Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Tonkawa Massacre of 1862

File:Tonkawa chiefs.jpg
A 1898 picture of the survivors of the massacre.
From left to right, Winnie Richards, John Rush Buffalo, William Stevens,
John Allen, and Mary Richards, and seated L-R, John Williams, Grant Richards, and Sherman Miles.
It must have been a Hellish Night!

It all started on the night of October 23rd, 1862, when several Indian tribes, including the Comanche, Delaware, Shawnee, Caddo, Wichita, and other tribes attacked the Wichita Agency in what later would become Anadarko, Oklahoma, then turned there sights on the Tonkawa.

The Civil War had been going on for over a year by then and most of the lines had been drawn as to which side the various Indian tribes would choose. The Cherokee nation was split and subsequently having a conflict of sorts. Parts were backing the Union, and parts were supporting the Confederacy.

Choctaw and the Chickasaw, and most of the Creek and Shawnee, sided with the Confederates. The Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Apache and Arapaho didn't support either side as they waged their war on whites. The Loyal Creeks, the Osage, some of the Shawnee, and the Wichitas had backed the Union.

The Wichita moved from the Agency to Kansas near the future site of Wichita, Kansas. A handful of smaller tribes such as the Caddo, Tonkawa and Wacoes were still located at the Wichita Agency which was now under Confederate control and basically remained neutral.

It Was The Largest Massacre In The Indian Territory -- And It Was Indian Upon Indian

The night of Oct 23rd, 1862, would bring about the largest massacre which the Indian Territory would ever witness. That night, the Osage and Shawnee, who were Union supporters, were attacking the Confederate post. The Osage riddled the structure with rifle shots and then set it on fire. The rest of the buildings at the agency were also burned and all the whites there were killed.

The raiders then moved on to Ft. Cobb where they killed the occupants and set that post on fire. Few of the whites believed him until he would take them outside and show them the glow of the burning Ft. Cobb five miles in the distance.

The whites believed that the friendly tribes would have warned them if there was going to be a raid. They were wrong. After the raiders had burned the Wichita Agency and Ft. Cobb, they turned south to the Tonkawa Village.

So why, when the American Indian had suffered so much at the hands of the white man, would Indian turn against Indian? This action against the Tonkawa had little to do with the Civil War. It was a longstanding hatred against the Tonkawa, a hatred held by all of the southern Plains Indian tribes.

It Was All About Unacceptable Behavior

The relations between the Tonkawa and neighboring tribes had been antagonistic for years for a variety of reasons including the Tonkawa acting as scouts for the Texas Rangers, and fighting alongside them in actions against hostile tribes including the Comanche. But besides helping the whites, the Tonkawas were cannibals. In fact, the word in the Comanche and Kiowa language used for Tonkawa meant the same thing "eaters of humans".

While the attack was probably a retaliation for the scouting done by the Tonkawa against the other Plains Indian tribes. The Comanche hated the Tonkawa for the killing and eating of a brother of one of their chiefs.

Then there is a story that a few years earlier two Kiowa boys about twelve years old were out hunting alone and ran into big problems with the Tonkawa. Supposedly, the Tonkawa tried to capture them but one boy escaped. The escapee hid in the bushes in a ravine and watched as the Tonkawas killed the captured boy and started cutting him up and began to cook the flesh on the campfire.

The escapee ran for his very life, but he was soon overtaken by a band of Comanches who were allies of the Kiowa. When the boy related the story, the Comanche went to the Kiowa village and gathered reinforcements. It was then that the two tribes rode to the Tonkawa camp and surrounded it.

Supposedly the Comanche and Kiowa approached the Tonkawa village by carefully hiding in the creeks and ravines until they were close enough to see if the boy's story was true. Once in position, supposedly they saw the dead Kiowa boy and the Tonkawa cooking his flesh on the fire.

It is said that the Comanche and Kiowa were so repulsed by what they saw that they immediately attacked and killed every man, woman and child in that Tonkawa village.

The Last Straw

This time the Tonkawa had supposedly killed and eaten two Shawnee, and that they were responsible for the death and dismemberment of a young Caddo boy.

Now the Osage, the Lenape, the Shawnee, the Caddo, the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Wichita and the Seminole had the entire Tonkawa tribe in one place, in one camp, and now they wanted to end this cannibalism.

