An Afternoon Along the Washita River


 

 

 

OOOOk-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain

And the waving” wheat can sure smell sweet,

When the wind comes right behind the rain

OOOOk-lahoma, Ev’ry night my honey lamb and I

Sit alone and talk

And watch a hawk makin’ lazy circles in the sky

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein did something unique sixty years ago. They said something nice about the State of Oklahoma. Back then, Oklahoma was best known as the home of Tom Joad and The Grapes of Wrath. Oklahoma had been at the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. Everyone remembered when people doing manual labor in fields and on construction sites were “Okies” not illegal immigrants. But today things are different, the Okies and the Dust Bowl are one with Ancient Rome. The Millennial generation simply has a blank stare at the mention of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is a land of transitions. Situated between the boisterous openness of Texas to the south and the square jawed humorlessness of Kansas to the north, Oklahoma is neither one. On her eastern border is the “Jed Clampett” country of Arkansas, while to her west is the arid Socialist Republic of New Mexico. Caught between these extremes, Oklahoma often seems to have withdrawn behind cultural walls, rejecting them all.

My own experience is that Oklahoma is a tough place for outsiders. Working throughout United States as a part of the oil & gas business, I have repeatedly met with rejection in Oklahoma. And on those rare occasions when fortune smiled on me and mine in that state, disaster in the form of failed projects soon followed. I can appreciate the Rodger’s and Hammerstein song, but have never seen the musical face of Oklahoma.

So when my wife and I embarked on a recent road trip to Oklahoma, it was with a different expectation from other road trips we have taken in the past.  Oklahoma was our destination because we have over the years exhausted all other practical itineraries available to Denver based road trips. In truth, it was my idea to travel the long road south and east to Oklahoma, as I did have a particular destination in mind. That destination bordered on the small town of Cheyenne, OK, an obscure place known as the Washita Battlefield.

The Washita is a little known incident in our country’s history, a clash between the US Cavalry and a solitary encampment of the Arapaho/Southern Cheyenne Indian tribes in early winter of 1868. What little public awareness accrues to the Washita owes to the involvement of the 7th Cavalry of George Custer and Little Big Horn fame. Given the obscurity of the Washita, it was a surprise to find the existence of a Park Service Visitor Center, complete with park rangers, artifacts and video overview of the battle.

The Battle of the Washita itself is not a complicated story. In the cold and snow of pre-dawn November 27, 1868, a cavalry regiment, the 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. George Custer, surrounded a sleeping village of Indians, composed primarily of the Arapaho tribe. As dawn broke, the cavalry charged into the village rapidly capturing it. In the process a disputed number of Indians (13 to 150) and an undisputed number of cavalrymen (21) were killed. During the day that followed, the eight hundred men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded by thousands of Indian warriors from nearby encampments. Though the cavalry was heavily outnumbered, the situation was a stalemate as the soldiers held some sixty women and children captive. Throughout the daylong siege, the cavalrymen burned everything flammable in the encampment and butchered some 850 captured Indian ponies. At the end of the day, the cavalry executed a slick tactical maneuver, escaped the encirclement and returned to Camp Supply, their fortified encampment near present day Woodward, OK. End of story.

Whether we call the events of that day the Battle of the Washita, or something else, says more about modern sensibilities than the actual events. To call it a battle seems a misstatement. If the Washita was a battle, then what does one call the events a few years before at Gettysburg, Antietam, etc.? The politically correct and multi-cultural point of view names the Washita a massacre. But the term massacre seems somewhat tendentious when the forces being massacred outnumber the perpetrators by 2 or 3 to 1. But then what is in a name?

The Visitor’s Center takes great care to present a balanced account of the Battle of the Washita, much as NPR presents balanced news stories. But if you listen carefully the battlefield itself will tell its own story. It speaks with many voices, just as any other battlefield does. The visitor walking the field is left to hear the voices, choosing among the many.

