Today in History, November 29: 1864 – The Sand Creek Massacre.
As the morning was dawning over the sleepy village, Chief Black Kettle saw them approaching, and hoisted the Stars and Stripes above his Tipi as a sign of brotherhood and peace. And then the blue coated soldiers began firing.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho of Colorado had settled in for the winter along a bend in Sand Creek in eastern Colorado. Resources in the barren area were in short supply and they expected a harsh time. 900-1,000 people in hundreds of Tipis, although many were out hunting buffalo that morning.
The Civil War raged further east, and in Colorado and New Mexico a few months previous. Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado Volunteers had fought in those battles, but now was looking for a new fight. After a family of settlers was killed, allegedly by Arapaho or Cheyenne, the Governor tasked Chivington with raising a regiment to defend against hostile Indians. But his regiment’s enlistment was nearly up and he hadn’t found any. So he took over 700 troops to attack the peaceful village along Sand Creek.
After the attack on the settlers, the white authorities told the peaceful Indians to encamp at military forts and facilities where they would be protected. Chief Black Kettle had spoken to the commander of a nearby fort seeking to comply. He was told to keep his people at Sand Creek until the commander received further orders, and they would be safe.
Hundreds of women and children dropped to their knees in front of the soldiers that morning, imploring them for mercy. There was no mercy given as the women and children were shot down or had their skulls caved in. Many then ran for the creek where they sought cover, or fled north. For the next several hours Chivington’s soldiers chased them down and killed as many as they could.
Seeing what was happening, Chief White Antelope approached the soldiers, folded his arms, and began singing his death song, “Nothing lives for long. Except the Earth and the Mountains.”
Chief Black Kettle carried his wounded wife and fled north towards another band of Cheyenne. He would make his way to Oklahoma, where he led his people to again attempt peaceful existence. He would live two days shy of four years more…when he and his wife would be chased down and killed by soldiers of George Custer’s command at the Massacre along the Washita River.
One of the Union officers present that day refused to follow commands and ordered his company not to fire; and tried to save some of the victims. Captain Silas Soule was career Army and recognized the cowardly acts being carried out. The next day he wrote a letter to a Major friend of his back east, telling of the horrific behavior of Chivington’s “mob”. He told of women and children having their brains bashed in. He said that Chiefs had their ears and genitals cut off as trophies, and all those killed were scalped. The crazed killers cut out many of the women’s genitalia as souvenirs.
Chivington would escape court martial by resigning from the Volunteers. But even during the Civil War, the government and the people were aghast at the atrocities carried out at Sand Creek, and Congressional hearings were held in 1865, which Captain Soule testified at against Chivington. For his trouble he was gunned down in the street in Denver a few months later. His murderers were never prosecuted.
The assault was intended to force peace for the nascent settlements in Colorado. It had exactly the opposite effect, as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and others fought a decade’s long war with the settlers, their trust of the white people destroyed.
The story was eventually almost forgotten, and was a touchy subject when it was spoken of. However Colorado eventually began to come to terms with this dark part of its history, and in 2007 the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was established, run by the National Park Service. Many visit the site in homage to the approximately 200 Native Americans who died that day.
Several of the sites I read in preparation for this posting indicated the subject was not covered much until the 2000’s. However if you read (or watch) James Michener’s “Centennial”, you’ll find that he covered the events very well, just with a change in names.