Bernard Drew | Our Berkshires: George C. Brown witnessed the Plains Wars
George Center Brown, a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, was an eyewitness to one of the more brutal of our Indian wars.
He was among a press posse squeezed into 10 ambulances that accompanied a battery of 4th Artillery Gatling guns and 30 supply wagons that rolled out of Fort Larned in Kansas in November 1868. This group was part of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry, on its way to western Oklahoma to battle the Washita. In the skirmish, Chief Black Kettle and dozens of Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors were killed. Black Kettle, military leaders said, would likely recruit Kiowas, Comanches and Mescalero Apaches to his cause. At the time it was cheered as suppression of a powerful Indian uprising. Today, it is more frequently called what it was: a murderous assault.
"The campaign was historic in Indian warfare," Indian Journal asserted in a 1912 news story. That year, 44 seasons after the historic battle, Congress was deliberating the designation of the Washita battleground as a national park.
"The battle occurred near the present town of Foss, and there is still a wooded strip of land in that locality that is shunned by the Indians because the tents of the warring tribe were pitched within this grove the night they were attacked and practically annihilated by Gen. Custer's troops. Fully 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors are still living in Western Oklahoma who were in the battle of the Washita including Chiefs Bull Thunder and Old Crow," the newspaper related.
"The battle of the Washita was one of the most successful ever waged during the Indian war. It broke the power of the Cheyenne as a war tribe."
That's one viewpoint.
In 1957, the Cheyenne Star interviewed Black Kettle's grandson Stacy Riggs (Lone Wolf), who said: "I was three years old when my people were massacred by General Custer and I am now an old man, but I still remember where our tepee was located. My people were busy cutting and drying buffalo meat for winter use but the soldiers burned everything that we had. There were very few remained at home when General Custer attacked our village so the women and children had no chance to be saved "
The next year, the state of Oklahoma dedicated the Black Kettle Museum, a memorial to the Washita battle. Washita Battlefield National Historic Site was established in 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places the next year. It is surrounded by the open prairie of the Black Kettle National Grassland.
Fort Larned, which operated from 1859 to 1878, is also a National Historic Site.
What's the Berkshire connection? Reporter Brown (1842-1892) grew up in Pittsfield. He graduated from Pittsfield High School, class valedictorian. At Williams College, he won a prize in rhetoric his freshman year. He studied law in Pittsfield and at Harvard. In St. Louis, Brown practiced briefly then became a journalist. He worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He was on the Cincinnati Enquirer staff for a decade. He married Jennie Bowlin Jenkins, a widow, in 1870.
During his years as a news gatherer on another expedition out West, he became friends with a fellow reporter and future African explorer Henry M. Stanley. (One Brown obituary notice said erroneously that Brown was with Stanley in Africa. No, they were just friends.) Stanley and Brown worked together to obtain a scoop in 1867 — a particular document signed by Gov. Samuel J. Crawford of Kansas regarding "unsavory Indian transactions." Crawford was hostile to Indians, as Brown to his credit pointed out. But the reporter was sympathetic to the military.
Brown, whose hair was as golden as Custer's, described the 7th Calvary's departure from Fort Larned: "Next came the 150 mounted cavalrymen, on spirited steeds, each armed with revolvers and carbines swung across their shoulders or dangling from their saddle pommels. By twos they marched, and, under command of Major Allen [Elliott] of the Seventh Cavalry, presented a fine appearance as ahead of the ambulances, in perfect order, they slowly wound up the crooked roads of the ravines, and anon dashed swiftly down steep descent, the heels of their steeds stirring up clouds of dust that, despite the rains of the day before, rolled away with blinding effect ."
Brown fell under the cavalry's spell. His sympathies were not with the Native Americans. He "wanted to convince his readers that the [Indian] commissioners agreed to anything the Indians demanded," according to historian Donald Worcester.
But Brown was otherwise good at his job. "His gossipy style of writing was most enjoyable and interesting, founded as it was upon an acquaintance that few professional people possess," The Berkshire Eagle said at his death. "His thorough knowledge of medicine opened up a field in which he was the peer of medical writers."
The Cincinnati Enquirer said Brown "possessed a singularly sweet disposition, and it can be truly said of him that he had not one real enemy in all the world."
Brown sometimes wrote for magazines under the pseudonym George B. Hilliard.
He was buried in Pittsfield, where his mother still lived at the time of his passing.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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