John I.D. Bristol to Davis, September 10, 1871
Big Tree and Satanta were leaders of the Kiowa during the wars on the Plains. By the late 1860s, the Kiowa found themselves confined to reservations in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Big Tree, Satanta, and other leaders such as Satank and Lone Wolf led raids from their reservations into Texas.
The raids culminated in an episode known as the Warren Wagon Train Raid, or Salt Creek Massacre. On May 18, 1871, a group of 100 warriors attacked a wagon train belonging to a freighting contractor named Henry Warren traveling on the Butterfield Overland Mail route. They killed the wagon master and six teamsters and allowed five to escape. The Indians suffered one dead and five wounded.
While not the most destructive of all the Indian raids, the Salt Creek Massacre proved to be a turning point for U.S. Indian policy. The survivors' accounts sparked outrage on a frontier weary of the continuous violence. Before the raid, General William Tecumseh Sherman had believed that a policy of defensive forts and a peace policy led by Quaker missionaries would be enough to pacify the tribes. After Salt Creek, Sherman adopted an aggressive offense.
Back at Fort Sill in Indian Territory, Satanta, Big Tree, and Satank were arrested and sent to Jackboro, Texas to stand trial for murder, the first time Indian chiefs were held to account in a civil courtroom. Satank was killed trying to escape, and Satanta and Big Tree were convicted and sentenced to hang.
It was then that Governor Davis, never one to shy away from controversy, decided to commute the sentences to life imprisonment. Davis based the decision both on humanitarian grounds and because of feared retribution from the Kiowa if the sentences were carried out.
This decision was tremendously unpopular on the frontier, as well as with General Sherman, and Davis received volumes of correspondence on the topic. Perhaps the most bizarre is this letter from a traveling showman named John I.D. Bristol. Bristol was a lecturer in the lyceum movement, a 19th-century association that sponsored lectures, concerts, and educational exhibits (similar to the later Chautauqua movement). Bristol's letter and advertising reveal much about the attitudes of the era. Davis' reaction to the letter is perhaps summed up in his terse notation on the last page: "No answer req'd. EJD."
In August 1873, federal Indian authorities forced Davis into another unpopular decision, to free Satanta and Big Tree as part of negotiations with the Kiowa to stay on the reservation. Predictably, the chiefs returned to making war on the society that was destroying their way of life. Satanta was returned to Huntsville prison, where he committed suicide in 1878. Big Tree was released from prison at Fort Sill after the Kiowa's final defeat in December 1874, and spent the rest of his life counseling peace and acceptance of the white man's ways, even becoming a deacon in the Baptist Church. He died in 1929, age about 90.
John I.D. Bristol to Davis, September 10, 1871, Records of Edmund Jackson Davis, Texas Office of the Governor, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.