"Since the day it happened, the Sand Creek Massacre has maintained its station as one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history, a seemingly senseless frontier tragedy."
Sand Creek Massacre Project
Photograph of the Southern Plains delegation, taken in the White House Conservatory on March 27, 1863. The front row is (left to right): War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, (both Cheyenne who died in the Sand Creek Massacre), Lean Bear (Cheyenne, murdered with Star by troops near Pawnee Fork, Colorado when he approached them in peace proudly wearing a medal given to him during this visit), and Yellow Wolf (Kiowa, who died of pneumonia a few days after the picture was taken).
What took place at Sand Creek on 29 November 1864 was a premeditated murder of innocent men, women and children. Deliberately arranged – the word staged would not be an exaggeration – by John Evans and John Chivington, it reflected the racist attitudes of the new Americans on the frontier at the time. Fed by the myths as well as fear of the unknown, miners and adventurers, attracted to the area around Denver by the discovery of gold in 1858 at Pike’s Peak Colorado, held the native population in contempt, and wanted them out of the way by whatever means it took.
Not all the southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were peaceful, and those who were hostile were both dangerous and impossible to catch, never mind do battle with. They ranged across the Smoky Hill River country creating difficulties for settlers and travellers. Evans and Chivington decided it would benefit their political ends to be seen to be dealing with the ‘Indian Problem’, so they created the situation whereby a peaceful village was in a location where they would have an excuse to savage it, and savage it they did. So appalled by the prospect were some of the soldiers that they refused to follow orders to take part. The commander of Fort Lyon, Major Edward W ‘Tall Chief’ Wynkoop, who was a fair, even handed man, had been replaced by Major Scott Anthony at Chivington’s request to the commander of the area Major General S.R. Curtis. Wynkoop had mistakenly seen his role as peacemaker: by arranging meetings between Governor Evans and seven Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders and by telling Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders to settle near Fort Lyon, he threatened to scupper Chivington and Evans’s plans for a famous victory. The Arapaho moved in ahead of the Cheyenne and camped outside the fort.
Anthony, taking command on November 2nd, brusquely sent Left Hand and his Arapaho away from Fort Lyon and made it clear that Motavato (Black Kettle), too, was to keep his people away from the fort, reassuring him that they were safe at Sand Creek. John Grey Blanket Smith was allowed to leave the fort to trade with the Cheyenne encampment. He and his son Jack were even accompanied by a trooper, Private Louderback. John Smith was well known to the Cheyenne, indeed he had acted as interpreter for them at the Treaty of Fort Laramie. George Bent ‘s account refers to this as part of the plot in that by co-operating in giving permission for this to happen no suspicions might be raised in the native Americans of what was coming. However in the same breath he suggests that Chivington kept the final arrangements secret and that ‘when the blow fell Major Anthony was taken as completely by surprise as the Indians themselves.’ (1) Probably in truth his role was to keep relations as amicable as possible but that he was not privy to specific strategic plotting.
Having replaced Major Wynkoop, who was moved to Fort Riley, and established himself in his new command, Major Anthony was ready to ride out with Chivington on the bitingly cold November night. Anthony led his regular troops from the garrison, despite the misgivings of many, Chivington headed an undisciplined rabble of volunteers which had been recruited in Denver.
“This regiment had been hastily recruited from among the worst class of whites- toughs, gamblers and ‘bad-men’ from Denver, ‘bull whackers’, and so on. The men were not disciplined at all, their officers had been selected by a vote of the men and had no real control over the men. The men were not even in uniform, and they were alike in only one thing: they were all eager to kill Indians. (2)
Upon arrival Chivington had posted sentries around the fort to ensure that no-one could slip away and warn Black Kettle’s village of his intent. So too was William Bent’s nearby trading post picketed. When challenged by Lieutenant Joseph Cramer on the proposed attack, Chivington’s reply is legendary: ‘Damn any man who sympathizes with the Indians’, he shouted, waving his fist in his face. This was the demented former preacher who had shocked guests at the dinner table with ‘I long to be wading in gore’.
The volunteers had been recruited as a result of Evans being given the go ahead by Major General S.R. Curtis. At this time the Civil War was fully occupying Union soldiers, and Evans’s requests for troops to counter the raiding Cheyenne and Arapaho met with a negative response, despite his protestations. As a compromise, in August he was given permission to raise a volunteer troop for 100 days, the Third Regiment of Colorado Volunteer Cavalry. Evans rose to the task of recruitment with great enthusiasm and manipulation. A virtual state of emergency was created by a series of actions designed to inflame the passions of the populace so they would be ready to carry out his and Chivington’s chilling intentions. Businesses were closed down for part of the day, a curfew was imposed and travellers were forbidden from leaving Colorado territory. On August 23 Martial Law was declared. Against this backdrop of apprehensive excitement public meetings were held in which the ‘Indian threat’ was exaggerated and the native Americans dehumanised and presented as mindless savages. Having created an atmosphere of panic Chivington and Evans encountered an unforeseen problem. The newly formed troops suddenly had no ‘Indians’ to fight, for the able bodied Cheyenne were too busy laying in a supply of buffalo meat for the winter to worry about raiding the new Americans. The troops were taunted as the ‘Bloodless Third’ and the 100 day enlistment started to become a millstone for the conniving pair. With time running out their scheming took another twist: they needed opponents against whom to gain the credit for a victory, or all the frenzied oratory and panic inducing tactics would come to nothing. They had fuelled the hate which arose out of fear, indeed Chivington was fond of repeating the vile phrase used by many to justify killing young children and babies: ‘Nits make Lice’.
