Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Salt Creek Massacre of 1871

Kiowa Chief Satanta
Not to be confused with the Salt Creek Canyon Massacre where on June 4th, 1858, four Danish immigrants were ambushed and killed by Indians in Salt Creek Canyon, a winding canyon east of Nephi, Utah. That event became known as the Salt Creek Canyon Massacre.

That took place in early June, 1858, when Danish immigrants Jens Jorgensen and his wife, Jens Terklesen, Christian I. Kjerluf, and John Ericksen were journeying, bel;ieve it or not unarmed, to settle with other Scandinavian immigrants at the Mormon colony in the Sanpete Valley.

On the afternoon of June 4th, they came within a mile and a half of the canyon's opening into the Sanpete Valley when some Indians emerged from hiding places and attacked them. The group was travelling with an ox team hitched to a wagon and another ox hitched to a handcart.

Two of the men were killed and burned with their wagon. Another was killed after running about 50 yards. The pregnant woman was killed with a tomahawk near the wagon. John Ericksen, who had been walking some distance ahead of the others, escaped unharmed, and made it to Ephraim around dark. The attack frightened the ox attached to the handcart, and it fled back to Nephi. The victims' bodies were brought to Ephraim for burial.

There is a Daughters of Utah Pioneers monument (number 11) marking the site of the massacre, between Nephi and Fountain Green, Utah.

The Salt Creek Massacre of 1871

The Salt Creek Massacre was also known as the Warren Wagon Train Raid.

At the end of the Civil War with the defeat of the Confederacy, Union troops slowly began to reoccupy their old forts on the Texas frontier. While that was going on, the U.S. Army also decided to establish three new forts, Richardson, Concho, and Griffin.

However, there was still no fort on the Red River, leaving the frontier vulnerable to attacks from Indians across the border at Fort Sill in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In addition to the federal troop presence, federal officials also resumed negotiations with the Southern Plains tribes.

In October 1867, they held a summit with Kiowa and Comanche leaders in Barber County, Kansas, resulting in the Medicine Lodge Treaty. For a number of reasons, the treaty was a failure. As usual, many Indian bands did not recognize it as valid. Similarly, the federal government was lax about enforcing the treaty once it was signed, allowing white outlaws to prey upon reservation Indians.

The late 1860s was a time of intense frustration and hopelessness for both white Texans and Indians. For both groups, the frontier remained unsafe and unpredictable.

The federal garrisons that were supposed to protect white settlers, but in reality they were under-manned. Texas wanted to provide rangers to supplement frontier defense but was ruined financially by the defeat in the war.

There was simply no money to wage war, and Texans faced a situation that appeared virtually unchanged from two decades earlier. Despite appearances, however, things were changing, and for the Indians the end was near.

General William Tecumseh Sherman was commander of the U.S. Army, and General Philip H. Sheridan was the commander of U.S. troops in Texas. Both men were legends in their own time, and both were hardened veterans of some of the worst fighting of the Civil War.

During the Civil War, thousands of their troops had fallen in battle to achieve victory. And yes, Sherman and Sheridan had learned not only to wage war on the battlefield but also to break the enemy's will to resist. To this end, they began a policy of encouraging the slaughter of the southern buffalo herds.

A fateful raid marked the turning point.

In May, 1871, a party of more than one hundred Kiowas, Comanches, and others, left Fort Sill and crossed into Texas. Led by Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree, they took up positions on the Salt Creek Prairie.

Hidden in a thicket of scrub in the Salt Creek Prairie, they observed the slow approach of several wagons accompanied by 17 Buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, the black troopers. Yes, as relatively easy pickings as it was -- no one moved.

The previous night, an Indian shaman had prophesied that this small party would be followed by a larger one with more plunder for the taking.

History would later record their mistake, because unknown to the Indians, the unit they allowed to pass unmolested was the military escort for General Sherman himself. He just so happens was conducting an inspection tour of Texas.

The braves were rewarded a while later when 10 mule-drawn wagons filled with Army corn and fodder trundled into view.

The Kiowa attacked and quickly overwhelmed this convoy. Seven muleskinners were killed, while five managed to escape.

Henry Warren was contracted to haul supplies to forts in the west of Texas, including Fort Richardson, Fort Griffin, and Fort Concho.

Traveling down the Jacksboro-Belknap road heading towards Salt Creek Crossing, they encountered William Tecumseh Sherman.

