Fort Sill recognizes role in Indian territory

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The Sherman House has been home to Fort Sill, Oklahoma’s commanding officer since its completion in 1871.

Based on its name, one would think Gen. William Sherman once lived there, but he did not. More accurately, it was never his residence, but he did stay there as a guest of Fort Sill’s commanding officer when he visited the post on an inspection tour.

Those two weeks were perhaps the most historically memorable here, because Sherman nearly lost his life on that business trip on more than one occasion.

To explain his memorable trip here, we must first remember Fort Sill’s early history on the American plains.

Fort Sill was established in 1869 to create another Army garrison in federally recognized Indian Territory and provide supplies to the plains tribes under the Treaty of Medicine Lodge of 1867. The 10th Cavalry Soldiers originating from Fort Gibson, Indian Territory in 1868, conducted operations on the plains of the territory and making the final trek through nearby Fort Arbuckle, then Fort Cobb and finally on to the lands surrounding Medicine Bluff to establish the new post.

Although many native tribes in these areas were still somewhat nomadic, Fort Sill’s location was determined in part on its close proximity to frequented land for at least five native tribes (Cheyenne and Arapaho, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo and Comanche), as well as plentiful grass, trees and water.

Most of these tribes were considered hostile to the Texans due to reoccurring raids south of the Red River and conflict with Texas cattlemen and settlers; the likes of which regularly gained national level media attention. These raiding parties also provoked the ire of many Texans to include Gov. Edmund Davis, who threatened to bring a Texan Army into Indian Territory to “solve the problem.” Similar in some ways to modern day counter-insurgency operations, the Soldiers on Fort Sill were often both the “carrot” and the “stick” to the local native tribes.

In other words, when called upon, they provided either lethal force or the humanitarian aid to the locals. They also ejected illegal white settlers, bootleggers and outlaws. In the end, all of the Soldiers’ efforts on Fort Sill were aimed at reconciliation, peace building and enforcing federal law and the Medicine Lodge Treaty obligations.

In 1869, when Ulysses Grant became the 18th U.S. president, he appointed Sherman to become the Army’s commanding general. While on an inspection tour, he heard many Texans’ dramatic accusations that Fort Sill provided a safe haven and logistical base of operations for Kiowa and Comanche warring raids into Texas. Sherman was to inspect Fort Sill and to look for evidence of these accusations.

In May of 1871, Sherman traveled north across the Red River and onto Fort Sill. Unknown to him and members of his small party, they traveled from Fort Belknap, Texas, toward Fort Richardson, Texas, right through an ambush site set by over 100 raiding Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches and Comanches.

The previous night, the raiding party’s medicine man, Maman-ti (“Sky-Walker”) had a vision that two parties would travel along the trail through their ambush site. His vision instructed the raiding party to be patient and pass on the first convoy on the trail and wait for the second. Luckily, Sherman’s small party was the first and therefore escaped near certain death from a numerically superior attacking force.

A few hours later, the second group to pass through the site was a supply wagon train and it soon became the victims in what is now known as the “Warren Wagon Train Massacre.” While at Fort Richardson, Sherman learned about the massacre on the trail he had traveled.

Upon arrival and inspection at Fort Sill, he found it to be a “magnificent military site” and determined the accusations absurd that Fort Sill provided assistance to raiding Indians into Texas. However; foremost in his mind was to find those responsible for the recent massacre in Texas. He directed Col. Benjamin Grierson, 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers and Fort Sill commander, and Laurie Tatum, an Indian agent, to find who was responsible for the attack. Soon, Tatum learned that young local natives led by the Kiowa Chief Satanta (Set-tain-te; White Bear) were responsible for the carnage.

When confronted with the accusations, Satanta had no reservations. He took full responsibility for leading the recent raid into Texas.

When Sherman found out, he wanted immediate action and ordered the arrest of Satanta as well as Satank (Set-Tank, Sitting Bear) and Ado-eete—Big Tree—who were also identified as leaders in the raid. As these Kiowa leaders gathered on the front porch of Grierson’s quarters tensions rose and some made efforts to kill Sherman.

First, Satanta brushed aside his blanket and grabbed for his revolver, but several armed Buffalo Soldiers quickly persuaded him to think again. Shortly after that, another elder native named Setimkia (Stumbling Bear) stood up with his bow to release an arrow at Sherman when one of his comrades grabbed his arm causing his arrow to tumble harmlessly.

In the fracas, Grierson tackled another Indian named Guipago, translated as Lone Wolf, who had aimed his weapon at Sherman. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and the general successfully arrested the leaders of the raiding party who claimed responsibility for the wagon train raid.

Sherman’s history in the Civil War overshadows his near death experiences on the way to and during his two-week visit to Indian Territory in modern day Southwest Oklahoma. To the rest of the Army, these events may be a mere footnote, but Fort Sill hasn’t forgotten and the commanding general’s quarters today are still known as the Sherman House to commemorate this amazing chapter in history.

Satanta’s contributions to history are not limited to the events in 1871, but collectively are representative of many Native American’s in the 19th century.

He was born around 1820, and distinguished himself as a great tactical leader gaining fame in the First Battle of Adobe Walls in 1864. He is attributed with using a captured Army bugle in that battle that confused Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson’s troops. He was also known for his public speaking skills and was dubbed the “Orator of the Plains.” As such, he was one of the native leaders in negotiating the Little Arkansas Treaty in 1865 and the famed Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867.

Just recently, Fort Sill and Satanta’s descendants to include Betty “Sankadota” Washburn, his great-granddaughter, held a dedication ceremony for a statue bust of Satanta and his inclusion in the gallery of great warriors on Fort Sill. His life and story stands as a testament to the struggles of many Native Americans who were forced to change their cultural ways in the 19th century.

In another tribute, the 14th Field Artillery Regiment was constituted on Fort Sill in 1916, and chose to invoke the warrior spirit of Satanta and used a likeness of his headdress and spear on its regimental crest. First Battalion is the 14th FA’s only remaining active battalion. It shares a special relationship with Satanta’s descendants which stands a tribute to the seeds of success planted in the late 19th century with the formation of Fort Sill.

Fort Sill’s original role in Indian Territory evolved as lasting reconciliation with Native Americans eventually occurred.

Later, as the Army’s growing international interests developed, the mission here changed as the post became the home of Army field artillery in 1911 and later the Fires Center with the addition of the Air Defense Artillery School.

Today, Fort Sill enjoys a great relationship with the descendants of the great warriors of the 19th century. Fort Sill is the most complete original Indian Wars fort still existing, a national treasure. Almost all of the original buildings still stand and continue to house the commanding general and several of its senior officers.

On the same grounds, the post has historic exhibits in the National Historic Landmark and Museum commemorating the service of Cavalry Soldiers, including the 10th, 7th and 4th Cavalry regiments. Another exhibit includes the “Warrior’s Journey Gallery” which serves as a tribute to Satanta and many other Native Americans. n