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Archive for November, 2015

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

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Many don’t realize that we have three National Parks in the state of Oklahoma.  All three are beautiful places to visit and each unique.  Unfortunately two are places where great tragedy and loss have occurred.  The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in one of the oldest and most tragic.  So on a nice fall day a few weeks ago we made a trip to the far western part of the state to visit this historic location.

Near the current town of Cheyenne, Chief Black Kettle and his tribe of Southern Cheyenne had made winter camp on the Washita River in early November 1868.  There had been an uneasy peace with the Cheyenne after the Medicine Lodge Treaty signed in October 1867.  In the summer afterward, that peace was broken when groups of Cheyenne, along with other tribes, started attacking white settlers in Colorado, Texas, and Kansas.  This marked the tribes as “hostile” according to the United States Army.

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Along the banks of the Washita River, 2015.

With winter coming, many of the tribes settled along the banks of the Washita River (or Lodgepole River, as named by the tribes because of the numerous trees) Black Kettle’s village of around 250 was the western most settlement.  The Army had been stationed near Fort Cobb in western Indian Territory.  General Philip Sheridan decided on a “winter campaign” against the tribes to try and get them to surrender.  So in late November 1868, the general ordered Colonel George Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry to attack Black Kettle’s village.  Early on the morning of November 27, 1868 Custer’s forces converged on the village and in no time had taken control.  Black Kettle and his wife were amongst the first killed.  The exact death toll isn’t known but it is believed that around 50 Cheyenne were killed along with 21 soldiers.  To keep any of the Cheyenne from escaping, Custer also ordered over 700 horses to be slaughtered and dumped in a ravine.  He then took the surviving women and children as prisoners and burned he camp.

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Site of Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne 1868 winter camp, 2015.

So with this kind of history it’s obviously a sad place to visit.  The location was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and in 2007 the state built a new visitor center and museum.  After you walk through the museum, you can go out to the site and walk the 1.5 mile marked trail.  It wasn’t a long walk but it can give you the creeps especially near the reported location of the horse grave.  You can see where the army scouted out the village and get an idea of what the land would have looked like around the time of the massacre.  This is a place to take older kids to help them learn about Oklahoma history and since it is part of the park service they do offer a Junior Ranger badge for completing a booklet geared toward different ages.  I would recommend going but make sure you have some walking shoes on.

Hours: Visitor Center open 7 days a week 8am-5pm except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and January 1st.  Overlook and trail open from dawn to dusk daily.


Sunflower on the trail to Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River, 2015.

Museum of the Western Prairie

Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus

Windmill at the Museum of the Western Prairie, Altus, OK, 2015.

A few months ago I went on a road trip to the southwestern part of the state.  It was August and 104 degrees out but I didn’t care, there were places I wanted to go and see.  I went looking for the Cross S Ranch Headquarters south of Olustee and couldn’t find it.  Eventually later that day I ended up in Altus and had time to visit the Museum of the Western Prairie.

It’s back off the road in a park, a low building with dirt up around it to make it look like an old dugout home from the late 1800’s.  I had been there before many years ago and saw a picture of downtown Eldorado, Oklahoma, that showed the Farley blacksmith shop.  This was the shop that my great-great grandfather Jeff Farley ran in the 1890’s.  So on this visit I wanted to find that picture again and show it to Mae, just to emphasize our family history here in Oklahoma.

The building had been remodeled a few years ago, so things had changed and the picture was no longer on display, but there were still plenty of other exhibits to show her just how our family lived in that time period.  They had the usual covered wagon and other household items from the time of settlement in Jackson County.  But one of the more interesting items on display was a console from the Atlas missile silos that surrounded Altus and it’s air force base from 1962-1965.

Control board for Atlas rocket in Altus

There is more outside in the courtyard that showcases the history of southwestern Oklahoma.  Windmill, farm equipment, a buggy, and the Criswell half-dugout.  Davis and Sarah Criswell built the half-dugout in old Greer County (now part of Jackson County) around 1900.  This dugout is a great example of what a family home looked like out on the western prairie.  But also in this courtyard is where I finally found the Cross S Ranch Headquarters building.  It’s still in the process of being restored (for more info read my previous post about the history of this building).

The museum was started in 1966 when the Western Trail Historical Society started raising money to build a museum in Altus.  The building was completed in 1970 and officially became a Oklahoma Historical Society field museum in 1973.  The Criswell half-dugout was placed there in 1976 and the Cross S Ranch Headquarters was rebuilt there in 2009.

So if you’re a history nerd like me or just want to get an idea of what life was like on the western prairie around the turn of the century, stop and check this museum out.  Takes about an hour to see everything.  Older kids might like it but younger kids would probably be bored, not a lot of kid type stuff to do.  I do hope the next time I visit they have that Eldorado picture back out.

Address: 1100 Memorial Drive, Altus, OK.  From Main Street (or State Highway 6), turn east on Falcon Road, then go less than a quarter of a mile to Memorial Drive.  The museum sits at the end of the road.

Hours: Tuesday- Saturday 10am-5pm.

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