At the Sand Creek Massacre

General History of the Western Indian Tribes 1851-1870 – Indian Wars

Up to 1851, the immense uninhabited plains east of the Rocky Mountains were admitted to be Indian Territory, and numerous tribes roamed from Texas and Mexico to the Northern boundary of the United States. Then came the discovery of gold in California, drawing a tide of emigration across this wide reservation, and it became necessary, by treaty with the Indians, to secure a broad highway to the Pacific shore. By these treaties the Indians were restricted to certain limits, but with the privilege of ranging, for hunting purposes, over the belt thus re-reserved as a route of travel. The United States, also, agreed to pay the Indians 850,000 per annum, for fifteen years, in consideration of this right. The boundaries assigned, by these treaties to the Cheyennes and Arrapahoes, included the greater part of the present Colorado Territory, while the Sioux and Crows were to occupy the land of the Powder River route. After a few years gold was discovered in Colorado, upon the Indian reservation, settlers poured in, and, after the lands were mostly taken up by them, another treaty was made, February 18th, 1861, to secure them in peaceful possession. By this compact the Indians relinquished a large tract of land, and agreed to confine themselves to a small district upon both sides of the Arkansas River and along the northern boundary of New Mexico; while the United States was to furnish them protection; pay an annuity of $30,000 to each tribe for fifteen years, and provide stock and agricultural implements for those who desired to adopt civilized modes of life. Until April, 1864, no disturbances had occurred between these Indians and the white settlers of Colorado; but, in that summer, complaints were made of Indian depredations and robberies and Col. Chivington, in command at Denver, allowed a subordinate officer to pursue the Indians; the Cheyenne Village, of Cedar Bluffs, was attacked and twenty-six Indians killed and thirty wounded. Petty hostilities followed during the summer, but the Indians professed a desire for peace, and applied to Major Wynkoop, the commandant at Fort Lyon, to negotiate in their behalf for peace. With this design, and by his command, they collected to the number of five-hundred men, women and children about the fort, and were assured of safety but while there, were attacked by Col. Chivington and slaughtered without mercy. This disgraceful butchery, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, of Nov, 29th, 1864, was followed by a war, which drew off eight-thousand men from the war then waging in the United States, and consumed $30,000,000 of money with the pitiful result of only killing fifteen or twenty Indians during the entire campaign. Other means failing to restore peace, commissioners were appointed to negotiate a treaty; and, in October 1865, one was effected with the chiefs of the CheyennesArrapahoes and other neighboring tribes, by which they relinquished their reservation in Arkansas for one in Kansas, with privilege of hunting over their old grounds. As amended, during its ratification by the Senate, this treaty excluded these tribes from the State of Kansas, leaving them in reality nothing but hunting privileges in the unsettled plains but despite this, the Indians faithfully kept their treaty stipulations through the year 1866.

During the fifteen years for which annuities had been promised them, by the treaty of July 23, 1851, the Sioux and Crows, to the north of the great line of overland travel were unmolested by the whites; but the Crows had been driven into Montana, by the Sioux, and the latter now inhabited the whole section originally assigned to both nations. The territory to the South had become populous with emigration, which was crowding towards them, also, from the east, when rumors of rich mines in Montana set the fatal stream of white men across their lands, narrowing down their hunting grounds to the valley of Powder River; their annuity from the United States had ceased, and their prospects of subsistence became more precarious. At this Juncture several military posts were erected along a new route of travel to Montana, and Forts Reno, Phil, Kearny and C. F. Smith were garrisoned. The Indians protested, then resisted and war raged again during the summer and fall of 1866, culminating in the massacre of a detachment of soldiers at Fort Phil. Kearny, Dec. 21st. As, with these Sioux, these was a Cheyenne tribe connected with the Cheyennes in the South, apprehensions were felt that war would be kindled along the line of the Union P. R. R; and orders were issued forbidding the sale of arms and ammunition to the Indians around Omaha. This only fanned the excitement the Sioux and Cheyennes refused to listen to any propositions for peace until troops were withdrawn and the CheyennesArrapahoes and kindred tribes of Kiowa, Apaches, etc., still brooded over the affair at Sand Creek, and muttered ominously of a general war in the spring.

