Were the Cheyenne Responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre?

But were the Cheyennes responsible for all this? Quite as much so as any of the tribes. They began stealing stock early in the spring, and, on April 13, a herdsman for Irving, Jackmann, & Co. reported that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had run off sixty head of oxen and a dozen mules and horses from their camp, thirty miles south of Denver. Lieutenant Clark Dunn was sent after them with a small party of soldiers. He overtook them as they were crossing the Platte, during a heavy snowstorm. A parley was commenced, but was interrupted by part of the Indians running off the stock, and the soldiers attempting to disarm the others. A fight ensued, in which the soldiers, who were greatly outnumbered, were defeated, with a loss of four men, the Indians still holding the cattle. After this fight, there was not a word nor an act from any member of the Southern Cheyennes indicative of peace, until the 1st of September, when the Indian agent at Fort Lyon received the following:

Cheyenne Village
Aug 22, 1864

“Major Collet,

We received a letter from Bent, wishing us to make peace. We held a council in regard to it. All come to the conclusion to make peace with you, providing you make peace with the Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahoes, Apaches, and Sioux. We are going to send a messenger to the Kiowas and to the other nations about our going to make peace with you. We heard that you have some [Indian prisoners] in Denver. We have seven prisoners of yours which we are willing to give up, providing you give up yours. There are three war parties out yet, and two of Arapahoes. They have been out for some time, and are expected in soon. When we held this council there were few Arapahoes and Sioux present. We want true news from you in return. That is a letter.

Black Kettle, and other chiefs.”

Powder Face
Powder Face

This letter was written for the chiefs by Edmond Guerrier and George Bent, Cheyenne half-breeds. Black Kettle was head chief of all the Southern Cheyennes, and conceded by all to be the most friendly of the chiefs towards the whites, with, possibly, the exception of Bull Bear. Yet, by this letter, he and the other chiefs admit fully that they were hostiles; that three Cheyenne war parties were then out; that they were in coalition with the other tribes, and would consult them before treating: that they would treat only if all the other tribes treated. Indeed, why should the Cheyennes deny that they were hostile? They had been raiding in every direction: had run off stock repeatedly: had attacked stages and emigrant trains: had killed settlers: had carried off women and children; had fought the troops under Major Downing: had defeated those under Lieutenant Dunn and Lieutenant Ayres; and had been evading other bodies of troops all summer. They attacked the settlements on the Little Blue, and after killing the men, they carried off Mrs. Ewbanks, Miss Roper. and three children. It was almost certainly they who killed Mr. and Mrs. Hungate and their two babies at Running Creek. They carried off Mrs. Martin and a little boy from a ranch on Plum Creek. General Cords prepared two or three times to march against them, but diverted from his purpose by rebel raiders from Arkansas. He sent General Blunt after them, and they ambushed his advance guard at Pawnee Fork and almost annihilated it. On November 12, after Black Kettle had gone to Sand Creek, a party of Cheyennes and Arapahoes approached a government train on Walnut Creek, east of Fort Larned, and, after protesting friendship and shaking hands, suddenly fell upon the teamsters and killed fourteen of them, the only person who escaped alive being a boy who was scalped and left for dead. He recovered, but became imbecile, and died from the effects of the injury.

The Cheyennes never denied that they were hostiles; that they were was a discovery of the Indian ring, perpetuated by Indian worshipers. When they sent in the letter quoted above Major Wynkoop went out to them, and brought in Black Kettle, his brother White Antelope, and Ball Bear, of the Cheyennes, and Neva and other Arapahoes, representing Left Hand, for a talk with Governor Evans. They said then: “It was like going through a strong tire or blast for Major Wynkoop’s men to come to our camp: it was the same for us to come see you.” From this talk I quote the following:

Gov. Evans. “Who committed the murder of the Hungate family on Running Creek?”

Neva. “The Arapahoes: a party of the northern band who were passing north. It was Medicine Man or Roman Nose and three others. I am satisfied, from the time he left a certain camp for the North, that it was this party of four persons.”

Agent Whitely. “That cannot be true.”

Gov. E. “Where is Roman Nose?”

Neva. “You ought to know better than me; you have been nearer to him.”

