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Battlin' Catlin

In 1834, George Catlin accompanied the first dragoon expedition, helmed by Generals Henry Dodge and Henry Leavenworth, from Kansas into the Red River Valley of Indian Territory. Their mission was to contact the tribes of the southern plains. Catlin, an attorney from Pennsylvania, had quit his career to travel with the military and document the native people of North America, doing so with his sketch book and paint brush. His paintings have helped preserved histories during a time of uncertainty for American native people - the end of the old life and the beginning of an uncertain future.

The Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition was besieged by problems. Dozens of men fell ill, and Leavenworth was fatally injured during a bison hunt. General Dodge and his men, however, did return with some success as they made contact with the last Taovayan village at Devil's Canyon in today's Kiowa County, Oklahoma.

The Taovayas were affiliated with the Wichita tribe of the Cross Timbers. For at least a century, their largest village was near today's Spanish Fort in Montague County, Texas. Their fortified settlement spanned the Red River into today's Jefferson County, Oklahoma along the southward bend of the river. However, by the late 1810s, the Taovayas had abandoned the village, possibly due to a small pox outbreak. The Wichitas have recorded this period of their history as "the dark time."

The tribe re-established their village further west along the river at the base of the Wichita Mountains, which George Catlin sketched during the expedition of 1834. Even more remarkable is that a German map, published in 1844, locates the village in its relative proximity, one of the only maps I've come across to do so. The village is noted as "Pahni Df.," or Pani Village.

This German map most likely referenced an Arrowsmith map from the early 1820s, which denoted the Taovayas and Wichitas as "Panis," a holdover from when French and Anglo Americans traders and chroniclers mistook the Wichitas for the Pawnees and labeled their villages "Pani" or "Panis."

As depicted by Catlin in 1834, the people in the village still maintained their traditional ways of building semi-permanent settlements of grass houses and drying racks for food preservation and hide tanning. By the 1860s, however, this last remnant of the old ways would be gone. The U.S. government, goaded by settlers, ranchers, and railroad companies who desired the prairie lands, forced the reservation system onto the Wichitas, Kiowas, Caddos, and Comanches of the Red River Valley.

This incredible map can be found at Stanford University, Barry Rudderman Collection; the sketch comes from a Smithsonian, where much of Catlin's artwork is now held.

Catlin depicted the first official meeting of the Comanches with the U.S. military in this watercolor. The location was at the base of the Wichita Mountains (Smithsonian).

This 1844 German map depicts the last Wichita village prior to the reservation age (Barry Ruderman).

Catlin sketched the Wichita village at the base of the Wichita Mountains (Smithsonian).

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