138 years ago: Kiowa Chief Satanta makes a ‘Blue Duck’ escape from Huntsville prison

Chief Satanta's ghost is rumored to be hunting the closed-down East and South Wings of the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Photo by Deborah Cannon
Chief Satanta’s ghost is rumored to be hunting the closed-down East and South Wings of the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Photo by Deborah Cannon

In a miniseries full of ’em, it’s the last shocking death we see in “Lonesome Dove” — renegade Indian Blue Duck, weighed down in chains, is taken from his cell to begin his walk to the gallows. Instead, he leaps through the high window of the jailhouse, taking a deputy with him, and falls to his death. Defiant to the end, he had no intention of letting his white captors decide his fate.

But it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that Larry McMurtry — who peppered his masterpiece of Western fiction with real places and people — was inspired by a real Native American whose own death was quite similar. On this day in 1878, the Kiowa chief Satanta, four years into his second prison sentence at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, ended his life by jumping through the high window of the prison infirmary.

Kiowa chief Satanta
Kiowa chief Satanta

Satanta wasn’t the outlaw Blue Duck was, but instead of a respected Kiowa chief who mixed diplomacy with warfare, but could not keep on the right side of the white man’s laws. Described as a tall and muscular man (as Blue Duck was in the novel), Satanta was also noted for his oratorical prowess — or, possibly, just his long-winded speechifying.  Among the speeches attributed to him is this one …

“I love this land and the buffalo and will not part with it. I want you to understand well what I say. Write it on paper…I hear a great deal of good talk from the gentlemen the Great Father sends us, but they never do what they say. I don’t want any of the medicine lodges (schools and churches) within the country. I want the children raised as I was.

I have heard you intend to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don’t want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when we settle down we grow pale and die.

A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.”

Satanta made his fame at the First Battle of Adobe Walls as a sub-chief. He had taken a U.S. Army bugle and confused Kit Carson’s forces by responding to Army bugle calls with his own. There’s no word if he was good at bugle calls, or if bad bugle playing was enough to throw the U.S. troops into disarray.

Things began to go downhill quickly for Satanta after the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 failed to bring any lasting peace. When the U.S. military response to renewed raids by the Kiowa and other plains tribes culminated in Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s destruction of a Cheyenne village, Satanta decided to surrender rather than risk more slayings of Native women and children.

Placed on a reservation, Satanta played along for a couple years until resentments over provisions boiled over. The renewed violence of 1871 ended when Satanta bragged of leading the Warren Wagontrain Raid and was promptly arrested. Satanta and fellow chief Ado-eete were taken to Jacksboro, where they became the first Indian chiefs to stand trial in U.S. civil court. Convicted to hang, they were sent to Huntsville, where their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. After a few years, however, the pair were paroled with the guarantee that the Kiowa would peacefully remain on their reservation.

That didn’t happen. Further raids by the Kiowa and Comanche during 1874, including the second battle of Adobe Walls, sealed Satanta’s fate, though he had given up his position as war chief. He was charged with violation of parole and returned to Huntsville, where he would stare north for hours, looking toward his tribe’s lands. Eventually, he decided a high window and a short fall would be preferable to a lifetime in confinement.

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