It took place on November 29th, 1864, in present-day Kiowa County, Colorado. At the time, the area was in what was Colorado Territory. Most know it as the Sand Creek Massacre, but it is also known as the Chivington Massacre and the Battle of Sand Creek.
By whatever name people give it, it was a horrible event that should have never taken place. It was an atrocity that saw a force of 700 troops of the Colorado Territory militia attack and destroyed a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho. The troops killed and mutilating an well over 150 Indians. And yes, it is said that two-thirds of them were women and children.
So what lead up to the massacre?
The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 stipulated that the Cheyenne and Arapaho held all lands between the North Platte River and Arkansas River, east of the Rocky Mountains into western Kansas. The area is said to have have included parts pf present-day Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, as well as a part of Kansas.
In November 1858, the discovery of gold in Colorado which was back then part of the Kansas Territory, brought on the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. As soon as the Gold Rush started, territorial officials actually tried to pressure the Federal government to reestablish the borders of Indian lands.
Why pressure the Federal government for changes? Fact is as with most gold and silver strikes, there was a flood of people from a great number of places. Yes, this including Americans from the East and West. The problem of course was that those people heading to the gold fields were crossing Cheyenne and Arapaho lands to get there.
Besides the usual problems of people who are unwanted on one's land, as with other places where miners flooded into an area, they used up a lot of the local resources such as the fish and game which of course the Indians didn't have to previously share. This problem was nothing new in the West as even during the California Gold Rush, Indians ended up stealing mules because the miners had cleaned out the area of game.
As for the requests for help from the Federal government? It was answered in 1860, when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was sent there to negotiate a new treaty. Then on February 18th, 1861, the Treaty of Fort Wise was signed by five Southern Cheyenne chiefs and five Arapaho chiefs.
For the Cheyenne, Chiefs Black Kettle, Lean Bear, Tall Bear, Little Wolf, and White Antelope were signers. For the Arapaho, Chiefs Little Raven, Shave-Head, Big Mouth, Left Hand, and Storm were the signers.
Of course the folks in Colorado appeared satisfied with the result. And as for the Federal government, they claimed that Indians who refused to abide by the Treaty of Fort Wise were hostile and planning for war. It is surprising how they would not understand how the Indians would not be happy with such changes. In the Treaty of Fort Wise, Indians lost a great deal of land. In fact, they had to turn over most of the lands that was agreed upon by the previous Fort Laramie Treaty. The lands agreed upon in the Treaty of Fort Wise were said to be "less than a one-thirteenth the size of the 1851 reserve."
Some bands of Cheyenne and Lakota were very angry at the chiefs for signing the treaty. They are said to have completely disregarded the signing of the treaty. Many made it clear that they would not to abide by it. Many who opposed the treaty said that the treaty was not valid because it was only signed by a small number of the chiefs who did not represent the tribes. And yes, those angry with the treaty also accused the chiefs of being to dumb and not understanding what they signed. Some even went so far as to say the chiefs were bribed.
At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Army organized units in the Colorado Territory. On March 28th, 1862, Colorado troops in the Union Army actually defeated the Confederate Army in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. That battle was decisive in the West as it is said to have stopped Confederate plans of expansion westward. After the Battle of Glorieta Pass, the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers returned to Colorado Territory. Once there, they became a mounted cavalry unit. In reality they were a Home Guard placed under the command of Col. Chivington.
With the support of Colorado territorial governor John Evans, Col. Chivington took a hard line against local tribes. The reason for the hard line is that miners and settlers accused the Indians of stealing their livestock. Yes, it was probably the same thing as what took place in California which I mentioned earlier. With the depleting of game, Indians resorted to stealing livestock to survive.
It is said that tensions in the Smoky Hill River country of Kansas grew. When a new area had recently opened, an area that was said to be a new trail to the gold fields, without notice the Colorado troops under Chivington started attacking Indian targets of opportunity. It's true, starting around April of 1864, the U.S. Army started attacking and destroying Cheyenne camps as reprisals for stealing livestock. Imagine that. Over livestock.
|Col. John Milton Chivington|
On May 16th, 1864, a force under the command of Lieutenant George S. Eayre entered into Kansas. His unit found the Cheyenne while they were in their summer buffalo hunting camp at Big Bushes near the Smoky Hill River. In that event, it is said that that Cheyenne Chiefs Lean Bear and Star actually approached the soldiers to talk.
Both Chiefs are said to have signaled their peaceful intentions, but both were cut down by Lt. Eayre's troops. It was that incident that started a war of retaliation.
Colonel John Milton Chivington is known to have said, "Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice." And believe it or not, this was the same man who is described as being a Methodist preacher, a Freemason, an ardent opponent of black slavery in the South.
Once the conflict started, many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Chiefs tried to find a path to peace. At one point the Chiefs were told to camp near Fort Lyon on the eastern plains. Black Kettle and Left Hand took their bands and camped at Big Sand Creek which is said to be about 40 miles from Fort Lyon.
They were told that their people would be regarded as friendly. The Chiefs were assured that the Federal government was their friend. It is a fact that Black Kettle was given an American flag and that he flew it over his lodge. He was told that by our Army officers that our flag would show everyone that he was friendly. He was told that our flag over his camp would prevent an attack by American soldiers.
