The Battle of the Washita or Red Moon

It will be remembered that the Comanches were not able to handle the Texas Rangers in the war known as the treaty war in 1860, and were forced to retire to the plains north of the Red River. They started in then to get help from their red brothers, and made a treaty with the Apaches and other associated tribes. A council of war was held in the Wichita Mountains in the fall of the same year.

It was decided that in the spring of 1861, on the first full moon after the first whippoorwill had been heard, all the Western bands should come together in the mountains and that Texas must make a treaty with the Comanches for all the lands of their fathers. But in the spring of 1861 came the news of the great rebellion, and the head men of the Confederacy made liberal treaties with all the Southern tribes. So there was nothing more done until the spring of 1865, when the Southern and Western Indians held a meeting at Poison spring, now in the Chickasaw country.

At this meeting it was decided that they should throw all their forces together and insist on a liberal treaty. Colonel Stan Waitey was selected as their chief. Then, however, the news of Lee’s surrender was received, which put a stop to this move. This meeting was the largest in point of attendance, and from the number of tribes represented, that history records as having been held by the Indians. If Lee had not surrendered the white people of the Western states would have suffered terrible losses.

In the fall of 1868 the Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes and Arapahoes got together and decided to make a last struggle for a liberal treaty. Fort Elliott had been established on the plains of Texas, and Fort Supply had been established on Beaver creek in what is now Woodward County, Oklahoma. But, in spite of the menace of the forts, the Indians began their old tricks, raiding the borders of Texas and the plains.

Possibly there never was a stronger and more daring army of warriors on the plains than these Indians. The United States troops were commanded by Majors Elliott and Custer, who held the same rank. They had to use a great deal of caution. As the winter came on, however, and the buffalo drifted further west, the Indians had to go into winter quarters. On account of the extremely cold weather they moved into the cane brakes of the Washita River, which was frozen over.

On December 20, a heavy snow fell, and the Indians consequently decided to make peace. They selected this place on the Washita River as the proper place for the council of peace and the making of the treaty. This program would doubtless have been agreeable with Majors Custer and Elliott if they had known the intentions of the Indians.

But there was a certain band chief by the name of Black Kettle, who in the beginning had taken no part in the council of war, claiming that he would not shed the blood of the white man. Although he had moved around with the balance of the Indians on their raids, he claimed that he had no part or right in the council of peace, so he moved up the river about five miles to a small bend, in the shape of a horse-shoe. There were about three hundred men, women and children in Black Kettle’s party, and they made a big, plain track in the snow.

Romeo, one of the noted government scouts, found this trail, and followed it almost to Black Kettle’s camp. Then he went and told Custer, who was at that time at Fort Supply, that a small bunch of Indians were camped by themselves. Other scouts brought in word of the other larger Indian camp. Custer and Elliott knew the effect on the Indians of routing them out from their comfortable winter quarters. Therefore they took as many soldiers as could be spared from the fort and slipped out across the South Canadian River.

I had considerable trouble finding any Indian that was in this battle, from whom I could secure an authentic account. Finally I heard of Mrs. Lone Wolf, who lives near the spot where the battle was fought. She appears to be a very intelligent Cheyenne woman, though she could not speak English. I was introduced to her and her husband by an interpreter, and after exchanging presents, which is the custom of the Cheyennes, I told her my business. At first she seemed to be afraid, but after she had been well assured that I meant no harm, she appeared delighted to talk on the subject.

She said: “I was about sixteen years old. We had camped at this place but a few days. When we first went into camp there a white cloth about the size of a blanket had been taken and sewed on a long pole, and Black Kettle gave orders that if anyone saw the soldiers they must raise this pole. That night it was very cold, and my father staid on guard until after midnight. The moon shone all night long.

“When my father lay down another Indian by the name of Double Wolf took his place. It was so cold that Double Wolf came in and lay down. Day had just begun to break when I heard somebody halloing. Double Wolf jumped up and ran outside. Instead of raising the white flag he fired his gun. My father jumped up. Just then several shots were fired. My father and Double Wolf fell dead. Then the shooting stopped for a moment.

“We all ran out of our tepees and tried to run out through the narrow entrance. We saw white men in front of us motioning to us to go back. Then the battle began. I don’t know which side began shooting first. I fell on my face in the snow and could hear nothing but guns. At last the shooting stopped, and the next thing that I knew a soldier punched me with his gun and motioned to me to get up. There were several other, women lying close to me. Men, women and children lay dead everywhere. I saw many of the warriors lying dead with their guns in their hands.