At the Sand Creek Massacre
Depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre by Cheyenne eyewitness and artist Howling Wolf in 1875

The United States forces at this time in the Indian territories were under command of Lieut. Gen. William T. Sherman, of the Military Division of Missouri which was divided into three Departments; viz, Dakotah, (north) under Gen. A. H. Terry; Platte, (middle,) under Gen. C. C. Augur, and Missouri, (south) under Gen. W. S. Hancock. In the northern district were about eighteen hundred warriors, CheyennesArrapahoes and other tribes; and in the south some five hundred Arrapahoes and South Cheyenne warriors. During the winter of 1866, surveying parties on the U. P. R. R. were warned to stop; depredations were committed on stage and express lines, and several murders and personal outrages took place. Early, therefore, in the spring of 1867, Gen. Hancock determined upon an expedition to the tribes in the South, to hold councils and ascertain the state of feeling among them. He set out with fifteen hundred troops, reached Fort Larned, April 7th, and on 13th went to Pawnee Fork to meet a large body of Cheyennes (one thousand or fifteen hundred) encamped at a village there. He was met by the chiefs, who begged him not to approach nearer, as the women and children were afraid of another Sand Creek affair. He persisted, however, and on his approach, the village was abandoned the fleeing Indians capturing and destroying several stations, stealing property &c. Hearing of these outrages, Gen. Hancock ordered the burning of their village, of some three hundred lodges, and destroyed property to the amount of $100,000. He then turned west, and hearing of Indian depredations on the Smoky Hill route on P. B. B. , sent Gen. Ouster with four hundred men that way. Ouster met Pawnee Killer, the leader of the hostile bands of that section, but failed to effect any negotiations for peace; depredations on ranches, mail stations and even on forts were kept up so that he found himself compelled to keep on the offensive, and had several slight skirmishes (wherever he could force the Indians to a fight) on the route to Fort Wallace, near which station, a wagon-train was fiercely attacked by five hundred Indians (June 26th,) and finally got off with a loss of twelve men. Gen. Ouster was soon after recalled from his reconnaissance as, also, was Gen. Hancock (whose expedition produced no very definite results) who was sent to New Orleans, his place being filled by Gen. Sheridan.

The burning of Pawnee Fork village, had greatly exasperated the Indians, and their depredations, during the summer of 1867, much retarded operations on the P. B. B; travel being quite dangerous. Early in August, a freight train from Omaha (in Nebraska) was thrown off the track near Plum Creek station by impediments placed there by Indians; all on board, but one, murdered and cars and merchandise set on fire. Gen. Ouster promptly sent a small detachment of troops to the scene, and, on August 16th, they fell in with five-hundred Sioux, whom they engaged and defeated with the aid of some friendly Pawnees killing about fifty of them.

