Bill Kroger 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The Trial of Satanta and Big Tree On May 18, 1871, a wagon train led by Henry Warren was traveling down the Jacksboro- Belknap Road when it encountered a large group of Kiowa and Comanche warriors. The wagon train shifted into a ring formation, with all the mules put into the center of the ring. The warriors killed and mutilated seven of the waggoners. Five men managed to escape. A few months later, three of the leaders involved in the massacre, Satanta, Satank, and Addo-Etta (Big Tree), were arrested at Fort Sill after Satanta foolishly bragged about his involvement in the incident. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who was visiting at the base, ordered that the chiefs be delivered to Jacksboro in Jack County, where they had been indicted in the district court for these killings. During the journey, Satank tried to escape and was shot and killed. District Court Judge Charles Soward appointed two lawyers, Thomas Ball and Joseph Woolfolk, to represent the two surviving Kiowa chiefs. Despite able representation by their counsel, the war chiefs were formally indicted on July 1, 1871; their trial began on July 5; and three days later they were convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced them to death. The transcripts and other records of the trial were lost shortly after the trial, and it was thought that no records existed of the proceedings.1 However, with the help of the Jack County District Clerk Tracie Pippin, the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force found the minute book that contains the records of the indictment, trial, jury verdict, and post-trial proceedings. The minute book reflects that after the verdict, the court ordered that Satanta “be taken by the Sheriff of Jack County and hanged until he is dead, dead, dead and God have mercy on his soul.”2 A similar order was entered for Big Tree. The records also show that the chiefs’ lawyers made real efforts to defend them — both lawyers moved for new trials for their clients.3 Most important, despite the court’s pronouncements, Judge Soward showed concern about the trial’s outcome. To buy time, he set the hangings for Sept. 1, two months after the convictions, at “some convenient place near the courthouse at the town of Jacksboro.” Then, he wrote Gov. Edmund J. Davis, encouraging him to commute the sentence to life in prison.4 Gov. Davis agreed. The minute book contains the Aug. 2, 1871, commutation. The governor thought that a “commutation of said sentence to imprisonment for life will be more likely to operate as a restraint upon others of the tribe to which these [i]ndians belong” and that “the killing for which these Indians were sentenced can hardly be considered on a just consideration of the amicus, as coming within the technical crimes of murder under the statute of the State, but rather as an act of Savage Warfare.”5 The Jack County District Court honored the commutation, and the two chiefs were delivered to Huntsville. Somewhat surprisingly, Texas authorities released Satanta and Big Tree on parole in 1873, also on the assumption that this would help pacify the Kiowas. However, a year after their release, Satanta was arrested for parole violations due to his participation in the attack on Adobe Walls. One night, he crawled through a high window of the Huntsville facility and leaped to his death on the bricks of the prison yard. This scene later became fictionalized in the account of the death of Chief Blue Duck in the book Lonesome Dove . By Bill Kroger Notes 1. Smythe, Historical Sketch of Parker County and Weatherford, Texas, p. 274 (1877). This remarkable volume contains what may be the closest thing to a transcript of the trial, although some newspaper accounts may be found. The author states that “every effort” was made to obtain copies of court records from the trial, but the district clerk wrote that “the papers in the Satanta case have been lost and cannot be found.” 2. Jack County Minute Book at 237–238. 3. This observation is consistent with Smythe’s account: “The prisoners were ably represented by Messrs. Ball and Woolfolk, both of whom were faithful to their clients. They took advantage of every legal technicality, and conducted their defense with excellent judgment and decided impressiveness.” Id. at 266. 4. The letter is reproduced in whole in Smythe’s book. Judge Soward explained that he agreed with the Indian Agent Lowrie Tatem that the verdict would hinder efforts to get the Indians to come to the reservations. Judge Soward explained that he would have petitioned the governor to commute the sentences himself, “were it not that I know a great majority of the people on the frontier demand their execution.” Id. at 276. 5. Jack County Minute Book at 243.
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