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This country will surprise you, with its “plen'y of air and plen'y of room,” this is a place where, as the Oklahoma state song attests, “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” The rolling red hills of Elk City sandstone seem to go on forever.
Out here on the western plains of Oklahoma's storied Indian Territory, it's not hard to understand why the nomadic Plains Indians battled so fiercely to preserve their traditional way of life, nor why the settlers pushing into the country fought so hard to wrestle this land away from them.
In the northwest corner of Roger Mills County, nestled in a bend of the Canadian River, the fabled Antelope Hills served as a landmark for Spanish conquistadors, Plains Indians, Texas Rangers, and immigrants making their way along the California Road. They also served—at one time—as the international boundary line between the United States and Mexico.
In 1868, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry left Camp Supply, Indian Territory, in a blinding snowstorm, heading for these hills to begin the search for Cheyenne and Arapaho “hostiles” purported to be in their winter camps along the banks of the Washita River.
In today's world, wars are fought year around. Not so in the mid 1800s. Both warrior and cavalryman laid down their weapons and rested during the harsh winter months. However, as conflict between these two cultures escalated, strategy changed. Custer and the 7th embarked upon a winter campaign to attack the vulnerable and unprepared Indian camps. On November 27, 1868, Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's village was discovered, and fell before the 7th Cavalry's surprise dawn attack.
Today, Washita is a place of remembrance and reconciliation and has special significance for the Cheyenne people who regard it as hallowed ground. The visitor center is a building with a story to tell through its shape, its colors, and design. In the museum, you'll hear the Cheyenne language as Lenora Hart Holliman begins her story, “The morning was still and bitter cold…”
The cultural landscape surrounding the park retains a high degree of integrity, giving you opportunity to visualize and ponder the dramatic events which unfolded here. Walk the U.S. Forest Service's Dust and Fire Trail circling the visitor center. Signs along the route explain how plants, animals, and humans have been able to adapt and survive the harsh weather conditions of the Great Plains.
One of the stops showcases a successful collaboration between the National Park Service, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and the Southern Plains Inventory & Monitoring Network to create an Ethno-Botanical (Native) Garden. The garden is designed in the shape of a Medicine Wheel, a symbol featured in many Plains Indians cultures. In each of the four quadrants of this wheel are plants, shrubs and trees used by the tribes to this day.
A half-mile drive down the Black Kettle Memorial Highway, a park overlook provides panoramic views of the Washita River Valley, with the Horseshoe Hills in the distance. Tied to the fence rails around the overlook pavilion are colorful prayer cloths to honor those who lost their lives here. Walk the 1.5 mile loop trail, where 15 stops explain how events unfolded that fateful day.
For those of you traveling west on Route 66: The Mother Road, be sure to stop at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City. From there, you'll find Washita Battlefield by heading north to Cheyenne, just 25 miles off Interstate 40 on Highway 283.
Midway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is one-half mile west of the town of Cheyenne on Highway 47. The park is open every day from 8 am until 5 pm, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Admission is free.
By Kathryn Harrison, acting chief of interpretation, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site