Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Story of a Boy at Medicine Lodge So Long Ago

Tulsa Police Officer Jimmy Whiteshirt
Today, October 14, 2017, is a significant anniversary that few Americans will note.

150 years ago today, October 14, 1867, a well-armed caravan of nearly 500 American soldiers and politicians arrived at a Plainsmen Indian religious site called Medicine Lodge. The purpose of this so-called “Peace Commission” was to negotiate a peace treaty with the savage Plainsmen Indians, including the Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa.

What happened at Medicine Lodge during the two weeks of negotiations and treaty signing (October 14 - October 27, 1861), is an example of United States colonialism.

American exceptionalism is nothing new. The Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty between the United States government and the Plainsmen Indians is an example of a belief that the American way is always the best.

But it's one thing to promote exceptionalism; altogether different to live an exceptional life.

Alfred A. Taylor, who was present at Medicine Lodge as a young man, and whose father, Nathaniel Green Taylor, served as the Chairman of the Indian Peace Commission as well as Superintendent for Indian Affairs for the United State’s government, would later explain why peace with the Plainsmen Indians in 1867 was so important for the United States, and yet so difficult to obtain:
The task of this Commission was a most important and difficult one, involving, as it did the settlement of a war which had been going on for more than three years; the settlement of claims for rampages growing out of the massacre of peaceable Indians by Chivington at Sand Creek, Colorado - which caused the war; and claims growing out of the destruction by Hannock's troops of the Cheyenne "Dog Soldier" village at Pawnee Fork, Kansas - which prolonged the war and made the pacification of the Indians much more difficult; the adjustment of claims for back annumities, and the removal of the various tribes from old to new reservations.
The November 29, 1864 Sand Creek Massacre remains the worst massacre of women and children in American history. American volunteer soldiers, mostly farmers, businessmen and even preachers and teachers were all involved in committing the massacre.

In 1867. the Plainsmen Indians were still seeking retaliation for Sand Creek, remaining on the warpath. 

So the United States  Indian Peace Commission traveled through hostile territory and arrived at Medicine Lodge on October 14, 1867. Medicine Lodge was chosen by the Indians as the site for the negotiations due to its long distance from any U.S. military fort.

Sand Creek was still fresh in the their minds.

The Indian Peace Commission arrived at Medicine Lodge with a specific three-fold purpose:

  1. To convince the Plainsmen Indians to withdraw all opposition to the construction of the Pacific railroads. 
  2. To get the Plainsmen Indians' to relinquish their claims to land lying between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers to build a railroad linking the east and west coasts.
  3. To get the Plainsmen Indians to withdraw to new reservations in western Indian Territory (Oklahoma) set apart for them.

Medince Lodge, an ancient holy site to Plainsmen Indians
The fact that the Indian Peace Commission successfully negotiated this treaty, and that the Plainsmen Indians withdrew to reservations in western Oklahoma is truly astonishing.  Credit must be given to the Plainsmen chiefs, including the tranquil Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, who signed the treaty on behalf of their people. 

Though the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty was negotiated and signed, peace would not immediately come. For the next decade, Plainsmen warriors would often “go off the reservation” to hunt,  kill white buffalo hunters, and take retribution on Americans encroaching on their land. 

The United States government in the 1860's, 70's and 80's followed the example of English and
The Great Plains - Roamed and Owned by the Plainsmen
European Colonialism in Africain and implemented American “colonialism” in fulfillment of Manifest Destiny - uniting the east coast (Atlantic) with the west coast (Pacific) - though the Plains in between both American coasts was land roamed and owned by the Plainsmen Indians.  Some Americans believed "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," a belief which blossomed into the Sand Creek Massacre.

But political leaders sought peace through American colonialism.

Colonialism, as seen in the British and European explorations of the Dark Continent (Africa) and the explorations and land claims by the United States of the Dark Plains during the late 1800's, revolved around the three “C’s" of Colonialism:

Christianity, Commerce, Civilization

Plainsmen Reservations (West), Civilized Nations (East)
The United States laid claim to the plains north of Oklahoma in 1867,  and would later lay claim to the plains of western Oklahoma through a series of Land Runs in the 1880's and 1890's, for the stated purpose of "civilizing" the Plainsmen Indians.

Rather than slaughtering the Indians, the government deemed it best to assimilate the Indians into American culture. The goal was to convert the Indians to Christianity, teach them the principles of commerce, and in the end, civilize them.

The Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty is the first treaty between the United States government and the Indians that explicitly states the goal of civilizing the Indians. 

This is why it is a historic treaty. More than a few Americans, today especially millennials, are upset
Wild Bill Hickock 
with modern American exceptionalism, Christian evangelism, and economic capitalism.  150 years ago, colonialism was chosen by the government as the only option to bring peace with the Indians.

Whether it could have been done differently is open to debate. Whether or not colonialism was the solution chosen by the government of the United States is without debate.