Gov. E. “Who killed the man and the boy at the head of Cherry Creek?”

Neva (after consultation). “Kiowas and Comanches.”

Gov. E. “Who stole soldiers’ horses and mules from Jimmy’s camp twenty-seven days ago?”

Neva. “Fourteen Cheyennes and Arapahoes together.”

Gov. E. “What were their names?”

Neva. “Powder Face and Whirlwind, who are now in our camp, were the leaders.”

Col. Shoup. “I counted twenty Indians on that occasion.”

Gov. E. “Who stole Charley Autobee’s horses?”

Neva. “Raven’s son.”

Gov. E. “Who took the stock from Fremont’s orchard and had the first fight with the soldiers this spring north of there ?”

White Antelope. “Before answering this question I would like for you to know that this was the beginning of the war, and I should like to know what it was for. A soldier fired first.”

Gov. E. “The Indians had stolen about forty horses; the soldiers went to recover them, and the Indians fired a volley into their ranks.”

White Antelope. “That is all a mistake; they were coming down the Bijou and found one horse and one mule. They returned one horse, before they got to Gerry’s, to a man, then went to Gerry’s expecting to turn the other one over to someone. They then heard that the soldiers and Indians were fighting somewhere down the Platte; then they took fright and all fled.”

Gov. E. “Who were the Indians who had the fight?”

White Antelope. “They were headed by the Fool Badger’s son, a young man, one of the greatest of the Cheyenne warriors, who was wounded, and though still alive he will never recover.”

Neva. “I want to say something; it makes me feel bad to be talking about these things and opening old sores.  The Comanches, Kiowas, and Sioux have done much more injury than we have. We will tell what we know, but cannot speak for others.”

Gov. E. “I suppose you acknowledge the depredations on the Little Blue, as you have the prisoners then taken in your possession.”

White Antelope. “We [the Cheyennes] took two prisoners west of Fort Kearney, and destroyed the trains.”

Neva. “I know the value of the presents which we receive from Washington; we cannot live without them. That is why I try so hard to keep peace with the whites.”

Gov. E. “I cannot say anything about those things now.”

Neva. “I can speak for all the Arapahoes under Left Hand. Haven has sent no one here to speak for him; Raven has fought the whites.”

Little Raven (Ohhastee) was head chief of the Southern Arapahoes, and was notoriously hostile. Even Major Wynkoop conceded that he had, during the summer, killed three men and carried off a woman.

But even if most of the Cheyennes had been hostile, were not the Indians at Sand Creek friendly? It is usually difficult to disprove an Indian’s protestations of friendship in a satisfactory way, but if ever it was done it was here. Black Kettle had admitted his hostility, as shown above. So had his brother, White Antelope. War Bonnet, a chief who was killed there, was identified as one of the most active hostiles in the attack on General Blunt at Pawnee Fork. The testimony shows, without contradiction, that there were at least two hundred warriors in the camp, and it would be very difficult to point out a Cheyenne warrior who had been friendly. It had been the plea of the chiefs, all along, that they desired to carry out the treaty of Fort Wise, but were deterred by fear of their warriors. But more satisfactory than the established reputation of these Indians was the testimony of scalps, women’s and children’s dresses, and stolen goods, which were found in profusion in the teepees. Perhaps medical testimony will be most convincing as to the condition of the scalps. Dr. Caleb S. Birtsell, Assistant Surgeon, testified: ”
While in one of the lodges dressing wounded soldiers a soldier came to the opening of the lodge and called my attention to some white scalps he held in his hand; my impression, after examination, was that two or three of them were quite fresh; I saw, in the hands of soldiers, silk dresses and other garments belonging to women.” Major Anthony, commanding at Fort Lyon, considered that there were three Indians in the camp who were friendly. Black Kettle, Left Hand, and One Eye, and these he desired to be spared. Black Kettle escaped unhurt; Left Hand received a wound from the effect of which he afterwards died; and One Eye was killed. He was in the camp as a spy; placed there, on a salary of $125 per month and a ration, by Major Wynkoop, to watch these “friendly” Cheyennes, and continued in the same position by Major Anthony.

