Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Owl and the General

 General William T. Sherman

After a bumpy coach ride, General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commanding general of the entire U.S. Army, arrived at Fort Richardson just outside the frontier town of Jacksboro.  Named after a Union general killed at the Battle of Antietam, Fort Richardson was part of a Texas chain of forts established to protect settlers from Native Americans.  From here, U.S. cavalrymen patrolled the vast North Texas prairie for marauding Commanches and Kiowas.  Shortly after his arrival, Sherman began reflecting on the Indian problem and his doubts about its severity.  A number of settlers were complaining about Indian raids, but there was scant evidence that such raids were a regular occurrence.   After all, most of the Comanches and Kiowas were confined to a remote reservation - Fort Sill - located in the southwest corner of the Indian Territory.  Disease and war had reduced their numbers, and the depletion of the buffalo herds kept them dependent on government support.  All of Sherman’s doubts suddenly evaporated with the abrupt appearance of Thomas Brazeal, a teamster with Henry Warren’s supply wagons. 
By the early 1870’s, rampant corruption plagued the U.S. Commission on Indian Affairs.  President Ulysses S. Grant decided the Church could better handle matters with the Native Americans.  Since godly Christians were thought to be incorruptible, military officers were replaced with church officials to manage the Indian reservations.  When confronted by opposing congressmen, Grant replied, “Gentlemen, you have defeated my plan of Indian management; but you will not succeed in your purpose, for I will divide these appointments up among the religious churches, with which you dare not contend.”
The Society of Friends or “Quakers,” a society dedicated to nonviolence, was placed in charge of the most violent Native Americans in the United States.  The Quakers’ goal was simple - convert the nomadic, warrior Comanches and Kiowas into peaceful, sedentary farmers.  They appointed a balding Iowa farmer, Lawrence Tatum, to head the Kiowa-Comanche reservation at Fort Sill.  Considering their ancient warrior customs, converting Comanches and Kiowas into farmers would seem laughable at best.  No fool to Indian ways, Tatum certainly had his doubts.  In describing his new charges, the newly christened “Bald Headed Agent” wrote, “Those in the southwestern part of the territory were still addicted to raiding in Texas, stealing horses and mules, and sometimes committing other depredations, and especially this was the case with the Kiowas and Comanches.  They were probably the worst Indians east of the Rocky Mountains.”  Peaceful, though tough when he had to be, Tatum had the good sense to embrace Fort Sill’s troops in managing the reservation.  Nevertheless, the Kiowas were not about to hitch up a plow horse anytime soon.
Unlike the pragmatic Comanches, the Kiowas were a deeply spiritual people and were quick to rely on the prophecies of a charismatic medicine man or owl prophet.  Such was the case with an obscure Kiowa prophet named Maman-ti or “Skywalker.”  The prophet’s divinations entailed lengthy confinement to a lodge followed by chanting, praying and the unmistakable sound of flapping owl wings.  Afterwards, Maman-ti emerged with a compelling prophecy about the success or failure of an upcoming Kiowa raid.  Shortly after, raiding parties were assembled under the owl prophet’s personal command.  The problem for Tatum and the reservation staff - no one knew him personally or knew what he was up to.
Spring was the season for raiding and Maman-ti was working overtime.  He foresaw the success of a Kiowa attack on the white man’s wagon trains.  To supply its many forts with sustenance, the U.S. Army had to rely on plodding, mule driven wagons - there were no railroads.  Wagon trains, on the desolate prairie, were tempting targets.  Captain Henry Warren, a government freight contractor from Weatherford, supplied the forts of West Texas, including Fort Richardson.  On May 18, 1871, one of his wagon trains, laden with corn, was making its way up the Butterfield Trail toward Fort Richardson.  Several miles further up was a cavalry escorted ambulance with two high ranking passengers inside: General William T. Sherman and General Randolph Marcy, the U.S. Army’s Inspector General.  Both officers were inspecting Texas forts and Fort Richardson was on their list. 
Maman-ti planned his own tour of Texas - a brutal raid that included one hundred fifty Kiowa warriors.  Among the warriors were three of the Kiowa’s fiercest war chiefs: Satanta, Satank and Big Tree.  Satanta’s larger-than-life notoriety spanned decades among Native Americans and white men alike.   The party set out for North Texas and crossed the Red River between present day Vernon and Electra.  To lighten their load, the Kiowas stopped at a place they called “Skunk Headquarters,” a wooded patch with an unusual overabundance of skunks.  Nonessential belongings were dropped off to be guarded by a few young warriors they left behind.  Extra bridles were carried along for any horses they stole and some rode double in hopes of getting a new mount.   
