Saturday, November 29, 2014


From the New York Times:

Many people think of the Civil War and America’s Indian wars as distinct subjects, one following the other. But those who study the Sand Creek Massacre know different.

On Nov. 29, 1864, as Union armies fought through Virginia and Georgia, Col. John Chivington led some 700 cavalry troops in an unprovoked attack on peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers at Sand Creek in Colorado. They murdered nearly 200 women, children and older men.

Sand Creek was one of many assaults on American Indians during the war, from Patrick Edward Connor’s massacre of Shoshone villagers along the Idaho-Utah border at Bear River on Jan. 29, 1863, to the forced removal and incarceration of thousands of Navajo people in 1864 known as the Long Walk.

In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek. Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them. Among them was Capt. Silas Soule, who had been with Black Kettle and Cheyenne leaders at the September peace negotiations with Gov. John Evans of Colorado, the region’s superintendent of Indians affairs (as well as a founder of both the University of Denver and Northwestern University). Soule publicly exposed Chivington’s actions and, in retribution, was later murdered in Denver
After news of the massacre spread, Evans and Chivington were forced to resign from their appointments. But neither faced criminal charges, and the government refused to compensate the victims or their families in any way. Indeed, Sand Creek was just one part of a campaign to take the Cheyenne’s once vast land holdings across the region. A territory that had hardly any white communities in 1850 had, by 1870, lost many Indians, who were pushed violently off the Great Plains by white settlers and the federal government.

These and other campaigns amounted to what is today called ethnic cleansing: an attempted eradication and dispossession of an entire indigenous population. Many scholars suggest that such violence conforms to other 20th-century categories of analysis, like settler colonial genocide and crimes against humanity.

Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible: The paltry Union Army of 1858, before its wartime expansion, could not have attacked, let alone removed, the fortified Navajo communities in the Four Corners, while Southern secession gave a powerful impetus to expand American territory westward. Territorial leaders like Evans were given more resources and power to negotiate with, and fight against, powerful Western tribes like the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota and Comanche. The violence of this time was fueled partly by the lust for power by civilian and military leaders desperate to obtain glory and wartime recognition.

Expansion continued after the war, powered by a revived American economy but also by a new spirit of national purpose, a sense that America, having suffered in the war, now had the right to conquer more peoples and territories.

The United States has yet to fully recognize the violent destruction wrought against indigenous peoples by the Civil War and the Union Army. Connor and Evans have cities, monuments and plaques in their honor, as well as two universities and even Colorado’s Mount Evans, home to the highest paved road in North America.

Saturday’s 150th anniversary will be commemorated many ways: The National Park Service’s Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, the descendant Cheyenne and Arapaho communities, other Native American community members and their non-Native supporters will commemorate the massacre. An annual memorial run will trace the route of Chivington’s troops from Sand Creek to Denver, where an evening vigil will be held Dec. 2.

The University of Denver and Northwestern are also reckoning with this legacy, creating committees that have recognized Evans’s culpability. Like many academic institutions, both are deliberating how to expand Native American studies and student service programs. Yet the near-absence of Native American faculty members, administrators and courses reflects their continued failure to take more than partial steps.

While the government has made efforts to recognize individual atrocities, it has a long way to go toward recognizing how deeply the decades-long campaign of eradication ran, let alone recognizing how, in the face of such violence, Native American nations and their cultures have survived. Few Americans know of the violence of this time, let alone the subsequent violation of Indian treaties, of reservation boundaries and of Indian families by government actions, including the half-century of forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools.

One symbolic but necessary first step would be a National Day of Indigenous Remembrance and Survival, perhaps on Nov. 29, the anniversary of Sand Creek. Another would be commemorative memorials, not only in Denver and Evanston but in Washington, too. We commemorate “discovery” and “expansion” with Columbus Day and the Gateway arch, but nowhere is there national recognition of the people who suffered from those “achievements” — and have survived amid continuing cycles of colonialism.

Another informative essay by Allen Best from the Boulder Daily Camera:

On the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, an effort is underway to scrub Colorado maps of the name Chivington. Longmont did so in 2004, replacing Chivington Drive with the cheerier name of Sunrise.

But there's still a Chivington in Colorado. Located near the massacre site 180 miles southeast of Denver, it consists of a handful of buildings, most of them losing steadily to the winds, the sun, and gravity itself. Even the post office was abandoned in the 1980s. The road sign looks sturdy enough, but a petition launched at by Victoria S. LeftHand of St. Louis would assign a new, undetermined name.