It was nearly morning when the attack commenced, though the first streaks of daylight had not yet begun to spread over the Wichita hills. The Tonkawa camp was asleep. The surprise attack was not the only factor working against the Tonkawas. The attackers were mounted and armed with the newest rifles supplied by the Federals while the Tonkawa had mostly bows and arrows to defend themselves.

It wasn't much of a battle, it was just a slaughter. The few who escaped were tracked down and killed as they were found scattered in the brush and ravines. The massacre continued all through the night and into the next day.

While one report say that they had killed over 800 Tonkawa men, women and children, among them were Chief Plácido, or Ha-shu-ka-na ("Can’t Kill Him"), others reports only put the figure at 306.

One report said that the tribe had numbered over one thousand members the day before now was less that one hundred forty. The few Tonkawas that did survive straggled into Ft. Arbuckle, which was now under Confederate control being manned by the Chickasaw Battalion.

It was illegal for any other tribe to be in the Chickasaw Nation, so the commander at Ft. Arbuckle sent an urgent message to the Chickasaw governor asking permission for the tribe to seek shelter from the Osages in the Nation. The governor granted this permission.

The commander of the post gave what aid and food he could spare to the Tonkawas.  He then sent them to the springs on Rocky Creek eighteen miles east of Ft. Arbuckle to camp and recuperate. The rag-tag wounded survivors of the Osage raid moved into the safety of the springs on the first of November 1862 into the area that would someday become Platt National Park.

After that they then made their way to confederate-held, Fort Belknap in Texas in 1863. The massacre completely demoralized and fractured the remnants of the tribe, who remained without a leader and lived in squalor by Fort Belknap.


The remnants of the tribe then lived near Fort Griffin in Texas until 1884. They were then forced by the government to relocate temporarily to the Sac-Fox agency and then in the spring of 1885 to Fort Oakland, occupied by Chief Joseph’s Band of Nez Perce from 1878 to 1885.

Impoverished, their population continued to decline. In 1891, 73 members of the Tonkawa were allocated 994 acres of federal trust land, with an additional 238 acres in individual allotments, near the former Fort Oakland, which is today Tonkawa, Oklahoma, 12 miles west of Ponca City.

Numbering some 367 individuals at the time of the massacre, the Tonkawa tribe was almost nonexistent less than one-century later. The population on the reservation is 537 with 481 being officially on the tribal rolls.

Just for the Record

Just for the record, cannibalism was not a social norm with Native Americans. Most tribes have oral traditions that tell about how people become monsters if they partake in cannibalism. While that is true, some though say that the appetite for human flesh did not belong exclusively to the Tonkawa. It is believed that Kiowa and Cheyenne Indians ate the heart of an enemy they killed in battle.

But then again, those stories about the Kiowa and the Cheyenne might be all just part of the many tall tales that were spread about the viciousness of the "red man."

It is known that when some of the Cheyenne warriors who participated in the massacre at the Little Big Horn were later asked if they indeed ate the heart of some of Custer's soldiers - especially two time Medal of Honor recipient Tom Custer - they answered an emphatic "no!"

Is that why they dealt with the Tonkawa so severely? 

The word cannibalism conjures a detestable feeling in men and women everywhere. But even though that is the case throughout history, this strange and gruesome practice was not detestable in the Tonkawa world. And no, it was not merely Tonkawa warriors who ate human flesh. Fact is, there were other Native American tribes scattered throughout North America who did the same thing for one sick reason or another.

In the Tonkawa tribe, everyone participated in eating enemies who fell into their hands. Yes, men, women and children. Some historians believe that the Tonkawa believed that by consuming parts of an enemy’s body, the cannibal could acquire either some or all of the enemy’s power, courage, or fighting ability. Some believe that tribes who did this may have simply seen people as a food source.

Whatever the reasons, Tonkawa cannibalism angered the other Southern Plains tribes so much that they joined together to do something about it. And on the night of Oct 23rd, 1862, the other tribes showed their anger by wiping them out.

Tom Correa


  1. Wow, that explains why I never heard of the Tonkawa! Ole Chief Plácido, or Ha-shu-ka-na ("Can’t Kill Him")should probably have changed his name!

  2. Growing up in Blackwell, Oklahoma, I lived 9 miles north of Tonkawa. First time I have ever heard this history. Quite interesting.

  3. I've always been eager to learn more about my Native American ancestry. After reading this and other things about the Tonkawa, I wish I hadn't.


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