The Infamous Sand Creek Massacre: A Brief History
The Battle of Sand Creek was one of the most devastating engagements of the Indian wars due to both its violence and controversy.
In order to really understand how and why the Sand Creek Massacre happened, we have to look at the event as a product of the complex intertwining of the politics, military policy, and social climate of its time.
Overview of the tragic events
On November 29, 1864, a regiment of Colorado mounted cavalry attacked a Cheyenne encampment on the banks of Sand Creek, outside Fort Lyons, Colorado.
During the attack, the Colorado 3rd Regiment, led by Civil War hero Colonel John Chivington, killed over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, including women and children and the elderly. The remainder of the encampment fled to the dubious safety of the still unsettled plains.
What compounds this tragedy, is the fact that prior to the attack by the military, the Cheyenne had surrendered to the commanding officer of the fort and were camped under both an American flag and a white flag of peace and surrender.
Initially, the battle was seen by the public as a heroic victory by the U.S. Cavalry against the fearsome Dog Soldiers, a band of hostile Cheyenne that had been feuding with the settlers in the area.
The cavalrymen were hailed as heroes and welcomed back into Denver with a victory parade and a display of their spoils of war, including Native scalps. The praise for the soldiers was, however, short-lived.
Soon after the battle, eyewitnesses to the attack came forward, offering alternative, sometimes conflicting versions of the story. The gory details that began to emerge from these eyewitness accounts shook the public conception of the battle—especially the tales of slaughter of peaceable women, children, and elderly tribe members who were living under an American flag.
Negative public perception in the East and in Washington D.C. resulted in several military and civil investigations into the matter and an eventual public disavowal by the military of Colonel Chivington’s actions and of the entire incident.
Background: Tensions escalate for over a decade
The Treaty of Fort Laramie: set-up for conflict
The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1851 by the US government and both the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
The treaty guaranteed the tribes all the lands between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, and eastward from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas.
The treaty promised the tribes rights and access to these lands provided each tribe both guarantee the safety of travelers through their territory and allow the US Government to build roads and forts at designated locations.
Settlers were to be prohibited from claiming land within these boundaries and the territory within was to be acknowledged as tribal land.
The Colorado Gold Rush: A Violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty
The Treaty of Fort Laramie was successful for awhile because it maintained mostly secure travel along the Oregon Trail for settlers and kept peace with the tribes.
In July of 1858, the discovery of gold in the Platte River resulted in thousands of prospectors rushing to the area, in what is known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush or the Colorado Gold Rush.
Many of these prospectors eventually settled in the area, a direct violation of the Laramie Treaty.
The Treaty of Fort Wise: Escalating Hostilities between Natives and Settlers
As a result of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and the subsequent violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty, on February 18, 1861, a new treaty was enacted called the Treaty of Fort Wise.
This treaty was signed by only a portion of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs. It resulted in the Cheyenne and Arapaho ceding most of the lands granted to them by the Treaty of Fort Laramie to the US government. Additionally, it restricted the Cheyenne and Arapahoe to a reservation in Southeastern Colorado, between the Arkansas River and the Big Sandy (also known as Sand Creek).
Many bands of Cheyenne, including the militant “Dog Soldiers”, were angry at the terms of the treaty and refused to acknowledge it. They claimed that since it had only been signed by a few chiefs, without the approval of the rest of the tribe, it was not a legitimate treaty.
These non-participants refused to abide by the terms and continued to live and hunt in their tribal lands of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas. These bands became increasingly angry and hostile towards the ever-growing number of settlers and prospectors who continued to flood their lands.
The escalating attacks and hostilities between the native bands and the increasing population of settlers caused tension and panic on both sides.
Many settlers were so afraid that they advocated simply killing all the Native Americans, hostile or not.
The scattered groups of Cheyenne and Arapaho attempting to live in peace on their native land were also afraid, fearful that the settlers would attack them at any time and blame them for the actions of more hostile groups.
The United States’ response: The Establishment of the “100-Dayzers”: a Special Anti-Indian Cavalry Unit
In response to this feeling of anxiety, in August of 1864 Colorado Territory Governor John Evans encouraged the settlers to organize themselves into a volunteer militia to protect themselves and their homes:
“Any man who kills a hostile Indian is a patriot; but there are Indians who are friendly, and to kill one of them will involve us in greater difficulty. It is important therefore to fight only the hostile, and no one has been or will be restrained from this.”
Governor Evans then announced that he had been given leave by the Secretary of War to authorize the raising of a special cavalry unit for 100 days for the purpose of fighting the hostile Native Americans and protecting the settlers of Colorado.
Evans placed Civil War hero Colonel John Chivington, victor of the battle of La Glorieta Pass, in charge of raising and heading the “100 days” special cavalry regiment.
Peace Councils with the Cheyenne
In June of 1864, Governor Evans called for all tribes wishing to sue for peace to come to Denver and place themselves under US military protection to prevent them from being mistaken for hostiles and attacked.
At this time, Chief Black Kettle, the principal leader of the Southern Cheyenne, contacted Major Edward Wynkoop who was in charge of Fort Lyon. Black Kettle informed Wynkoop the Cheyenne were holding several captives and they wished to return them as part of their suit for peace.
Major Wynkoop and Captain Silas Soule departed Fort Lyon for Native American lands, and held an informal peace council with Black Kettle and several other chiefs, known as the Smoky Hills Council.
Wynkoop and Soule brought Black Kettle and several other ranking Arapaho and Cheyenne chiefs back to Denver to meet with Governor Evans, who was also the Superintendant of Indian Affairs for the territory of Colorado.
