Washita River Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Washita Massacre marked what was believed to be at the time a decisive step toward the reduction of Indian attacks on white settlers moving into the western frontier.

Summary of Event

At dawn on November 27, 1868, troops of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, attacked and massacred a Cheyenne village on the banks of the Washita River in the Indian Territory. In this village of fifty-one lodges were some of the survivors of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, including the great Cheyenne chieftain Black Kettle. Washita River Massacre (1868) Native American wars;Washita River Massacre Cheyennes;Washita River Massacre Arapahos;Washita River Massacre Black Kettle [p]Black Kettle;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] Custer, George A. [p]Custer, George A.;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] [kw]Washita River Massacre (Nov. 27, 1868) [kw]River Massacre, Washita (Nov. 27, 1868) [kw]Massacre, Washita River (Nov. 27, 1868) Washita River Massacre (1868) Native American wars;Washita River Massacre Cheyennes;Washita River Massacre Arapahos;Washita River Massacre Black Kettle [p]Black Kettle;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] Custer, George A. [p]Custer, George A.;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] [g]United States;Nov. 27, 1868: Washita River Massacre[4250] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 27, 1868: Washita River Massacre[4250] [c]Terrorism and political assassination;Nov. 27, 1868: Washita River Massacre[4250] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Nov. 27, 1868: Washita River Massacre[4250] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 27, 1868: Washita River Massacre[4250] Elliott, Joel H. Wynkoop, Edward W.

Custer had set out on an expedition to “hunt” Indians and follow what he thought was the trail of a large war party. He found the village, which was located on the south side of the river and surrounded by thick woods. Custer divided his force of seven hundred men into four groups; under cover of darkness, on the night of November 26, he positioned them to the north, south, east, and west of the village. All through the bitterly cold and snowy night, the soldiers waited in absolute silence, without fires, for Custer’s signal to attack. Troops G, H, and M, under Major Joel Elliott Elliott, Joel H. , were deployed to the north, while troops B and F were south of the village. Troops E and I were down the Washita River, to the right of Elliott’s command. Custer, with the regimental band, the color guard, a special sharpshooter company, all the scouts, and troops A, C, D, and K, waited in the center.

Just before dawn, the soldiers crept closer to the village and, at first light, swept down upon the sleeping Cheyennes to the accompaniment of the strains of “Garry Owen,” the theme song of the Seventh Cavalry. Custer, on his black stallion, charged through the village and onto a knoll, from where he watched the fighting. As the Cheyennes ran from their lodges, they were cut down by gunfire or saber, with no quarter given and no distinction made between men, women, or children. Chief Black Kettle and his wife were both shot as they attempted to escape on his pony. Caught entirely by surprise and with few weapons other than bows and arrows, the Cheyennes’ only hope was flight—but most were killed by the sharpshooters positioned among the trees. Some did escape by plunging into the icy waters and making their way down the river channel to the Arapaho village of Chief Little Raven. Within a short time, the village fell to the soldiers, who set about killing or capturing those Cheyennes who had taken up defensive positions in the woods.

At about 10:00 a.m., Custer noticed that warriors were beginning to gather atop the neighboring hills and, looking for an explanation, questioned one of the female captives. He learned that Black Kettle’s village was not the only one on the banks of the Washita River, as he had thought, but was one of many Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa villages in the area. Shortly after, an officer who had been supervising the roundup of Cheyenne ponies reported that he had seen a very large Arapaho village down river. Nevertheless, Custer directed his troops to gather up the spoils of war, which included saddles, buffalo robes, bows and arrows, hatchets, spears, a few revolvers and rifles, all the winter supply of food, most of the Cheyennes’ clothing, and all of their lodges. After making an inventory and choosing some personal souvenirs, including one of the lodges, Custer had all the rest burned.

Arapaho chief Little Raven.

(National Archives)

Almost nine hundred of the Cheyennes’ horses and mules had now been rounded up. Custer gave the best horses to his officers and scouts, provided mounts for the female captives, then ordered four companies of his men to slaughter the rest of the animals. He had no intention of leaving the horses behind for the warriors and reasoned that taking them along when he left the area would surely provoke attempts by the Cheyennes to recapture them.