On the day of the attack, most of the warriors were off hunting buffalo. This meant that only old men and women and children were in the village. Most of the men were said to be either too old or too young to hunt, nevertheless fight against American troops.
The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers who were not interested in surrendering to our military refused to be there. Instead, those Indians actually responsible for the raids on miners and settlers were not part of those at the camp at Sand Creek.
From Fort Lyon, Chivington took his 700 or so troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers to Black Kettle's campsite. On the night of November 28th, soldiers and the militia volunteers are said to have gotten drunk while celebrating their "anticipated victory." Imagine that.
On the morning of November 29th, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington, a man who was said to be a Methodist preacher, a Freemason, and an opponent of black slavery in the South, ordered his troops to attack the peaceful village at Sand Creek. It is said that they were ordered to give no quarter!
The order of "no quarter" means that they were instructed to show no mercy, have no pity, demonstrate no compassion, and to use their overwhelming power to slaughter those there. This is the equivalent to the orders "take no prisoners." Today, this would certainly be considered a war crime.
It is important to note that two officers in his command refused to carry out what would be a massacre. It's true. Captain Silas Soule commanding Companies D, and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer commanding Companies K, refused to follow Chivington's order and told their men, those of the First Colorado Cavalry, to hold their fire. Though that was the case, other soldiers in Col. Chivington's command are said to have immediately attacked the village.
Disregarding the American flag, or the white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced firing, Chivington's troops slaughtered the village. Those who did follow Chivington's orders massacred the camp's inhabitants without compunction.
Some of the Indians cut horses from the camp's herd and fled up Big Sand Creek. Others fled upstream and actually dug holes in the sand beneath the banks of the stream to hide in. They were pursued by the troops and fired on, but many survived. One witness said that most of the Indian dead were killed by cannon fire. That is especially true regarding those troops firing from the south bank of the river, as they are said to have cut down the Indians retreating up the creek.
As to those killed and wounded troops? Historian Dee Brown wrote that some of Col. Chivington's soldiers "were drunk and that many of the soldiers' casualties were due to friendly fire." It's also said that these claims are supported by other historians.
In his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the massacre, Col. Chivington bragged that as many as 500 to 600 Indian warriors were killed. I read where historian Alan Brinkley wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children. An American eye-witness, John S. Smith, reported that 70 to 80 Indians were killed. That included 20 to 30 warriors. His account agrees with Brinkley's figure as to the number of men killed. But frankly, I don't know how accurate those figures are because it has been more than 20 years since I've visited the Sand Creek site.
After the initial attack, Chivington's troops killed many of the wounded. It is also said that they scalped a number of those dead and wounded regardless of whether they were women or children. As for claims that Chivington's men plundered the tipis for anything that may have been of value or that the troops also took their horses, I could not find anything to support those claims.
One of the more horrible reports says that Chivington himself joined his men and dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts. Supposedly, the scalps were also publicly displayed as so-called "war trophies" in places like Denver's Apollo Theater as well as in saloons.
At first the Sand Creek Massacre was reported as some sort of victory over an overwhelming force. But then within weeks, witnesses and survivors started to come forward. Soon the term massacre was used and then several investigations followed. Two of the investigations were held by the Army. Congress formed a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to look into what took place.
During these investigations, a number of eye-witnesses came forward. All with stories that would today have put someone like Chivington in prison. But despite the evidence at hand, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Wars recommended no charges be brought against those who committed the massacre or it's commanding officer.
It is said that the closest thing to a punishment for Chivington was that he was forced to resign from the Army. Of course there are those who say that his resignation effectively put an end to any political aspirations that he may have had in mind. Some even say that was his punishment. Imagine that? That's all that happened to him considering he was responsible for killing men, women, and children. And not just a few, but over a hundred.
As for Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer who ordered their men not to take part in the attack, they were never charged nor faced penalties for disobeying orders. And yes, it is said that Capt. Soule refused to allow his men to participate and then Lt. Cramer soon followed suit.
I'm not sure what happened to Lt. Cramer after he testified before Congress about he saw take place. But as for Capt. Soule, I find it interesting that he is said to have been murdered in Denver just weeks after offering his testimony to Congress. Was his murder a coincidence, or was it one of Chivington’s troops who killed Capt. Soule for volunteering to tell the truth about what took place? No, no one knows.
I find it also interesting that none other than William Breakenridge of Tombstone, Arizon, fame was involved in the Sand Creek Massacre. It's true, after leaving Wisconsin at the age of 16, Breakenridge actually joined the Union Army. Because he was in Colorado at the time, Breakenridge served under Chivington with the Territorial Militia at Sand Creek. And while I know that it was after his stint in the Army when he moved on to Arizona where he became a deputy sheriff, I don't know if he actually participated in the slaughter or was part of those who did not.
The site where it all took place now belongs to the National Park Service as the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Though it was a horrible chapter in the Indian Wars, we should be thankful that Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer knew the difference between orders you follow and orders you don't.
I believe that those two men should go down in Old West History as American Heroes, both are valiant men who stood their ground. Both men should have monuments in Colorado. If for any other reason, to note the bravery they demonstrated not join in on something that was clearly wrong.