John Chivington, the namesake, lingers as one of Colorado's most perplexing, heartburn-inducing individuals. Arriving in the Colorado gold camps as a Methodist preacher, the stocky, 250-pound Chivington was an ardent abolitionist, believing fervently in the wrongness of human slavery. In New Mexico, at the Battle of La Glorietta Pass in 1862, he became a hero as leader of the Colorado militia that scuttled Texan Confederates who intended to gain control of the Rocky Mountain gold camps.

Conflicts with tribes of the Great Plains presented a more nuanced challenge. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe, new to the region themselves as of about 1820, led nomadic lives revolving around movement of bison herds and bloody skirmishes with other tribes, the Utes and the Pawnees. In contrast, they amiably accepted fur traders in places like Bent's Fort and Fort Lupton and, for a time, did so with the gold-seekers.

It's hard to pin down who flung the first stone. Perhaps conflict was inevitable as up to 100,000 people crisscrossed the Great Plains. A Sioux massacre of settlers in Minnesota heightened tensions. In Denver, ruffians raped Indian women. The U.S. Army set out to punish wrong-doers. Cheyenne and Arapahoe responded with revenge. By 1864, there was enough fear that settlers in Boulder had dug trenches. Display of the mutilated bodies of the Hungate family, massacred 40 miles east of Denver by a band of young Arapahoe men, put frontier camps even more on edge.

Fear abounded. So did hunger. Wagons hauling supplies were less secure, while Indians found their nomadic hunting constricted.

Chivington may have hoped that another major military victory would send him to Congress. What the historical record more clearly documents is that he had no patience for efforts to secure a peaceful outcome. As the top military commander in Colorado, he wanted to teach the Cheyenne and Arapahoe a lesson before the 100-day enlistments of many of his soldiers expired. For this he chose an easy target, what one of his subordinates later called the "only peaceful Indians in the country."

Col. John M. Chivington became Colorado’s most controversial villain after the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.
Col. John M. Chivington became Colorado's most controversial villain after the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. (historical / The Denver Post)
After an all-night, 40-mile march from Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River, the 700 cavalrymen attacked the lodges of Arapahoe and Cheyenne at dawn on Nov. 29, 1864. By one estimate, 150 Indians, including women and children, died that day. They had assembled at Sand Creek believing they had been assured safety through the winter.

Several people had led them to believe in a peaceful outcome. One was Edward "Ned" Wynkoop, who is remembered by Wynkoop Street in Denver's LoDo district. He was the first sheriff for Denver, a bit of a rowdy himself when young, but by 1864 an Army commander at Fort Lyon. While he harbored deep prejudice against the natives of the plains as "childlike," circumstance and courage had allowed him to glimpse their humanity.

Chief Little Robe’s family were among those at the Sand Creek Massacre. Little Robe’s father, also called Little Robe, was among the dead.
Chief Little Robe's family were among those at the Sand Creek Massacre. Little Robe's father, also called Little Robe, was among the dead. (Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy Collection / The Denver Post)
Wynkoop led several of the Indians to Denver to talk with Chivington and territorial Gov. John Evans in September 1864. He had pledged safe harbor in southeast Colorado through the winter. Deemed entirely too conciliatory with the Indians by his military superior, he was reassigned to a post in Kansas.

John Evans is remembered across the Colorado landscape, with a mountain, a town, and an avenue in Denver, for starters. If his life was one of many good deeds, his leadership in the events leading up to Sand Creek was questionable. He saw punishment, not peace, as the only possible outcome, and was guided by fear, not understanding, tacitly allowing the injustice of Sand Creek to occur. Later, after the evidence was presented to Congress, he was replaced as governor.

Perhaps more damning, in September, the University of Denver — which Evans founded — released a scathing report that finds he created the conditions that led to the Sand Creek Massacre.

In Colorado Springs, we have a street and school, Irving Howbert Elementary, named for an early settler — and a Sand Creek soldier who steadfastly defended the attack as justified. In Trinidad we have Sopris Road, named after E.B. Sopris, also an unapologetic participant in the killing.

From southeast Colorado, we have Prowers County, named after local rancher John Wesley Prowers, who Chivington arrested as a precaution. He feared Prowers would alert the Indians to the militia's impending attack. They were probably right. His father-in-law, Long Bear, was a Cheyenne who was killed in the massacre.