With such sentiments occupying their thoughts the regular soldiers and volunteers rode out together from Fort Lyon at 8pm on November 28 1864. The chill in the air was appropriate, it was see your breath and stomp your boots weather. First call was the ranch of Robert Bent who was awoken abruptly from his bed and told to mount up. The reluctant member of the large Bent family was ‘persuaded’ to accompany the expedition by a gun barrel and was left in no doubt that a refusal was not part of the script. Jim Beckwourth must have witnessed this scene with trepidation, for he too had been an unwilling accomplice who had only taken part because he was in fear for his life. Robert’s father was the influential and successful entrepreneur William, ‘Little White Man’, who had made a living from trading with the native Americans on the Plains from trading posts on the Platte and Arkansas Rivers, and who had married a Cheyenne named Owl Woman and, when she died, her sister Yellow Woman. William Bent had desperately tried to intercede in the current difficulties, for his new trading post was up the Arkansas, not far from Fort Lyon. At the time Robert was dragged from his bed, his brother George was living with his wife Magpie in the Cheyenne village earmarked by Chivington for attack. Thus Chivington’s plan was that Robert Bent would be able to find this village relatively easily. Jim Beckwourth’s faculties at 69 years of age were probably not up to the job anyway, but the night was so cold he ‘became so stiffened that he was unable to distinguish the course.’ (3)
The scene was set for a brutal and cowardly attack. The Cheyenne and Arapaho people were camped about thirty miles away from Fort Lyon having been reassured of their safety by its new commander Major Anthony. Ever since visiting President Lincoln in Washington and, on the way, seeing the power of the invaders, Black Kettle had been convinced that resistance was futile and that it was just a matter of time before any such resistance would be overcome. As was his custom his commitment to peace was underlined by the Stars and Stripes which fluttered above the peaceful camp as the inhabitants slept snugly in their tepees on that cold winter night. There were about one hundred Cheyenne tepees and ten Arapaho. (4) As dawn broke the new day the peace was shattered as the troops rode in from across the creek. Chivington halted midstream and turned to address his men.
‘Men, strip for action. I don’t tell you to kill all ages and sex, but look back on the plains of the Platte, where your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters have been slain, and their blood saturating the sands of the Platte.’(5)
Then he turned and led a screaming overexcited mob in a dramatic charge into the village.
Realising the danger one of the first up was Spotted Antelope, or White Antelope as he was known by the new Americans. This elder statesman of the Cheyenne rushed towards the soldiers waving a white flag and yelling to the people not to be afraid. ‘Stop, stop’, he shouted in clear English, but they rode on, shooting him down, killing him where he stood. They met with little resistance as the inhabitants fell over themselves to withdraw to safety, moving up the dry stream bed with soldiers in pursuit. Even the soldier, Private Louderback, initially running towards Chivington’s horde with John Smith, ran in fear that he would be shot indiscriminately by them, as did the trader. The soldiers did not discriminate between men women or children, for all were equally guilty of being native American. All were shot on sight, and if it had not been for the troops’ incompetence there would have been few survivors. As it was some of the Cheyenne and Arapaho managed to hide by digging pits into the sand or kept the troops at bay until nightfall, when, under cover of darkness they managed to slip quietly away.
