Indian Terrors on the Santa Fe Trail

Setangya, aka: Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule

Setangya, aka: Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule

The war chief of the Kiowa nation in the early 1850’s was Satank, a most unmitigated villain; cruel and heartless as any Indian that ever robbed a stagecoach or wrenched off the hair of a helpless woman. After serving a dozen or more years with a record for hellish atrocities equaled by few of his compeers, he was deposed for alleged cowardice, as his warriors claimed, under the following circumstances:

The village of his tribe was established in the large bottoms, eight miles from the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, and about the same distance from Fort Zarah, Kansas. All the bucks were absent on a hunting expedition, excepting Satank and a few superannuated warriors. The troops were out from Fort Larned on a grand scout after marauding Indians, when they suddenly came across the village and completely took the Kiowa by surprise. Seeing the soldiers almost upon them, Satank and other warriors jumped on their ponies and made good their escape. Had they remained, all of them would have been killed or at least captured; consequently, Satank, thinking discretion better than valor at that particular juncture, incontinently fled. His warriors in council, however, did not agree with him; they thought that it was his duty to have remained at the village in defense of the women and children, as he had been urged to refrain from going on the hunt for that very purpose.

Sometime before Satank lost his office of chief, there was living on Cow Creek, in a rude adobe building, a man who was ostensibly an Indian trader, but whose traffic, in reality, consisted in selling whiskey to the Indians, and consequently the United States troops were always after him. He was obliged to cache his liquor in every conceivable manner so that the soldiers should not discover it, and, of course, he dreaded the incursions of the troops much more than he did raids of the Indian marauders that were constantly on the Trail.

Satank and this illicit trader, whose name was Peacock, were great chums. One day while they were indulging in a general good time over sundry drinks of most villainous liquor, Satank said to Peacock: “Peacock, I want you to write me a letter; a real nice one, that I can show to the wagon-bosses on the Trail, and get all the ‘chuck’ I want. Tell them I am Satank, the great chief of the Kiowa, and for them to treat me the best they know how.”

“All right, Satank,” said Peacock; “I’ll do so.” Peacock then sat down and wrote the following:

“The bearer of this is Satank. He is the biggest liar, beggar, and thief on the plains. What he can’t beg of you, he’ll steal. Kick him out of camp, for he is a lazy, good-for-nothing Indian.”

Satank began at once to make use of the supposed precious document, which he really believed would assure him the dignified treatment and courtesy due to his exalted rank. He presented it to several caravans during the ensuing week, and, of course, received a very cool reception in every instance, or rather a very warm one.

One wagon-master, in fact, black-snaked him out of his camp. After these repeated insults he sought another white friend and told of his grievances. “Look here,” said Satank, “I asked Peacock to write me a good letter, and he gave me this, but I don’t understand it! Every time I hand it to a wagon-boss, he gives me the devil! Read it to me and tell me just what it does say.”

His friend read it over, and then translated it literally to Satank, who assumed a countenance of extreme disgust, and after musing for a few moments, said: “Well, I understand it all now. All right!”

Kiowa Indians

Kiowa Indians

The next morning at daylight, Satank called for some of his braves and with them rode out to Peacock’s ranch. Arriving there, he called out to Peacock, who had not yet risen: “Peacock, get up, the soldiers are coming!” It was a warning which the illicit trader quickly obeyed, and running out of the building with his field-glass in his hand, he started for his lookout, but, while he was ascending the ladder with his back to Satank the latter shot him full of holes, saying, as he did so: “There, Peacock, I guess you won’t write any more letters.”

His warriors then entered the building and killed every man in it, save one who had been gored by a buffalo bull the day before, and who was lying in a room all by himself. He was saved by the fact that the Indian has a holy dread of small-pox, and will never enter an apartment where sick men lie, fearing they may have the awful disease.

Satanta (White Bear) was the most efficient and dreaded chief of all who have ever been at the head of the Kiowa nation. Ever restlessly active in ordering or conducting merciless forays against an exposed frontier, he was the very incarnation of deviltry in his determined hatred of the whites, and his constant warfare against civilization.

He also possessed wonderful oratorical powers; he could hurl the most violent invectives at those whom he argued with, or he could be equally pathetic when necessary. He was justly called “The Orator of the Plains,” rivaling the historical renown of Tecumseh or Pontiac.

He was a short, bullet-headed Indian, full of courage and well versed in strategy. Ordinarily, when on his visits to the various military posts he wore a major-general’s full uniform, a suit of that rank having been given to him in the summer of 1866 by General Hancock. He also owned an ambulance, a team of mules, and a set of harness, the last stolen, maybe, from some caravan he had raided on the Trail. In that ambulance, with a trained Indian driver, the wily chief traveled, wrapped in a savage dignity that was truly laughable. In his village, too, he assumed a great deal of style. He was very courteous to his white guests if at the time his tribe were at all friendly with the government; nothing was too good for them. He always laid down a carpet on the floor of his lodge in the post of honor, on which they were to sit. He had large boards, twenty inches wide and three feet long, ornamented with brass tacks driven all around the edges, which he used for tables. He also had a French horn, which he blew vigorously when meals were ready.

His friendship was only dissembling. During all the time that General Philip Sheridan was making his preparations for his intended winter campaign against the allied Plains Indians, Satanta made frequent visits to the military posts, ostensibly to show the officers that he was heartily for peace, but really to inform himself of what was going on.

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