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The Washita River Runs Through the Arbuckle Mountains

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The Washita River empties into Lake Texoma where it meets the Red River. The two river’s confluence is under water. A good amount of history also runs right alongside the Washita River. It spans 295 miles with 114 streams branching off of it. It passes through or near 22 counties, 96 towns, and 11 lakes or reservoirs in Texas and Oklahoma. Its headwaters are located near Miami, (my-am-muh) Texas, northeast of Amarillo and Pampa. (1)


The name Washita (wah-shə-taw) is a derivative of Quachita (wah-shə-taw). The Quachita Indians are closely related to the Caddoans and were originally from northeast Louisiana with a river named after the Quachita tribe. The Quachita Valley tribes began to disappear in the 1600s through tribal warfare. The Tensas tribe almost completely wiped out the Quachitas in 1690. Then the Chickasaws in the Arkansas region pushed out the rest of the tribe in 1734. (2)

Spanish Europeans under Hernando Desoto explored the Quachita region in Louisiana in 1539. (2) In the early 1700s, French explorers thought they had found the Quachita River that Choctaws had told them about while traveling the Red River upstream. But that river looked completely different from the Choctaw’s description of the Quachita River. They named it Faux Quachita. American settlers later pronounced the name of the tribe as Washita and called that river False Washita. (3)

Arbuckle Mountains

The Arbuckle Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the U.S. They are 1.3 billion years old. Their core contains Precambrian granite and gneiss overlaid with Cambrian rhyolite that is 525 million years old. Then, from 515 to 219 million years ago, seas formed and dried up which left the Arbuckles covered with limestone, dolomite, sandstone, and shale. The Washita River cuts through the middle of the Arbuckles. Today, the Arbuckles are located in the Murray, Carter, Pontotoc, and Johnston counties of Oklahoma. Lake Arbuckle contains some the best bass, catfish, bluegill, and crappie fish in Oklahoma. General Matthew Arbuckle (1778-1851) gave them their name. (4)

After the Civil War

U.S. Military tactics changed from conquering the Old South to open warfare against the Plains Indians in 1865. White hunters violated U.S. treaties with Indian Nations and trespassed on Indian land. The vast amount of previously ignored natural resources interested the U.S. government. The U.S. now realized the Indian treaties locked up those resources. Congress obsessed about transcontinental railroad transportation. Arkansas, Kansas, Indian Territory, Missouri, and the Texas border became the focus of four newly created U.S. Cavalry Units in 1866. (5) Two distinct historical eras revolved around the Washita River. 

The Upper Washita River

The Battle of the Washita and the Farces of George Armstrong Custer

The U.S. Military court-marshaled Custer in 1867 for leaving his post to visit his wife and sentenced him to a one-year suspension with loss of pay and rank. Major General Sheridan, planning a winter campaign against the Cheyenne, reinstated Custer in 1868 in command over part of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. At the time of his incarceration at Fort Leavenworth, under Colonel Custer’s command were the 7th Cavalry troops of A, C, D, E, G, H, K, and M.

The Washita Massacre

Indian raids increased in 1868, and those in charge of the western military outposts informed headquarters that the Arapaho and Cheyenne had taken to the warpath. Under General Alfred Sully’s orders on November 23, 1868, the 7th Cavalry left Camp Supply,* northwest of today’s Woodward, Oklahoma, led by Osage scouts to enforce a "strong and permanent solution" to the "Indian problem".

Within a 15-mile-long area on the Washita River, almost 6,000 Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache Indians had struck encampments near present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma, on the Washita River in 1868. There, peaceful Chief Black Kettle’s camp included 250 to 300 of his followers. (6) Colonel Custer commanded the troops who found Chief Black Kettle’s camp. On November 27, at dawn, Custer attacked Black Kettle’s sleeping camp to the tune of Garryowen** played by a regimental band by surrounding the Cheyenne camp.

  • Custer ordered Major Elliott to proceed with Troops G, H, and M to the left and rear position of the Indian camp. 

  • Colonel William Thompson positioned himself with Troops B and F to the right and then was tasked with linking to Major Elliott. 

  • Colonel Meyers took Troops E and I into the woods to await the order to attack while... 

  • Lieutenant Colonel Cook formed the center column composed of the Osage scouts, Troops A, C, D, and K, and 40 sharpshooters. Ultimately, this column was to be led by Custer. (5)

Over Black Kettle’s tepee flew a white flag as Custer attacked. Custer’s cavalry is credited with shooting Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman, in their backs. Other cavalry companies captured the rest of the Indian villages along this stretch of the Washita River, but not until the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa rushed in to help Black Kettle and killed Major Elliot and his men. The cavalry razed all the Indian camps so nothing but bones, dirt, and grass remained. The surviving uncaptured Indians fled south along the Washita River and then dispersed to numerous parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Custer returned to his headquarters without searching for Major Elliot. 

