Posted: 11/29/2014 11:02:53 PM EDT
The American Civil War was still raging in 1864, but this was mostly remote to residents of the far west. They were more concerned with the age-old battles against the Indian tribes. Some of the tribesmen wanted peace, including Black Kettle of the Cheyenne. The US government did not want to remove resources from their battles against the Confederacy and were willing to negotiate. Not all wanted peace, though. Many on both sides were willing to kill their opponents on sight, including the Indian war element, the Dog Soldiers. Isolated parties of whites or Indians were not safe on the plains. In this context, units of Colorado Volunteer Cavalry under the command of Col John Chivington, on 29 November 1864, conducted an attack on a village of Cheyenne that had surrendered to US authority, massacred women and children, and inflamed the Indian Wars for years to come.
Colonel John Chivington:
"Black Kettle, leading chief of a band of around 800 mostly Southern Cheyenne, had led his band to Fort Lyon in accordance with provisions of a peace parley held in Denver in September 1864. In late November his band, joined by some Arapaho under Chief Niwot, camped along a curve of Big Sandy Creek, less than 40 miles northwest of Fort Lyon. The Dog Soldiers, who had been responsible for many of the raids on whites, were not part of this encampment. Assured by promises of protection by the commander of Fort Lyon, most of the warriors left to hunt buffalo, leaving only around 75 men, and women and children in the village; the males were those mostly too old or too young to hunt. Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge, as the Fort Lyon commander had advised him, to show he was friendly and forestall attack by U.S. forces.
Meanwhile Chivington and his 700 soldiers of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, 3rd Colorado Cavalry and a company of the 1st Regiment New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry went to Fort Lyon, then set out for Black Kettle's encampment. James Beckwourth, noted frontiersman, acted as guide for Chivington. On the evening of November 28, soldiers and militia drank heavily and celebrated their anticipated victory. The following morning, November 29, Chivington ordered his troops to attack. Two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, commanding the First Colorado Cavalry companies D and K, respectively, refused to obey Chivington's order and told their men to hold fire.
Other soldiers in Chivington's force, however, immediately attacked the village. Disregarding the American flag, and a white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced firing, Chivington's soldiers massacred many of its inhabitants...
In testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the massacre, Chivington claimed that as many as 500–600 Indian warriors were killed. Historian Alan Brinkley wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children. White eye-witness John S. Smith reported that 70–80 Indians were killed, including 20–30 warriors, which agrees with Brinkley's figure as to the number of men killed. George Bent, the son of the American William Bent and a Cheyenne mother, who was in the village when the attack came and was wounded by the soldiers, gave two different accounts of the Indian loss. On March 15, 1889, he wrote to Samuel F. Tappan that 137 people were killed: 28 men and 109 women and children. However, on April 30, 1913, when he was very old, he wrote that "about 53 men" and "110 women and children" were killed and many people wounded. Bent's first figures are in close accord with those of Brinkley and agree with Smith as to the number of men who were killed...
Before Chivington and his men left the area, they plundered the tipis and took the horses. After the smoke cleared, Chivington's men came back and killed many of the wounded. They also scalped many of the dead, regardless of whether they were women, children or infants. Chivington and his men dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia. They also publicly displayed these battle trophies in Denver's Apollo Theater and area saloons. Three Indians who remained in the village are known to have survived the massacre: George Bent's brother Charlie Bent, and two Cheyenne women who were later turned over to William Bent."
The Dog Soldiers gained ascendancy within the Cheyenne and continued to battle the US for years to come. Black Kettle survived this engagement, continued to push for peace, but was killed by Lt Col George Armstrong Custer at Washita, Oklahoma in 1868.
"As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their inapprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. It is thought by some that desire for political preferment prompted him to this cowardly act; that he supposed that by pandering to the inflamed passions of an excited population he could recommend himself to their regard and consideration."
--report, Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
Robert Lindneaux painting:
Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War report-
Sand Creek Papers, Colorado College collection
Sand Creek massacre research
Sand Creek documents collected by PBS
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
Our history is full of heros and villians. We need to learn about both so we can see where we have made mistakes, but to also realize that contrary to the narrative pushed today, Americans have done more for the freedom of all than any other nation in the world.
Thanks for keeping our history alive.
We visited NEAR the site about 25 years ago.At that time it was private property with no public access.
Sand Creek was a low point of our history.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee was full of those types of accounts. There were a lot of "low points" in our history.
It shocked the nation. Revenge against Col. John Chivington would come later in his life. Anytime Chivington ran for elected office, all his opponent would have to do is mention Sand Creek and Chivington's campaign was immediately tarnished. He died serving as a deputy sheriff in Colorado.