Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Sand Creek Massacre

It is difficult to believe that beings in the form of men, and disgracing the uniform of United States soldiers and officers, could commit or countenance ... such acts of cruelty and barbarity. - Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1865
It is with great difficulty and much pain that I am compelled to write about the Sand Creek Massacre. I am filled with sorrow, anger, and shame at this atrocity. The events on November 29 and 30, 1864 continued the history of depredations against Native Americans, which began with the first contact by Europeans.

A Plan to "Kill and Destroy"

"To kill and destroy, as enemies
of the country, wherever they
may be found, all such hostile Indians."
The attack on the Sand Creek camp was no spur of the moment event. It was was well-planned and premeditated murder.  
  • June 11, 1864 - Murder of Nathan Hungate family is blamed on "Indians"
  • June 27, 1864 - Colorado Territorial governor John Evans tells "friendly Indians of the plains" to go to designated "places of safety." Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho are sent to Fort Lyon.
  • August 11, 1864 - Governor Evans authorizes citizens to "kill and destroy ... hostile Indians." The War Department authorizes a 100-day volunteer cavalry regiment (Third Regiment). Colonel John Chivington is placed in charge of the military district. 
  • September 28, 1864 - Chivington and Evans meet with Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders and are told to lay down arms and turn themselves in at Fort Lyon.
  • October 1864 - Evans writes that "winter ... is the most favorable time for their [Indians] chastisement." Cheyennes and Arapahos establish camp at Sand Creek. The camp has 130 teepees and 700 residents.
  • November 1864 - Chivington leaves Denver with staff. Companies from the First and Third Cavalry are enroute to Fort Lyon.
  • November 28, 1864 - Chivington arrives at Fort Lyon with over 850 soldiers. To keep his plans secret, he stops outgoing mail and restricts everyone to the fort. He leaves that night for Sand Creek with a force of 675 men and four 12-pound mountain howitzers.   

The Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre
On November 29 a long column of Union Cavalry rode up the dry riverbed of Big Sandy Creek toward the tipis along its banks. The seven hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho residents of the camp were waking up and beginning their morning chores. The camp was located along the northern border of lands retained by the Indians under the provisions of the Fort Wise Treaty. The occupants believed this agreement guaranteed their security.

The women in the camp thought the noise of the cavalry horses signaled the approach of a herd of buffalo. Instead of a source of food to sustain the inhabitants, the Native Americans discovered a force of blue-clad riders. An alarm went through the village as the soldiers' presence appeared threatening.

Black Kettle raised the flags 
Chief Black Kettle placed a US flag and white flag atop his teepee to signal their peaceful intentions. While declaring their response, women, children, and the elderly evacuated the camp along the dry creek bed and onto the plains. Warriors gathered their weapons and younger men men moved their ponies.

As I ran by Black Kettle's lodge [at Sand Creek] he had flag tied to lodge pole and was holding it... - Little Bear, April 14, 1906
Black Kettle ran ... American flag up to the top of his lodge [at Sand Creek] ... as he had been advised to do in case he should meet with any troops out on the prairies. - John Smith, sworn testimony, 1865
Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle, Standing in the Water, and White Antelope and Arapaho chief Left Hand approached the soldiers to talk. Their peaceful overtures were greeted with rifle fire that killed or mortally wounded all of the chiefs except Black Kettle.

As the onslaught began, Colonel John Chivington arrived with the artillery at the edge of the village. Then the architect of the butchery that was to follow gave orders to fire. The mountain howitzers sent rounds into the fleeing Indians and advanced along the creek bed to continue their deadly fire.

The Attack
(Colorado Historical Foundation)
The soldiers pursued the Indians over many square miles. As the men hunted down the women, children, and elderly, order and control was lost. Soldiers died in their own crossfire. The Colorado Third Regiment, a unit of one hundred day volunteers lost all integrity and individuals and small packs of men calling themselves soldiers chased the Indians in all directions.

Conscience and Courage
Not all of the units participated in the atrocity. Captain Soule's and Lieutenant Cramer's units from the First Regiment refused to fire, stood down, and remained in formation.

Some of the hundred or so warriors in the camp formed lines to try cover the retreat of the fleeing women and children. The soldiers continued their fire into the afternoon. They hunted down stragglers until their ammunition ran out. Those exhausted Indians who tried to surrender were executed.

Groups of villagers dug pits in the dry creek bed to hide from the rain of bullets. These "sand pits" proved worthless against the "point-blank" howitzer fire. Most of the women, children, and elderly who were killed lost their lives in the sand pits.

Sacred Ground of the Sand Creek Massacre Site

Sand Creek Monument
When the carnage ended, 165 to 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were dead. Two-thirds of the murdered people were women, children, and elderly. Another 200 were wounded or maimed. The army suffered losses of 16 killed and 70 wounded.

The horror continued the next day as some soldiers looted, scalped, and mutilated the dead. The mutilations were among the most shocking that I have ever read about. After ransacking and burning the camp, the men took 600 horses and scattered the rest of the herd. They also took body parts as trophies of their "conquest." The surviving Indians, many of whom were wounded, made their way north in the frigid weather to encampments on the Smokey Hill River.

Aftermath of the Massacre

Several Native American bands were "essentially destroyed." Thirteen Cheyenne chiefs and one Arapaho chief were killed. The murders of these peaceful leaders destroyed chances of peace. The attack damaged the credibility of peace chiefs and gained recruits for the warrior societies.  Cheyenne warriors declared war on the attackers. 

In Denver, some citizens cheered the the returning soldiers who displayed their human trophies. Others were "appalled at the killing and mutilations." In spite of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War's condemnation of the attack, no one connected with the massacre was ever tried in a military or civilian court.  

Return to Sand Creek

Please visit these sites for more information on the Sand Creek Massacre:

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