May 18

This Day in History

Old West

May 18, 1871:

Chief Satanta massacres teamsters

The Kiowa Chief Satanta joins with other Indians to massacre a wagon train near the Red River in northeastern Texas.

One of the leading chiefs of the Kiowa in the 1860s and 1870s, Satanta was a fearsome warrior but also a skilled orator and diplomat. He helped negotiate and signed treaties with the U.S. establishing a Kiowa reservation in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), but Satanta remained resistant to government efforts to force the Kiowa to abandon their nomadic ways. The 1867 treaty allowed the Kiowa periodically to leave the reservation to hunt buffalo, but for more than a year, Satanta and other Kiowa continued to hunt and never even set foot on reservation lands. Fearing the Kiowa hunters would never come to the reservation, in late 1868 General Philip Sheridan had them arrested and brought in by force.

From the start, Satanta detested reservation life. He did not intend to become a farmer, a chore he considered to be women's work. The beef provided by the Indian agents was stringy and vastly inferior to fresh buffalo, and he hated the tasteless corn they received. In 1870, when the Indian agent finally agreed that they could leave on another of the hunts provided for by the treaty, Satanta and several Kiowa happily rode off to Texas in search of buffalo. Along the way, they raided several white settlers, but the Kiowa were not identified and later returned to the reservation.

The following spring, Satanta grew more aggressive. He joined a large party of other Kiowa and Commanche who bridled under the restrictions of the reservation and determined to leave. Heading south to Texas, the Indians eluded army patrols along the Red River and crossed into Texas. On this day in 1871, they spotted a wagon train traveling along the Butterfield Trail. Hoping to steal guns and ammunition, the warriors attacked the 10 freight trains, killing seven teamsters. They let the remaining drivers escape while they looted the wagons.

Again, Satanta and the other warriors returned to the reservation. Informed of the Texas raid, the Indian agent asked if any of his charges had participated. Amazingly, Satanta announced that he had led the raid, and that their poor treatment on the reservation justified it. "I have repeatedly asked for arms and ammunition," he explained, "which you have not furnished, and made many other requests, which have not been granted."

Taken to Texas for trial, Satanta was sentenced to hang, but the penalty was later commuted to life in prison. Besieged with humanitarian requests, the Texas governor paroled Satanta back to the reservation in 1873. The following summer, Satanta again led war parties off the reservations, this time to participate in the Red River War from 1874 to 1875. By October 1875, Satanta and his allies were again forced to surrender.

Despite his vocal protests that he preferred execution to imprisonment, Satanta was returned to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He fell into a deep depression, refused to eat, and slowly began to starve to death. Transferred to the prison hospital in 1878, he committed suicide by leaping headfirst from a second-story window.

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