At dawn on 29 November 1864, hundreds of blue-clad US army cavalrymen appeared on the horizon of Sand Creek, Colorado, home to a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans. Upon hearing the intruding army approach, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes flag above his lodge, while others waved white flags. In response, the army opened fire with carbines and cannons.
Some 150 Native Americans were murdered, the majority women, children and the elderly. Those who managed to escape the immediate bloodbath were hunted down over a distance and massacred. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off heads, scalps and other body parts as trophies.
Today, the Sand Creek massacre is remembered as one of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated against Native Americans. Here’s the history of that brutal assault.
Tensions between Native Americans and the new settlers were rising
The causes of the Sand Creek massacre originated in the long struggle for control of the Great Plains of eastern Colorado. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 guaranteed ownership of the area north of the Arkansas River to the Nebraska border to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
By the end of the decade, waves of European and American miners swamped the region and the Rocky Mountains in search of gold. The resultant extreme pressure on resources in the area meant that by 1861, tensions between Native Americans and new settlers were fraught.
An attempt at peace was made
On 8 February 1861, Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle headed a Cheyenne and Arapaho delegation which accepted a new settlement with the federal government. The Native Americans lost all but 600 square miles of their land in exchange for annuity payments. Known as the Treaty of Fort Wise, the agreement was rejected by many Native Americans. The newly delineated reservation and federal payments were unable to sustain the tribes.
Tensions in the region continued to rise during the American Civil War, and violence sporadically broke out between settlers and Native Americans. In June 1864, governor of Colorado John Evans invited “friendly Indians” to camp near military forts to receive provisions and protection. He also called for volunteers to fill the military void that had been left when regular army troops were deployed elsewhere for the Civil War.
In August 1864, Evans met with Black Kettle and several other chiefs to broker a new peace. All parties were satisfied, and Black Kettle moved his band to Fort Lyon, Colorado, where the commanding officer encouraged them to hunt near Sand Creek.
Different accounts of the massacre quickly emerged
Colonel John Milton Chivington was a Methodist pastor and ardent abolitionist. When war broke out, he volunteered to fight rather than preach. He served as a colonel in the United States Volunteers during the New Mexico Campaign of the American Civil War.
In an act of treachery, Chivington moved his troops to the plains, and commanded and oversaw the massacre of the Native Americans. Chivington’s account to his superior read, “at daylight this morning, attacked Cheyenne village of 130 lodges, from 900 to 1,000 warriors strong.” His men, he said, waged a furious battle against well-armed and entrenched foes, ending in victory, the deaths of several chiefs, “between 400 and 500 other Indians” and “almost an annihilation of the entire tribe”.
This account was quickly countered by the emergence of an alternate story. Its author, Captain Silas Soule, was, like Chivington, a fervent abolitionist and avid warrior. Soule was also present at Sand Creek but had refused to fire a shot or order his men into action, viewing the massacre as a betrayal of peaceful Native Americans.
He wrote, “hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” only to be shot and “have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Unlike Chivington’s account, which suggested that the Native Americans fought from trenches, Soule stated that they fled up the creek and desperately dug into its sandbanks for protection.
Soule described the US Army soldiers as behaving like a crazed mob, also noting that a dozen of them who died during the massacre did so due to friendly fire.
The US government became involved
Soule’s account reached Washington in early 1865. Congress and the military launched investigations. Chivington claimed that it was impossible to differentiate peaceful from hostile natives and insisted that he’d battled Native American warriors rather than slaughtering civilians.
However, a committee ruled that he had “deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre” and “surprised and murdered, in cold blood” Native Americans who “had every reason to believe that they were under [US] protection.”
The authorities condemned the military atrocity against Native Americans. In a treaty later that year, the government promised to issue reparations for the “gross and wanton outrages” of the Sand Creek massacre.
Relations were never restored, and reparations were never paid
The Cheyenne and Arapaho people were ultimately driven onto distant reservations in Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana. The reparations promised in 1865 were never repaid.
Many sites in Colorado were named after Chivington, the Colorado Governor Evans and others who contributed to the massacre. Even the scalp of a Native American murdered at Sand Creek remained on display at the state historical museum until the 1960s.
The Sand Creek massacre was one of many such atrocities committed against the Native American population in the American West. It ultimately fuelled decades of war on the Great Plains, a conflict that was five times longer than the Civil War and culminated in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.
Today, the area of the massacre is a National Historic Site
Over time, the events of the massacre receded from the memories of American settlers and their ancestors, and what was remembered was often referred to as a ‘conflict’ or ‘battle’ between the two sides, rather than a massacre.
The opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site aims to remedy this: it contains a visitors centre, a Native American graveyard and a monument marking the area where so many were killed.
Military personnel stationed in Colorado are frequent visitors, especially those headed for combat abroad, as a harrowing and cautionary tale about the treatment of local people. Native Americans also visit the site in large numbers and leave bundles of sage and tobacco as offerings.