Satanta (Set'tainte, White Bear), Kiowa chief, was born around 1820 somewhere in the Kiowa domain, probably in what is now Kansas or Oklahoma, during the zenith of Plains Indian power and cultural development. Over the course of his life, however, the plains tribes were defeated, demoralized, and finally confined to reservations. Satanta attempted to prevent the demise of Kiowa sovereignty and proved willing to use both diplomacy and warfare as means to secure his ends. He rose to prominence in a fashion common among plains tribes: through success in martial exploits. From the 1830s to the 1850s he participated in campaigns against the Cheyennes and Utes and is said to have raided as far south as Texas and Mexico. By 1865 he seems to have become an important subchief, an achievement underscored by his presence, along with Guipago (Lone Wolf), Tene-angopte (Kicking Bird) and Dohäsan, principal chief of all the Kiowa bands, in negotiations leading up to the Treaty of the Little Arkansas River. Like most treaties of its type, this agreement failed to ensure peace on the frontier. White settlers continued to pour across Kiowa lands, and tribesmen, unhappy with the provision that reduced their domain to a small reservation, continued to raid settlements and harass immigrants. This situation, unstable in and of itself, worsened significantly with the death of Dohäsan in 1866. Without his powerful leadership, Kiowa unity dissolved as a number of subchiefs, principally Guipago, Tene-angopte, and Satanta, attempted to fill the void; their fierce competition set off a wave of raids across the southern plains during the fall of 1866 and into 1867. In one instance Satanta and his party ventured into the Panhandle and, after killing James Box, captured the man's wife and four children, whom they eventually released (for a price) at Fort Dodge, Kansas.
Satanta's exploits gained him a certain degree of prestige, and in recognition of his position he was one of the tribe's representatives at the Medicine Lodge Treaty council in October 1867. There Satanta, a tall, muscular man, came to be known as the "Orator of the Plains," although that title may have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to his long-winded speeches rather than sincere praise for his speaking abilities. In any event, Satanta and Satank, the elderly member of the elite Koitsenko warrior society, signed the agreement for the Kiowas, an agreement designed to ensure peace by restricting the plains tribes to reservations. The Medicine Lodge Treaty failed to resolve the sources of conflict. Consequently, by early 1868 the Kiowas and other plains tribes resumed warfare on white settlements. Fearing that isolated instances could erupt into a general Indian uprising, Gen. William T. Sherman called on Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to restore order. Sheridan's plan materialized as the brutally effective "winter campaign" of 1868–69. This operation, a series of military engagements designed to force the Indians to return to the reservations by destroying their homes, horses, and will to resist, achieved its fullest expression with Lt. Col. George A. Custer's decimation of the southern Cheyenne village on the Washita River on November 23, 1868. Alarmed by Custer's reputed willingness to kill women and children in addition to Indian warriors, Satanta and Guipago decided to surrender. Flying a flag of truce, the two chiefs approached Custer on December 17, only to be arrested, taken hostage, and held for nearly three months while the colonel reportedly sought permission to hang them. Finally, in February 1869 Tene-angopte secured their freedom by promising that the Kiowas would quit raiding and return to the reservation.
Fear of army retribution kept the Kiowas on the reservation for about two years. By early 1871, however, resentment over inadequate provisions had outpaced the military threat, and the Kiowas grew restless. A series of raids followed, a new wave of violence that claimed the lives of some fourteen white Texans during the spring of 1871. For Satanta, frustration over confinement was heightened when the tribe split into two factions, one led by Guipago and the other by Tene-angopte. Responding to the apparent slight, Satanta returned to the warpath and, assisted by Ado-eete (Big Tree) and Satank, led a party of some 100 Kiowas against Henry Warren's wagon train near the present town of Graham, Young County, on May 18, 1871. In the engagement the twelve teamsters were overwhelmed and seven were killed. The Warren Wagontrain Raid, or Salt Creek Massacre, as it came to be called, sparked a sense of outrage across a frontier already weary of violence. Responding to the survivors' horrific accounts and the settlers' calls for vengeance, Sherman dispatched Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie with orders to bring the offending Indians to justice. Mackenzie's expedition proved unnecessary, however, because shortly after returning from the raid Satanta and his followers journeyed to Fort Sill to claim their rations. While there, Satanta was questioned about the raid by agent Lawrie Tatum and proceeded to shock the agent by boasting that he had led the raid and was assisted by Satank and Ado-eete. Horrified, Tatum turned the chiefs over to Sherman, who after hearing the same confession ordered that the three be sent to Jacksboro, Texas, to stand trial for murder. Bound hand and foot, Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree left Fort Sill on June 8, 1871.
The trial of Satanta and Ado-eete (Satank was killed on the way to Jacksboro, shot down after he attacked one of his guards) was a celebrated event, primarily because it marked the first time Indian chiefs were forced to stand trial in a civil court. Predictably, the Jacksboro jury convicted the two men and sentenced them to hang. Yet pressure from humanitarians and a genuine fear of Kiowa retribution influenced Texas governor Edmund J. Davis to resist the will of many Texans as well as that of Sherman and commute the Indians' sentences to life imprisonment. Subsequently, Satanta and Big Tree were transferred to the penitentiary at Huntsville, where they remained for the next two years. In the incarcerated Satanta and Ado-eete the federal government possessed a powerful lever to ensure Kiowa passivity. To this end, Indian agents promised the tribe that the two chiefs would be released upon evidence of proper behavior. As a result, from the winter of 1871–72 through the summer of 1873 the tribe remained on the reservation. Finally, in August 1873 Governor Davis, under pressure from federal Indian agents, arranged for the chiefs' parole, a decision that proved to be very unpopular on the Texas frontier. Nevertheless, Satanta and Big Tree left Huntsville on August 19, 1873, and reached Fort Sill on September 4, where they were confined to the guardhouse. Finally, on October 6, Governor Davis, federal officials, and the Indians agreed on conditions for parole. Most importantly, the Kiowas agreed to remain on the reservation or risk the reimprisonment of Satanta and Ado-eete, and the two chiefs were set free.
Peace hardly outlasted the council, as by late October Kiowa and Comanche warriors resumed raiding. By the next summer, settlements in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle were again under siege as Kiowa and Comanche war parties attempted to halt the destruction of the buffalo herds. On several occasions-particularly an attack on federal troops during a ration dispersal at Anadarko Agency, an attack on Lyman's wagontrain in Palo Duro Canyon, and the second battle of Adobe Walls (see RED RIVER WAR) on June 27, 1874-Satanta was seen with the hostiles even though he had given up his position as war leader. Consequently, in the fall of 1874 he and Ado-eete were rearrested and charged with violation of parole. Big Tree was imprisoned briefly at the Fort Sill guardhouse, while Satanta, judged the more dangerous of the two, was returned to the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville on September, 17, 1874. He lived there until October 11, 1878, when, demoralized over the prospect of spending the rest of his life in confinement, he committed suicide by jumping out of a window. His remains were buried in the prison cemetery until 1963, when his grandson, Kiowa artist James Auchiah, received permission to reinter him next to Satank in the cemetery at Fort Sill.