Satank Bane of the Santa Fe Trail
Hero of the Kiowas?

     The Anglos called it Walnut Creek. The Mexicans called Rio de Nuezes. The Kiowas called it One Arm Creek for a reason which will be revealed. By whatever name, this little stream finds its source just west of Dighton, Kansas, and flows eastward through Lane, Ness, Rush, and Barton counties, paralleling Kansas Highway 96 some 90 miles to Great Bend. About two and one-half miles east of that city, Walnut Creek empties into the Arkansas River.[1]

     During the historic period the creek's normal width was narrow and its depth shallow. In 1867 Lieutenant M. R. Brown, engineer with General W. S. Hancock's Expedition, recorded that even near its mouth the creek was only seven feet wide and thirteen inches deep. At the same time he measured the creek's channel, from bank to bank, 250 feet. Such was testimony to the torrents of water that at times rampaged across the plains unchecked by the series of watershed projects which have been constructed in recent years to control flooding. To wit, in 1844, a Bent-St. Vrain caravan was forced to camp on high ground removed from the usual campsite on Walnut Creek because of high water. From May 24 of that year through mid-June, the stream was impassible.[2]

     This was the stream mistaken for the Pawnee River by Francois Aubry in 1852 while he was pioneering a shorter route of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1868 Major General Philip H. Sheridan dispatched a detachment of troops to the stream's intersection with the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road. Shortly thereafter a man identified only as Mr. Fink opened a trading ranche at the same location.[3]

     Forty-one miles downstream was the location described by the papers of incorporation filed by Charles Rath and associates in 1863 as follows, "for the purpose of building a toll bridge over Walnut Creek, in Peketon County, State of Kansas, where the great Santa Fe Road crosses said stream."[4] This location became a temporary home for the Fort Atkinson garrison following the little post's deactivation in 1853. Also removed from Fort Atkinson to the crossing at the same time were the Waldo, Hall & Co. mail station and the U. S. Post Office. Postmaster Samuel Mason reported that the receipts for 1852 were $21.78 Evidently business was not brisk at Walnut Creek either. Within months the post office was discontinued, the mail station was closed, and the troops were transferred to Fort Riley.[5]

     This ill-fated settlement at Walnut Creek was superceded by a more successful venture two years later. William Allison and Francis Boothe, both formerly employed as conductors by Waldo, Hall & Co., mail contractor, set forth from Independence on a trading expedition to the Rocky Mountains. West of the Walnut Creek crossing they found themselves short of provisions, their mules giving out. Returning to the crossing, they unloaded their trade goods and promptly established a trading ranche. Hardened to frontier life by their mail company experience, both men were well fitted for this enterprise. One Arm Allison, as he was known by the Kiowas, was called Wild Bill by the whites. No doubt both designations had reference to the altercation Allison had with his stepfather in which he lost an arm and his stepfather lost his life.[6]

     Allison, it appears, was often on the road transporting merchandise from Independence, leaving the operation of the ranche to Boothe. During one such absence, in September 1857, the partnership came to an abrupt halt with the death of Boothe by an axe-wielding citizen of New Mexico named Cirilo Cineros. Cineros was arrested at San Miguel in the following month. In 1859 Allison died at the Wayne City landing near Independence while loading his wagons, the apparent victim of heart failure. Allison's successor was George H. Peacock. Not much is known about Peacock except these few facts. He was a resident of Independence. He had been engaged in the Santa Fe trade throughout the 1840s and into the 1850s. He had more recently been involved in the Joseph C. Ives exploration of the Colorado River in California, being in charge of the pack train.[7]

     However, the main topic is not the stream itself, the trading ranche established near its confluence with the Arkansas, or the notable number of people who walked across this panoramic stage known today as the Walnut Creek crossing on the Santa Fe Trail: Indian, American, Mexican, civilian, and military. Rather, the focus is on a single individual. That person was known to the whites as Satank, a poor transliteration of his Kiowa name Set-Angia, sometimes recorded as Set-Ankeah. In either case, the name meant Sitting Bear. Kiowa warriors were given three names: one at birth, a second during adolescence, and a third in adulthood. The latter was the result of a vision quest when a Kiowa boy, in an effort to elevate himself to adulthood, would isolate himself from the village. There, for days he would deny himself food, water, and sleep, praying for a vision. The vision would reveal a secret image containing power. The boy would, in time, take the name of this spirit power and paint its representation on his shield as a display of personal power. Such would have been the experience of Satank who took to himself the name of Sitting Bear. The bear has long been a source of strong medicine in Kiowa tradition, going back to the earliest days of creation when one of the half-boys, child of the culture hero, Sun Boy, after killing many bears, painted a bear on his shield. The shield was placed in one of the ten medicine bags, sacred bundles to the Kiowas. Since that day, the tradition was maintained in the names of Kiowa chiefs: White Bear (Satanta), Stumbling Bear (Set-imkia), and Sitting Bear (Satank).[8]

