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Originally appeared in Issue No. 5.



Revisiting Sand Creek by Larry Borowsky
by Larry Borowsky

Flesh and bone littered the banks of Sand Creek on November 30, 1864. The previous day some 700 Colorado and New Mexico militiamen had routed a village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, killing an estimated 150. As many as 100 of the dead were women and children; two were unarmed chiefs in their 70s, mowed down as they chanted their death songs. Dozens of corpses were left in the field, to be ravaged by vultures, coyotes, and trophy hunters. A month after the battle (three days after Christmas 1864), a rope strung with 100 Sand Creek scalps (or so it was claimed) graced the stage of a glitzy Denver theater. Bones still lay at the site three years later, when a team of Army doctors came to harvest them for a study on the physiological effects of bullet wounds.

Such grisly evidence has long since vanished, but the litter of death remains at Sand Creek. A mile-long gash of war garbage—bullet casings, shrapnel fragments, camp gear, riding tack, brass buttons worked loose from the soldiers' fatigues—mars the landscape, marking the scene of that destructive day 133 years ago. But this symbolic scar is not where it's supposed to be—at least, not where history said it was. The ground long recognized as the massacre site—the place marked by a stone monument since the 1930s—lies barren, nary a spent shell nor ration tin to be found.

The tragedy actually unfolded almost two miles away, on a quiet patch of land that has gone unnoticed since the devastation it witnessed. It was identified as the true battleground in May 1999 after an intensive five-year search involving the National Park Service, the State of Colorado, and three separate tribal entities.

In going over the battle ground the next day, I did not see a body of a man, woman, or child but was scalped; and in many cases their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner. I heard one man say that he had cut a woman's private parts out, and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut off the fingers of an Indian to get the rings off the hand.      

     Lt. James Cannon
     Affidavit of January 16, 1865

Did history simply make a mistake? Or was the site of the Sand Creek massacre lost on purpose, deliberately forgotten, willed out of existence like a badly dated wardrobe or a disgraced cousin?

How did this sad memory elude us for so long? Is it that we couldn't find the real Sand Creek? Or that we didn't want to?

The Sand Creek massacre is one of the few engagements ever formally disavowed by the U.S. military. Ulysses S. Grant himself denounced it as pure murder, while the Army's ranking jurist, Gen. Joseph Holt, termed it "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy and the face of every American with shame and indignation."

Only too true. Yet the two primary authors of this atrocity were men of demonstrated virtue.

Sand Creek then and now
Sand Creek then and now.
Photos courtesy of PBS.

Col. John Chivington, who commanded the attacking force, was a Methodist minister and avid anti-slavery crusader. Indeed, if it weren't for his unyielding opposition to slavery, he never would have come within 500 miles of Sand Creek. But his outspoken views on this divisive issue kept costing him pulpits during the 1850s, pushing him inexorably westward—from Quincy, Illinois, to St. Joseph, Missouri (where he once laid two pistols upon the altar to deter aggression from pro-slavery congregants), thence to Omaha, Nebraska, and finally, in 1860, to Denver, a town then two years old and ridden by vice. As badly as Denver needed his purifying touch, ending slavery proved a higher calling—Chivington quit the ministry and joined the war against the Confederacy. He fought with great distinction, leading Unionist forces to victory at Glorieta Pass, one of the most crucial Civil War battles in the West. This 1862 triumph kept the Confederates from gaining control of the Colorado gold fields and effectively ended the South's agitations on the frontier. Though the war against slavery was still raging in late 1864, John Chivington had already done his part in it and turned his energies to a new battle-the war against the Arapahoe and Cheyenne.

John Evans, governor of Colorado Territory at the time of the attack, was also an avowed enemy of slavery; he was appointed to his post largely in reward for his support of the emancipationist Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. He and Lincoln knew each other from the Indiana frontier, where Evans had a distinguished career as a medical practitioner. The good doctor had lobbied long and hard for the creation of a state hospital to treat the indigent and mentally ill; he succeeded in 1850 and served as the facility's head for a number of years.

Evans launched quite a different institution on August 11, 1864—the Third Colorado volunteers, raised for the express purpose of Indian killing. Anti-Indian sentiment had been running high since June, when Arapahoe raiders had massacred a homesteader and his family about 30 miles east of Denver. It was the latest depredation in an escalating conflict between Indians and white settlers that began with the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859. Thousands of fortune seekers raced toward newly born Denver along the Smoky Hill Trail, crossing the heart of Cheyenne and Arapahoe territory—a land promised to the tribes in an 1851 treaty signed near Fort Laramie.

Col. John M. Chivington
Col. John M. Chivington.
Photo courtesy of PBS.

As proclaimed by Evans, the volunteers were authorized "to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all hostile Indians." John Chivington, the territory's most  decorated warrior, was the logical choice to command this special force, which was authorized for 100 days of service.

Thus did Evans and Chivington—the frontier healer and the pioneer preacher; the one trained at saving lives, the other at saving souls—bring death and damnation to Sand Creek.