Black Kettle himself survived, and managed to find his wife, Medicine Woman, who had been wounded. When darkness fell he went back down the creek bed to rescue her, and finding her still breathing he carried her to safety on his back. Medicine Woman explained that soldiers had discovered her lying wounded and had pumped a further number of bullets into her. Upon inspection nine bullet holes were discovered, but remarkably she survived, only to be killed in a similar incident when Custer led a cowardly attack on a winter village camped on the Washita in 1868 which Custer and others had the gall to refer to as a battle. The survivors managed to withdraw silently along the dry creek bed, the wounded being helped up the incline by those who had been lucky enough to escape being shot. They dragged themselves a few miles into the plains before collapsing through physical and mental exhaustion. George Bent, whose hip was'badly wounded', recalled:
“That was the worst night I ever went through. There we were on that bleak, frozen plain without any shelter whatever and not a stick of wood to build a fire with. Most of us were wounded and half naked; even those who had had time to dress when the attack came had lost their buffalo robes and blankets during the fight.“(6) Men and women who were unscathed gathered grass and lit it to try somehow to keep the wounded and children warm enough to stay alive. When they could no longer endure the bitterly cold conditions, while it was still dark, they started on the fifty mile journey east towards friendly camps of Cheyenne at the head of the Smoky Hill River. As they journeyed through the day, they were met by riders leading ponies. Able bodied young men had raced through the night to the nearest camp and returned to rescue their kinsfolk. Their arrival gave the exodus fresh impetus and strength and soon they reached the Cheyenne village where they were welcomed into the glowing tepees to slowly thaw out. Here they tried to recover from their ordeal and dress their wounds and recount the unbelievable events they had experienced. The troops had gone berserk, their bloodlust whipped up by their leader they had committed atrocities and mutilations which defy belief. The survivors’ grief was such that they spent several days in mourning for their lost loved ones. The warriors resolved to make contact with the Lakota who at this time still ranged this far south and who were camped near the Smoky Hills on the Solomon River.
Perhaps crucially in the recording of what happened, within the village were various individuals (Edmund Guerrier, who was married to Julia Bent the youngest child of William Bent, John S ‘Gray Blanket’ Smith, the trader, Private Louderback, George Bent, and Charlie Bent)
fully capable of relating the events in English, both verbally and in writing, the coerced guides Jim ‘Medicine Calf’ Beckwourth and Robert Bent, not to mention the regular officers Silas Soule, Joseph Cramer and James O’Connor who had accompanied the expedition under duress, the very real threat of a summary court martial from the deranged John Chivington, but who refused to take part, witnessing the whole affair from across the creek. Not only this, but so proud were the men of their victory that they saw no shame in it, and indeed the Denver's 'Rocky Mountain News' celebrated it:
"Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory. All have acquitted themselves well" (7)
The men of the Third Regiment were heroes as they celebrated their great victory and displayed their repugnant souvenir parts of the people. Scalps were hung in the theatre, for example, and the ‘heroes’ paraded during the interval.
Indeed the whole point about this orchestrated evil was that Chivington and Evans had gauged that any such action, however cowardly and criminal, would be seen as just retribution by the local populace on the frontier and would thus enhance their chances of being elected as Senate representative and State Governor respectively when Colorado applied for statehood within the USA. (Prior to this it was part of the much larger Colorado territory which was owned by the USA but could not achieve statehood until settled by at least 60,000 people). Even Kit Carson, not known for his sympathy towards native Americans, described what happened as a cold blooded massacre.
‘No one but a coward or dog would have had a part in it’. (8)
The massacre causes me to describe its conception using a word which does not normally enter my vocabulary: Evil, but if one is ever justified to use it this event is clearly top of the list. However, in itself it does not explain why it happened.
‘Anthony and Chivington have always been blamed for the attack on the Indians, and in a sense they were to blame, but the reports seem to indicate that they were encouraged by their superior officers. Chivington and Anthony naturally arranged the details. On the other hand, it seems clear that Anthony was lying to the Indians and trying to keep them in a situation where it would be possible for him to get at them at once if he wished to make an attack.’ (9)
Once it became clear that the Sand Creek Massacre, however popular with those living in proximity to native Americans, was unacceptable in the east, John Chivington was doomed to be sacrificed in being blamed for the crime. The unrepentant leader of the troops made no attempt to wriggle out of the responsibility, indeed he was proud of himself and the troops. He even tried to justify the fact that no prisoners were taken, indeed the trader John Smith’s son Jack was shot while being detained and Charlie Bent only survived because he was protected by regular soldiers who knew him and his father. His explanation, that ‘fresh’ scalps were found in the village does not stand up to scrutiny, and all the indications are that he actually exhorted his troops to shoot to kill, and that in practice this is what they did.
But two other factors than the greed and lust for power of Chivington and his eminence grise John Evans were also instrumental in bringing the massacre about. Firstly the prevalent racist attitude towards native Americans throughout the United States was particularly strong in the west. This created a backdrop in which Chivington’s rantings could appear normal. Secondly, the military, although quick to cast him adrift through the lack of discipline shown by the troops, and complying with the general condemnation by easterners of the manner of the attack, actually pursued a similar policy in succeeding years whereby peaceful villages were attacked and possessions commandeered or burned. Harney, in 1855 and Custer, in 1868 made similar unprovoked ‘punitive’ attacks on peaceful villages, for example, and they were only following the ‘successful' Hays method of attack being the best means of defence, of pursuing warriors within their villages to harry and destroy. Jack Hayes had pioneered this aggressive pursuit of Comanches by Texas Rangers in the 1840s. Perhaps Chivington’s crime was being caught. Although he ignored the instruction Custer was specifically ordered not to take any members of the press with him into the Little Big Horn expedition, and as a result the reporter Mark Kellogg perished with Custer’s command. Chivington was so pleased with his ‘victory’ that he and his men openly celebrated their action in Denver, indeed the aim of the whole venture was to achieve political popularity and profit from this in the move to statehood.