Less than an hour after encountering the famous General, they spotted a rather large group of riders ahead. They quickly realized that these were Indian warriors, probably Kiowa and/or Comanche.

The wagon train quickly shifted into a ring formation, and all the mules were put into the center of the ring. The warriors captured all of the supplies, killing and mutilating seven of the wagoneer's bodies.

Of the 12 white men there, the Indians killed seven teamsters. They then looted the wagons, and returned immediately to the reservation. Five men managed to escape, one of which was Thomas Brazeale who reached Fort Richardson on foot - some 20 miles away.

It was well after dark before the white survivors reached Fort Richardson and told their harrowing tale. As soon as Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie learned of the incident, he informed General Sherman. Both Sherman and Mackenzie accompanied units to search for the warriors responsible for the raid.

General Sherman then ordered the arrests of the Indian war chiefs, and had them sent to the fort. It's said when Sherman heard the news from a teamster who escaped the slaughter, he ordered ruthless reprisals and reversed an earlier order that prohibited soldiers from pursuing Indians on to the reservations.

Sherman traveled to Fort Sill, where he personally arrested Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree and ordered them transported back to Texas to be tried for murder. In the end, 3 of the 4 war leaders involved were arrested at Fort Sill: Satanta (White Bear), Satank (Sitting Bear), and Addo-etta (Big Tree).

Satank was killed in the train as he tried to escape the column of United States soldiers. The rest were tried in the first Indian trial in history. It resulted in Satanta and Big Tree were convicted of murder. By early July, both Chiefs had been sentenced to hang. 

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of Indians left the reservation and joined their relatives on the Staked Plains. To avert all-out carnage, Governor Edmund J. Davis commuted their sentences to life in prison.

The Indian chiefs were eventually paroled, but it would be Satanta's fate to commit suicide in 1878 while serving another prison term at Huntsville prison. Big Tree was more fortunate. When the Indian Wars came to a close, he counseled his people to accept peace. Big Tree converted to the Baptist faith and lived to be 80 years of age.

The Salt Creek Massacre would have far-reaching consequences for Texas Indians. Because of the raid, General Sherman developed a policy of all-out offensive against the Plains Indians.

The next few years would be bloody indeed.

Famous in the American Civil War for the burning of Atlanta and his devastating "March to the Sea" through Georgia, the fearsome General General William Tecumseh Sherman became commander of the U.S. Army in 1869. General Sherman's Indian policy became the turning point that led to the final military defeat of the Indians in the United States.

In Texas, General Sherman had believed that tales of Indian raiding in Texas were exaggerated. After the Salt Creek Massacre, he changed his mind. It was the event that changed everything. General Sherman ordered the Army to wage merciless warfare against Indians in Texas and elsewhere.

Civil and military policies towards the Indians often stood in stark contrast. In 1868, President Grant adopted a peace policy towards the Indians, and selected the Society of Friends (Quakers) to run the reservations in Indian Territory.

Relations between the Quakers and the military were often strained. The Quakers proved unequal to their mission of transforming Kiowas, Comanches, and other Plains tribes into peaceful farmers. The policy was judged a failure, and they were withdrawn.

Texas was home to four main herds of buffalo, and at the height of their population, their trails could be several miles wide.

What became known as the "great slaughter" took place in the 1870s, and by 1878 the buffalo in Texas was all but exterminated. Yes, it was an effort to cut off their food supply and starve the American Indian into submission.

While the Salt Creek Massacre was not the most destructive of Texas Indian raids in terms of loss of life, its importance cannot be understated because none held more significance for the future of the Plains Indians.

As stated previously,the Salt Creek Massacre caused General Sherman to change his opinion about conditions on the Texas frontier, which signaled the end for his own defensive policy and the Quaker peace policy as well.

Because of the Salt Creek Massacre, General Sherman ordered soldiers to begin offensive operations against all Indians found off the reservation. To give you, my reader, an idea of how General Sherman saw things, let's remember that he is known for saying, "War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."

As horrible as it was, his policy culminated in the Red River War of 1874–75 and the end of Indian raids in North Texas.

Tom Correa


  1. That is not Satanta in the photo.

    1. Hello Rebelbred, I removed the other pictures which I was assured were Satanta. I replaced them. Thanks for giving me a heads up. And also, thanks for visiting my sight. Tom


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