     What kind of a man was this Sitting Bear? Laurie Tatum, Indian agent at the Fort Sill Agency said, "Satank was probably the worst Indian on the reservation." Ida Ellen Rath called him, "a wily old war chief." Henry Inman characterized him as, "a most unmitigated villain, cruel and heartless as any savage that ever robbed a stage coach or wrenched off the hair of a helpless woman." The Kiowas had a different point of view.[9]

     Nothing much is known of Satank's younger life, but a few isolated incidents of his adult years have been reconstructed from interviews with Kiowa elders and documented by twentieth-century writers.

     One such incident relates to the 1840 council between the Cheyenne-Arapaho alliance and the alliance of the Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches. Prior to that date, these two alliances had been bitter enemies with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes dominating the region north of the Arkansas River and the Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches ruling over the area south of the river. But following the 1838 confrontation between the two alliances at Wolf Creek near present Fort Supply, Oklahoma, a truce was negotiated two years later at a location near Bent's Fort. At the invitation of a Cheyenne warrior called High-Backed Wolf, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache chiefs crossed the Arkansas to a Cheyenne village where they were treated to a feast. On the following day, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes waded the river and sat in rows, man in front, women and children behind them. Satank, with a huge bundle of sticks, went up and down the rows distributing the sticks. Each stick represented a horse to be received as a gift. All the Kiowas gave horses, Satank himself gave 250 horses. On the next day, the Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches crossed the river, attended a great feast, and received a huge hoard of gifts: guns, blankets, calicoes, beads, and kettles. The peace was thus made, and the truce was broken.[10]

     We catch another glimpse of Satank in 1845 when a group of Kiowas visited Lieutenant J. W. Abert's party camped on the Canadian River. Abert reported, "Among them was a rising young chief named Set-ankeah." By that date it would appear that Satank had proven himself to be a man of distinction among his people and eligible for membership in the warrior society called Ko-eet-senko.[11]

     There were six warrior societies in the tribe, and the Ko-eet-senko, limited to the ten bravest warriors in the tribe, was the most prestigious of the six. The society led the charge against the enemy and remained to either die or win the victory. Each warrior vowed that he would return from every engagement with honor or not return at all. An 1870 photograph taken by William Soule shows Satank wearing a strap over his shoulder, the badge of the Ko-eet-senko. The strap made of elkskin was painted red, yellow, or in the case of Satank, black. There was a loop on each end of the strap. When in battle, the warrior placed one loop around his neck and secured that strap to the ground by driving a lance through the other loop. His vow required him to there remain until he was killed or the battle was over.[12]

     Parenthetically, following Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's attack on Black Kettle's Washita village, November 27, 1868, the colonel marched his troops downstream toward other villages in a diversionary tactic. Warriors from these villages, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arapahoes, in a flurry of excitement, gathered in an unorganized manner to repel the attack. Satank had difficulty in obtaining agreement from chiefs of the various tribes as to a plan of action. Finally, the ten Ko-eet-senko warriors rode to the front with Satank carrying his feathered lance. All the Ko-eet-senko warriors were singing the war song of the society. At that moment, Custer turned his force around and retreated to the hills overlooking the Washita valley.[13]

     Yet another glimpse of Satank is provided by the1853 description written by Percival Lowe at the Fort Atkinson Treaty council, "The war chief of the Kiowas, always came rather neatly dressed in fine buckskin, and wore a handsome cavalry saber and belt. He was a man about five feet ten, sparely made, muscular, cat-like in his movements--more Spanish than Indian in his appearance--sharp features, thin lips, keen restless eyes, thin mustache and scattering chin whiskers that seemed to have stopped growing when one to three inches long."[14]

     Such is consistent with the afore mentioned photograph taken by William Soule. The image shows him then sixty years of age to be hollowed cheeked with an oriental looking mustache. One eye is barely more than a slit, the other profoundly piercing. Streaks of gray line his predominantly dark hair. The facial hair, as evident in both Lowe's description and the photograph, is uncharacteristic of a Kiowa warrior who went to great lengths to pluck out even a single whisker.

