Hello Readers: Tribal peoples and Whites have a vexed history, one I’ve been asking writers, historians and (one artist) to comment on for the last year.
Here are some of the more thought-provoking statements and/or historical facts.
About Sand Creek, Gregory Michno had much to say.
Michno has written numerous books on the West, including, The Battle of Sand Creek: A Military Perspective.
(Sand Creek occurred in 1864 when a 600–to–700 man force of Third Colorado (U.S. Volunteer) Cavalry attacked and destroyed a Cheyenne and Arapaho village in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing between 70–163 Indians, many of whom were women and children).
At the time, the Cheyenne were discussing peace with the whites.
Michno said, “The Cheyenne and Arapaho were raiding and killing all summer and into the fall of 1864.
“Now, as to who was to blame for ‘starting’ it all is endlessly debatable, independent of the facts, and resolvable only through the preconceptions of the individual.
“These Indians held seven white captives, which they admitted they had in their letter asking for peace.
“Soldiers tried to procure all of them, but were only given four, possibly a hedging by the Indians who figured it was not a good idea to give up all their bargaining chips.
“It seems accurate to assume, however, that the Cheyenne and Arapaho, after the Camp Weld Conference in September 1864, and with the assurances they were given by Major Edward Wynkoop, believed that they were reasonably safe.
“Perception, however, is individually and group oriented. The village attacked on Sand Creek contained warriors who had been killing and raiding.
“Some will argue that they now had immunity, others will disagree.
“Again it depends on individual biases and no amount of ‘facts’ or reasoning will make any difference.
“The village also contained women and children who had been doing nothing warlike except supporting their men. Were they legitimate targets? Were white homesteaders legitimate targets for Indian warriors?
“If I had my choice, I’d say leave the women and children out of it, but war has a way of ignoring personal preference.
“One point that few people realize is that there were 76 white casualties at Sand Creek.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but it represents the sixth largest white casualty count in all the 1,450 fights between 1850 and 1890.
“Some people will undercount the white casualties, just as others will overcount the Indian casualties.
“A major factor involved is our ‘gut’ reaction to the atrocities. Seventy-six soldier casualties is just a statistic.
“One pregnant Indian woman scalped and mutilated is the story we remember. That is human nature doing the talking.”
Question: Did the soldiers deliberately murder women and children?
Michno: “Certainly there were soldiers who deliberately killed women and children. There were also soldiers who saved women and children.
“The eyewitness testimony has enough examples to prove that there were scalpings and mutilations. The record also has examples of soldiers who were appalled by the action and expressed their revulsion of it.”
From Anthony Whitt, author of Hard Land To Rule and Cold Hard Ride, talking about the gun which conquered the Comanches: “The first effective use of repeating firearms against the Comanche happened in 1844, in Kendall County at the Guadalupe River crossing south of Sisterdale.
“Called the Battle of Walker Creek or the Battle of Sisters Creek, it found Texas Rangers under the command of Jack Hays repulsing overwhelming numbers of Comanche at close range.
“The Indians expected the normal shoot and reload pause they had become accustomed to.
(But) “The Rangers took them by surprise with the repeating capabilities of the five-shot revolving pistol manufactured by Sam Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company.
“The ‘Navy Colt’ forever altered the balance of power in favor of well equipped Rangers. They quickly earned the reputation as ‘One of the most brutally efficient tracking and killing machines ever fielded.'”
For those of you who haven’t read Sam Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, Comanche War Chief Quanah Parker was the son of white captive Cynthia Ann Parker and Comanche Peta Nocona.
After Quanah’s surrender, he began a successful businessman in the white world and eventually world-famous.
“That one of the greatest plains warriors later started a school district and testified brilliantly for Indian rights in Washington is one of the most amazing things I have ever heard.”
Fred Wagner, author of two books on Custer’s Last Stand, said he is “a critical defender of George Custer.”
Those books are The Strategy of Defeat at the Little Big Horn and Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
“His orders aside, Custer performed as many military men would have… with some exceptions.
“Unfortunately, those exceptions got him killed, but they were exceptions within the man’s make-up, within the man’s history, and within the man’s experience.
“Custer was an aggressive commander, but on this day he took too many risks and committed the classic blunders of an over-confident commander: refusal to heed the signs his scouts warned him about; underestimating the size and intentions of his enemy; not keeping his subordinate commanders informed; and allowing his divided command to fall away from mutual support.
“Too many people blame both this division of command and his tactics for the regiment’s defeat, but neither, specifically, is the case.
“As he subverted the strategic plans, so he subverted his tactical plans by allowing these subordinates to fall away with no support.”
When asked about his view of Custer, Jeff Barnes, author of The Great Plains Guide to Custer, said “Unfortunately, many folks draw their history from popular culture or the biased opinions of others.
“My own cousin – when I told her I was writing a book about him – said ‘I hate Custer,’ and I know she hadn’t cracked a history book in more than forty years!
“He certainly wasn’t a psychopath – the Army didn’t keep those commanders in the field.
“I wouldn’t call Custer disastrous, either – he had had success on the plains and Sheridan and Sherman fervently wanted him on the 1876 campaign. He came into a disastrous situation, but it wasn’t one of his making.
“I don’t know if ANY Army commander active at the time could have found success at Little Bighorn, but I do think Custer had the best chance of it.”
Scott Zesch, author of The Captured, had a fascinating take on white captive children.
Question: Once they were returned to their families, captive children couldn’t stay married, they couldn’t keep a job, some of them never learned to read and write, they couldn’t stay in one place, they had a hard time communicating and generally seemed like unhappy people.
Can you explain why being a captive had this effect on the children?
“Most of them had known nothing but hard work on frontier farms before they were captured, and they discovered for the first time that there was another way to live.
“Once they got back home, I think they felt terribly confined.
“By then, their Comanche friends had been sent to the reservation, so there was no way the former captives could go back to the roving life they had known with them.”
Q. The children did not seem angry at the Comanches, although the Comanches killed some of the children’s families, and committed atrocities in front of them. Can you explain why?
Zesch: “They didn’t seem to transfer their hatred of the individuals who killed their relatives to the Comanche people as a whole.
“Former captive Dot Babb put it best: ‘You wouldn’t want to kill every white person you saw because some white person had killed your mother.’”
Finally, here’s what artist Thom Ross had to say about the meaning of Custer’s Last Stand: “With no basis in the historical record on HOW he died (other than the bullet that smacked him in the left breast) it is remarkable that when we re-create Custer in art, he is standing (usually at dead-center) and battling away while the warriors swarm all around him.
“He is, indeed, resisting the inevitable death that awaits not only him but ALL of us….and knowing this, he battles on, heroically wielding a saber he didn’t have, his long hair flowing out behind him (which he also didn’t have.)
“So Custer represents something MORE than himself. You see this same thing when you watch ROCKY….the bum-boxer who, Custer-like, gets in WAY over his head yet will not concede defeat and, in the end, when he IS defeated, he is the hero.
“Same story being told over and over for thousands of years….and in defeat, Rocky does not call out for redemption nor for vengeance, he calls out for love…ADRIAN!”
“Again, whether he meant to or not, Sly Stallone (who wrote Rocky) touched that area, that part of us, that responds to this heroic myth.
“Thru defeat comes victory.”