advocate Black Kettle (Moketavato). His rise in power came when the Cheyenne people turned to more centralized authority as the threat of American encroachment increased. While some Cheyenne leaders and warrior societies chose aggression, Black Kettle preferred to guide the Cheyennes through the violence of the 1860s that defined Cheyenne–American government relations by peaceful resolutions. Despite suffering horrific atrocities by the American military, being opposed and even ostracized by his own people, and being betrayed and vilified by white leaders, Black Kettle endorsed peace—even until his own violent death—as the answer to the threatening destruction of the Cheyennes.
Few biographical details are known about Black Kettle, especially of his earlier years. The famed trader George Bent, who married Black Kettle's niece, provides some information. According to Bent, Black Kettle was the son of Swift Hawk Lying Down (who never was a chief), who was of the Sutaio tribe (a kindred people to the Cheyennes and a portion of whom were incorporated into the tribe during the 1700s and became one of the tribe's divisions) and who was a good warrior. Cheyenne historian George Bird Grinnell suggests that Black Kettle even carried Medicine Arrows into battle against the Delaware in 1853. When exactly Black Kettle became a chief is uncertain, but he is known to have become the principal chief by 1860. That same year historical evidence identifies the Cheyenne leader with the name Black Kettle, the name for which he is most known. Black Kettle lived on the vast territory of the southern Plains, a region guaranteed the tribe under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Pike's Peak gold rush of 1859, however, created a flood of white migration to Colorado, bringing with it intrusion on Cheyenne lands and hostilities between the two cultures.
The U.S. government sought to resolve the situation by forcing a new treaty on the Cheyennes in 1861 (Treaty of Fort Wise) that would cede all tribal lands save a small reservation (the Sand Creek reservation) in southeastern Colorado. Black Kettle supported the treaty, fearing an even worse outcome if he did not, and then he struggled to see the Cheyennes kept their part of the agreements. The lack of agricultural success and hunting at the Sand Creek Reservation, along with epidemic diseases, created a dismal situation for the Cheyennes. Young men began to leave the reservation and prey on nearby settlers and passing wagon trains. Tensions escalated between the two cultures, especially after federal troops left the West to fight the Civil War. Black Kettle continued to press for harmonious relations, especially for his band, but Coloradans refused the peace.
Coloradans desired a world cleansed of Native peoples, and leading that charge were men like Colonel John M. Chivington, commander of the Third Colorado Volunteers. Without warning, Chivington's troops attacked Black Kettle's encampment on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado on November 29, 1864, in spite of Black Kettle's efforts to secure peace. The attack left about 200 of Black Kettle's Cheyennes, many women and children, slaughtered by Chivington's men, who then sexually mutilated, scalped, and took body parts as trophies of their conquest.
Black Kettle miraculously escaped the massacre at Sand Creek. More remarkably, he continued to be an advocate for peace even as other Cheyennes pursued violent retribution throughout the southern Plains. Eventually, Black Kettle and other Indian leaders achieved an uneasy truce with the government and agreed to a new reservation in Kansas. Not all Cheyennes approved. Many ignored the agreements and continued ranging over their ancestral lands. Federal negotiators again sought to remove the Cheyennes, this time to two smaller reservations in Indian Territory (today's Oklahoma). Black Kettle was among the chiefs who signed this treaty, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. The federal government, however, failed to uphold its agreements by not giving the Cheyennes all the promised supplies. As a result, many Cheyennes left the reservations to hunt, roam, and raid. Some attacked white settlements, leading to a full-scale American military response. In 1868, General Philip Sheridan orchestrated a wintertime total war campaign against any southern Plains tribes not found at the agencies. The newly formed Seventh Cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer was selected to take the lead.
On the frozen morning of November 27, 1868, almost four years to the day since the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer's command attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne camp on the Washita River, well within the boundaries of the Cheyenne Reservation. During the initial attack, both Black Kettle and his wife were shot down. In that moment the Cheyennes lost one of its greatest leaders. In a matter of months the old Cheyenne way of life was lost as well.
S. Matthew DeSpain
Greene, Jerome A. 2004. Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867–1869. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Hatch, Thom. 2004. Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.