Efforts have often been made to excuse the army by blaming Chivington. Donald Berthrong’s scholarly work seems to fit into this category. He is rather ambivalent about whether it was right to attack Black Kettle’s village at all, and finds comfort in condemning the manner of the attack, that no prisoners were taken and that undoubtedly atrocities were committed and celebrated. I would suggest that such arguments ignore crucial indicators, skating round the issue of deception by Chivington and Evans and the army’s duplicity. Berthrong neglects to mention Major Wynkoop being replaced by Anthony as commanding officer of Fort Lyon because the former was committed to treating the native Americans fairly and was trying to work towards peace. He also fails to deal satisfactorily with Anthony’s readiness to participate in the massacre and Evans’s efforts behind the scenes to ensure that the Cheyenne and Arapaho seeking peace and protection through Wynkoop’s mediation were not able to get either.(10)
It has been claimed that the population were particularly jumpy about the native Americans because of reports of the brutality of the Santee Dakota only two years earlier in 1862. This provides a rational explanation for a situation in which rationality seems to have played so little part that I reject it as having any great significance. Similarly the issue of the ‘men’ of the Third Colorado Regiment preferring to participate in massacring a defenceless foe than be drafted into the Union army in the Civil War has undoubted credibility but merely gave Chivington and Evans support in realising their evil intent. In view of the manner of the attack it is ironic that the concept of Manifest Destiny assumed that the new Americans were superior to the native Americans and cast the latter as savages. George Bent clearly thought of the volunteer force as scum over which Chivington had little control. However Chivington did make every effort to motivate his troops to excess, and led this mob which took no prisoners and even killed Jack Smith, despite him being a visitor with his father John. At the very least this was with Chivington’s complicity and on the balance of the evidence it was actually encouraged by him.
By late December disquiet with the attack had resulted in a Joint Congressional Committee being established and Major Wynkoop being reinstated at Fort Lyon. He returned on January 14 1865 and collected affidavits from those such as John Smith, David Louderback and Samuel Colley who had been there.
‘On the fifteenth he wrote a scathing report to district headquarters , which was forwarded through channels to Washington in which he called Chivington an ‘inhuman monster’. He accompanied the report with the affidavits, all of which denounced the attack.’ (11)
The congressional committee condemned Evans, commenting in particular on the manner his testimony was given:
(It) was characterised by such prevarication and shuffling as has been shown by no witness they have examined over the last four years they have been engaged in their investigations, and for the evident purpose of avoiding the admission that he was fully aware that the Indians massacred so brutally at Sand Creek were then, and had been, actuated by the most friendly feeling towards the whites, and had done all in their power to restrain those less friendly disposed’. (12)
Such a damning statement did not hamper his political career, however, and sad as it is, one wonders if it might even have enhanced it. Evans, as intended, 'moved on into the future with Colorado.' (13)
The committee also singled out Major Anthony for rebuke in that he was fully aware of the above and yet he ensured that the Cheyenne and Arapaho were away from Fort Lyon. Interestingly the committee pointed out that ‘Chivington had no authority whatever over him’ (14) thereby underlining his key role in the events.
While he never wavered from seeing himself as a hero, Chivington pre-empted court martial by leaving military service. The committee reserved its strongest words for him:
‘he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty’. (15)
That this very statement of condemnation should be phrased in this way underlines the patronising superior minded attitude which had created the concept of Manifest Destiny that the new Americans used to justify the supplanting of the indigenous culture with theirs. In its own way this had created the unfeeling dehumanisation of peoples no more or less culturally perfect than themselves, only differing in the development of technology and the associated weaponry which gave them greater power. They then deluded themselves that this was synonymous with their culture having greater value, something which would be laughable if it had not had such grave consequences.
1. Life of George Bent Written from his Letters, by Edward Hyde, page 148
2. ibid, page 148
3. Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West, 1815-1875, J.P. Dunn, page 396
4. op cit, Edward Hyde, page 149
5. quoted in Jim Beckwourth, Elinor Wilson page 176
6. op cit, Edward Hyde, page 157
7. Denver's 'Rocky Mountain News' – see link to documents for the full report.
8. Dee Brown, The American West, page 100
9. The Fighting Cheyennes, George Bird Grinnell page 167
10 The Southern Cheyennes, Donald Berthrong, Chapter 9
11. The Sand Creek Massacre, Stan Hoig, page 164
12 ibid, page 164
13 ibid, page 178
14 ibid, page 167
15 ibid, page 168