     At the Fort Atkinson council, he touched the pen, a reference to making his mark on the treaty document.

     Six years later, Satank was at Peacock's ranche on Walnut Creek. Such was not unusual, for Kiowas and other southern plains Indians came and went from army posts and trading ranches with impunity. Speculation has it that Satank and Peacock became friends of sorts, their friendship cemented by the bonds of John Barleycorn. On this occasion, Satank and another warrior named Pawnee were drinking heavily and threatening the ranche personnel. After driving off the inebriates, Major J. T. Donaldson dispatched a courier to the Cow Creek ranche, 23 miles to the east, requesting a detachment to be sent immediately to the Peacock ranche. Early the next morning, Captain W. T. Walker and two companions arrived at the ranche. In the meantime, Pawnee had returned, quite sober. Regardless, Walker placed him under arrest, but Pawnee mounted a horse and fled. Lieutenant George Bayard was sent in pursuit; but when Pawnee failed to respond to an order to return, Bayard shot him off the horse. Two days later, Kiowas attacked a mail wagon at Jones Point west of the Pawnee Fork crossing, killing Lawrence and Michael Smith. Whether or not Pawnee's death fueled the killing of the Smith Brothers in not known. However, such may well be the case.[15]

     In 1860 Satank was back at the ranche, asking Peacock to write a letter attesting to his good character so he could show the letter to freighters, mail company personnel, and others along the trail so as to solicit coffee, sugar, and crackers, all of which the Kiowas had become quite fond. Peacock did indeed write a letter, but instead of lauding Satank, the letter characterized the Kiowa as a most treacherous and dangerous Indian. Being rebuffed on several occasions after showing the letter to whites, Satank took the letter to William Mathewson at the Cow Creek ranche. When Mathewson interpreted the true contents of the letter, Satank and several other warriors made their way to Peacock's. Upon approaching the ranche, Satank called out, "The soldiers are coming." Soon Peacock appeared in the lookout constructed atop his store. Satank promptly shot him dead. Following, he and his warriors entered the store and killed a German fellow named Myers, Peacock's clerk, and an unnamed Mexican herder. Another man, ill in an adjoining room, was spared. The speculation is that the Kiowas kept their distance, thinking he might have smallpox.[16]

     In 1864 the Kiowas were camped near Fort Larned, holding a scalp dance in honor of a successful raid near Menard, Texas. After the dance, Satank and another warrior approached the post, perhaps to go to the sutlers store. The sentry waved them away, but they continued to advance. When the sentry raised his gun in a threatening manner, Satank shot two arrows into him and the other warrior fired his weapon. An alarm was sounded, and the garrison responded thinking the post was under attack. In the excitement, the Kiowas drove off 174 horses and mules.[17]

     A year later, Satank touched the pen at the Little Arkansas Treaty and again in 1867 at the Medicine Lodge Council.[18]

     Following the Medicine Lodge treaty, the Kiowas moved south of the Kansas border to Indian Territory where they took up residence on their reservation near Fort Sill. It was during this period in 1870 that Satank's second and favorite son, given his father's name, was killed in a raid on a settler's house in north Texas. Unable to remove his body, his fellow warriors returned to their village with the news of the younger Satank's death. Eventually, Satank made his way to the place his son's remains were hidden, bundled up the bones on a red horse, and brought them back to the village. Angered, on his way home, he killed a white man. In the village, he placed the bones in a special lodge and gave a feast in honor of his son who had held the office of Tohnyopde, the pipe bearer, who went in front of the warriors on a war expedition. Thereafter, he took his son's bones with him when he was away from the village; and each night, he stowed the bones in the special lodge with food and water for his son's spirit. In the Kiowa semiannual calendar, pictures were painted, summer and winter, on a buffalo hide which depicted notable events in Kiowa history. The winter picture for 1870-1871 shows a sitting bear over a man's skeleton.[19]

     In the following fall Satank rode into the Fort Sill Indian Agency on a mule claimed by a Texan. When Indian Agent Tatum demanded that Satank give up the mule, Satank replied that, after his son died, he went to the vicinity of his death and stole the mule, and ever since he had loved the mule as a son. Further, Satank challenged the agent to a fight until death, the winner to keep the mule. Tatum refused the challenge.[20]

     In May 1871 Satank with some 100 Kiowas attacked some wagons west of Jacksboro, Texas, killing seven teamsters. Subsequently, Satank and others from the raiding party were arrested at Fort Sill. By order of Major General William T. Sherman, Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree were to be taken to Fort Richardson near Jacksboro to be tried for their part in the killings. All three were handcuffed and hobbled with chains. While the three chiefs were being placed in a wagon, Satank resisted and was finally placed in a separate wagon with the driver and a guard. Accompanying the wagon were four outriders, including a Caddo ironically called George Washington or Caddo George. Before they left the Fort Sill reservation, Satank said to Caddo George, riding along side his wagon, "Take this message to my people. Tell them I died beside the road. My bones will be found there. Tell my people to gather them up and carry them away." Shortly thereafter, Satank sang his death chant.

