By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Salt Creek Massacre, May 18, 1871


"When a white army battles Indians and wins, it is called a great victory, but if they lose it is called a massacre."

– Chiksika, Shawnee.

In 1871, Henry Warren had contracted with the U.S. Army to freight supplies coming from the east to military outposts in west Texas. Warren's freighters hauled supplies to Fort Richardson, Fort Griffin and Fort Concho.

On May 18, 1871, Warren's teamsters were on the Jacksboro-Belknap road more than 25 miles from Fort Richardson. As the 10-mule teams lumbered along the road, under the burden of the overloaded wagons that they pulled, the freighters were overtaken and passed by a small contingent of Cavalry under the command of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

If the muleskinners recognized this famous general, they no doubt doffed their hats and gave a hearty cheer as the horsemen cantered past. Perhaps they also felt a welcomed sense of safety knowing that the heroic general – and those accompanying him – would be leading the way to the fort.

When Gen. Sherman's entourage crossed Salt Creek, about 20 miles from the fort, they were unaware of the Kiowa war party that had concealed themselves in the heavy brush that covered the hillsides, but as the soldiers passed by the Kiowa warriors held fast.

When planning this raid the Kiowa holy man, Mamanti (He walking-above), had told the warriors that in his vision he had seen a small party of whites followed by a much larger one and that the second party would provide greater plunder.

And so it was that the Kiowa war party waited.

A few hours later, Warren's freight wagons approached Salt Creek and were quickly overtaken as nearly 100 Kiowa warriors attacked. Caught unaware, the ambush left the teamsters no time to establish a defense. The battle was quick and decisive as seven muleskinners fell dead from the lofty perches of their freight wagons.

As the Kiowa plundered the wagons and ritualistically mutilated the dead, five surviving skinners managed to escape and hid themselves in the nearby brush until the war party had left. Under cover of darkness the five surviving freighters walked the 20 miles to Fort Richardson. The Kiowa had lost only three warriors but had gained 40 head of mules and all the plunder they could carry. The raid on the Warren wagon train would become known as the Salt Creek Massacre.

The attack was carried out by several Kiowa war chiefs, including one of the Kiowa elders known as Satank (Sitting Bear), another seasoned and prominent chief named Satanta (White Bear), and a young war chieftain by the name of Ado-ete (Big Tree). Satank was one of only ten Kiowa warriors to be a member of the elite Koitsenko, a highly prestigious group of warriors known for their bravery in battle. He was nearly 70 years old at the time of the raid.

Satanta had become a war chief when he was only 20 and later became the principal war chief of the Kiowa during the 1860s. However, in 1868, Gen. Phil Sheridan's winter campaign strategy of destroying the lodges and horses of the Kiowa and Col. George Armstrong Custer's attack on the Cheyenne village at the Washita River, prompted Satanta and other Kiowa chiefs to surrender. The Kiowa chiefs made the decision to surrender when they saw that the white soldiers battle tactics included the killing of women and children.

During Custer's surprise attack on Black Kettle's camp on the Washita River, 500 Cavalry troopers killed more than 100 Cheyenne – nearly half were women and children. Black Kettle's 150 Cheyenne warriors, while defending their families, managed to kill 21 soldiers. This conflict is known as The Battle of the Washita River.

On Dec. 17, 1868, a little more than three weeks after the Washita River tragedy, Satanta surrendered to Custer. Custer held Satanta under arrest for three months while he tried to get the authority to have him hanged. Unable to obtain that authority, Satanta was released on the word of Chief Tene-angop'te (Striking Eagle), that the Kiowa would stop their raiding of white settlers and return to the reservation.

For a distinguished war chief, reservation life and the hardship it caused his people was unbearable and so Satanta did not keep the word of chief Tene-angop'te. Satanta left the reservation and he, along with other war chiefs of the Kiowa, continued the attacks on settlers and supply trains in the west Texas region of the Comancheria. One of the chiefs that joined Satank and Satanta and who was the third war chief that led the Kiowa in the Warren wagon train raid was young Ado-ete.

When the five surviving muleskinners reached Fort Richardson, they reported the "massacre" of the seven slain muleskinners to post commander Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, who informed Gen. Sherman of the attack.

The freighters were able to identify Ado-ete, Satank and Satanta as leaders of the Kiowa war party. Col. Mackenzie ordered the arrest of the three and Gen. Sherman arranged for the three to be tried in a civilian court under the charge of first-degree murder. These Kiowa war chiefs were to be the first Indians to be tried in a civilian court of law. Gen. Sherman placed the three under guard and sent them to Jacksboro to stand trial.

The three Kiowa leaders were placed in handcuffs and leg irons. Ado-ete and Satanta climbed into the transport wagon but Satank refused to enter whereupon the guards picked him up and threw him in. For Satank, a Koitsenko, the shackling of a warrior bound by sacred oath to death before dishonor was beyond endurance.

Covering himself with his blanket Satank began to sing his death song. Under cover of his blanket, Satank was chewing the flesh from his hand in order to free himself from the irons that bound his wrists. Once free Satank sprang to his feet, knocking a guard off balance, and wrestled a rifle from the hands of one of the solders. Before Satank could fire a shot, several guards opened fire killing the old chief. They threw his body onto the road and continued on to Jacksboro.

At the trial, the white, court appointed lawyers for the two chiefs argued that the Kiowa and the U.S. military were in a state of war and that the Kiowa were fighting to protect their homeland and their families and being an act of war that they should not be charged, as civilians, with capital murder.

The jury viewed their actions differently and found Ado-ete and Satanta guilty, and the judge sentenced each to death by hanging. However, Texas Gov. Edmund Davis, overturned the order of the courts and commuted the death penalty to life in prison, a punishment far worse than death for warriors who lived free and roamed wherever the buffalo led.

Two years later, Satanta and Ado-ete were released from prison on the condition that they return to the reservation in Oklahoma and a promise to live peacefully. This was a promise made but, once again, not kept by the warrior Satanta. However, Ado-ete did return to the reservation and adapted to the changes from nomadic warrior to peaceful Indian. It is said that he converted to Christianity and became an ordained man of the cloth. He remained on the reservation until his death in 1929.

On the other hand, by 1874, Satanta and his followers were again making war on the ever increasing flow of white settlers and the promiscuous slaughter of buffalo by the opportunistic hide hunters.

On June 27th Satanta and his warriors attacked the hunters at Adobe Walls. The fight, known as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, was a prolonged and bloody battle but the recent rebuilding of fortifications and the superior firepower of the long-range buffalo rifles thwarted the persistent attacks and the Kiowa, along with their allies the Comanche, were driven from the battlefield. The Indians suffered heavy losses while only a few buffalo hunters were killed. It was during this battle that buffalo hunter Billy Dixon made his famous long range shot and knocked a Comanche warrior off his horse from a distance of more than half a mile.

Later that year, in October 1874, Satanta was again captured and sentenced to a life term in the Texas penitentiary at Huntsville. The once defiant and vibrant warrior became sullen and despondent.

Two years later, on Oct. 11, 1878, while being escorted to the prison hospital, Satanta threw himself from an open window of the second story and ended his life, by his own hand, on the brickyard below.

The central plains echo with the stories of Sioux warriors such as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. No doubt that the tribes of the southern plains also have their great warriors and among the Kiowa are the stories and legends of men such as White Bear, Sitting Bear and Big Tree.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email:

For The Sun-Telegraph

Three Kiowa Warriors, 1898


Reader Comments

guest01 writes:

Really great story. Thanks for the honest perspective.


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