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.
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.
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.