"Satanta would ride into Fort Chadbourne splendidly mounted, dressed in beautiful fashion carrying a shield ornamented with a white woman's scalp from which hung a suite of beautiful brown hair."
"After he was returned to the penitentiary in 1874, he saw no hope of escape. For awhile he was worked on a chain gain which helped to build the M.K. & T. Railway. He became sullen and broken in spirit, and would be seen for hours gazing through his prison bars toward the north, the hunting grounds of his people."
Both illustrations and captions from History of Texas by Clarence R. Wharton, 1935.
Like his counterpart Comanche chief Quanah Parker, the Kiowa chief Satanta (White Bear) led his people in the titanic struggle to expel the white man from his ancestral homeland. And, like Parker, he lived to see his people eclipsed in defeat and exile. One of the most feared of all Indian leaders, his life inspired the character of Blue Duck in Larry McMurtry's classic Texas novel Lonesome Dove.
Satanta was born around 1820 in Kiowa country, somewhere in present-day Kansas or Oklahoma. Little is known of his early life. As he grew up, he became a warrior, participating in raids against the Cheyennes and the Utes and raiding white settlements in Texas and Mexico for horses and other booty. By 1865, the tall, muscular Kiowa had become important enough to accompany Dohäsan (Little Mountain), the principal chief of the Kiowas, and two other well-known chiefs to treaty negotiations.
Dohäsan led the Kiowas for more than thirty years and was renowned as both a warrior and a shrewd politician. As long as he was living, Satanta and other subchiefs were willing to follow his lead, tacking between war and diplomacy to stop the increasing flow of whites into their lands. But after Dohäsan died in 1866, the leadership of the Kiowas split. The majority of Kiowas threw in their lot with the peace chief, Kicking Bird. The warlike younger men were divided between two war chiefs, Satanta and Lone Wolf. The competition set off an especially fierce round of raids across the southern plains in 1866 and 1867.
Satanta's exploits earned him the right to represent the Kiowas at the Medicine Lodge Treaty council in Kansas in October 1867. In spite of the success of their raids, Satanta and the elderly chief who accompanied him, Satank (Sitting Bear), both realized that the Kiowas were in deep trouble. Like other tribes, they had been greatly weakened by epidemic disease. Moreover, it was easy to see that the U.S. army was increasing its presence in the West now that the American Civil War had ended. Satanta and Satank signed the treaty, which required that the Kiowas move to a reservation in Oklahoma. However, the treaty was a dismal failure, and the Kiowas were back on the warpath within months.
During the winter of 1868-1869, the U.S. army undertook its most important campaign against the Indians in decades. The so-called "winter campaign" of General Phil Sheridan made use of all of the devastating tactics learned by the Army in the Civil War, including burning the Indians' homes, killing their horses, and even entering villages to kill unarmed women and children. The militants Satanta and Lone Wolf decided to surrender to a subordinate of Sheridan's, Colonel George Armstrong Custer, rather than risk a massacre of their people. Custer took the two chiefs hostage and held them prisoner for several months until Kicking Bird won their release by promising to take the Kiowas to the reservation.
An uneasy peace lasted until the spring of 1871, when fourteen white Texans were killed in renewed raids by the Kiowas. Lone Wolf and Satanta were both leading their own factions again, and Satanta headed out of the reservation with a war party of about one hundred warriors, including the able Big Tree and the elderly Satank. Their raids culminated in the notorious Warren Wagon Train Raid (See Indian Relations in Texas for more.) Back at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Satanta bragged openly about the massacre. He was arrested by the commander of the U.S. Army, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and taken under guard for trial at Fort Richardson in Jacksboro, Texas.
A lieutenant at the fort vividly described Satanta when he arrived at the fort: "He was over six feet and, mounted on a small pony, seemed taller. He was stark naked but for a breech clout and beaded moccasins. His coarse black hair, powdered with dust, hung tangled about his neck except a single scalp lock with an eagle feather to adorn it. The muscles stood out on his giant frame like knots, and his form was proud and erect in the saddle, while his motionless face and body gave him the appearance of a bronze statue. Nothing but his intensely black glittering eyes betokened any life in his carved figure. Every feature of his face spoke disdain for the curious crowd that gathered about him. His feet were lashed with a rawhide lariat under the pony's belly, and his hands were tied. Disarmed and helpless, he was a picture of fallen savage greatness."
The trial of Satanta and Big Tree became a national sensation. (Satank was killed before the trial in an escape attempt.) It was the first time that Indian chiefs had been tried for murder in a court of law. They were sentenced to death. Under pressure from eastern humanitarians and fearing igniting a larger Indian war, Governor Edmund J. Davis commuted their sentences to life in prison and ordered Satanta and Big Tree locked up in Huntsville prison.
After two years, Davis paroled the chiefs in a move designed to appease the Kiowas, who were increasingly outraged about the slaughter of the buffalo. Needless to say, this decision was extremely unpopular with white Texans and with General Sherman, who wrote, "I believe Satanta and Big Tree will have their revenge, if they have not already had it, and if they are to take scalps, I hope that yours is the first that will be taken."
Nor did the parole have the effect for which Davis hoped. Within mere days of being released from custody, Kiowa and Comanche war parties descended on Texas. Over the next year, Satanta was often seen on these deadly raids, including the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in June 1874, a debacle that all but destroyed the Kiowas as a military power. In September 1874, Satanta turned himself in to authorities and was taken back to Huntsville to resume serving his life sentence.
Four years later, Satanta committed suicide by jumping out a window. He was buried in the prison graveyard. In 1963, Satanta's grandson claimed his body and returned it for burial in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Satanta I speak to
Lone Wolfe, Kicking Bird and all and
want them to pick up a good road;
to the other Comanches now raiding
in Texas I want them to quit it and
stay here on the reservation. This Chief
(Mr Smith) has come from Washington to
tell them what the Great Father wants
them to do. While in Texas in prison I
was treated kindly, no one struck or abused
me. Some one told my tribe I was dead
which was wrong. I mean what I say.
I take my Texas father by the hand and
hold him tight. I am half Kiowa and
half Arrapahoe [sic]. Whatever the white man
agrees in, that is what I want my
people to do. Strip these things off of
me that I have worn in prison, turn
me even to the Kiowas and I will live
on the white man’s road forever. Turn
me over to my people and they will do as
the white man wants them. The Father
in Washington has selected good men to
meet my tribe and do what is good. The
best thing to do for my people is to re-
lease me. That is what I have to
say to the White People and now I will
talk to my Chiefs.
(He addresses his people in Kiowa
and on being told that he must
talk to them in Comanche so that
the Interpreter could interpret what
he said he desisted from saying
more and took his seat.)
(Lone Wolfe. Kiowa Chief.) My people
have come here to-day to hear what the
Governor of Texas has to say to them
and afterwards we will answer.
Satanta's speech at the Negotiations Concerning Satanta and Big Tree, October 6, 1873. Texas Indian Papers Volume 4, #224, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.