This meeting, which took place in September of 1864, was called the Camp Weld Council. During this session, Governor Evans warned the tribes of an impending surge of Union troops that would attack all hostiles that winter.
Governor Evans proposed that all peaceably inclined Cheyenne and Arapaho submit to military authority and surrender at Fort Lyon.
After the Camp Weld Council, the Cheyenne and Arapaho who wanted to sue for peace moved their bands south, closer to Fort Lyon, and camped on the Big Sandy Creek in October of 1864 under the American flag.
Wynkoop is removed from command and the stage is set for the attack on Sand Creek
Word reached General Samuel Curtis that Major Wynkoop had allowed a group of Arapaho and Cheyenne to camp less then a mile away from Fort Lyon.
General Curtis found this action to be in direct violation of his own orders to punish all Plains Indians for the violence of the summer.
Curtis ordered Wynkoop to relinquish control of Fort Lyon and return to headquarters in Kansas, to be replaced by Major Anthony. Major Anthony relieved Wynkoop under strict orders to force the Arapaho away from the post and stop the distribution of rations.
Anthony recommended to General Curtis that they not honor Wynkoop’s peace agreement with the Native Americans until Chief Black Kettle gave up all the perpetrators of the actions against the settlers the previous summer.
This demand was, of course, impossible, since the perpetrators of those acts were far to the north, waging war against the US military in Nebraska and Kansas, and were not even under Black Kettle’s command.
Chivington begins to move towards Sand Creek
By October of 1864, it was evident that most of the Native American war parties that the Colorado 3rd regiment had been raised to resist were not operating near Denver, but rather, hundreds of miles away.
Chivington was desperate to strike a decisive blow against any tribe before the 100 days allotted to his militia expired. He was aware that Major Anthony was a staunch supporter of a major war of extermination against the Native Americans and began to move his troops closer to Sand Creek.
On November 24, 1864, Chivington’s command marched east towards Fort Lyon. They were careful not to alert the fort of their approach, so as to prevent any of the US soldiers from alerting the Native Americans.
Four days later, Chivington and his command arrived at Fort Lyon. Chivington then issued the command to shoot any soldier who attempted to leave the fort to warn the encamped Cheyenne and Arapaho.
Chivington ordered Anthony to prepare the Fort Lyon troops to join the 3rd Regiment in a dawn attack on Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek, to which Anthony agreed.
The Attack on Sand Creek
At dawn, on November 29, 1864, the combined US forces attacked the approximately 500 Arapaho and Cheyenne encamped at Sand Creek.
The Native Americans of the encampment were taken completely by surprise. Black Kettle reportedly attempted to wave the American flag, trying to surrender and ward off the attack, but the militia, frenzied by a rousing speech by Chivington about the depredations carried out by Native Americans over the past summer, attacked fiercely.
In total, about 170 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed in the attack, with the remainder escaping to the Plains. Chivington and his men declined to follow, instead remaining to loot the village and to scalp and mutilate the corpses.
Of the 750 man government force, three 1st Regiment soldiers and nine militia-men were killed, and another forty were wounded. A majority of the wounded came as a result of friendly fire, due to the haphazard nature of the attack.
The Aftermath of the Battle
Immediately after the battle, Chivington sent reports to Denver and to General Curtis, claiming that he and his men had decimated the entire Cheyenne nation, along with the feared Dog Soldiers (all of whom were otherwise occupied, fighting the US military in the north at the time).
He claimed that they had killed over 500 Native Americans in a raging battle. Chivington and his men returned to Denver in a blaze of acclaim and glory after the Battle of Sand Creek and were hailed as heroes by the settlers.
However, many of the soldiers who had participated in the battle proved uncomfortable with the attack, and several eventually came forward to testify against Chivington.
From February to May of 1865, a special military committee was convened to investigate the incident and events of Sand Creek. The stated goal of the commission was to investigate charges that the 3rd regiment massacred Native Americans who were under the protection of the US Government at the time.
The commission collected testimony from soldiers and officers at Fort Lyon and from civilians who were involved with or present at the time of the incident. The hearings were controversial and heated.
Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, Chivington continued to insist that hundreds of warriors were killed at Sand Creek, that very few women and children were killed, and that no scalps were taken or other mutilations performed.
He remained proud of his and his men’s actions to his dying day, insisting that they acted in the best interests of America and the military.
The hearings, however, eventually concluded with severe military censure against the actions of Chivington and Anthony, though no legal or military disciplinary action was ever taken against them.
In the aftermath of the hearings, Evans was asked to resign his post as Colorado Governor.
Convenient scapegoat or independent aggressor?
There are many theories and opinions about the events at Sand Creek, which remains a sensitive topic for many people in Colorado and throughout the West.
Was the attack really an independent move, planned and executed by Chivington and a few other officers, without the support or encouragement of the American military establishment? Or was Chivington merely sacrificed to the indignant politicians and the Eastern public as a convenient scapegoat to take the blame for an incident which the military found it more convenient to distance itself from after the fact?
Like many other violent acts, now shrouded in the mists of time, we may never know the truth behind the speculations, but the parts of the stories we do know continue to provide fuel for discussion and contention to this day.
What did we learn as a result of this tragedy?
Please join me and a panel of experts as we discuss this very topic.
My FREE panel discussion, Lessons Learned at Bloody Sand Creek, will be hosted by the Denver Public Library on April 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm.
Please join us for an afternoon of history, learning, and reflection.
For more information, please contact me by email at The Craig Bergsgaard Studios.