The people at Medicine Lodge 150 years ago reads like a world's list of Who's Who of the 19th century. Henry M. Stanley was there, working as a news reporter, just four years before he discovered Dr. Livingstone in Africa.  So too, Wild Bill Hickock was there serving as a scout for the U.S. military, less than ten years before he was killed during a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota, holding the infamous Dead Man's Hand.  The Cheyenne savage Okuhhatuh, whose life story is one of the most captivating in the history of America, was also at Medicine Lodge. George Armstrong  Custer was supposed to be there, but he was in jail, sent there by General Hancock after Custer left his command of the 7th Cavalry to visit his wife. Black Kettle was there, but on Black Kettle and his wife Medicine Woman at the Battle of Washita River.  Five generals, three U.S. Senators, one state governor and many future state governors, and a host of other remarkable men and women were all present at Medicine Lodge.
Henry Morton Stanley 
November 27, 1868, just a little over a year after Medicine Lodge, Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers would kill

But I'll close by telling you the forgotten story of one five-year-old boy present at Medicine Lodge whose name you ought never forget. You can learn more about him from a superb 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal, written by Michael Allen, a descendant of one of the soldiers who participated in the Sand Creek Massacre.

5-year-old Indian boy
The five-year-old boy at Medicine Creek those 150 years ago went by the English name of Wilson Graham.  He was a Plainsmen Indian. He'd survived the Sand Creek Massacre as a toddler. Though the military commander at Sand Creek,  Col. John Chivington, had ordered there were to be "no survivors" at Sand Creek, two Company C cavalrymen, Lemuel Graham and Jesse Wilson, took possession of the boy and hid him in a stove to bring him back to Denver. Some soldiers brought ears of the Indians they'd cut off, displaying them in bars for drinks. Other soldiers brought home "the snatches" of the Indian women, displaying them as trophies. Other soldiers brought home scalps, fingers, tongues, and other bodily appendages. These two soldiers hid the boy in a stove to take him back to Denver to make money displaying him in a traveling circus they were putting together.

According to Henry Stanley's account of Medicine Creek, the Indians would not meet to negotiate a treaty without this boy present. General Sherman found Wilson Graham in a sideshow circus and made sure the boy made the trip to Medicine Lodge as part of the Indian Commission.

I'll let Mr. Allen pick up the story from his 2014 Wall Street Journal article:
Graham promptly made the boy the main attraction in a circus that also included rattlesnakes and a bear. Mr. Graham bestowed upon the boy his new white name: Wilson R. Graham.
But by 1865, the government was parlaying with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, trying to bring an end to the bloodshed. There was a sticking point. The chiefs demanded the return of the little boy.
The commissioner of Indian affairs instructed the then-Colorado governor, Alexander Cummings, to locate him. He reported that he was no longer in the territory. The Army, too, pressed the search, finally picking up his trail in Indiana. By one account, soldiers staged a dramatic backstage rescue of the boy, now about five years old, just as a performance was concluding.The child returned West to considerable media acclaim.
In 1867, he joined the expedition of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was traveling to the plains to punish hostile Indians. The boy made a favorable impression on a young George Armstrong Custer. “He was dressed comfortably in accordance with civilized custom; and, having been taken from his people at so early an age, was apparently satisfied with the life he led,” Gen. Custer wrote in his book, My Life on the Plains.
After it was determined that he wasn’t Cheyenne at all, but Arapaho, he was handed over to a chief of that tribe, Little Raven. He received a new name: Tom White Shirt, and was brought to Oklahoma, where some of the demoralized Indians had been resettled. For a time, he continued to interest the press. Henry M. Stanley, the English journalist who would go on to win world renown for locating Dr. Livingstone in Africa, met up with the child while on a newspaper assignment. “This boy is rapidly forgetting the English language,” he wrote. “He is efficient in the use of the bow and arrow, and has acquired prominence among his many playmates on account of his varied accomplishments. His feats of leaping and wrestling command the respect of the Arapaho elders. His knowledge of the English language is a source of constant admiration, and his many-bladed jack-knife is an object of envy to his brother braves.”
Tom White Shirt, in the manner of many child stars, eventually dropped out of sight. He married multiple times. He was given 160 acres to homestead—same as my great-great-grandfather—and lived out his days near Calumet, Oklahoma. 
His life was far from easy. He never learned to read or write. The federal government viewed Native Americans as incapable of handling their own affairs. Files in the Oklahoma History Center show that Tom White Shirt had to seek permission to buy clothing or a train ticket. In 1925, he asked a local supervisor if he could withdraw $60 from a bank account held in trust, $25 of it for Christmas and $35 to lend to a man named Peter Hoof. “I do not like this loaning but Pete is such a reasonable and good fellow I will say yes,” the supervisor wrote. Tom White Shirt signed with a thumbprint.
The 1894 Indian census shows Tom White Shirt at 29 years old, living with a wife, White Cow, a 9-year-old son, Falling Off The Horse, and an infant daughter, Georgia. By 1920, the son, renamed Earl White Shirt, had himself married, to a woman named Good Warrior. He had three daughters and two sons. Earl went into show business, joining a famed Oklahoma Wild West show as a trick shooter.
By the time Tom White Shirt died in 1933, around the age of 70, the clan he founded was enthusiastically repopulating the plains. Earl’s five children had nine children, who in turn had 49. I was able to identify 135 people in the sixth generation, and 122 in the seventh.
There are soldiers and social workers in the White Shirt family tree, alcoholism counselors, tribal leaders and a documentary filmmaker. Some live in poverty and some have struck oil. One of Tom White Shirt's great-great-grandsons, James Earl Whiteshirt, known to his friends as “Jimmy,” earned a Medal of Valor from the Tulsa police department for risking his own life to save a shooting victim. At 63, he alone has seven children, 20 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. By last week, the White Shirt line was up to at least 331.
331 Americans from the loins of one five-year-old Indian boy who escaped Sand Creek and whose presence at Medicine Lodge was demanded by the Plainsmen Indians before they'd negotiated with the United States.

