Big Tree (ca. 1850–1929)

By: Brian C. Hosmer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: September 30, 2020

Big Tree (Ado-Eete), Kiowa warrior, chief, and cousin of Satanta, was born somewhere in the Kiowa domain at the time when pressures from the expanding Caucasian population were threatening the tribe's traditional way of life. By the late 1860s the embattled Kiowas were forced to seek an accord with Whites. The agreement, arrived at during the Medicine Lodge Treaty Council in 1867, forced Big Tree and the Kiowas to move to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma. Frustrated by the confinement, Big Tree came under the sway of leaders of the tribal war faction at an early age. He joined Satank, Lone Wolf, and Satanta in raids on settlements inside Indian Territory and across the Red River in Texas. He reputedly was involved in an abortive attack on Fort Sill in June 1870 but really gained notoriety as a result of his participation in the Warren Wagontrain Raid, or Salt Creek Massacre, of May 18, 1871. After this incident, at the urging of Gen. William T. Sherman, the army moved to suppress the Kiowas.

Army activity proved to be unnecessary, however, because, within days of the raid, Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree arrived at Fort Sill to collect their rations. There Satanta boasted of his role in leading the Warren raid and implicated Big Tree and Satank. Sherman had the three chiefs arrested. Big Tree attempted unsuccessfully to escape by diving through a window. He was transferred with the others chiefs, in handcuffs and leg irons, to Jacksboro, Texas, to stand trial for murder. At Jacksboro, in the first instance where Indian chiefs were tried before a civil court, Satanta and Big Tree (Satank had been killed on the way to Jacksboro) were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. However, the federal government, fearing Indian reprisals following the scheduled executions, pressured Texas governor Edmund J. Davis to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment. Davis took that action despite vocal opposition from General Sherman and large segments of the Texas population, and in September 1871 Big Tree and Satanta were transferred to the state prison at Huntsville (see TEXAS STATE PENITENTIARY AT HUNTSVILLE).

The principal effect of this sequence of events was to divide the tribe more firmly between war and peace factions. In Indian Territory federal agents recognized the danger and, hoping to control what promised to be a volatile situation, promised the tribe that the two chiefs would be released and returned upon promises of good behavior. On August 19, 1873, after two years of serving as "hostages" to ensure Kiowa passivity, Big Tree and Satanta were paroled. Their continued freedom, however, was conditional and could be revoked by any hostile acts committed by the Kiowas, even if the two chiefs were not involved.

Yet, despite the stiff parole terms, the Kiowas, allied with Quahadi Comanches, resumed raiding in the winter of 1873–74, and by the next summer Big Tree and Satanta seem to have joined in the attacks. On August 22, 1874, a number of Kiowas, led by Satanta and Big Tree, combined with Quahadis and skirmished with troops during ration distribution at Anadarko Agency, Indian Territory. From there the Indians moved onto the Llano Estacado in Texas, where, on September 9, 1874, a party of 200 Kiowas, including Lone Wolf, Satanta, and Big Tree, attacked Gen. Nelson A. Miles's supply train, some thirty-six wagons escorted by a company of the Fifth Infantry and a detachment of the Sixth Cavalry. For three days the army held off the Indians until, unable to overwhelm the soldiers, the Kiowas drew off and returned home.

This was to be Big Tree's last military venture. The latest series of confrontations convinced the army to step up its patrols across the Llano Estacado, an effort that made life miserable for the constantly fleeing fugitives. Satanta and Big Tree turned themselves in at the Cheyenne Agency in Darlington, Indian Territory, in late September. From there they were transferred in chains to Fort Sill, and on October 6 Satanta was returned to Huntsville, where he committed suicide in 1878.

Big Tree remained imprisoned at Fort Sill until the Kiowas were finally defeated in December 1874. After his release, he spent the remainder of his life counseling peace and acceptance of the White man's ways. His new direction was especially manifested in his drive to discredit the revivalist doctrine preached by the prophet P'oinka in 1887 and in his decision not to participate in the Kiowa Ghost Dance of 1890. He was among those who requested a missionary and was instrumental in establishing the first Baptist mission on the Kiowa reservation. By 1897 Big Tree's conversion was complete; he became a member of the Rainy Mountain Baptist Church and served as a deacon for thirty years. He died at his home in Anadarko on November 13, 1929, his last act of leadership being his unsuccessful opposition to the allotment of Kiowa lands in 1901. He was buried near his home in the Rainy Mountain Cemetery.

Hugh Corwin, The Kiowa Indians: Their History and Life Stories (Lawton?, Oklahoma, 1958). Allen Lee Hamilton, "The Warren Wagontrain Raid: Frontier Indian Policy at the Crossroads," Arizona and the West 28 (Autumn 1986). Mildred P. Mayhall, The Kiowas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962; 2d ed. 1971). Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1937; 3d ed. 1969). Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973). John Edward Weems, Death Song: The Last of the Indian Wars (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Chiefs and Other Leaders
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Brian C. Hosmer, “Big Tree,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 29, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 30, 2020