new Mennonite Life logo    December 2001     vol. 56 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Along the Cheyenne Heritage Trail:
Travel Notes, Musings, Reflections

Robert Kreider

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Early Wednesday morning, October 17, thirty-eight of us (from three-year old Norah to an 84 year old) boarded a bus for a three day trek back through the history of the Great Plains. Safe in the hands of veteran driver Herman Toews, in the pre-dawn darkness some of us dozed and others gazed silently as we sped westward where the towns become smaller and the distances lengthen. From North Newton, past Hesston and Moundridge (towns where Mennonites live) we angled due west at McPherson and on to Elmdale, Lyons, Great Bend. This was a tour sponsored by the Kauffman Museum, North Newton, Kansas, and ably led by Andi Schmidt Andres and Susan Rhoades

Where does the West begin? Some say the Mississippi River and river towns such as St. Louis where the Lewis and Clark expedition began two centuries ago. Some say at the bend of the Missouri - Kansas City, Independence and Westport - departure point for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. William Least Heat Moon, author of PrairyErth, says the West begins in Chase County in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I say it is Great Bend on the Arkansas River, where the High Plains begin.

Speeding westward we crossed major routes in the white man’s conquest of the Great Plains: the route of Coronado coming from Spanish regions in the south and with it the invasion of a horse culture; the Santa Fe Trail that from 1821 to 1880 provided traders and settlers a passage to Spanish territory; the Fort Smith to Colorado Springs road followed by gold seekers headed for Cripple Creek (gold miners bringing with them the scourge of smallpox); the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad that pierced the prairie and promoted the expropriation of Indian lands for sale to white settlers (including Mennonite immigrants of the 1870s); the Chisholm Trail from Texas to northern railheads that signaled the displacement of a nomadic hunter / buffalo culture with a cattle culture. Along these routes forts were built to protect the penetration of Native American lands. Intensifying the violence was the spillover of greedy characters - flotsam from the Civil War - armed with guns of greater fire power.

Pondering the massive American conquest of the West, was there ever in history a peaceful and amicable displacement of one people by another? Not the Spanish displacement of Native Americans in Central and South America. Not the English in Ireland. Not the Dutch in South Africa. It relates to a haunting, universal question which can be posed in many different settings: Whose land is Palestine?

We woke from our slumber and our musings at Great Bend, a two mile string of gas stations, motels and fast food places - the commercial jumping off place for the High Plains. Once this was the site of Fort Zarah on the Santa Fe Trail. Here our route turned southwest following the Arkansas River. We drove through Pawnee Rock where in 1874-75 Mennonite immigrants spent a winter housed in boxcars on a railway siding. Ten miles beyond we arrived at Fort Larned, a restored fort on the Santa Fe Trail, where, from 1860 to 1882, were based 300 soldiers guarding the trail. A place, once poised for violence, now an attractive campus of tranquility.

In this restored National Historic Site we heard stories of the fort. Traders traveling west carried cloth, hardware, tools and other necessities for the burgeoning town of Santa Fe at the far end of the 800 mile trail and returned with gold and silver bullion, wool, furs, donkeys and mules. In 1846 when Congress declared war against Mexico, soldiers and military supply wagons poured down this trail. In 1848 with a U.S. victory in the war, Americans began to speak of their “Manifest Destiny” to settle the country from shore to shore. Traffic on the trail shifted to large freighting firms. Settlers came. This traffic and these settlements severed the nomadic hunting paths of the Native Americans. Buffalo herds, their food supply, were decimated. In their frustration and anger, Indians retaliated.

At Fort Larned we envisioned the hard life of soldiers on the frontier - many of them recent immigrants from Europe - probably bewildered by the forces struggling for mastery on the prairie. Theirs was a regimented life from daybreak to nine at night and with it each soldier allocated one 20 ounce loaf of bread a day, permitted one bath a week. Near the fort, traders - called “sutlers” - established themselves to sell necessities and liquor to travelers, soldiers and Indians.

We headed south to Ashland, Kansas, in Clark County - relatively empty, the county having only 2,400 residents. Ranches are huge: 16,000 acres, 22,000 acres. Land, we were told, sells for up to $400 an acre, $1000 for irrigated land. For lunch we stopped at a century old hotel and restaurant, Hardesty House, with its paneled walls, high ceiling and ranchers seated at neighboring tables. The most fascinating thing in Ashland for three-year old Norah was a small bull snake wriggling its way across the broad street near the hotel.

We continued south to Fort Supply in once Oklahoma Territory where we picked up the trail of the Cheyenne story. Here was established in 1868 a fort that provided a base for troops sent into the region to break the back of Indian resistance to the encroachments of invading white people. One imagines the scene of 400 wagons bringing supplies from Fort Hays in Kansas to build and supply this fort. On November 23, 1868, from this post Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh U.S. Cavalry marched south en route to the Washita River valley to attack the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle. One wonders what kind of a conversation one might have had at Fort Supply with Custer, who was about to embark on this mission of death.