On a pleasant August afternoon, the height of the tourist season, my wife and I were the only ones there, other than a local jogger from the town. I think we were all surprised when we saw each other. The field itself is an unremarkable silted flood plain, some two acres in area, densely grown with six foot high grass and weeds through which wanders a neatly mown dirt path. The field is bordered by the Washita River, though calling the Washita a river would seem more ambition than reality.

Walking along the path, numerous surviving accounts of that day allow me to imagine the events in this small area one hundred and fifty years ago. That terrible morning saw the sun shining and “the wind sweepin’ down the plain”. It is a bitter cold day with a hard crusted snow, 6 “ deep, on the ground. The smells and the noise are overpowering. Huddled along the side of the river are small groups of women and children guarded by soldiers carrying short carbines. The women and children are in hysterics, crying and wailing. The soldiers are stamping the ground as they struggle to keep warm, as well as stay awake after a sleepless night in the saddle.

Everywhere there are smoldering fires, dense with smoke as the soldiers burn tepees, robes, blankets, whatever can be burnt. There is a steady but random crackle of gunfire, loud in the cold air, as the Indian’s ponies are being shot on the other side of the field. Indians ringing the surrounding hills take potshots into the encampment while nervous soldiers return fire. The ponies are neighing in fright as they are dragged onto the killing field, or shrieking in pain as they die. The omnipresent smell of blood and slaughter from the dying ponies and dead human beings mixes with the acrid smell of burning buffalo hides and leather tepees.

So why make a road trip here? It is a long way from anywhere. Even Oklahoma City, that mecca of the urban sophisticate and home to the Oklahoma Thunder, is two hours away. Adding to that is the fact that there really isn’t much to see. The historical events themselves are uncomfortable in the extreme for modern sensibilities. It’s almost like driving 800 miles to see a coal mine.

I like to visit obscure places, communing with the voices there and confronting my biases away from the glare of expert opinion, publicity and “everybody knows”. Visiting the Washita and listening to the voices there ground me and make me more self-aware. Our civilization, its prosperity and its power, insulate us from the fragile nature of life lived by those in less prosperous circumstances. Our jobs, circumscribed by legal frameworks, corporate policies and bureaucracy, blind us to the realities of what we do and the choices we make. Much of what we know about our world and how it works comes through the distorting filters of our educational system or the media.

I am moved by the plight of the people in that village. Imagine the sun dawning on a sleeping village, a quiet and seemingly innocent tableau that November morning. It was a community of families enduring a hard Oklahoma winter, just trying to raise their children and live their lives. It was a bitterly cold day. Remember this was back before global warming made hard winters a thing of the past. I have no doubt the people in the village lived their lives true to what they had been taught by their parents and elders. The end of the day would see them dead, destitute or captive . If 9News had been there, many stories of heartbreaking loss and injustice would have been told, all true.

The stories shown on television would break our hearts. The balanced account on display at the Visitor’s Center hammers over and over on the fact that the village was peaceful and that most of its inhabitants were women, children and the elderly. But any true story is at best only a partial truth. Left unsaid in the accounts is that the cavalry found the hidden village by following a large wide track made by horses through the snow, almost certainly a party of 100 or more warriors returning from late fall raids on wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail. Also uncommented upon is the existence of at least 900 Indian ponies. That’s a lot of horses for what is described as a peaceful camp population of 250.

Leaving aside such nitpicks, perhaps the village really was the peace-loving oasis described by their remote descendants.  If we have lived long enough, we have learned that life is not simple, those things which make life better brings consequences as well. The 7th Cavalry, and by extension, the whole arrival of the “White Man”, can be blamed for that ugly November day. And yet, if not for the arrival of the “White Man”, there would be no such thing as an Indian pony. Without the Indian pony, there would be no Arapaho Indian tribe, simply a few scattered family groups living on the brink of starvation along the margins of the Great Plains occasionally serving as a handy source of captives for far ranging Aztec raiding parties feeding their sacrificial ceremonies down in Mexico.