The U.S. Military propagandized Custer’s rampage on Black Kettle’s camp as a U.S. victory and proclaimed the Battle of the Wichita as the first substantial victory of the Plains Indian Wars. While Custer had previously earned an unacceptable reputation and retained little respect from his subordinates, the Battle of the Wichita restored his status with his superiors. It is thought that this so-called victory added to Custer's ballooned ego as a capable military commander which led to his demise at Little Big Horn.  ***

The Lower Washita River

In 1776, the Wichita and Osage tribes mostly inhabited Texomaland. By the time of the U.S. wars with the Plains Indians after the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation had well-established itself in northeastern Indian Territory, and the Choctaw owned the whole southern half of Indian Territory. In 1837, the Chickasaw Nation leased the southeastern half of the Choctaw territory via the Doaksville Treaty. Theirs was not a pleasant union because of conflicts going way back to their 15th-century history in the southeastern U.S. (7)

American Indian trails originating from all over the Great Plains came together along the Washita River. Some of the newly forged Trail of Tears trails had reached the lower Washita River. The emigrated southeastern U.S. tribes had to bear the angry brunt of the original resident and removed Plains tribes. The Comanche, Kiowa, and Wichita, plus the removed Kickapoo, Shawnee, Potawatomi, and Delaware tribes attacked and tormented the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw. and Creek in eastern and southeastern Indian Territory especially for their horses. (8)

The Plains tribes hunted for their sustenance, and trading was common between them because plentiful bison and game animals roamed the Washita River valleys. For example, the Kiowa traded buffalo robes to the Wichita for European goods. French traders and trappers built a great relationship with the Wichita. The Wichita lived in grass houses, farmed the river valleys, and hid their surplus food in caches. They dug caches along rivers and creeks, put a layer of grass and leaves down, then a layer of vegetables, and next, more layers of leaves and limbs. The highly efficient hunting tribes, like the Kiowa and Comanche, rode horseback along those waterways and dug up the cached food. Cache, Oklahoma, near Fort Sill, is named for the Wichita caches of surplus vegetables. (9) 

Some of the raiding tribes lived in permanent settlements in Indian Territory and Texas. Frontier settlements in the Republic of Texas feared Comanche and Kiowa raids. Their war parties tried to escape pursuit from the Texas Rangers and militias by crossing the Red River to the north. This area came to be known as Thief Neck. The Texas Rangers did not pay attention to sovereign borders. Indians of any tribe and outlaws hiding in the Arbuckle Mountains were fair game for the Rangers. Andrew Jackson’s promises to protect the eastern Indian Nations from the western Indian Nations under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 never materialized.


* The Fort Supply Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 (#71000675).

** The 7th Cavalry adopted Garryowen, originally an Irish ballad, as its song.

*** Washita by Mary Jane Wade, 2005 Edition; Personal Indian accounts of the Washita Massacre and its aftermath.











Garryowen Lyrics

Let Bacchus' sons be not dismayed
But join with me, each jovial blade
Come, drink and sing and lend your aid
To help me with the chorus:

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.

We are the boys who take delight
In smashing Limerick lamps at night,
And through the street like sportsters fight,
Tearing all before us

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.

We'll break the windows, we'll break down doors,
The watch knock down by threes and fours,
And let the doctors work their cures,
And tinker up our bruised

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.

We'll beat the bailiffs out of fun,
We'll make the mayor and sheriffs run
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards a whole skin.

Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.

Our hearts so stout have got us fame
For soon 'tis known from whence we came
Where'er we go they fear the name
Of Garryowen in glory


1. The Washita River and its Tributaries

The Upper Washita River:

2. Indian Positions Map Before Custer’s Attack; Courtesy of the National Park Service

3. Battle of the Washita Attack Map; Courtesy of the Army Heritage Museum.

4. Chief Black Kettle; Only 2 Pictures of Him Exist.

5. James Earl Taylor Photo: Washita Massacre; Courtesy of the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

6. Illustration of the 7th Cavalry Charging into Black Kettle’s Camp; Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Lower Washita River:

7. Treaty of Doaksville, 1837, The Chickasaw Lease Choctaw Territory; Courtesy of

8. George Catlin Painting, 1834, Leavenworth-Dodge Expedition, Chickasaw Moshulitubbee; Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

9. George Catline Painting, Leavenworth-Doge Expedition,1834, Choctaw Hatchootucknee; Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

10. Tahchee, Cherokee Chief, 1837, Canadian River, OK, Fought with Osage and Comanche Tribes, Moved to East Texas in 1840, Forced Back into Indian Territory when Defeated by the Republic of Texas; Courtesy Donald A. Heald Rare Books.

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