The story of the American west is a checkered one, with heroic struggles and devastating misdeeds. It’s war and peace on an immense scale, spanning a continent and hundreds of years. The men and women that built the west are made of the same clay and grit that we are – we are their descendants, and the beneficiaries of their efforts. Every one of us owes a debt for the world we have now, to those hard-driven men and women, those cowboys, miners, farmers, vaqueros, warriors, squaws and slaves – all of them – for the world we live in today.
I remember that context when considering the atrocities and mistakes that the settlers made with the first Americans. I was at the site of one of those atrocities last month, in Oklahoma, at the Washita battleground.
It was here in November, 1868, that General George Armstrong Custer attacked the home camp of a peaceful chief known as Black Kettle and his followers. Black Kettle was killed, along with his wife and others of the Cheyenne Nation. Custer said they had killed a hundred hostiles; the Indians said It was more like thirty – 11 warriors and 19 women and children.
The survivors were left to starve. Custer destroyed 800 horses, dozens of teepees, and all the supplies they could find. The remaining Indians had no supplies to get through the winter. Custer left them on the plains, to face winter alone with no food, clothing, or housing.
That was the purpose of the raid. The US government had opted for total war against the natives. Years of skirmishes had not ended the wars; they continued on and on, with settlers and Indians alike dying in battle or in ambushes. It was a frightful, dangerous time, and it was people like you and me who were losing their families in the war. It had to end, and the Generals decided the way to end it was to make the war too costly to the enemy.
It worked. It cost a lot of lives, even Custer himself at the Little Big Horn. There were more atrocities committed on both sides before it was over. But eventually the settlers won – and now, a hundred and fifty years later, we have cities like Denver and Dallas, Los Angeles and Bozeman, and farms and ranches that feed the world.
However we feel about the Indian wars, they are what made this civilization possible.