The Sand Creek Massacre
The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864 and was one of the
most infamous incidents of the Indian Wars. Initially reported in the press
as a victory against a bravely fought defense by the Cheyenne, later
eyewitness testimony conflicted with these reports, resulting in one
military and two Congressional investigations into the events.
Starting in the 1850ís, the gold and silver rush in the Rocky Mountains
brought thousands of white settlers into the mountains and the surrounding
foothills. The 1858 Pike's Peak Gold Rush dislocated and angered the
Cheyenne and Arapaho who lived there and brought tensions to a boiling
point. The Indians began to attack wagon trains, mining camps and stagecoach
lines. The attacks increased during the Civil War when the number of
soldiers in the area was greatly decreased. This led to what became known as
the Colorado War of 1864-1865.
As the violence between the Native Americans and the miners increased,
territorial governor John Evans sent a Voluntary Militia under the command
of Colonel John Chivington to quiet the Indians. Chivington was celebrated
as the hero of the 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass (New Mexico Campaign), where
he captured and destroyed a Confederate supply train. Although the
Confederate forces won the battle, they had to retreat because all of their
supplies had been destroyed. Interestingly, Chivington had turned a tactical
defeat into a strategic victory without killing a single Confederate
Though once a member of the clergy, Chivingtonís compassion did not extend
to the Indians, and his desires to extinguish them were well known. In the
spring of 1864, while the Civil War raged in the east, Chivington launched a
campaign of violence against the Cheyenne and their allies. His troops
attacked any and all Indians and razed their villages. The Cheyenne, joined
by neighboring Arapaho, Sioux, Comanche, and Kiowa from Colorado and Kansas,
went on the warpath.
Governor Evans and Chivington reinforced their militia by raising the Third
Colorado Cavalry of short-term volunteers who referred to themselves as the
"Hundred Dazers." After a summer of scattered small raids and clashes, the
Cheyenne and Arapaho were ready for peace. Indian representatives met with
Evans and Chivington at Camp Weld outside of Denver on September 28, 1864.
Though no treaties were signed, the Indians believed that by reporting and
camping near army posts, they would be declaring peace and accepting
Black Kettle (seated center) and other Cheyenne chiefs conclude successful
peace talks with Major Edward W. Wynkoop (kneeling with hat) at Fort Weld,
Colorado, in September 1864. Based on the promises made at this meeting,
Black Kettle led his band back to the Sand Creek reservation, where they
were massacred in late November. Photo courtesy National Archives.
On the day of the peace talks, Chivington received a telegram from General
Samuel Curtis (his superior officer) informing him that "I want no peace
till the Indians suffer more...No peace must be made without my directions."
Unaware of Curtis's telegram, Black Kettle and some 550 Cheyenne and Arapaho
thought that they had made their peace. They traveled south to set up camp
on Sand Creek, under the promised protection of Fort Lyon. Those who opposed
the agreement headed north, to join the Sioux.
Knowing that the Indians had surrendered, Chivington led his 700 troops,
many of them drinking heavily, to Sand Creek and positioned them, along with
their four howitzers, around the Indian village. The ever trusting Black
Kettle raised both an American and a white flag of peace over his tepee.
However, Chivington ignored the symbol of peace and surrender, and raised
his arm for attack. An easy victory was at hand. Cannons and rifles began to
pound the camp as the Indians scattered in panic. The frenzied soldiers
began to charge, hunting down men, women, and children, and shooting them
unmercifully. A few warriors managed to fight back allowing some members of
the camp to escape across the stream. One officer and Massachusetts
abolitionist, Captain Silas Soule, refused to follow Colonel Chivington's
orders. He did not allow his cavalry company to fire into the crowd.
|Colonel John Chivington
||Captain Silas Soule
The troops kept up their indiscriminate assault for most of the day and
numerous atrocities were committed. One lieutenant was said to have killed
and scalped three women and five children who had surrendered and were
screaming for mercy. Finally breaking off their attack, they returned to the
camp and killed all the wounded that they could find. Then they began
mutilating and scalping the dead. The soldiers plundered the teepees and
divided up the Indians' horse herd before leaving.
|Painting of the attack on Sand Creek, courtesy
the Colorado Historical Society
When the attack was over, as many as 150 Indians lay dead, mostly old men,
women and children. In the meantime, the cavalry lost only nine or ten men,
with about three dozen wounded. These casualties were largely due to
friendly fire. Black Kettle and his wife followed the others up the stream
bed. His wife has been shot in the back and left for dead.
Although shot nine times, Black Kettle's wife somehow managed to survive the
attack. Many of the wounded survivors sought refuge in the camp of the
Cheyenne Dog Warriors (who opposed the peace treaty) at Smokey Hill River.
Many joined the Dog Soldiers, deciding there could be no successful
negotiations with the white man. The Sand Creek Massacre is cited as a
critical cause of the Battle Little Big Horn, as many Cheyenne warriors
simply devoted their lives to war against the US.
The Colorado volunteers returned to Denver, exhibiting their scalps, and
received a hero's welcome. Initially the battle was reported in the press as
a victory against a bravely-fought defense by the Cheyenne. Within weeks,
however, eyewitnesses came forward offering conflicting testimony. This led
to one military and two Congressional investigations. Silas Soule was eager
to testify against Chivington. However, after he testified, Soule was
murdered by Charles W. Squires. The murder was widely believed to have been
ordered by Chivington.
As the details came out, the US public was shocked by the brutality of the
massacre. The congressional investigation subsequently determined the crime
to be a "sedulously and carefully planned massacre." When asked at the
military inquiry why children had been killed, one of the soldiers quoted
Chivington as saying, "nits make lice." Though Chivington was denounced in
the investigation and forced to resign, neither he nor anyone else was ever
brought to justice for the massacre.
While the Sand Creek Massacre outraged easterners, it seemed to please many
people in the Colorado Territory. Chivington later appeared on a Denver
stage where he regaled delighted audiences with his war stories and
displayed 100 Indian scalps.
As word of the massacre spread among the Indians of the southern and
northern plains, their resolve to resist white encroachment stiffened. An
avenging wildfire swept the land and peace returned only after a quarter of
Through the years, the area of the Sand Creek Massacre has continued to be
visited and commemorated. An aging John Chivington returned to the area in
1887, and in 1908 Veterans of the Colorado Regiments planned a reunion at
the site. In August of 1950 the Colorado Historical Society assisted local
residents and the Eads and Lamar Chambers of Commerce in placing a marker
atop the bluff at the Dawson South Bend. Sand Creek descendants remain
active in tribal communities in Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming and Council
Representatives continue to work alongside the National Park Service.
The massacre site was authorized as a National Historic Site in 2000, and
was dedicated as the 391st unit of the nationís National Park system April
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America (updated January, 2010).