Who was Black Kettle?
Black Kettle was a Native American of the ‘Southern Cheyenne’ tribe, who is revered for his continued efforts to bring peace to his people. He lived at a time when the US government was very insensitive to the rights of Native Americans and used its superior military muscle to repress them. He witnessed a phase wherein the government forced Black Kettle to sign an unfair treaty, then defy the treaty themselves and finally draft a new treaty according to their convenience. In spite of all the injustices, Black Kettle was foresighted enough to realize that they were no match for the Americans in battle, who wouldn’t hesitate to use force against them. Thus he kept signing one unjust treaty after another, as a result facing mutinies from within his own tribe. Even after the ‘Sand Creek Massacre’, where Black Kettle’s childhood friend died and his wife was seriously injured, he did not give up his efforts for peace. Tragically, his efforts finally proved futile as the government crushed the rebellion and confined the Native Americans to small land areas away from their ancestral homes. But, for his efforts to bring peace to his people and for the things he stood for, Black Kettle remains a much respected figure till today, especially among Native Americans.
Childhood & Early Life
Black Kettle, or Moke-tav-a-to as his family called him, was born in South Dakota near the Black Hills. By 1832, he moved south to join the Southern Cheyenne tribe.
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‘The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851’ was signed between the US government and the Cheyennes under which the Cheyennes were assigned lands in Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado.
However, for the next few years, there was extensive uncontrolled migration of white people into Cheyenne territory, especially after the ‘Pike’s Peak Gold Rush’ of 1859. This led to conflict for territory among the Cheyenne and the Americans.
In 1861, the US government forced the Southern Cheyenne to sign a new treaty which allotted Sand Creek land to them. Black Kettle, the leader of the tribe, accepted the treaty in fear of the Americans’ military might.
The allotted land was barren and not suited for agriculture. In addition, epidemics also started spreading across the Cheyenne population. Hungry and desperate, the Cheyenne began to steal resources from nearby settlers, passing wagons and mining camps.
Black Kettle and his childhood friend ‘Chief Lean Bear’ met the U S President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. in 1863. They were given peace medals and letters as a mark of their friendship with the US.
As the attacks by the Cheyenne continued tensions between both sides escalated by 1864, due to a couple of isolated incidents. Black Kettle, in an effort to diffuse these tensions, met the local commander at Fort Weld and signed a treaty, by which all Cheyenne had to report to Fort Lyon.
As Black Kettle returned to Sand Creek, a military group called ‘Third Colorado Volunteers’, led by John Chivington, attacked the Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek, flouting the treaty.
Black Kettle, in an effort to signal the Cheyenne’s peaceful intent, waved both the American flag and the white flag. But the soldiers ignored it and attacked the camp, killing 150-200 Cheyenne people and then mutilating their bodies. Black Kettle managed to escape alive.
The attack caused a conflict of ideology between the Cheyenne and Black Kettle, who still wanted to pursue peaceful negotiations, while a section of the tribe wanted to retaliate with more raids. In 1865, Black Kettle signed the ‘Treaty of Little Arkansas River’ limiting his tribe to areas in South-western Kansas.
In 1867, he signed ‘Medicine Lodge Treaty’, which allotted different territories to them and also promised provisions of food and supplies. But these promises were never fulfilled, which drove more people to join the guerrilla bands.
Black Kettle tried his best to avoid the massacre at Sand Creek by waving a white flag and an American flag over his Tipi. His efforts, however, proved to be futile and the soldiers attacked anyway, leading to a bloodbath. Black Kettle managed to escape unhurt, and even returned to rescue his injured wife. This brutal incident is known as ‘Sand Creek Massacre’.
In 1868, in response to a series of attacks on Kansas farms, General Philip Sheridan planned a retaliatory attack against Cheyenne camps. They attacked the village in which Black Kettle was staying, even though its residents were staying in their allotted lands. In the attack that followed, Black Kettle, his wife and more than 100 other Native Americans were killed.
Personal Life & Legacy
He had four wives, all of whom were sisters and belonged to the Wotapio band. He began to stay with his wives’ tribe after marriage and fathered seventeen children.
He lost his childhood friend, ‘Chief Lean Bear’ in the ‘Sand Creek Massacre’ of 1865, but still continued to strive for peace.
In 1868, troops led by ‘George Armstrong Custer’ unjustly attacked the village where he was staying. This time, there was no escape for Black Kettle and he died on the banks of ‘Washita River’.
The character of this revolutionary and tribal leader was portrayed by actor Nick Ramus in the CBS TV show ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’ for three seasons.
This Native American leader was among those rare leaders who strived for peaceful negotiations with the US government, as opposed to the guerrilla warfare tactics that the other leaders employed.