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Big Tree

Big Tree (Adoeette) was a Kiowa chief, warrior, and peacemaker.

Early years

Big Tree was born about 1851, somewhere in Kiowa country (Colorado or Kansas). He was a cousin of the better-known Kiowa chief, Santana.

Contrary to the customs of his people, Big Tree married only once. His wife bore at least two children, both daughters, named Alma and Marietta.

Big Tree flourished in explosive times; the expanding Euro-American population was flooding into traditional Indian land and threatening the natives' very existence. Brush wars between the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans sprang up all across the Indian Territory (in Oklahoma). The brush wars were neither civilized nor humane toward noncombatants; both sides were adept at committing atrocities.

Big Tree became a young Kiowa war chief. He played a role in numerous engagements against the white invaders before the indigenous tribes of the plains were beaten down, starved, and forced to live on worthless tracts of land called reservations.

Because of George A. Custer's relentless campaign against the Plains Indians, the embattled Kiowa were forced to seek peace with whites, or eventually be wiped out. The Medicine Lodge Treaty Council in 1867, called for the Kiowa and other tribes to move to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma. However, the Kiowa persisted with frequent raids into Texas despite the establishment of Fort Sill in their midst on the reservation.

{Why did they choose Texas to raid?} {Was Fort Sill located on the reservation?}

Frustrated by reservation restrictions, Big Tree joined Satank, Lone Wolf, Santana, and others in raids on settlements inside Indian Territory and across the Red River in Texas.

In the beginning months of 1871, the Kiowas held a “big medicine" dance near Fort Sill. The Kiowa custom at the end of the dance was to decide whether they were going to wage peace or war in the following summer.

The wagon train raid

In May 1871, a raiding party of more than 100 Kiowa and Comanche led by Chief Santana left the Fort Sill reservation, crossed into Texas, then took up stations on the Salt Creek Prairie near Fort Richardson. The party allowed a heavily armed detachment of white soldiers to pass unscathed. The next group of whites to appear was the Warren wagon train, belonging to a freight company. The Indians swept down upon the train and killed seven teamsters. Big Tree and Yellow Wolf cut out 41 mules. Big Tree gained notoriety because of his participation in that raid.

Usually, when the Indians conducted a raid of that kind, they would return to the camps on the reservation in time for distribution of bi-weekly rations, and boast of their great feats.

{How could they boast on the rez? Wouldn't that get them into hot water?}

Sherman's intervention

In response to the wagon train raid, General William T. Sherman traveled to the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, reservation. Upon his arrival, Sherman asked which Indians had been off the reservation and carried out the attack. Laurie Tatum, the Quaker Indian agent, said he could find out.

Tatum, Sherman, and Colonel Grierson left Fort Sill to inspect the Indian school, and left word that if the Indians arrived during their absence, to immediately inform them. Not long after they left, the Kiowa showed up to collect their rations. They came in — men, women, children, dogs, and horses — and encamped near the post store.

Santana, Satank, and Big Tree had already heard that the big war chief from Washington was there. The Indians wanted to hold a council with General Sherman, and when they were all together in the meeting room, the Indian agent confronted the native leaders about the raid in Texas and the teamsters' murders. Santana rose and said, "Yes, I led the raid." Big Tree and Satank confirmed his words.

{Why did they want to hold a council? Why did they confess to the raid?}

General Sherman personally arrested Santana, Big Tree, and Satank and ordered them to be transported in handcuffs and leg irons to Jacksboro, Texas, to stand trial for murder. Big Tree attempted to escape, but he was unsuccessful. On the journey to Texas, the elderly but spry Satank worked himself free from his handcuffs, then assaulted a guard. A volley of gunfire cut him down.

Elements of the 4th Cavalry took Big Tree and Santana to Fort Richardson, Texas. In Texas, both were tried in a civilian court, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging for their participation in the Warren wagon train raid (officially called the Salt Creek massacre). They were scheduled to be hanged on the first day of September 1871. It was the first time an Indian chief had been tried in a civilian court for warlike activities.

{Fort Richardson? You wrote that they were going to Jacksboro.}

The hanging that wasn't

However, the federal government, fearing Indian reprisals if the executions were carried out, pressured Texas governor Edmund J. Davis to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment. In November 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant explained the government’s fears to the Texas governor. Davis took that action despite vocal opposition from General Sherman and large segments of the Texas population. In September 1871, Big Tree and Santana were transferred to the state prison at Huntsville, Texas.

In Indian Territory, meanwhile, federal agents recognized the danger and, hoping to control the volatile situation, promised the tribe that the two chiefs would be released and returned upon promises of good Kiowa behavior.

In 1873, after two years of serving as hostages to ensure Kiowa compliance, Big Tree and Santana were paroled. Their continued freedom, however, could be revoked by any hostile acts committed by the Kiowa, even if the two chiefs were not involved.

The raids resume

The Kiowa, allied with Quanah Parker and the Quahadi Comanches, resumed raiding in the winter of 1873-74. By the following summer, Big Tree and Santana apparently joined in on the attacks, despite their stiff parole terms. On August 22, 1874, a number of Kiowa led by Santana and Big Tree, combined with Quahadi warriors, skirmished with troops during ration distribution at the Anadarko Agency in Indian Territory.

From there, the Indians moved onto the Llano Estacado¹ in Texas, where, on September 9, 1874, Big Tree accompanied a large raiding party in an attack on General Nelson A. Miles' 36-wagon supply train, escorted by a company of the 5th Infantry and a detachment of the 6th Cavalry. The army managed to hold off the Indians for three days until, unable to rout the soldiers, the Kiowa withdrew and returned home. That was to be Big Tree's last military venture.

Capitulation

In late September 1874, Santana and Big Tree turned themselves in at the Cheyenne Agency of Indian Territory. They were transferred in chains to Fort Sill. Santana broke his parole and was returned to the penitentiary where he later committed suicide.

{Why did they turn themselves in?} {"Santana broke his parole. What parole?}

During the latter part of the uprising of 1874-1877, Big Tree and other chiefs believed to be secretly hostile were confined at Fort Sill. Big Tree remained imprisoned until the Kiowa were finally crushed in December 1874.

{Did the uprising have a name?}

Since Big Tree was a young man, the government hoped that keeping him busy with rewarding and peaceful duties could save him. He was put in charge of a supply train and never broke his parole. He spent the remainder of his life counseling peace and acceptance of the white man's ways.

Requesting Christianity

Later, Big Tree was among leaders that requested a Christian missionary. They assisted in the establishment of the first Baptist mission on the Kiowa reservation, now known as Rainy Mountain Indian Mission. By 1897, Big Tree's conversion was complete; he became a member of the Rainy Mountain Baptist Church and served for more than 30 years as a deacon.

Big Tree's new life of faith was obvious in 1887 by his effort to discredit the Indian prophet P’oinka, the revivalist who preached a doctrine of returning to the ancient ways, and by his opposition to the Kiowa Ghost Dance of 1890.

Big Tree remained a leader in his tribe until age and ill health prevented his participation in tribal business. His last act of leadership was his unsuccessful opposition to the allotment of Kiowa lands in 1901. He died at his home in Anadarko on November 13, 1929, at the ripe old age of 79. He was buried near his home in the Rainy Mountain Cemetery.


¹ A level, semiarid, plateau-like region that marks the southernmost extent of the High Plains, 40,000 square miles of eastern New Mexico and west Texas, between the Pecos River and the Cap Rock escarpment. The Llano Estacado is one of the largest expanses of near-featureless terrain in the U.S. Early Spanish explorers, who placed marker stakes to avoid losing their way on the flat land, named the region.

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