The arrival of the horse had brought into being the existence and the lifestyle of the Arapaho. But the future of the Arapaho and their close cousins, the Southern Cheyenne, was drawing to a close even without the arrival of the railroad and the US Cavalry. Technological breakthrough, like the arrival of the horse, unleashes fierce Darwinian competition, otherwise known as survival of the fittest. To the south of the Arapaho were the Comanche and to the north were the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux, both rapidly expanding and much harder people. Technological breakthroughs make possible a different, better life than before. The Arapaho lived much better and easier lives because of the horse. But the horse’s existence on the plains of North America created winners and losers as well. If not the 7th Cavalry ringing the camp that morning, it would have been the Comanche instead. The trend was not the Arapaho’s friend.

As I noted before, the reason for the existence of what little notoriety clings to the Washita is George Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Without the later events at the Little Big Horn in Montana, the Washita would be in the same memory hole as Palo Duro Canyon, Little Robe Creek or Little Muddy Creek. It is the legend and the myth of George Custer and the Last Stand at the Little Big Horn that drew me to the Washita.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, eight years later, was a replay of the Battle of the Washita. But one was a success and one was a failure. Why? Most of the variables were the same, a similar situation, the same strategy, the same tactics, the same commander, the same key players. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Or in this case, failure is two hundred and fifty dead soldiers.

The Washita, along with the Little Bighorn, offers a case study in team dynamics. The notoriety of the battles has ensured that their story is known in great detail; but the simplicity allowed by small numbers and short durations allow for personalities and personal interactions to take center stage. At the Washita, the officers of the 7th Cavalry operated as a team, smoothly carrying out orders and acting in support of each other. At the Little Big Horn, the regiment fractured into antagonistic cliques, with many of the officers engaged in petty and willfully disobedient behavior. What happened at the Washita River that November day planted the seeds which bore such poisonous fruit at the disaster eight years later on the Little Big Horn.

For those who seek such wisdom, the 7th Cavalry at the Washita gives an example of how a team with knowledgeable supervision, clear direction and the latitude to carry out their assigned task succeeds. In contrast, the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn presents an all too common example of how politically motivated supervision, conflicting motives and micromanagement fails.

Listening to all of the voices murmuring on the Washita Battlefield reminds us of who we are as human beings. Living in comfortable circumstances in the 21st Century United States, we sometimes forget who we really are. Scientists call human beings, the killer ape, for good reason. Scripture weighs in as well. The mark of Cain is on us all. Neither was there a monopoly on bravery, or cowardice or cruelty that day. Good guys or bad guys? Who can say?

The Indian warrior dying to defend his wife(s) and children was also the man riding the Kansas prairie that summer burning out settler cabins, killing the men, raping and killing the women and kidnapping the children for ransom. The cavalryman riding into the village intent on destruction had risked his life repeatedly in a long hard war to free black slaves only a few short years before. The Indian woman shielding her children with her own body had delighted in torturing and hideously mutilating helpless captives in past times.

But the Washita is also a testimony to the fact that our culture, our country, is different. Human beings have preyed on one another since the dim mists of pre-history. The Washita is simply one more incidence of savagery in a long long line. But we are different. Yes the Washita was a terrible place to be and terrible things happened. But the women captured that day were not violated or enslaved. The children captured that day were not casually killed or enslaved. Only a few short weeks later they were given their freedom. Many good citizens did what they could to help and make the best of a tragic situation. Within the lifetime of the people in that village they were  full citizens of the United States. The United States is different.

The United States was founded on the idea that all men and women are created equal before God. We may not live up to those beliefs all the time. We, both as individuals and as a country, are weak and often fall short of what we should be. But the very nature of our beliefs sets us apart from any culture or country before or besides our own. Again and again we have answered the call, at great cost, to live up to those beliefs. In its own small way, the Washita battlefield bears testimony to that struggle.

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to “An Afternoon Along the Washita River”

  1. Andy Banahan says:

    I found this to be very interesting. I like how you include your personal experience with the area, it adds a nice touch to the piece. I completely agree with the idea that the Battle of the Washita, was the start of “Custer’s Downfall” as he created barriers between his company leaders and himself. Keep up the good work.

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