Conflict on the Southern Plains between Native Americans and the U.S. Army had been occurring for years. The Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 had resulted in the death of many innocent Cheyenne women and children, and likewise retaliatory attacks by Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” had caused havoc on homesteads in Colorado and Kansas. To create a greater understanding of the Battle of the Washita that later occurred in 1868, it is important to analyze the events that led up to it.
In the spring of 1867, in response to Dog Soldier attacks on the frontier, General Winfield Hancock led 1,400 soldiers in a campaign of intimidation. The goal was to intimidate the Dog Soldiers, a fierce band of warriors mainly comprising Cheyennes but also other groups including Arapaho and Lakota. The Dog Soldiers had been raiding the Great Plains in retaliation for the Sand Creek Massacre that occurred in 1864. Included in Hancock’s expedition was George Armstrong Custer and the 7th cavalry.
Hancock’s expedition set out in April for western Kansas, and began on a rocky note from the start. Meeting first with Dog Soldier chiefs on April 12th, Hancock demanded they cease hostilities. On April 14th, many Cheyenne and Lakota women and children in nearby villages escaped, fearing another massacre such as that that had occurred at Sand Creek in 1864.
On April 15th, Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry were ordered to pursue the fleeing Cheyennes and Lakotas. While in their villages they heard word of the 7th Cavalry approaching, causing a panic. Chief Roman Nose ordered his people to remain silent, and the Cheyenne used the undulating terrain of the region to conceal their movements, resulting in a fruitless pursuit for Custer. Furthermore, the Cheyennes had skillfully used the waterways like a highway to outmaneuver the enemy.
For General Hancock, his expedition seemed doomed from the start. Fighting an enemy they poorly understood, in a region they were not familiar, coming to grips with the Dog Soldiers would prove a daunting task.
April 19th, 1867
On April 19th George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry arrived at Fort Hays in Kansas after a relatively fruitless pursuit of the retreating Cheyennes. Custer arrived expecting a large amount of supplies and provisions for his soldiers, but unfortunately he found Fort Hays was barren and provided little for his hungry troopers. Desertion began occurring during the month of April. By the end of the month 65 men had deserted from the 7th Cavalry.
Meanwhile, on the same day, and over 50 miles to the southwest of Fort Hays, General Hancock and the bulk of the expedition were facing a different dilemma. Against the protests of Indian Agent Edward Wynkoop, Hancock decided to destroy an abandoned village of Cheyenne and Lakota tipis on the banks of the Pawnee Fork. Relations between the military and the Indian Department were already on loose footing, and the disagreement between Hancock and Wynkoop continued the tension. Around 300 lodges, many already looted by the soldier’s, were burned to the ground on Hancock’s order. Upon hearing of the news, several Cheyenne chiefs who were contemplating peace with the whites became angry. As a result Cheyenne retaliation would occur throughout the summer of 1867.
Reports also mentioned a small party of six Cheyennes from Black Kettle’s band who were visiting the village on the Pawnee Fork before it was destroyed. Upon the soldier’s approach, the small group split up to escape, and a few were killed in the process, including a Cheyenne named One Bear. Black Kettle, a Cheyenne peace chief, had steadfastly maintained peace even after the Sand Creek Massacre. He had intentionally moved his village to the south of the Arkansas River in Kansas, many miles away, to avoid the conflict.
April 24th, 1867
After the destruction of the Cheyenne village on the Pawnee Fork, General Hancock sent his expedition, minus the 7th Cavalry, to Fort Dodge Kansas. There he attempted a council with Kiowa chiefs Kicking Bird and Stumbling Bear on April 23rd. Both expressed their willingness to meet with Hancock due to their close distance to Fort Dodge and the nearby Arkansas River. Meanwhile, many Cheyenne who had fled from Hancock’s expedition had fled south of the Arkansas Rover. Both Kiowa Chiefs expressed their interest in maintaining peaceful relations and remaining in villages south of the Arkansas River - which included southwestern Kansas and western Oklahoma. Hancock’s meeting was intended to use the Kiowa and Apaches as allies while placing the blame on the Cheyenne.
On April 23rd Hancock also received word of the theft of 11 mules from a station at the Cimarron Crossing. Hancock initially blamed the incident on the Cheyenne, but no direct evidence could be gathered that indicated they had done the theft. In a report later in May, Hancock himself admitted no evidence was available to confirm it was Cheyenne who has stolen the mules. Hancock would remain at Fort Dodge for a few more days, contemplating his next move while continuing to hold council with Kiowa and Arapahoe chiefs.