All Denver Public Library locations and book drops are temporarily closed until further notice. More information...

You are here

Black Kettle (1807 - 1868)

Black Kettle was a chief of the Southern Cheyenne people. He fought for peace even as his people suffered brutality and death at the hands of the government.

Early Life

Black Kettle (Moke-Ta-To) was born around 1807 in the Dakotas to mother Sparrow Hawk and father Swift Hawk. He had a sister named Wind Woman and two brothers named Gentle Horse and Wolf. When he was three years old, his tribe, the Buffalo People, joined the larger Cheyenne tribe. He was an excellent horse rider by the age of eight and went on his first buffalo hunt at 12.

At 14, he showed bravery in his first battle with another tribe and gained respect among his people. While still a teenager, he joined the Elkhorn Scraper Society - these societies were community leaders that would meet and then talk to their chief about important matters. The chiefs of other Cheyenne tribes then gathered in a group called the Council of the 44. Once Black Kettle became recognized as a full man within the Elkhorn Scraper Society, he married a woman named Little Sage.

Coming to Colorado

By the 1830s, Black Kettle and his people drifted down toward the eastern plains of what is now Colorado. They became known as the Southern Cheyenne and had good relationships with many of the trappers and mountain men around Bent’s Fort near La Junta. Unfortunately, they still fought with many other Plains tribes like the Kiowa, Comanche, Crow, Pawnee, Shawnee, and Ute. Most of their lives involved following the herds of buffalo across the plains for food. Even groups of white settlers were not much of a problem until the 1840s.

By the late 1840s, the Gold Rush came to California and many more settlers moved west. They brought with them cholera, which killed many people, though Black Kettle and Little Sage survived. The lives of the Cheyenne were rapidly changing. Black Kettle thought the settlers bringing their cows into the West proved an old prophecy that the buffalo would one day be replaced by a new horned animal.

Because he thought these changes could not be stopped, he wanted to work towards peace with the white people. In 1851, he and thousands of other members of different Plains tribes met at Fort Laramie. There they signed a treaty with the U.S. government to ensure peace. Yet, tribes still fought among themselves and while Black Kettle was off fighting another tribe in Mexican Territory, his wife Little Sage was kidnaped by the Ute. He never saw her again.

Becoming a "Peace Chief"

Eventually, Black Kettle would marry Medicine Woman of the Wotapio Band. In 1854, the chief of her band died and Black Kettle was chosen to be their new chief and was made a member of the Council of 44. In the 1850s, tension was growing between the many tribes and the new white immigrants and government soldiers. The grandson of a Cheyenne chief, George Bent of Bent’s Fort, was trusted by many of the tribal leaders like Black Kettle. 

Bent was made an Indian Agent of the government and Black Kettle went with other chiefs to meet with him. Bent negotiated a new treaty with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. Black Kettle and five other members of the Council of 44 signed it, but most refused. The treaty would have made it more difficult to follow the paths of the buffalo which provided the tribes with much of their food, clothing, and other necessary supplies.

Many warriors of various tribes were now raiding and killing some settlers. As a result, Colorado Governor John Evans ordered all Native Americans to move to forts in Colorado and Kansas. Anyone who refused to do so would be killed. He then put Colonel John Chivington in charge of the Colorado volunteer militia that would carry out this order. 

Sand Creek Massacre

Black Kettle and others had gathered near Fort Lyon where Edward Wynkoop, the officer in charge, offered protection and tried to negotiate peace with some of those who refused to come to the fort. Wynkoop then went to meet with Governor Evans to make him reconsider his order. Soon after, Wynkoop was removed from his job at the post and was accused of illegally giving food to the Native Americans camped there. While the Colorado government wanted them to stop hunting for food, it also wanted to prevent the military from feeding them. 

Major Scott Anthony was then put in charge of the fort. He wanted to help keep peace, but was not very experienced. He suggested that Black Kettle and White Antelope, another chief, move their people to nearby Sand Creek where they might be able to hunt. He also gave them a white flag to show any soldiers that they were peaceful. In November 1864, Chivington arrived at the fort and Major Anthony ordered his own men to accompany Chivington to Sand Creek. 

Early in the morning of November 29, Chivington moved his 675 men into position near the camp and began firing rifles and cannons at the 600 people inside. The camp was mostly made up of old men, women, and children. Black Kettle had waved an American Flag around to get the soldiers to halt their attack. The few warriors available tried to fight back along the river, but they were far outnumbered.

Black Kettle and his wife began to run for the creek and his wife was shot nine times. He made it to the creek and began loading rifles for the warriors, but Chivington’s men overran the camp. The soldiers murdered women, children, and infants alike. They also did horrible things to the bodies as they lay there. As night fell, Black Kettle found his wife still alive and he and others made their way to the north for safety. 

Two white military officers, Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, refused Chivington’s order and told their men not to take part in the massacre. Later there would be a government investigation into what had happened. Some soldiers like Silas Soule and Major Anthony testified against what Chivington had done, even though many white people considered Chivington a hero. Because of his honesty in describing the massacre, Silas Soule was murdered on the streets of Denver in 1865. Eventually, Governor Evans and Chivington were forced to resign.

Seeking Peace to the End

Native American society was outraged, as many of the chiefs who had fought for peace were murdered at Sand Creek. One Southern Cheyenne woman who had been at the camp, Buffalo Calf Woman (Mochi), even became a warrior afterward. Many Cheyenne and Lakota leaders came together to wage war against the white men. Black Kettle, however, continued to try and bring about peace between the two groups; he signed the new Peace Treaty of the Little Arkansas.

Eventually, his group of people settled in what is now Oklahoma in the Washita River Valley. As attacks on white settlers continued, white citizens demanded action from the military. George Armstrong Custer was sent to lead the Seventh Cavalry against the Indians. Black Kettle tried to move his people to a nearby fort, but was told they had to move to an official reservation. He told his people they would be moving there shortly.

Unfortunately, some of the “Dog Soldiers” who had been raiding white settlements made their way to the Washita camp and Custer followed their trail. On November 27, 1868, Custer and his men rode into the camp and killed nearly everyone including the women and children. Only 53 women and children were taken captive and Custer had the village burned to the ground. Black Kettle and his wife were among the dead. Black Kettle’s work for peace had been ended by another senseless act of violence, but he would long be remembered by future Americans devoted to peacemaking. 

Word Bank

tribe - a group of Native Americans with shared customs and language

cholera - a deadly disease often caused by contaminated food or water

prophecy - a religious prediction of something that will happen in the future

treaty - an official agreement between two or more groups of people

Indian Agent - someone authorized to represent the U.S. Government in interactions with Native Americans

testify - to give an honest account of something that you witnessed, often in a legal court

resign - to leave one's job

reservation - specific sections of land where Native Americans were forced to move to and not leave

Dog Soldiers - a group of warriors that continued to fight

Get Thinking!

Why do you think Black Kettle continued to work for peace after seeing such horrible things being done to his people?

Do you think you would have been a peace chief or a Dog Soldier? Why?

Can you think of any people today who work for peace despite having bad things done to them?