     O Sun you remain forever, but we Ko-eet-senko must die.
     O earth you remain forever, but we Ko-eet-senko must die.

     A few minutes later, Satank spoke again to Caddo George, "See that tree," indicating a large pecan tree just ahead, "When I reach that tree, I will be dead." At that point, Satank wrestled his hands through the manacles, produced a knife hidden in his clothing, and attacked the soldier standing guard, stabbing him in the leg. As the soldier fell from the wagon, Satank grabbed his carbine only to fall in a flurry of bullets. By order of Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, Satank was left by the side of the road as the retinue continued on to Texas. Chief Big Tree later recalled, "The last time I saw Satank, he was sitting in the dust, blood pouring from his mouth."[21]

     The Kiowa traditionalists insist that Satank had been thoroughly searched three times before being placed in the wagon and that no weapons were found. They further believe that by the powers of the Ko-eet-senko, a knife magically appeared after he magically slipped his hands through the manacles.[22]

     The Kiowas were afraid to return for Satank's body, so he was buried in the Fort Sill cemetery in an unmarked grave. Modern-day Kiowas say that his grave is the one enclosed by iron pipe and a chain.[23]

     The story could end at this point except for this footnote. One of his sons who became known as Joshua Given went east to study, was ordained as an Episcopal clergyman, and served as a missionary among his people, as did his sister Julia. Her daughter, Ioleta Hunt, was the first Kiowa woman to receive a liberal arts degree, and served the poor as a teacher in eastern Oklahoma. What an ironic legacy for this stoneage man. I leave it to you to ponder this strange twist of fate and to consider as the title of these remarks asks, "Was Satank the bane of the Santa Fe Trail of the hero of his people?"[24]

     Regardless of which version one believes, one must agree that Satank, loathe to leave the bones of his son, remained true to his vow to return with honor or not to return at all.


  1. John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 56; George Bird Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), 162.

  2. Letters Received by the Office of Adjutant General, 1867, roll 562, microcopy 619, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D. C.; Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka; Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 512.

  3. Ibid., 1090; Leo E. Oliva, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 190.

  4. Ida Ellen Rath, The Rath Trail (Wichita, Kansas: McCormick-Armstrong Co., Inc., 1961),3.

  5. Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 34.

  6. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Walnut Creek Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 27 (Summer 1971): 121-122.

  7. Ibid., 122-129.

  8. Maurice Boyd, Kiowa Voices, vol. 2, (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1983), 9, 197-198; Col. W. S. Nye, Carbine and Lance, The Story of Fort Sill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 359.

  9. Ibid., 119; Rath, Rath Trail, 1; Colonel Henry Inman, The Old Santa Fe Trail (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1897), 168.

  10. Mildred P. Mayhall, The Kiowas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 89-92.

  11. Nye, Carbine and Lance, 16.

  12. Boyd, Kiowa Voices, 241. Nye, Carbine and Lance, 74.

  13. Boyd, Kiowa Voices, 179.

  14. Percival G, Lowe, Five Years a Dragoon ('49-'54), (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 104, Lowe identified the person described as Satanta. The description, however, fits that of Satank.

  15. Oliva, Soldiers, 116-118.

  16. Barry, "The Ranch at Walnut Creek," 139-140.

  17. Nye, Carbine and Lance, 35.

  18. "Official Kansas Roster," Kansas Historical Collections, 17 (1925): 763. Satank's Kiowa name is misspelled in this as Si-tank-ki, 771. Again there is a misspelling. Satank is identified as Satanka.

  19. Nye, Carbine and Lance, 113-114; Mayhall, Kiowas, 193.

  20. Nye, Carbine and Lance, 119.

  21. Ibid., 124-146.

  22. Boyd, Kiowa Voices, 242-243. Nye; Carbine and Lance, 146.

  23. Ibid., 147.

  24. Ibid.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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