“The ponies, after being shot, broke away, and ran about, bleeding, until they dropped. In this way the snow on the whole bend of the river was made red with blood. This is the reason we call it the red moon.

“We crossed the river on the ice, and the women and children were put on horseback. We started north towards Fort Supply. I saw Major Elliott and a number of other men start down the river. I knew Major Elliott, as I had seen him many times before. We had camped on the South Canadian, had made a big fire, and were warming ourselves when a bunch of Tonkawa scouts came in and brought the news that Major Elliott and his entire party had been killed.

“We had a law among ourselves that if we had any prisoners, and any of our people should be killed by the prisoners’ friends, we should kill that many prisoners. We thought, therefore, when we heard this news, that a part of our people would be killed in retaliation for the killing of Major Elliott and his men. So our warriors asked how many were to be killed, 60 that they might prepare to die. They sent me to General Custer to find out. I went to the interpreter and told him I wanted to see General Custer. I was taken close to him, and I asked him through the interpreter how many prisoners he was going to kill for Major Elliott. He covered his face with his hands and refused to speak for a minute. One of the soldiers started to drive me and the interpreter away, but Custer raised his head, saw that we were going away, and made the soldier bring us back to him.

“Then he said, ‘White people don’t kill prisoners.’ He told me, further, that as long as we did not try to run away, and as long as we behaved ourselves, none of us would be hurt. So we built a big fire, and the smoke went straight up into the sky, so that the old Indians said that the Great Spirit was with us and would deliver us back into our tribe. Then we took meat and ate it, the first we had eaten since the night before, though it had been offered us before that day. From that time on we had plenty to eat and good warm blankets to wear, and I am sure if Double Wolf had done what Black Kettle told him to do, there would not have been a gun fired. Though many of my people deny it, I know that Double Wolf fired the first shot.”

The story of the massacre of Major Elliott, as I got it from one who participated in it, is as follows: “We had been aroused early in the morning by the sound of a heavy battle up the river, which we knew was at Black Kettle’s camp. The whole camp started up the river. Near the mouth of a creek we were signaled by those in front to lie down. We all hid in the tall grass. In a short time the war whoop was raised, and we saw Black Kettle and two other warriors. We listened to his story. He said that Double Wolf had raised the white flag, but that the soldiers had shot him down. Black Kettle said his whole band had been massacred. He himself had been wounded twice and was covered with blood.

“We started on up the river, when we were again signaled to lie down. In a few minutes we heard the war whoop again. Springing out of the big grass we saw a bunch of soldiers. One, I knew, was Major Elliott. The soldiers undertook to pass back through our lines. They made a gallant attempt to pierce the line, and one of the fiercest battles I ever knew resulted. There were nineteen white men and something over five hundred warriors. More than forty warriors were killed. We rushed in bunches, and in a few minutes all the white men were killed just one. We wanted to take him prisoner and take him back to the camp and put him to death for the general amusement of the whole camp.

“This was the sergeant major. He was a tall, slim man, with keen blue eyes. When his gun was emptied, he grabbed his sword. He seemed to know our intentions, and preferred to die on the field like a soldier. The Indians used their guns like clubs, trying to knock his sword from his hands, or to slip up behind him and knock him down. But like a panther driven to bay he fought, with no thought of surrender, cutting and slashing right and left.

“Indians fell all around him. Our leader was close at hand, shouting, ‘Close in on him and take him alive.’ Suddenly, rightly judging him to be the leader, the sergeant major sprang at him and pierced him through with the sword. This excited the Indians, and they shot him down.

“Old Indians who had been in many fights all claimed that never had there been such a man.”

Even to this day the ground on which the Sergeant Major fell is regarded as holy ground, and the creek was named Sergeant Major creek, after him. When the Indians went back to scalp the dead the chief of the Kiowas, whose name was Big Cow, ran and sat down on Major Elliott’s head and would not let him be scalped. Big Cow said that Major Elliott had been a friend to him at one time. The Cheyennes skinned the ponies that had been killed in the battle, making dried meat out of their bodies and clothes out of the hides. This food and clothing enabled them to carry on the war until, in the spring of 1869, they met the government authorities at Fort Douglas, Kansas, where they made a treaty by which they were given the country which they have since inhabited.

Many of these same Cheyennes left their reservation and went north, where they took part with Sitting Bull in the massacre of General Custer in 1876.

Source: Puckett, J. L. and Ellen. History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and Homeseeker’s guide. Vinita, Oklahoma, Chieftain Publishing Company, 1906.

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