During the late afternoon, Custer was informed that Major Elliott Elliott, Joel H. , with seventeen men, had chased a small band of fleeing Cheyennes down the river and had not returned. Custer sent out a search party, but no trace of the missing men was found. Custer then called off the search—a decision that added to the growing resentment and anti-Custer sentiments among some of his officers.

As night approached, Custer realized his command was in a precarious position. Besides being burdened with prisoners and their own wounded, his troops were cold and hungry, their mounts were exhausted, and warriors from the other villages had gathered in the surrounding hills. Thus, unprepared for further battle, Custer knew that he could not simply retreat toward his supply train, left behind at a safe distance from the fighting, without alerting the warriors to its location and risking that they would reach it first. The stratagem he devised was to convince them that he was advancing down river to attack again; at the head of his regiment, with band playing, he traveled east until darkness fell. Seeing this, the warriors hurried back to protect their villages, leaving only a few scouts behind. Custer then reversed back to the battlefield and up the Washita Valley, finally stopping at 2:00 a.m. to camp for the night. The next day, the troops rejoined the supply train and two days later reached Camp Supply, the fort from which Custer had started and at which General Philip H. Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] waited for news of the expedition.

In his official report of the Washita action, Custer stated that 103 Cheyennes had been killed and 53 women and children, some of them wounded, had been taken prisoner. Among the dead were two Cheyenne chieftains, Black Kettle and Little Rock. During the fighting in the village, one officer and three enlisted men of the Seventh Cavalry had been killed. Custer also reported the deaths of Major Elliott Elliott, Joel H. and his seventeen men, although at the time he had no actual knowledge of their fate. Their bodies were discovered in the woods by a later expedition.

Opinions differ as to whether Custer’s attack upon the Cheyennes was simply another unprovoked massacre such as that at Sand Creek four years earlier. William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Custer, among others, believed that the Washita action was justified because of Cheyenne raids on white settlements along the Saline and Solomon Rivers in Kansas in August, 1868. During a three-day rampage, two hundred Cheyenne warriors had committed murder and rape and abducted women and children. When Black Kettle and two chiefs of the Arapaho had arrived at Fort Cobb in mid-November, seeking sanctuary and subsistence for their people under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty, they had been refused because General Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Washita River Massacre[Washita River Massacre] now considered both tribes to be hostile after the recent raids. They were told to leave the Indian Territory and warned that troops were in the field.

On the other hand, Indian agent Edward W. Wynkoop Wynkoop, Edward W. and others insisted that an entire tribe should not be punished for the acts of a few. They further argued that the promises made at Medicine Lodge had led the Cheyenne and Arapaho to expect fair treatment at Fort Cobb, which had not been forthcoming. Furthermore, it has since been established that the trail Custer followed, which he later claimed was that of a Cheyenne war party, actually had been made by Kiowas returning from a raid against the Utes Utes in Colorado.

Significance

To place the Washita Massacre in historical perspective, scholars point out that the U.S. Army had failed to subdue the plains tribes in battle on the prairie, and efforts to achieve peace through treaty had been largely unsuccessful. Thus, the invasion of the Indian Territory, of which the Washita Massacre was a decisive first step, represented a change of tactics in the U.S. government’s efforts to achieve its ultimate goal: the removal of the plains tribes as an obstacle to white settlement of the Great Plains.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnitz, Albert Trovillo Siders, and Jennie Barnitz. Life in Custer’s Cavalry, Diaries and Letters of Albert and Jennie Barnitz, 1867-1868. Edited by Robert M. Utley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. An account of the massacre completed from the writings of one of Custer’s troop commanders and his wife.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brady, Cyrus. Indian Fights and Fighters. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971. A narrative of the plains wars, including the Washita Massacre. Includes many eyewitness accounts not available elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brill, Charles. Conquest of the Southern Plains. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint, 1975. A fully illustrated account of all events related to the massacre, with the texts of both Sheridan’s and Custer’s reports.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Custer, George Armstrong. My Life on the Plains. London: Folio Society, 1963. Contains Custer’s account of the events before, during, and after the Washita Massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Jerome A. Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Part of the Campaigns and Commanders series, this work examines the Washita Massacre and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoig, Stan. The Battle of the Washita. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. A thoroughly documented account of the Sheridan-Custer campaign. Maps and photographs.

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