Near the massacre site east of Eads, we have White Antelope Road, for a Cheyenne chief killed at Sand Creek. He had been to Washington D.C. the year before to meet with Abraham Lincoln. Another victim was Left Hand, whose name lingers in the creek that trickles from the foothills near Boulder. He was also called Niwot.

For the last two Novembers, I have traveled to Sand Creek, to feel the cold bite of dawn, to pinch the soil where this blood ran, to whiff the acrid scent of burning sage offered by the Cheyenne who return each year to remember. Last year, at the fairgrounds pavilion in Eads, I ate turkey provided all of us by local residents.

Sand Creek poses so many questions. Could American settlement occurred without these and the other grisly killings? What does it tell us about our wars today, our fears and hatreds? When revenge and punishment are the only answers, what does that gain us?

And how do you explain how individuals reacted differently? Chivington was an ardent abolitionist, and so was his one-time chief aide, Silas Soule, who in the run-up to the Civil War had conspired to free John Brown before his hanging at Harper's Ferry. But Soule objected strenuously against the impending attack of Sand Creek as unjustified, while Chivington called for blood to flow, be that of women and children.

Jeff C. Campbell, an independent historical investigator who lives near Sand Creek, says the difference was that Soule and Wynkoop, who had also tried to look for avenues to peace, had spent time with the Indians. Doing so was an epiphany, seeing them as people. "They understood them as human beings," he says.

Silas Soule died soon after Sand Creek. After testifying against Chivington, he was killed one night in April 1865 in Denver, possibly as retribution for his testimony. In 2012, a plaque was erected on the building at the corner of 15th and Arapahoe to designate the location of his death. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along the South Platte River.

Black Kettle was another would-be agent of peace. He had imperfectly tried to lead the Cheyenne whom he influenced to figure out a way to accommodate themselves to the vast changes underway on the Great Plains. At Sand Creek, as the cavalry prepared to attack, he had ran from his lodge and hoisted an American flag while assuring his followers that they would not be harmed. Somehow he survived Sand Creek and rescued his wife, who had been shot several times, but also survived.
Together, they died almost four years to the day later at an encampment along the Washita River in Oklahoma. Leading the attack was Gen. George Custer.

My own small proposal to effect healing involves remembering Silas Soule and Black Kettle. With our highway names, we remember Gerald Ford through Vail, Ronald Reagan through Colorado Springs, and the 10th Mountain Division from Minturn to Leadville.

 Might Colorado do something similar, but recognizing the agents of peace, putting the names of Black Kettle and Silas Soule on U.S. 287?

That highway passes near the massacre site and through Eads, continuing to Denver as Colfax Avenue. At Federal Boulevard it strikes north into Wyoming. Once in Wyoming, a portion of 287 is called the Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Trail on its way to the Wind River Reservation.

Waging peace is such a difficult process. That's the most vivid lesson that emerges from the atrocities and injustice of Sand Creek.

This essay appeared first in the Colorado Independent. Allen Best is a fourth-generation Coloradan who reports on water, energy and other issues in Colorado, the Great Plains and the Intermountain West. He blogs at


Bizzy Brain said...

Chivington was quite the oddball. He was vehemently anti-slavery, was a "man of God" (Methodist preacher) and a successful military officer, yet had an obsessive hate of Native Americans, labeling them ALL heathen savages. Be interesting to read some psychologist's take on his behavior. He was ambitious and passionate and probably a sociopath as he definitely lacked a conscience. Later in life he beat up his third wife because she discovered he forged her signature on a promissory note. Smooth move, Reverend.

Sick Sigma Sez said...

If they would ever make a movie of Chivington, I would cast Alec Baldwin as the good reverend. Alec wouldn't even have to act, just be himself.

DES said...

Interesting BB. And good call on the casting SSS! Yesterday the CO Gov gave an official apology for the massacre.

GCM said...

Thanks for this, Doug. The other Sunday, Kim Schmidt, who has been publishing on Southern Cheyenne women's culture and history, reminded us of the Sand Creek Massacre, and how Black Kettle's peace-making tradition has been carried on by a Cheyenne Mennonite pastor, Lawrence Hart.

The unexpected adjunct is of course that my Amish grandparents homesteaded in 1909 about 30 miles north of Sand Creek, near Wild Horse in Cheyenne County.

DES said...

You are welcome - G. And thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. I have read a bit about your grandparents on your blog - interesting stuff. Also interesting how many little burgs named Yoder there are out this way!