The Battle of Washita River and the fate of Clara Blinn

October 9, 1869

On this day Clara Harrington Blinn left a note  for her husband;  “Dear Dick, Willie and I are prisoners.  They are going to keep us.  If you live, save us if you can.  We are with them – Clara Blinn”

The 20-year-old Clara and her two-year-old son had been taken captive by a band of Cheyenne and perhaps Kiowa and Arapahoe.

They may have been kidnapped on the first day of a week-long siege on a wagon train when their attackers managed to make off with four wagons.  She was traveling with her husband, Richard, who, with his brother-in-law, John F. Buttles, was to deliver supplies to government outposts.  

Clara’s parents, William and Harriet Harrington, were proprietors of the Baird House Hotel in Perrysburg, Ohio when the Blinn’s wed in 1865.  Shortly after, the Harrington’s moved to Ottawa, Kansas, and the Blinns struck out for Colorado. 

Bogg’s Ranch, circa 1860s

Richard’s partnership with Buttles afforded Clara the opportunity to move closer to her family.  On October 5, they departed Bogg’s Ranch in southeast Colorado.  It was a stage stop along the Santa Fe Trail and the last home of frontiersman Kit Carson.  

Fort Lyon, Colorado, 1860

On October 7, while traveling east by the Arkansas River, the group of eight wagons, nine men, the Blinns and 100 head of cattle was attacked by a raiding party estimated at 75.  On October 12, one of the men escaped and sought help at Fort Lyon in Colorado.  A detachment from the fort under the command of Lieutenant Henry Abell was sent to rescue the survivors and hunt for Mrs. Blinn.  

On November 20, Black Kettle, a chief of the Cheyenne traveled to Fort Cobb, Oklahoma, meeting with Colonel William B. Hazen, (right) to discuss peace between the government and the Cheyenne and the fate of Clara Blinn.  A controversial officer, Hazen later came under fire for his handling of these negotiations.   

Seven days later General George Armstrong Custer (left) and his Seventh Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s camp along the Washita River in present day western Oklahoma.  It was the second time Black Kettle had endured an onslaught.  His band had been decimated during the 1864 Sand River Massacre when U. S. soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attached his encampment.  The incident is a significant chapter in author Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

Black Kettle was displaying a white flag and a flag of the United States as instructed by Colonel Hazen to signify his was a peace camp.  Custer, ignoring the white flag, swept down on the Cheyenne with 700 men at daybreak November 27.  He later justified the attack, saying it was prompted because the chief had white hostages.  

Black Kettle. (right) and his wife were both shot attempting to cross the Washita River.  It was estimated that from 27 to as many as 70 men, women and children were killed. The soldiers burned 50 lodges, killed 800 horses and destroyed the band’s winter supplies.  By late afternoon, Custer assembled his troops and withdrew with 53 captives, 23 fallen and 13 wounded.   But not Clara Blinn and Willie.

Her remains and those of Willie were later found in the detritus of the Battle of Washita.  She had been shot in the head and Willie’s skull had been crushed.  Historians still argue over the identity of her captors and the circumstances surrounding her death.  It has been suggested she may have died from “friendly fire,” accidentally shot by one of Custer’s men.  

Her last communication was a letter dated November 7, 1868, which was miraculously smuggled out of the camp; ”Whoever you may be, if you will only buy us from the Indians with ponies or anything, and let me come and stay with you until I can get words to my friends, they will pay you well; and I will work for you also, and do all I can for you.”

Richard Blinn survived the attack and spent the next three months in a futile search for his wife and child.  In January of 1869 he arrived at Fort Arbuckle in southern Oklahoma only to learn of their terrible fate.  Clara and Willie had already been buried at Fort Arbuckle.  

Depiction of Fort Arbuckle, Oklahoma

Remains believed to be Black Kettle’s were finally found in 1934 during a Works Progress Administration bridge project over the Washita River. He was interred by family members in the Indian Cemetery, Colony, Oklahoma.

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, one mile north of Cheyenne, Oklahoma on Highway 47, is located in the Black Kettle National Grasslands and commemorates the 1868 attack by George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the camp of Southern Cheyenne Black Kettle, known as the “peace chief.” 

The park includes a modern visitor center, exhibit space, theatre and book store along with a 1.5 mile overlook and trail leading to the site of the Black Kettle village.  Service animals are permitted throughout the park but pets are restricted to the visitor center trail and parking lots.  Pets must be leashed and attended at all time. 

Admission is free.  The visitor center is open 8 to 5 daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  The overlook and trail are open dawn to dusk daily.  For more information go to Battlefield Historic Site, call (580) 497-2742 or write 18555 Hwy 47A, Ste. A, Cheyenne, OK 73628.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.