Often have I stood on the plains of western Kansas and heard the voices of the past come to me on the incessant wind, whispers of lives that were spent between the great bowl of the sky and the unforgiving earth. Nowhere have I had this sensation stronger than at Fort Larned National Historic Site, along the old Santa Fe Trail in Pawnee County. The fort is a fine national historic site with excellent interpretive material. On last month’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the role the fort played in the pageant of brutality that was the West.
The national historic site, six miles west of the city of Larned, has nine restored sandstone buildings, including barracks and arsenal, and is among the best-preserved forts of the period. At its peak, Fort Larned housed about 500 troops and provided administrative and material support to the Medicine Lodge Treaty of October 1867.
The fort’s link to the Medicine Lodge Treaty (which was actually three treaties) was made clear by a correspondent for the Missouri Democrat, a young reporter named Henry Morton Stanley, who would later be remembered for uttering, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” He was dispatched to the fort and points south along with the seven-member Indian Peace Commission.
“The Indians of the present day hunt the buffalo and the antelope over this lone and level land, as freely as their ancestors, except where the white man has erected a fort,” he wrote in one dispatch.
In 1864, the U.S. Army (over the objections and refusal of some officers and men to participate) had massacred 160 women and children at a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory. Before the slaughter, Chief Black Kettle had been flying an American flag from his tipi.
“After Sand Creek the Indians were at war everywhere, mostly on the Platte,” Stanley told his readers. On orders, George Armstrong Custer burned a Cheyenne-Lakota village west of Fort Larned.
A series of fights followed, including one in which an entire detachment of cavalry was killed near present-day Goodland. By the end of the summer of 1867, a new plan came from Washington — diplomacy, because the fighting in the west was growing too expensive.
The Medicine Lodge treaties that followed were held at a sacred spot for the Kiowa and Cheyenne, on the Medicine Lodge River near the mouth of Elm Creek, about 100 miles south of Larned. The fort supplied the provisions for the council, including food for all of the former combatants.
It may have been one of the largest assemblies of First Peoples on the plains, with contemporary estimates ranging up to 15,000 individuals. The nations represented included the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche and Apache. Probably the most famous — and most feared by the whites — among the native people was Satanta, a Kiowa chief known for both his fighting skills and his soaring oratory.
The Indian Peace Commission was escorted to Medicine Lodge by 500 troops of the Seventh Cavalry.
Satanta said he was ready for peace. Stanley had reported that the chief was done with fighting. “There are no longer any buffaloes around here,” Satanta said, “nor anything we can kill to live on; but I am striving for peace now.”
From plains to reservations
From Oct. 21 to 29, 1867, three separate treaties were signed at Medicine Lodge that collectively reduced the area set aside for the plains nations by 60,000 square miles. In exchange, the First Peoples nations were given reservations in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma and allowances for food, clothing and other provisions.
Not long after the peace commission’s gifts of beads, buttons, knives, cloth and pistols had been taken home, discontent was again brewing among the plains nations. Reservation life, restricted geographically and tied to government allotments of food and supplies, was an unsatisfactory substitute for the nomadic culture the plains nations had previously known.
Brutal raids into the old hunting grounds of western Kansas resumed.
By 1871, Satanta was attacking wagon trains in Texas, was eventually captured, and became among the first Native American leaders to be tried in a U.S. court.
The peace commission was the U.S. government’s last attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the First Peoples, according to the National Archives.
In November 1868, Custer attacked a Southern Cheyenne camp on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma and killed 50. Fifty-three women and children were taken prisoner by the Seventh Cavalry.
In 1874, Custer led an Army expedition to the Black Hills, in which gold was found. Custer and 267 of his command would be killed by the combined forces of thousands of Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.
But the plains nations could not withstand increased pressure from the U.S. military and white settlement. The decades-long conflict ended Dec. 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee, Dakota Territory, where 300 Lakota people were massacred by the U.S. Army in a campaign to suppress the Ghost Dance religion.
“The young Plains culture of the Kiowas withered and died like grass that is burned in the prairie wind,” wrote N. Scott Momaday in his 1969 book, “The Way to Rainy Mountain.”
It is time for Kansas to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a state holiday. About a dozen states have already done so, including Oklahoma. Both the cities of Wichita and Lawrence celebrate it. Considering our state’s pivotal role in the war against the plains nations, and the many contributions of Kansans of indigenous heritage, it would be a small but corrective move toward celebrating a culture we nearly destroyed.
Max McCoy is a Kansas author and journalist. A longer version of this article can be found at kansasreflector.com.