The volunteers of the Colorado Third were guaranteed 40 cents per day, plus rations—roughly $15 a month, or $50 for the entire 100-day campaign. One can imagine the caliber of person who was lured by these wages; but such individuals were in no short supply in frontier Denver. The company was fully manned in a matter of weeks and in the field by the first of October. They waged their initial battle on October 10, 1864, attacking a Cheyenne village on the banks of the South Platte River and killing 10 of the inhabitants.

While the Third was girding for warfare, Cheyenne and Arapahoe leaders were suing for peace. During the last weeks of September 1864 a group of Cheyenne and Arapahoe leaders headed by the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle gained an audience with Maj. Edward Wynkoop, ranking officer at Fort Lyon, the largest garrison in the vicinity (near present-day Lamar). 

Kiowa and Cheyenne leaders meeting with President Abraham Lincoln and the First Lady
Kiowa and Cheyenne leaders pose in the White House conservatory with Mary Todd Lincoln (standing far right) on March 27, 1863, during meetings with President Abraham Lincoln, who hoped to prevent their lending aid to Confederate forces. The two Cheyenne chiefs seated at the left front, War Bonnet and Standing In the Water, were killed the next year in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute, National Anthropological Archives.

The chiefs declared their desire for an end to all hostilities, and Wynkoop was sufficiently convinced of their sincerity to organize another council, this one held just east of Denver at Fort Weld on September 28. Both Evans and Chivington attended; neither was impressed by what he heard. When you are ready to make peace, Chivington told Black Kettle coldly, go and lay your arms down before Major Wynkoop. Five weeks later, in early November, he yanked Wynkoop from his command and gave the new man in charge, Maj. Scott Anthony (a first cousin of women's rights pioneer Susan B.), the following instructions: "The Cheyennes will have to be soundly whipped before they will be quiet. If any of them are caught in your vicinity kill them, as that is the only way."

Coming from a man who'd risked his life to end the sufferings of an enslaved people, such race hatred may seem an unfathomable breach of character. But to Chivington there was no inconsistency. In his mind the Indians were nothing like the slaves. The latter had embraced the Bible and adopted English, whereas the Indians were savages and devils who murdered Christians and consigned them to purgatory by violating their corpses. They were the oppressors, not the oppressed. The minister had confronted evil throughout his life, yet never had he seen it on a scale such as this.

On the eve of the massacre (one of his lieutenants later testified), Chivington steeled his troops with this curse: "Damn any man who is in sympathy with the Indians!" His crusade against the heathens trumped everything else, even the cause of emancipation. In preparation for the attack the colonel had frontiersman Jim Beckwourth—a former slave—rousted from his Denver home and pressed into  service (on pain of death) as an involuntary scout. Having fought so passionately against slavery, Chivington now—one year after the Emancipation Proclamation, and with the Civil War still raging—enslaved a free black man in the name of liberty.

The Colorado Third Volunteers heeded Chivington's words during the attack on Sand Creek: they showed no sympathy for their victims. As the cavalry thundered forward, Black Kettle raised an American flag and a white handkerchief to signal the village's friendly disposition. He was answered with gunfire. Most of the camp's best defenders were absent, out on a hunting trip; the population mainly comprised women, children, and aged or infirm men. George and Charles Bent, half-white sons of frontier trader William Bent, were present; so, too, were some of the elderly chiefs whose peace offering the colonel had spurned at Fort Weld in September. Two of them—White Antelope and Yellow Wolf—were killed and scalped this day.

Cheyenne chief Black Kettle
Cheyenne chief Black Kettle.
Photo courtesy of PBS.

The returning volunteers were hailed as heroes in Denver, but Washington D.C. took a less favorable view of their actions. Chagrined by reports from Wynkoop and Capt. Silas Soule (who not only ordered his men to stop shooting at Sand Creek but actually placed them between the attackers and the retreating Indians), Congress and the U.S. Army launched separate investigations. Though both entities deplored the massacre, neither sought punitive measures against those who'd carried it out. The two ranking officers of the U.S. force—Chivington and George L. Shoup—both left the Army for good in early 1865, though they did so voluntarily and with full honors.

Warfare between the United States and the Plains Indians continued for another generation, by which time the Sand Creek massacre was but a faded memory.

It wasn't until 1993 that anyone noticed the Sand Creek battle site missing. That year two hobbyists went there, to what had always been recognized as the killing ground, hoping to find some souvenirs for their collection of 19th-century military artifacts. But their metal detectors stood mute, registering nothing. They reported this oddity to the Colorado Historical Society, which decided to look into the matter. Surely the collectors had made some mistake. Battlegrounds do not simply vanish into thin air.

A series of investigations ensued. Historians sifted through the archives while geologists sifted through the soil. The Army sent its experts out to Colorado; so did the Arapahoes and Cheyennes, whose oral history of the Sand Creek massacre has come down through the generations. Aerial photographs were taken and matched against old military maps; tribal prayers were invoked, that they might bring spiritual guidance. Taken together, these lines of inquiry pointed to one very specific location, not far from where Rush Creek meets Sand Creek.

