6 minute read

Shortgrass Country

ARTIST GEORGE CATLIN’S RENDERING OF HENRY DODGE, RENOWNED FOR HIS EXPLOITS IN BOTH THE BLACK HAWK WAR AND INDIAN TERRITORY, AND LATER GOVERNOR OF AND U. S. SENATOR FROM WISCONSIN.

THE STILL-YOUNG AMERICAN nation had all but moved heaven and earth by the mid-1830s to force the southeastern Indian Republics and other tribes west to its new Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). The Southern Great Plains tribes, however, along with their own mortal enemies, the still-sanguinary Osage, remained oblivious to all the federal government’s best-laid plans.

The Plains tribes, which included the Comanche, Kiowa, and Wichita, thwarted the U.S. government’s promised plans of peace for the transplanted woodland tribes of eastern and southern Oklahoma by raiding and plundering them. The Osage, meanwhile, refused to move north to Kansas from Verdigris River enclaves in the heart of the Cherokee country as earlier agreed upon. They stole Cherokee and Creek horses, along with other property. All these tribes also imperiled the travel of American citizens traversing Indian Territory, whether to settle farther west or conduct other business.

WAYNE COOPER’S WASHINGTON IRVING MEETING THE OSAGE.
 —Courtesy Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation, Inc. and Wayne Cooper.

The presence of such small tribes as the Shawnee, Seneca, and Quapaw presented another lingering dilemma. They remained on land overlapping that of recently arrived groups such as the Cherokee. President Andrew Jackson appointed the three-man Stokes Commission, headed by North Carolina Governor Montfort Stokes, to address all these problems. This group succeeded in settling the tribal boundary disputes. Handling  the Osage and the fearsome, nomadic Plains tribes proved a greater challenge.

Early outreaches to the Southern Plains tribes bore little fruit. This included an 1832 expedition on which the famed American author and historian Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle) traveled. Irving penned his acclaimed A Tour on the Prairies during the journey.

A horrifying event the next year helped bring the Plains tribes to the treaty table. A war party of Osage followed a Kiowa trail to Cutthroat Gap in presentday northwest Comanche County, in southwest Oklahoma. There, lay a defenseless Kiowa village, its warriors away on a hunt. The Osage massacred over one hundred women, children, and old men— committing beheadings and other atrocities—and took away others as captives.

AMERICAN SOLDIERS

The next year, 1834, an historic expedition headed west across present-day Oklahoma from Fort Gibson to treat with the Southern Plains tribes. Federal soldiers posted in rugged Indian Territory comprised most of this force. As with the tribes who traveled the Trails of Tears, this country proved new, difficult, and far from home for these American soldiers. They manned a series of new forts erected to protect various tribes at various times, and eventually, American settlers. The forts included Coffee, Gibson, Towson, Leavenworth, Washita, Arbuckle, and Cobb.

These troopers’ frequently hazardous service during the pre-Civil War period proved indispensable in fashioning lands for the emigrant tribes that were much more secure than they would otherwise have been. It also restrained uncooperative whites and Indians. Perhaps no one has depicted the life of these men better than historian Odie Faulk:

GEORGE CATLIN'S SPECTACULAR DEPICTION OF AN OSAGE (LEFT) AND COMANCHE (RIGHT) WARRIOR DUEL.
LITTLE SPANIARD AND THE COMANCHE WARRIORS MEETING THE DODGE-LEAVENWORTH EXPEDITION, AS PAINTED BY EYEWITNESS GEORGE CATLIN.

Duty at these posts was hard and dangerous for the soldiers. The men erected their quarters themselves, cutting logs or quarrying stone, moving these to the desired location, and erecting them according to plans drawn by their officers. They fought malaria and bilious fevers, ate government hardtack and bacon, escorted supply wagons, scouted new territory, and sometimes fought Indians or white renegades—all for eight dollars a month.

DODGE AND THE DRAGOONS

The aforementioned westward column aimed to meet with the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Wichita, and other Plains Indian tribes. The assemblage included Stokes, as well as an imposing five hundredman column of dragoons, a newly-constituted formation of mounted infantry. It counted among its number a host of names now familiar in the pantheon of American historical luminaries. These included General Henry Leavenworth, who commanded the column; Colonel Henry Dodge (already a famous soldier who had commanded the first mounted U. S. Army Regulars in history); Stephen W. Kearney (“Father of the U.S. Cavalry”); Nathan Boone (son of Daniel Boone); David Hunter (well-known Civil War general), George Catlin (famed artist whose paintings first recorded present-day Oklahoma), and Jefferson Davis (future U.S. Senator, Secretary of War, and President of the Confederate States of America).

All told, this expedition comprised the most impressive American military force assembled to that date in Indian Territory. Their epic quest brought drama, glory, death, heartbreak, and a courage that helped write the history of America. By the time they reached the mouth of the Washita River where it poured into Red River, near presentday Lake Texoma, scores of soldiers—including Leavenworth—had been victimized by heat, typhus fever, and exhaustion. More than a hundred and fifty of them—again including Leavenworth, who suffered a bad fall from his horse—would die. “Perhaps there never has been in America a campaign that operated more severely on man and horses,” Dodge concluded.

OKLAHOMA HAS BEEN HORSE COUNTRY FOR A LONG TIME. “THERE IS NO OTHER ANIMAL ON THE PRAIRIES SO WILD AND SO SAGACIOUS AS THE HORSE,” WROTE ARTIST GEORGE CATLIN OF THE FIERY MUSTANG, DESCENDED FROM SPAIN, DURING THE 1834 DODGE-LEAVENWORTH EXPEDITION THROUGH INDIAN TERRITORY.

After Leavenworth fell, Dodge took command and led the column west. Riding through present-day Stephens County in southwest Oklahoma, a Sergeant Evans wrote of the “highly romantic and elevated prairies” and large herds of wild horses on Wildhorse Creek between present-day Marlow and Duncan. The dragoons continued into present-day Kiowa County, where they met with Plains tribes’ representatives at the Wichita village on the North Fork of Red River.

The remaining contingent of soldiers greatly impressed the Natives, as did their delivery of Kiowa and Wichita hostages from the Osage. This meeting led to another a few months later at Fort Gibson. There, Dodge and other American officials treated with delegates from the Plains tribes, the southeastern immigrant tribes, and even the Osage.

All these tribes, and the U. S. officials, consented to peaceful relations with one another in Indian Territory. The Natives agreed to a treaty council in the buffalo country to the west in July of the next year, 1835, “when the grass next grows after the snows, which are soon to fall, shall have melted away.”

That gathering, known as the Camp Holmes Treaty Conference, took place just north of presentday Lexington, south of Norman in Cleveland County, Oklahoma. Between six and eight thousand Indians gathered. Multiple interpreters translated the many speeches, and on August 24, 1835, the first treaty ever signed between the United States and the Southern Plains tribes was inked. All the major groups of the latter except the Kiowa signed. So did the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Quapaw, and Seneca who had come from the east.

This landmark peace agreement was not kept inviolate, but two years later the Kiowa signed on. The Osage bands along the Verdigris, acquiescing to the might of American soldiery, retreated north into Kansas in 1839. An historic framework was thus established that gave hope, after so much suffering, for peace among the many vigorous peoples in the future Oklahoma country.

—John J. Dwyer has taught history at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma City since 2006. He is the author of numerous books, including the Will Rogers Medallion-winning The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People, Vol. 1. He is a regular contributor to Saddlebag Dispatches.