This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Forced to choose between the federal government, which kept him in power with thousands of troops, and the people of Texas, who would vote him out of office when given the chance, Edmund J. Davis decided to please his sponsors by letting two Kiowa war chiefs out of prison on Aug. 19, 1873.
The public outcry against the release of Satanta and Big Tree less than two years into their life sentences was not limited to Texans, who already had reason enough to hate the Reconstruction Republican. Gen. William T. Sherman, responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of the raiders, predicted a new round of Kiowa bloodletting in an angry letter to Davis and expressed his fervent wish that the first scalp taken would be the governor’s.
By the Civil War, most Indian tribes had been annihilated or expelled from Texas. The fierce exceptions were the Comanches and Kiowas, masters of the western half of the state who intimidated the tide of white settlement.
Taking advantage of the chaos following the collapse of the Confederacy, the warriors ran amuck and succeeded in depopulating entire areas. By 1870 the frontier was in danger of being rolled all the way back to Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and San Antonio.
In the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge, Washington promised the Plains Indians the moon. The pact guaranteed the nomads a vast sanctuary south of the Arkansas River, including the Texas Panhandle, where the buffalo would be a protected species.
But it was up to the army to enforce the treaty, and both Sherman and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, were dead-set against playing game warden. Sherman, in fact, openly advocated the destruction of the bison herds, which he described as “the Indians’ commissary.” The military deliberately ignored the Medicine Lodge agreement and allowed hundreds of hunters access to the High Plains.
Meanwhile, the Kiowas enjoyed the best of both worlds. Winter was spent in the Indian Territory, where government agents provided food, shelter and other necessities. With warm weather the rested Indians ravaged northwestern Texas and scurried back to the safety of the reservation.
A Kiowa band led by Santank, Big Tree and Satanta observed this springtime ritual in 1871 spreading terror throughout Young and Jack counties. In a May 18 attack on a wagon train between Jacksboro and Fort Griffin, a half dozen teamsters were killed, and one helpless victim was roasted to death over an open fire.
Sherman was nearby on an inspection tour and personally visited the massacre site. The grisly scene provoked him to ride right across the Red River to confront the Kiowas.
After Santank proudly admitted responsibility for the atrocity, the livid general ordered the arrest of the three chiefs and their immediate extradition to Texas. Under federal law reservation Indians were subject to arrest only with the permission of their agent, and none had ever obliged. But the Kiowa agent, evidently eager to be rid of the renegades, gave his approval.
Santank sensed what lay ahead and on the trail made a suicidal break for freedom. Guards granted his death wish by shooting him on the spot.
Sherman delivered Satanta and Big Tree to the civil authorities at Jacksboro. The July 1871 trial attracted national attention and severe criticism. Six short years after the Civil War, Indians were much more popular up north than Texans.
The trial was in truth a sham affair with the outcome never in doubt. The jury returned a guilty verdict and condemned the Kiowas to death on the gallows. But Davis bowed to pressure from President Grant, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the eastern press and commuted the sentences to life imprisonment.
A year later, the worried president requested the appearance of Satanta and Big Tree at a conference in St. Louis with the Southern Plains tribes. To Texans’ indignant amazement, Davis again complied. At the parley federal negotiators offered to free the Kiowas in exchange for peace ignoring the price Texans would pay for their generosity.
Legally Grant could not demand the prisoners’ release, but he did make his wishes known. Facing certain defeat in the fall elections, Gov. Davis planned to ask for even more troops to stay in office and was, therefore, eager to please. After only 23 months behind bars, Satanta and Big Tree were turned loose in August 1873.
Satanta wasted no time in resuming his raiding ways, and by the next October was again in army custody. Sheridan gladly shipped him back to Huntsville.
The Kiowa faced indefinite incarceration with Davis and the Radical Republicans out of power. Satanta sliced his wrists but was saved from death and placed in the second-floor infirmary. On Oct. 11, 1878, he jumped from an open window, landed head first in the stone courtyard and died on impact.
Big Tree took a dramatically different path, choosing religion over revenge. He helped to found a Baptist mission among the Kiowas and was a prominent proponent of peaceful coexistence with the whites until his death in 1929.
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