Ad Astra: Post-Civil War years filled with clashes with Plains Indians

The summer of 1864 was ripe for war on the prairies of Kansas.

Tensions with the Plains Indians were heating up as homesteaders continued to flock to the open prairie 150 years ago.

In the spring of 1864, 175 head of oxen being driven along the Santa Fe Trail went missing. Indian tribes were accused of stealing the animals, said Leo Oliva, Kansas historian and author.

“When a group of Southern Cheyenne found the oxen and tried to return the animals, they were shot at,” she said.

According to the Sand Creek Massacre timeline and website, a post office agent from Fort Leavenworth then complained to Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis about wagon trains carrying mail being robbed by the Cheyenne.

By June 1864, an Indian uprising was feared.

A ranching family – the parents and two small children – were found murdered near Denver. Indians were blamed.

Troops from the 7th Iowa Cavalry under the command of 2nd Lt. Allen Ellsworth were ordered by Curtis to protect more remote frontier settlements in Kansas. So Fort Harker, at what would later be known as Kanopolis, and Fort Zarah near Great Bend were built.

On July 18, 1864, a wagon train from Leavenworth on the Santa Fe Trail was attacked by Indians on Walnut Creek near present-day Great Bend. Ten people were killed.

“From the Indian perspective, they realized what was going on with the white settlers being involved in the Civil War,” Oliva said. “Troops were being withdrawn for the war, and it’s debatable over who actually started the war of 1864. The Indians had been peaceful until they were accused of stealing livestock.”

A military report from a Maj. T.I. McKinney to Curtis reads: “In regard to these Indian difficulties, I think if great caution is not exercised on our part there will be a bloody war.”

One of the chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne was Black Kettle, whose village was then camped on Ash Creek a few miles north of Fort Larned, Oliva said.

Tensions on the prairie continued to escalate. The summer was marked by a prolonged drought and an insect invasion.

In late July, Kiowa Chief Satanta led his tribe to Fort Larned, according to the Sand Creek Massacre timeline. His warriors raided Larned’s corrals, taking more than 250 horses and mules.

In August, four buffalo hunters were found scalped along the Saline River near Salina, and a herd of horses was stolen.

In the meantime, Black Kettle had moved his village from Kansas to Colorado and met with military officials, promising peace. He then camped on land that had been guaranteed to the Cheyenne through an 1851 treaty.

On Nov. 29, 1864, troops under the command of Col. John Chivington, a former Methodist preacher, attacked and destroyed a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho village in eastern Colorado called Sand Creek.

At the head of the Southern Cheyenne village were several chiefs, among them Black Kettle, who had countless times argued for peace. When Black Kettle saw the troops surrounding the village, he waved an American flag and put a white cloth in front of his teepee.

He watched helplessly as soldiers slaughtered nearly 150 men, women and children. His wife, Medicine Woman, was shot nine times but survived.

The other Indians who survived retreated into Kansas, along the Smoky Hill River.

“Rather than the Civil War, the Indians had now become the major focus rather than the Confederates,” Oliva said.

A year later, unrest and clashes between Plains Indian tribes in Kansas and settlers and Army troops prompted a peace conference. The conference, known as the 1865 Little Arkansas Treaty, was signed in Sedgwick County.