Sunday, September 7, 2008

W. S. Nye: Carbine & Lance

I bought Carbine & Lance The Story of Old Fort Sill by Colonel W. S. Nye a long time ago when I was stationed at Fort Sill. I started it back then, but did not get more than a few pages into it. I was not really very good with non-fiction in those days. I finally read it a few months ago at a time that I was applying for a job with the Oklahoma Historical Society. The first edition was written in 1937. I have the third edition, published in 1969.

The establishment and development of Fort Sill certainly figures in this history. But the book is much more a description of the conflict between Native Americans and the US Cavalry in Southwestern Oklahoma during the 19th century.

In the early 1800s the area around the Wichita Mountains, north of the Red River, and into the Texas Panhandle was primarily inhabited, or controlled, by the Kiowas and their close allies the Comanches. They feared the Osages to their northeast. They liked to raid to the northwest against the Utes and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. They also liked to raid the White settlements south of the Red River in Texas. This last tendency is what really brought the attention of the U.S. government.

Indian raids picked up considerably during the Civil War years because the White Men were busy fighting each other. In 1864 Kit Carson led a force of cavalrymen, Utes, and Apaches against the Kiowas in the Texas Panhandle. The Kiowas repulsed him with heavy losses. Carson was saved in his retreat only by his light artillery. White response tended to be to attack and kill any Indians they could reach, especially women and children of tribes uninvolved in hostilities. That tended to make the survivors more hostile.

After the Civil War, General Sheridan and Colonel Custer led veteran cavalry into the region. They were somewhat successful in controlling the area for a few years.

After U.S. Grant was inaugurated as President he began the “peace policy”. A delegation of Quakers had convinced him to let them take over the Indian Agencies. They wanted to substitute brotherly love for the sword. During this period Fort Sill and its associated Indian Agency were established. The Kiowas and Comanches learned that they were free to raid south of the Red River at will. If they simply agreed to return to the agency lands all was forgiven.

Obviously the history moves on through many other policies as the book progresses. Nye’s book clearly predates “political correctness” as he freely uses terms like savages and barbarians to describe Native Americans. In his preface he writes, “Living today within a few miles of Fort Sill are human beings who, in a single life-span, have passed from the stone age to the era of the eight-cylinder motor car and the low wing monoplane. Here are men who in fierce exultation have torn reeking scalps from their enemies. Here are women who, while their village moved to evade soldiers, have know the anguish of childbirth on horseback.”

The establishment of the Artillery School, and the Fort Sill I remember shows up only in the Appendix.

I appreciate reading Carbine & Lance, despite its outdated attitudes, for giving me a sense of what was happening in Southwestern Oklahoma in the 19th Century. The history of Oklahoma certainly is rife with the clash of different cultures. It is unfortunate that the clash was so violent, and ultimately so unfair.

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