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Visiting Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma

Visiting Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is the site of an attack of a Cheyenne village by the US Cavalry. At dawn on November 27, 1868 Lt. Col Custer (remember him?) attacked a sleeping village lead by Peace Chief Black Kettle.  It is located in rural Oklahoma northwest of the town of Elk City. It is about 15 miles from the Oklahoma-Texas border.

washita battlefield

A granite map of the battle site

Here’s what a larger marker at the site said about the battle :

The Battle of the Washita, a major engagement in the Plains Indian War which established the western expansion of the United States was fought on this site. Col. George A. Custer’s command of 500 troopers from the 7th Cavalry, and a detachment of scouts including the famed Ben Clark and the Osage Hardrope, destroyed Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village here on Nov. 27, 1868.

Black Kettle, Peace Leader of the Southern Cheyennes, had sought military assurance that he would not be attacked here. There were in his camp, however, young men who had taken part in war parties raiding in Kansas.

Custer’s command left camp supply on November 23. His scouts located the Cheyenne village on the night of November 26. After a forced march through a bitterly cold blizzard and deep snow, Custer deployed his command to surround the village. And at dawn, with the regimental band playing “Gary Owen,” swept in to attack the sleeping Cheyennes.

The number of Indians killed in the fighting is a point of controversy. Cluster claimed 103 warriors. In the report to the Secretary of the Interior (1869-70), Cheyennes set the total at 13 men, 16 women and 9 children including Black Kettle and his wife.

Captain Louis Hamilton, grandson of Alexander Hamilton, was one of two officers killed. Major Joel Elliott and a squad of troopers in pursuit of fleeing Cheyennes were trapped on Sergeant Major Creek beyond a mile from the village and killed the last man.

The Cheyenne lodges and winter supplies of food and buffalo robes were vurned while 875 of their horses were slaughtered. At nightfall the cavalry returned toward camp supply with 53 women and children captives.

I thought visiting around the same time of year (we visited mere days before the anniversary) would give us a good idea of what the weather was like, but I was very wrong.  We had lovely 70 degree sunny weather while I found that the battle had occurred in blizzard conditions.

Hailed at the time by military and civilians alike as a large victory which would reduce Indian raids on settlements along the frontier, many now label Custer’s attack as a massacre.

It was very interesting the way you could see a little bit of the changing interpretation of this battle in the markers at the site.  I can’t remember another site I’ve seen where this is so clearly evident as here at the Washita Battlefield.

washita battlefield

Seemingly the oldest marker naming this “Custer’s Battle.” Visitors have tried to scratch out “Custer’s.”


washita battlefield

A 1960’s era marker simply stating “Washita Battlefield” was a registered national landmark.

washita battlefield

The newest marker, which I quoted, attempting to balance the clash of cultures.

These markers are all located at the “park overlook.”  The actual site is at the end of a 1.5 mile trail.  Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to make this walk, but I will plan more time to include it if we are able to stop at this site again.

washita battlefield

View from the site’s overlook

What we did have time to do was visit the visitor’s center.  There is a fantastic 27 minute film to watch about the event which is highly recommended – but might not be appropriate for the youngest children.  The children were also able to get Junior Ranger activities from the park rangers there.

We also had the opportunity to take a short walk along their “Life on the Prairie” trail.  The kids seemed to really enjoy this walk, and we were able to illustrate things they had only read about – like a dugout house (think Laura Ingles Wilder and “Little House on the Prairie”) and the effects of a fire on the prairie.

washita battlefield

washita battlefield

washita battlefield

** Note on pronunciation ** When I told my Oklahoma born and raised Grandmother we were visiting Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma, she laughed and said I was saying it wrong. It is said WASH-i-taw. Turns out that Washita is an anglicized version of two Choctaw words “Owa Chito” meaning “Big Hunt.”

Website : National Park’s Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

  1. Sophie 8 February, 2013

    I did my bachelor’s degree at OU and lived in the state for ages – and didn’t know about this memorial. Very interesting post, Amy.

  2. Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids 8 February, 2013

    Very interesting! Oklahoma is one of the three states I haven’t been to yet. We’ll be driving through there in 2014, but I don’t think we’ll be close enough for a stop here.

    • Amy 8 February, 2013

      You have plans for 2014 already?! Amazing! The most I can plan is about 3 months ahead 🙂

  3. InsideJourneys 8 February, 2013

    Hmm, I’d never heard about this memorial site either. Interesting.

  4. Lisa from Gone With The Family 8 February, 2013

    What an interesting post! National Historic Sites are such a great way for kids to learn more about history – actually visiting seems to stick with them more than reading about it in a book. I was quite interested in the photo of the dugout house – I could never quite picture what one looked like so it’s nice to now have the visual image.

    • Amy 9 February, 2013

      I think further north in the midwest the dugout would go deeper, and would include a dirt/sod roof like this. But it definitely made it easier to visualize for me, especially how the dirt/clay bricks would make up the entry of the structure. I, too, wondered – probably since I was a little girl reading Little House on the Prairie books 🙂

  5. Harold.E. Driskel, Ph.D. Okla. 17 June, 2013

    What you see here is a typical dumbing of America. People like the OU grad that does not know that life exist outside of Norman.

  6. lilly 9 July, 2013

    I had been looking for a pic of grand mother childhood home and there it is the one room dugout that housed her parents one set of grand parents and her and her brother during the dust bowl. So thank you

    • Amy Moore 9 July, 2013

      I’m glad you found what you were looking for! It was really helpful for me to see it in person. The dugout house was a hard concept for me to fully understand.

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