Along the Medicine Lodge Creek, in Kansas, in October 1867, the Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache engaged in the massive Medicine Lodge Treaty council with U.S. peace commissioners. Like the Fort Laramie Treaty, it, too, was intended to clear a path for westward expansion and bring an end to chronic warfare.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty demanded extensive land cessions and defined the boundaries of a reservation that covered most of what is today southwestern Oklahoma. In sum, the signatories surrendered their claims to more than 140,000 square miles of land and retained only 5,500. In return, they received payments of $25,000 per year for 30 years, annuities in the form of food, supplies, seeds, and farming equipment, and the promise of schools and churches.
Hunters to Turn Farmers?
At the heart of the treaty was the expectation that American Indians would learn to live like whites—that people whose lives revolved around hunting bison would become farmers. This proposition didn’t sit well with many Indian people.
In words befitting the perspective of other tribal communities, a Kiowa woman named Old Lady Horse explained why. “The buffalo were the life of the Kiowa,” she said. Bison, then, were at the heart of a way of life worth fighting for. The Comanche, also believed that by retaining the right to hunt on lands they had reserved for themselves in Kansas and Texas in prior treaties, they had also retained ownership.
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No Distinction Between Use and Ownership of Land
Historian Pekka Hämäläinen underscores the importance of this. He writes, “Whereas Americans made a clear distinction between the use and ownership of land, Comanches regarded them as inexorably linked.” Moreover, the Comanche looked at the reservation not as a place for permanent settlement, but as a seasonal supply base where they would receive the gifts the United States gave them in acknowledgment of their power.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty council was a divisive moment. As we saw on the northern Plains, many bands within the tribes that were party to the treaty opposed its terms and therefore did not consider it binding on them.
Medicine Lodge Treaty: A Flawed Solution
The Kiowa chief Satanta articulated this position in no uncertain terms. “All the land south of the Arkansas belongs to the Kiowa and Comanches, and I don’t want to give away any of it,” he told treaty commissioners. The Medicine Lodge Treaty produced a flawed solution that set the stage for more conflict.
For starters, the Congress didn’t appropriate funds for the provisions of the treaty, and the promises of rations and annuities went unfulfilled. In the wake of a desperate winter between 1867 and 1868, many of the Comanche, and Apache who had taken up residence on the reservation moved onto the Plains to hunt bison and raid cattle and horses in Texas, New Mexico, and Indian Territory.
Cheyenne Village Massacre
Meanwhile, Cheyenne Dog Soldiers raided Americans in Colorado and Kansas and disrupted railway construction along the Platte and Kansas valleys. The federal army responded with a campaign that climaxed in the massacre of Black Kettle’s village of Cheyenne along the Washita River, in November 1868. More than 100 Southern Cheyenne were killed.
Their lodges were burned to the ground. The Army soldiers even laid waste to some 800 horses. Making the situation worse, the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869 effectively divided the once massive bison herds on the Plains. It also contributed to their systematic slaughter.
The Decimation of the Bison Population
Some 30 to 40 million bison were present on the Plains at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1895 their number had been reduced to 1,000. In the winter of 1872—1873 alone, the hide yard owned by Charles Rath and Robert Wright in Dodge City, Kansas, shipped 200,000 hides. They had another 80,000 in their warehouse. Hide hunters moved into Native hunting grounds, and slaughtered bison, leaving their rotting carcasses behind.
This wanton destruction was devastating for the Comanche. As Pekka Hämäläinen explains, “The buffalo was the foundation of their economy and the centerpiece of their cosmology, and the wholesale slaughter shook their existence at its core.”
Through the early 1870s, Comanche forces struck out at bison hunters in the Texas Panhandle in an attempt to preserve Native ways of life. The United States Army retaliated with a multipronged offensive of its own. And, like on the northern Plains, an ultimatum defined all Comanche and Apache who failed to report to the reservation by August 1874 as hostiles.
Learn more about how the gold rush accelerated westward.
Red River War
The fighting reached a climax during the Red River War between August and December of that year. It devolved into a brutal total war, in which not only all people but also all that they held dear and all that they needed to provide for themselves became targets.
For example, at Palo Duro Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle, U.S. troops burned hundreds of Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne teepees, as well as robes and blankets and thousands of pounds of dried meat, flour, and sugar.
They seized 1,400 horses and killed more than a thousand of them. This, along with the destruction of the bison, made further military resistance virtually impossible and contributed to their surrender nine months later.
These were, without question, dark times on both the northern and southern Plains. By the end of the 19th century, the Plains people were, indeed, becoming surrounded by an expanding American empire. But, even in these darkest hours, they remained very much at the center of a struggle that was far from over.
Common Questions about the Medicine Lodge Treaty
At the heart of the Medicine Lodge Treaty was the expectation that American Indians would learn to live like whites—that people whose lives revolved around hunting bison would become farmers.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty council was a divisive moment. Many bands within the tribes opposed its terms and therefore did not consider it binding on them.
At the beginning of the 19th century, some 30 to 40 million bison were present on the Plains.