Chief Black Kettle
Chief Black Kettle

The greater portion of Gen. Augur‘s force (two thousand), had been sent to reconnoiter about the sources of the Powder and Yellowstone Rivers. On the 2nd of August, near Fort Phil Kearney, a body of wood-cutters, with an escort of fifty soldiers, and about the same number of citizens, were set upon by a large body of Indians, and a terrible fight ensued, until relief came in the shape of two companies of federal troops and a howitzer, when the Indians were driven off with a loss of fifty or sixty killed and a larger number wounded. Other slight affairs followed but military measures failed, and as Gen. Sherman said ”fifty Indians could checkmate three thousand soldiers,” and by his recommendation, a commission, composed of civilians and military men, was appointed by act of Congress, March 29th, to examine into and remove the causes of war; to secure, if possible, the safety of the frontier settlements, and of operations in the construction of the Pacific Railroads, and to suggest and inaugurate some plan for the civilization of the Indians. The commission entered vigorously upon their duties, but the rest of the year was spent in fruitless endeavors to bring the Indian tribes to any general understanding, Red Cloud, the principal chief of the Sioux persistently refusing to listen to any peace propositions saying that war would cease whenever the troops should be withdrawn from the Powder River trail, and their hunting grounds left free to them again. The Commissioners having no power to do this, urged, a truce, and another meeting during next summer and autumn, and this was finally reluctantly agreed to. These efforts towards peace were resumed and continued through the spring and summer of 1868, resulting finally in an agreement with the Indians to keep peace with the subjects and authority of the United States; to allow themselves to be removed to reservations of land secured to their exclusive use and occupation by our Government, who undertook to bear the expenses of removing, and to furnish means of education and civilization, agricultural implements, cattle, seeds, &c., until they got a fair start. The reservations to which they were assigned, were first, the region north of the State of Nebraska and west of the Missouri river; and secondly, a wide tract west of the State of Arkansas and South of Kansas. Their old lands were sold to the P. R. R. Co. The river-route to Montana, through the best hunting grounds of the Sioux, (having been superseded by the Union Pacific R. R. to west of the Black Hills a better route) was abandoned to the Indians; the military posts withdrawn, and the Indians thus far conciliated. Although Gen. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Missouri, adopted all proper measures for maintaining peace, there was yet, much discontent and sullenness among the Indians. Delays had occurred in receiving supplies and stores; white settlers were pushing into the borders in search for gold, and to lay out lines of travel, and in Kansas and Colorado, during the months of August and September, Indian outrages became of almost daily occurrence. Gen. Sheridan, in command of this department, had, after garrisoning the various posts along the line of the U. P. R. R. & Denver stage routes, about eight hundred available men for active operations against the Indians, who could bring in to the field six thousand well mounted and equipped warriors. He, therefore, determined to commence a vigorous campaign against them, and the first engagement of consequence took place at Arrickarey Fork, Sept. 17th, 1868, when Col. Forsyth and his scouts were attacked by about seven hundred Indians, whom he defeated, killing thirty-five of them, and wounding many others, while his own loss was only four killed and eighteen wounded. The little band kept their position for several days, living on horse flesh, until relieved from Fort Wallace. Then troops were sent from the other departments, volunteer companies from Kansas were accepted; and the war was vigorously pushed but it was difficult to bring the Indians to a fair stand. Oct. 18th, Gen Carr, following a trail, was attacked by four hundred Indians, and repulsed them after a six hours’ fight. On the 27th of November, on the Washita, Gen. Custer, scouting after hostile Indians, fell in with the trail of a Cheyenne band under Black Kettle, followed them to their camp, of fifty lodges, which he attacked, after a desperate struggle captured and destroyed it; killed the chief and about one hundred and forty of his warriors, and captured fifty-three women and children, besides a large stock of arms, ammunition, robes, etc. On Christmas day, the destruction of Comanche Village, by Col. Evans, as Gen. Sherman says: “gave the final blow to the backbone of the Indian rebellion.” On the last day of 1868, twenty-eight chief fighting men of the Arrapahoes and Cheyennes came on foot to Gen. Sherman‘s head-quarters, begging for peace and permission for their people to come in. They set no terms, but simply wished protection from the troops on the route, and food for they said: “the tribes were mourning for their losses, the people were starving, the dogs were all eaten up and no buffalo.”

General W. T. Sherman
General W. T. Sherman

In 1868, the Indians within the jurisdiction of the United States (except those in Alaska) were estimated at three hundred thousand, and were rapidly diminishing. The former policy of the Government in dealing with them has been denounced, on all sides, as mistaken in principle and inefficient in detail and Gen. Sherman strongly advocated the turning over of Indian affairs from the Department of the Interior to the War Department. The new policy which the Government under the pressure of public opinion seems to be willing to adopt, designs, primarily to locate the Indians upon fixed reservations, so that settlers and pioneers may be freed from the terrors of wandering hostile tribes; and, secondly, an earnest effort for their civilization, so that they may themselves become elevated in the scale of humanity, and our obligations to them as fellow men be discharged. To this end, the aid of the Society of Friends has been invoked, many of the tribes being in charge of members of that society; both as superintendents and agents, and as advisers and guardians of the operations of the Indian Bureau, in the establishing of peaceful relations with the Indians.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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