Hancock’s War on the Plains

General Winfield S. Hancock

General Winfield S. Hancock

“I have a great deal to say to the Indians, but I want to talk with them all together. I want to say it at once.”

— General Winfield S. Hancock, Fort Larned, 1867

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

As American society pushed west and disrupted the livelihoods of the American Indian nations on the Southern Plains, conflict was inevitable. Violence, however widespread, was typically small-scale in western Kansas before 1867. Much of the violence was aiding along the Santa Fe Trail. In response, Fort Larned was established in 1859. As part of a system of forts, Fort Larned allowed for a permanent military presence on the frontier aimed at converting the land from tribal to U.S. control.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Army and its ambitious officers turned their attention westward, where tribes stood in the way of Westward  Expansion. From among the tribes’ leaders, several stood out to officers at Fort Larned by March 1867, including Satanta and Kicking Bird of the Kiowa; Tall Bull, White Horse, Bull Bear, Roman Nose, and Black Kettle of the Cheyenne; and Little Raven of the Arapaho. In March 1867, Captain Henry Asbury of the 3rd Infantry reported on his view of the situation from Fort Larned, noting, “The Cheyennes talk but little but are among the most dangerous of the Indians on the Plains, on account of their superior qualities as soldiers.”

General Winfield Scott Hancock, a Union hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, arrived in western Kansas in 1867. Hancock was inexperienced in dealing with American Indians, though he was confident in his ability to bring them under control. Hancock met with several Cheyenne chiefs at Fort Larned on April 12. Legally unable to forge treaties with the tribes, Hancock instead sought to intimidate them into alignment with U.S. interests.

“You know very well if you go to war with the white man, you will lose… I have a great many chiefs with me that have commanded more men than you ever saw, and they have fought more great battles than you have fought fights,” Hancock warned the chiefs.

Fort Larned Parade Grounds

Fort Larned Parade Grounds by Kathy Alexander.

Hancock concluded the meeting by indicating that he wanted to meet with the other chiefs. To that end, Hancock and his troops rode west of Fort Larned toward a combined Cheyenne and Lakota village. As the army drew nearer the village on April 14, a group of Cheyenne warriors rode out to meet them, mirroring the army’s display of military strength. Colonel Ned Wynkoop, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agent at Fort Larned from 1866 to 1868, rode out between the lines to ask the warriors to stay calm and stay put. The warriors agreed, and the troops marched within one mile of the village. Captain Albert Barnitz of the 7th Cavalry later wrote of the camp, “I was astonished at its magnitude – and magnificence!”

General George Custer's Camp

Custer’s 7th Cavalry

The sight of a massive formation of troops so near their village evoked memories of the Sand Creek Massacre, prompting the women and children to flee that evening, leaving most of their lodges and belongings behind. Hancock, who had brashly moved his troops to within sight of the village, evidently could not conceive of why the people would flee. Furious at what he took to be an offense, Hancock demanded their return. Some Cheyenne warriors obliged Hancock and rode to look for the women and children but returned empty-handed. Fearing the repercussions of Hancock’s anger, the remaining warriors also fled, eluding Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry as night fell.

Hancock’s troops, particularly the 7th Cavalry, attempted to locate the villagers for several days but were unsuccessful. Assuming their flight indicated a disinterest in peaceful negotiation, Hancock concluded that the Indians meant war. Hancock ordered the abandoned village burned to the ground. “I am satisfied that the Indian village was a nest of conspirators,” Hancock reported. It was the opening round in what became known as “Hancock’s War,” an unprecedented season of violence on the plains of Kansas.

Word of the village’s destruction quickly spread among the tribes. Battles raged across Kansas: Fort Dodge, June 12; Fort Wallace, June 21-22; Baca’s Wagon Train, June 22; Pond Creek Station and another at Black Butte Creek, June 26; the Kidder Massacre, July 2; Saline River, August 1-2;  and Prairie Dog Creek, August 21-22. Raiding along the Santa Fe Trail also increased.

With the cost of war increasing, the U.S. Government looked for alternatives. By the end of the summer, Hancock had been transferred to another command and was replaced by General Philip Sheridan. Fort Larned, where diplomacy had begun to unravel that spring, played a significant role in ending the season of warfare in October 1867 by supporting the negotiations for the Medicine Lodge Treaty.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2022.

Also See:

Indian Battles in Kansas

Indian Wars, Battles & Massacres

Indian Wars of the Frontier West

The Plains Indians

Source: National Park Service