That first day we pressed south to the town of Cheyenne, 15 miles east of the border to the Texas Panhandle. Near the town we were hosted at Coyote Hills Guest Ranch which we shared with another group of guests: a mule skinners’ association - all the members dressed as cowhands. For supper we sat down to a Native American meal of stew and fried bread. That evening Lawrence Hart, Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor, introduced us to the story of his people. That night some heard coyotes.

Lawrence sketched the story of his Cheyenne people from 300 years ago when they were a settled people living in Minnesota. Encroaching tribes pushed them out onto the prairie, where they were introduced to the horse and became a nomadic people following the buffalo. As they were pressed westward into Dakota territory and southward into Colorado and Kansas they were betrayed by broken treaties: in the Black Hills the Friendship Treaty of 1825, Fort Laramie in 1849, Fort Wise in 1861, Camp on the Little Arkansas in 1865, Medicine Lodge in 1867. And Eastern Colorado was the scene of the devastating Massacre of Sand Creek in 1864 from which only a few, such as Peace Chief Black Kettle, escaped. He sketched the story of the peace tradition, along with the warrior tradition, among the Cheyenne. This concern for peacemaking has been passed down through generations of Peace Chiefs from the legendary Sweet Medicine whose stunning words linger:

You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be called an honest chief. You chiefs own the land and the people. . . . If strangers come, you are the ones to give presents to them and invitations. When you meet someone, or he comes to your tepee asking for anything give to him. Never refuse. . .

Lawrence Hart at the Washita site, January 2000. (Courtesy James C. Juhnke)

The following morning while it was still dark we rode to the site of the Massacre on the Washita. As we waited for the sun to rise, a park official, Bob Duke, told the story of the Cheyenne and the battle. He, a white man, told the story with sensitivity as Lawrence tells it. Just as the sun appeared in the east, we stepped out of the bus and walked silently with Bob and Lawrence down the hill, entering the very grounds where once the Seventh Cavalry massacred a village. A terrible and an awesome place. We scanned the horizon and visualized the positions just behind the crest of hills where four companies - those of Major Elliott and Captains Thompson, Myers and Hale - awaited the signal to attack, the sound of the fight song of the Seventh Regiment - an Irish drinking ballad, “Garryowen.” On that signal, American horsemen raced roughshod through the peaceful village, slaughtering women and children. . . Premonitions of massacres to come: Hiroshima. . . My Lai. . . World Trade Center. . . Auschwitz. . . Our little granddaughter Norah, happy and chirping, scampered about finding and holding up leaves, stones and dried flowers - cheerfully oblivious to the dreadful memories buried in this tall grass and amidst these clumps of willow and cottonwood.

The words of One Eye, a Southern Cheyenne, come to mind: “women and children . . . fall down and die. There is mourning throughout our whole nation.” The lamentations of the Hebrew psalmist speak for those who died here. In the nearby town of Cheyenne is a small museum that tells the story - not as a triumphalist tale of adventurous Americans winning the West but as a Greek tragedy of a brave people who were victimized by those who invaded their grasslands bringing with them fire power and fire water, small pox and false promises. The Massacre of the Washita is of the same substance as the Book of Lamentations.

Following our walk along paths where the U.S. Cavalry destroyed the village, we visited the compact Black Kettle Museum in Cheyenne which relates the Cheyenne story in the context of the broad sweep of a people that once were nomads in Siberia and the unfolding changes in the prairie environment. As I left the museum I talked with Virginia Reynolds, who had been a professor of piano at a university, and recently returned to her home town. She gave two reasons for her return: “1. Friends. 2. There is a story here to be told. This story is in a small way like the stories in other parts of the world: the powerful taking advantage of the weak. It’s a universal story.”

That evening we were hosted at a cowboy cookout with a hearty meal prepared over an open fire. All about were symbols of the Old West: horses and wagons, ten gallon hats and cowboy boots, lariats and spurs.

On the final day we drove from Cheyenne and the valley of the Washita south to Clinton on old U.S. Route 66, to John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath country. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, this was the route of Okies in old jalopies headed for the promised land of California. On the east edge of Clinton we were welcomed by Lawrence and Betty Hart at the Cheyenne Cultural Center. A Cheyenne family in traditional costumes chanted and danced in the open air circular pavilion. Scurrying about on the floor on his hands and knees was a two-year old Cheyenne boy, who was happily weaving his way among us. We admired the creatively designed new buildings, artfully placed in a pattern and surrounded by an emerging nature center of native trees and plantings.