The Kiowas made their way to Salt Creek Prairie, an open field in Young County between Fort Belknap and Fort Richardson.  The area featured a sandstone hill with a tree-lined base overlooking the Butterfield Trail, an ideal spot for an ambush.  Unfortunately for Henry Warren’s teamsters, they would pass right by it.  During the evening before the Kiowas’ attack, Maman-ti went off alone to communicate with the spirits.  The flapping of owl wings was heard followed by the prophet’s return – he had a vision of two passing wagon parties. The first one was too small - not to be touched, but the second one would give them suitable plunder and scalps.  Sherman’s passing ambulance and cavalry escort would be that first party, thus costing the Kiowas a good chance of killing the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army.  Warren’s wagon train was next. 
Dozens of whooping Kiowas galloped out of the woods toward the wagons.  Satanta, who learned how to play the bugle in his younger days, signaled the attack with a few crisp notes he borrowed from the U.S. Cavalry.  Like a Hollywood Western, the teamsters circled their wagons to hold off the attack.  Armed with repeating Spencer rifles, the teamsters were able to hold off the Kiowas but eventually fell to their superior numbers.  Seven teamsters were killed, while five, including Thomas Brazeal, managed to escape.  One teamster, Samuel Elliott, was tied to a wagon tongue and slow roasted over an open fire.  The rest were scalped and mutilated.  The Kiowas took forty mules back with them to the Indian Territory.
After Brazeal’s horrifying recollection, Sherman dispatched the 4th U.S. Cavalry to the massacre site. Under one the army’s most effective Indian fighters, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, the troopers found Indian weapons scattered about the massacre site.  Their design left little doubt as to who was responsible. Sherman’s opinion about the Indian raids changed dramatically.  “I do think the people of Texas have a right to complain,” he wrote, “only their complaints are now against troops who are powerless, but should be against the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs that feeds and harbors these Indians when their hands are yet red with blood.”  He set off for Fort Sill and a showdown with the Kiowas. 
Sherman arrived at Fort Sill on May 23 and asked an exasperated Tatum about any Indians off the reservation at the time of the massacre.  “The Kiowas and Comanches were completely out of control,” he replied.  “They come and go as they please.”  Surprisingly, the Kiowas were more apt to boast about the raid rather than try to cover their tracks.  Satanta bragged openly that he had led the raid.  With Sherman looking on, Satanta, Satank and Big Tree were arrested and placed in chains.  Maman-ti completely avoided arrest.
The three Kiowa chiefs were placed in a wagon and taken back to Jacksboro for trial.  Along the way, the elderly, melancholy Satank, who carried his dead son’s bones with him in a bag, attempted to stab a guard with a concealed knife.  The old chief was shot dead and his body was dumped unceremoniously off to the side of the road.  Having little regard for their Kiowa prisoners, Satanta and Big Tree were staked to the ground at night while their guards made camp.  
Satanta and Big Tree were sentenced to hang by Jack County Judge Charles Soward.  In an overly agitated state, he ordered Satanta be “hanged until he is dead, dead, dead and God have mercy on his soul.”  Hanging was a form of execution that horrified Native Americans. They feared the tightened rope would block the spirit’s passage after death.  To prevent a Kiowa uprising over the hangings, the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.  The Kiowa chiefs served two years on a prison chain gang at Huntsville.  In the interest of peace they were paroled in 1874 and returned to Fort Sill. 
Before the end of the decade, continuing Comanche raids led to a military campaign (the Red River War) to force the remaining southern plains Indians on to reservations. The peaceful touch of the Quakers gave way to the clenched fist of the U.S. Army.  Satanta was arrested again for parole violation but he could never adjust to prison life; he took a suicidal leap through a prison hospital window at Huntsville. He was buried in the prison cemetery until he was reburied decades later at Fort Sill.  Big Tree renounced his warrior ways and converted to Christianity.  He became a leading citizen of Anadarko, Oklahoma and a deacon in the Baptist Church.  Maman-ti was taken prisoner during the Red River War and shipped off to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.  Fort Marion was an old British built fort used to imprison the more troublesome Native Americans.  Among it inmates was the celebrated Apache war chief, Geronimo.  It was there, the owl prophet died from the effects of dysentery.
The terrifying Kiowa warrior “Blue Duck,” in Larry McMurtry’s acclaimed book “Lonesome Dove” is based on Satanta.