Today, on this 150th anniversary of the Indian Peace Commission arriving at Medicine Lodge, I'm reminded that every American life, like American history, is filled with mistakes, heartache, and tragedies. But what makes our nation great is the ability of all Americans, regardless of ethnicity, to rise out of the ashes of tragedy to find individual triumph. 

Thanks, Jimmy Whiteshirt. I served with you when I was a volunteer chaplain at the Tulsa Police Department during the late 1980's and early 1990's.  Your heroic actions deserve the Medal of Valor (see picture at the top of this post). 

Jimmy, you've inspired me today. From tragedy to triumph, yours is the story of a boy at Medicine Lodge. 


Scott Shaver said...

Outstanding history lesson. Many thanks

Christiane said...

Thank you, WADE

You put a human face on history.
It is no longer just the maps and numbers and facts . . . it is the story of a real little boy who lived and suffered, and those who descended from him

.... and history helps us to see how it is that our human kind have always been born into this world 'connected'

Rex Ray said...


A very touching story of a young boy growing up in troubled times. How old was he when he was hid in a stove and when his presence was demanded at Medicine Lodge?

Wade Burleson said...

Rex, he was two years old at Sand Creek, and five years old when the Plainsmen demanded his presence at Medicine Lodge.

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks for the comments, Scott and Christiane!

I enjoy writing these types of articles for my own benefit but am encouraged when others enjoy them as well.

Wade Burleson said...

Scott, Rex, Christiane:

I'll tell you something really cool! This morning, between our second and third services, I sat down in the commons beside two full-blooded, beautiful Cheyenne-Arapahoe teenage girls (sisters, age 16 and 19). I got to know them, and asked them if they were interested "in their Cheyenne-Arapahoe history?" They both said "Of course." I told them this story of the boy at Medicine Creek. At the very end, when I told them that Wilson Graham changed his name back to Tom Whiteshirt, they both let out a gasp. "We are Whiteshirts!" Come to find out through their mother (who was also here at the church), they are related to the boy in this story (but didn't know the story!). To top it off, both girls, Francesca and Alice, gave their lives to Christ a couple of hours later, after the service they were attending.

Cool day for me! :)

Scott Shaver said...

Man.... That is a memorable Sunday. Send my congrats to the girls and family. They certainly came to the right place.

Christiane said...

Wade, this account of the two 'Whiteshirt' sisters is wonderful.
Sometimes, I believe there are no coincidences, in which case I think the girls were meant to be there and you, Wade, were meant to talk with them.

Glad you had this experience! These people are 'living history' and their stories are important and deserve to be told by those who care about them and about how God brings good out of the injustices of the past.

Thanks for sharing this story. :)

What a rich source of history is pioneer country . . . . and that descendants of that history meet with each other peacefully for good is a beautiful witness to the providence of God, Who is making all things new.

Rex Ray said...


WOW, what a remarkable event. What were the odds, huh? Of course the important event that will last forever was the two girls trusting Jesus.

Wade Burleson said...

Amen, Rex!

Aussie John said...

A divine appointment, no doubt?

Mark said...

Excellent accounting, thank you! I too have worked with Jimmy White Shirt. Being a history buff, I've read several times about Sand Creek. This gives me another reason to be proud to know Jimmy.

Mark Mears

Anonymous said...

I am also a descendant of James (uncle Jimmy) Whiteshirt...I am very proud of my uncle and his many accomplishments. I want to thank him for walking through life's darkness and lighting the path proving that no matter where you come from or who you come from as long as you choose to hold tight to your faith and good beliefs there is nothing that can stop you because all of life's good forces are behind you pressing to go forward without expectations. The true reward is the result of others safety and well being while bringing a smile to a stranger's face. Love you always Uncle Jimmy.