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PBS Series History Detectives Features Washita Battlefield National Historic Site


Ranger Joel Shockley discusses the possible Washita artifacts with Wes Cowen from History Detectives. NPS photo.

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind artifacts displayed in visitor centers and museums? In some cases, even professional historians find it challenging to separate fact from legend, and that's the premise behind the PBS series History Detectives. On July 31, the show will feature a segment filmed at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.

Not familiar with Washita Battlefield? One of the newer units in the National Park System, it was established on November 12, 1996, and "protects and interprets the setting along the Washita River [in western Oklahoma] where Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle on November 27, 1868. The attack was an important event in the tragic clash of cultures of the Indian Wars era."

The name "Washita" is an anglicized version of two Choctaw words “Owa Chito” meaning “Big Hunt,” and is pronounced Wash'-i-taw.

In March 2012 the park staff was contacted by the producers of History Detectives to verify information on items that were submitted to the show for an investigation. According the program's website, "History Detectives is devoted to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects."

The items of interest in this case supposedly belonged to Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle and were obtained by a 7th U.S. Cavalry soldier following the Washita attack in 1868. In late April, the History Detectives traveled to Oklahoma and spent the week filming at the park and other locations in the state. Interviews in the segment included park staff, a former NPS historian, and a Cheyenne Chief.

The show will air on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at 7 p.m. (CST) on PBS stations around the country.

If you'd like to plan a visit to the site, the park is located in western Oklahoma near the town of Cheyenne, which is about halfway between Amarillo, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Cheyenne is approximately 30 miles north of I-40 on Hwy 283 and approximately 20 miles east of the Texas border. You'll find additional information on the park website.


Visiting this battlefield helped understand Custer's actions at the Little Bighorn. His basic strategy was the same, but instead of hitting a peaceful village in the middle of winter, he hit a village prepped for war in the middle of summer.

I hope this article and show encourages people to visit Washita - a bit off the beaten track but with a great new visitor center and film, and a very moving site. You can order the DVD online if you can't make it to the site.

I am from Roger Mills County, where Cheyenne is the county seat. If you choose to visit the battlefield site you will quickly notice just how beautiful the area is. Another thing, there is an oil and gas boom taking place and overnight lodging may be hard to find, make your reservations early or consider staying in Elk City or even Clinton.


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