Black Kettle's letter requesting peace
Letter from Black Kettle to Major Colley in Fort Lyon, Colo., dated August 29, 1864, and delivered September 4, 1864, requesting peaceful relations.
Photo courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library.

On May 24, 1999, volunteers swept the area with metal detectors and confirmed the investigators' guess: this was the place. Bullets, flint stones, buckles, latch springs-the scatter had lain there all those years, as thick as the bodies that littered the prairie the day after the massacre. This was no stone monument, no tidy atonement for long-ago sins; it was an immediate and open wound, the weapons that caused it still palpable, the flesh that received it still torn. Finding Sand Creek reawakened the pain of it, much as frozen fingers throb when they finally start to thaw. But better to ache than be numb. For more than a century the reality of Sand Creek was hiding in plain sight—there for us to look at, if only we would. After 133 years, at last we see what really happened. It is an ugly vision; but that's how it often goes with history.

So what are we to do with this recovered memory? The misplacement of the massacre site is easily corrected—but how to correct the massacre itself? It can't be done in any remedial sense; we can rewrite history, but not the past. The Sand Creek massacre happened; we can't take it back, however badly we might wish to. Nor, as a practical matter, can we give back all the land assigned to the Cheyennes and Arapahoes in the Fort Laramie treaty of 1851— not without displacing three million people.

But we might give them back Sand Creek.

It currently sits on a private ranch, but the owner long ago indicated his willingness to sell it, provided the site is appropriately preserved and the dead appropriately honored. The National Park Service is likely to purchase it next spring, when the final report of the Sand Creek investigation comes out.

Immediately after the sale, the land should be ceded to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. Let them decide what to do with Sand Creek; they have already paid too high a price for it. They may preserve it as a historic site, set up a private tribal shrine, or do whatever else with the land that they see fit. If they want to build a factory or a hotel or a farm, let them;  if they want to live in teepees here and run a herd of bison, that's okay, too. The United States should surrender it, unconditionally. We should clean up all the garbage we left behind, then leave the place in peace.

Cheyenne warrior
Cheyenne warrior.
Photo courtesy of PBS.
Cheyenne mother and daughter
Cheyenne mother and daughter.
Photo courtesy of PBS.

There are many other places we might give back—the mounds of Cahokia, the mined-out Black Hills of Dakota, the forests of the Mohawk Valley, the chutes of the Columbia. Token gestures? Perhaps that's all. But maybe something more—maybe an open and honest admission that we are a squatter nation; maybe the birth of understanding between two groups of people who still don't trust each other. 

And the old, erroneous Sand Creek site? We should preserve it as well, as a reminder of our own stubborn blindness, our inability or unwillingness to see.

Contemplating that swath of Army trash, it is impossible not to think of the trail of ruined lives the Sand Creek massacre left strewn behind. We begin with Charley Bent, who survived that day only because a handful of the attacking soldiers knew his father. Afterward he swore vengeance on the United States and became one of the Cheyennes' deadliest warriors, participating in dozens of raids on American frontier towns and military posts. He died in 1868 of wounds sustained in battle.

Silas Soule, the captain who defied Chivington's orders and stalled the cavalry's charge, was murdered on April 23, 1865, two months after testifying against his old commander at a military inquest. His killer was never found.

John Chivington's reputation was irrevocably stained by the attack on Sand Creek. A man who had done much good in his life would be remembered mainly for a deed condemned as evil.

John Evans was replaced as governor of Colorado Territory in August 1865, nine months after the Sand Creek massacre. He remained one of Colorado's leading citizens and is today among its most honored historical figures. Both he and Chivington defended the attack until their dying days.

The specter of Sand Creek haunted Chief Black Kettle for the rest of his life. He survived the massacre, dragging his wife (wounded nine times) to safety in a shelter he clawed into the stream bank. But his dream of peace died that day. The Cheyennes and Arapahoes could never bargain with the United States again, never believe in a peaceful coexistence. From now on they must fight for their land and their lives. This they did, with increasing ferocity. Thousands would die over the next 25 years, Indian and white, in the war for the Great Plains. The victims would include Black Kettle himself. He was one of 101 Cheyennes killed in western Oklahoma on November 29, 1868—four years to the day after the Sand Creek massacre—during an attack led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.


Larry Borowsky wrote a bi-monthly column for 5280 magazine and is the principal writer for the Colorado Historical Society's Roadside Interpretation Project. He has written about Denver neighborhoods and Colorado history for The Denver Post, Aspen Magazine, 5280, Frontier Magazine, Women.com, Trip.com, and other media outlets. He also works with the Colorado Center for Healthy Communities on its publications.

Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Eyewitness Accounts and Congressional Testimonies Following Sand Creek Massacre

Wild West's "The Notorious Fight at Sand Creek"

The Sand Creek Papers, 1861-1864

Methodists Apologize for Sand Creek Massacre

Biography of Black Kettle

Biography of Colonel John M. Chivington


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