Here we observed that the Cheyenne people have not been crushed. The Southern Cheyenne, 16,000 strong, are nurturing their unique sense of identity. They are recovering their language, thanks in part to the legacy of pioneer Mennonite missionary Rodolphe Petter, who edited the massive Cheyenne-English dictionary and translated the New Testament into Cheyenne. In an area of the Cultural Center are a row of computers with software for the study of the language. In Lawrence and his Cheyenne Mennonite kinfolk one finds a bonding of two heritages, one Cheyenne and the other Anabaptist, both with a legacy of peacemaking. In Lawrence and Betty Hart, and in the Center they are creating, are gifts of insight and wisdom which embrace and transcend cultures.

En route home Lawrence and Betty accompanied us east as far as El Reno, site of Fort Reno and the nearby Darlington Agency. At the Fort we met Connie, the Hart’s daughter, who described the history of this military camp that dates back to 1874. Here centered efforts to pacify the Indians and to enforce a transition from reservation to individual farms. From here in 1877 fled 300 Northern Cheyenne. After Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 900 Cheyenne were rounded up at Fort Reno. Troops from this place supervised and enforced the first great Land Run of 1889 that opened to settlement the unassigned lands of Oklahoma Territory. Shades of what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.” We walked through a cemetery where lie buried soldiers from the Indian wars. Beyond the wall, we and our German son-in-law Uli and granddaughter Norah visited the graves of German prisoners of war, captured in North Africa in World War II.

At the nearby site of what was once the Darlington Agency, we drove about seeking to envision the buildings where the first agent, Quaker Brinton Darlington, befriended the Cheyenne and Arapaho. At the invitation of another Quaker agent, John D. Miles, here in 1880 Mennonites established a mission school for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. This continued until 1889 when the mission was moved 67 miles northwest to Cantonment, where a military post had been abandoned. Thoughts go back to May 1880 when two German-born Mennonite missionaries arrived: Samuel Haury and his bride of six months, Susie Hirschler. They had traveled from Halstead, Kansas, by spring wagon with 600 pounds of luggage. This young couple carried responsibility for opening the first mission program of the General Conference Mennonites - this among people who spoke different languages, followed strange customs and who had been, for generations, maltreated. During the next 20 years more than 100 Mennonites served in some capacity on this mission field. We can scarcely grasp the complex inter-cultural experience that ensued: good-hearted, inexperienced white missionaries, often discouraged, groping for ways to bring the Good News to the Arapaho and Cheyenne in a language few mastered. Understandably they had reasons for being suspicious and resisting a white man’s religion.

Back in El Reno we visited a folksy, open storage museum in the former Rock Island Depot. One reflects on our human passion to gather about us antiques, collectibles - artifacts all - which help us to preserve our memories. Nearby on Heritage Square stands the Mennoville Mennonite Church, built in 1893, the first Mennonite church in Oklahoma Territory. In 1997 this frame structure was moved from its site six miles north along U.S. 81 at a place called Mennoville. Here we were on an historic highway, the great North-South Mennonite Highway that links a string of Mennonite communities from Winnipeg in Manitoba to Freeman in South Dakota to Henderson in Nebraska to McPherson, Moundridge, Hesston and Newton in Kansas to El Reno in Oklahoma and then - following the route of Old Colony people south all the way through Mexico to Belize in Central America.

Traveling north on U.S. 81 we stopped for a buffet supper at the Granny Had One Restaurant in Guthrie, Oklahoma, which, for a brief time, served as the state capitol. Not only was the century old decor of the restaurant fascinating, but also the well preserved facades of buildings in the business district are an architectural delight.

Here linger concluding reflections:

  1. This particular story of European violent displacement of native people in America is at once a universal and oft-repeated tragic story. Again the question: Has there ever been a case of peaceable and amicable displacement of peoples? Even an amicable coexistence? In scouring my memory for examples, the one that comes closest is the story of Mennonite settlements in the Paraguayan Chaco. It is almost certain that, had the Mennonites not arrived and reached out to the nomadic Indians, they would soon have perished as tribal peoples.
  2. Triggered by Jim Juhnke and Carol Hunter’s book, The Missing Peace, could there have been peaceful alternatives in the European settlement of North American?
  3. Why do governments kill and destroy native peoples and cultures and then turn about and celebrate these peoples? Names of athletic teams, Oklahoma license plates and travel brochures, travel posters in Guatemala, etc.?
  4. The eloquent and ancient peace tradition among the Cheyenne and Arapaho led by their Peace Chiefs, e.g . Black Kettle of the Cheyenne and Left Hand of the Arapaho - existing along with warrior traditions.
  5. The meager harvest of converts from more than a century of missionary presence in Oklahoma. What sense of accomplishment sustained these missionaries? Today there is Peace Chief Lawrence Hart, a small number of Cheyenne Mennonites and there is a revival of the Cheyenne language, the latter the fruit of Petter’s orthography work. Have lessons been learned from this, the oldest of American Mennonite missionary enterprises?
  6. Can a nation repent of its misdeeds? If so, how?
  7. And finally, the words of the retired piano teacher in Cheyenne: “There is a story here to be told. This story is in a small way like the stories in other parts of the world: the powerful taking advantage of the weak. It’s a universal story.”