And this brings us to another equally serious question. Although these Cheyennes at Sand Creek had been hostile, were they not at Sand Creek under a promise of protection by the military? To this the testimony answers clearly, “No.” That is a rather startling statement to one who is familiar only with the current version of Sand Creek, but it is true, nevertheless. Both the congressional and departmental investigations were peculiar. The former was conducted by a committee of men whose minds were made up before they began; the style of their questions, the inaccuracy of their findings, and the fact that they condemned every one for prevarication who differed from what they expected in testimony, prove this. The latter was conducted by Major Wynkoop, who had been displaced by Major Anthony at Fort Lyon but a short time previous to the fight, who was one of the leading prosecuting witnesses, and who was, immediately after the investigation, appointed to the Agency, a position which is very rarely forced on men against their wishes. There was also a military commission appointed, which took testimony at Denver and Fort Lyon; it was presided over by Colonel Tappan, of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, who was recognized as a personal enemy of Chivington. This was the only one of the tribunals before which Chivington appeared and was given opportunity to cross examine or produce witnesses. The reports of the other investigations were made without any knowledge of its proceedings; in fact, its proceedings were not published for two years after the reports were made. In the testimony at both of the earlier investigations, scheming and jealousy crop out at many points. The prosecuting witnesses who were out of office charged the prosecuting witnesses who were in office with stealing from the Indians, and selling them their own goods. The fullest latitude was given to hearsay, and expressions of opinion were courted. But the most striking thing in all that testimony was the adroit manner in which several witnesses confused the relations of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes, to Fort Lyon, with those of Little Raven’s Arapahoes. Their real relations were explained to the Committee on the Conduct of the War clearly enough to have been understood by men who were not blinded by prejudice, but the committee only carried on to perfection the work which the witnesses had begun The testimony of all the witnesses, taken together, shows that the Indians who came to the fort and were subsisted by Major Wynkoop were six hundred and fifty-two of the Southern Arapahoes, under their head chief, Little Raven. That this chief had been hostile is not questioned; Major Wynkoop himself blames him and his warriors for all the depredations committed by the Arapahoes. On November 2 Major Anthony arrived and assumed command; he found these Arapahoes camped two miles from Fort Lyon, with all their arms, and coming daily to the fort for provisions; he told them they must surrender their arms, and they gave up a lot of old and worn out weapons, which, they said, were all they had. After ten days he concluded that he was exceeding his authority in this, returned their arms to them, and told them to go away. They went; Major Wynkoop says that Little Raven’s band went to Camp Wynkoop, and Left Hand’s joined the Cheyennes. The Arapahoes who went with Left Hand numbered about forty.

The most satisfactory evidence in regard to this is not in the testimony of any one, but in the official report of Major Anthony, made at the time, when there was no “Sand Creek” to attack or defend. On November 6, in a letter to headquarters, after recounting his disarming the Arapahoes, he says:

” Nine Cheyenne Indians today sent in, wishing to see me. They state that six hundred of that tribe are now thirty-five miles north of here, coming towards the post, and two thousand about seventy-five miles away, waiting for better weather to enable them to come in. I shall not permit them to come in, even as prisoners, for the reason that if I do I shall have to subsist them upon a prisoner’s rations. I shall, however, demand their arms, all stolen stock, and the perpetrators of all depredations. I am of the opinion that they will not accept this proposition, but that they will return to the Smoky Hill. They pretend that they want peace, and I think they do now, as they cannot fight during the winter, except where a small band of them can find an unprotected train or frontier settlement. I do not think it is policy to make peace with them now, until all perpetrators of depredations are surrendered up, to be dealt with as we may propose.”

This, then, was the true state of affairs; on November 6 there was not a Cheyenne at Fort Lyon; there were six hundred and fifty-two Arapahoes under the hostile chief Little Raven, who was then playing friend; there were six hundred Cheyennes under Black Kettle, thirty-five miles north, proposing to come in. And what was done in regard to the Cheyennes? They came on down after some further parleying; they were not allowed to come into the fort at all, or camp in the vicinity of the post. They were told that they might go over on Sand Creek, forty miles away, and camp, and if the commandant received any authority to treat with them he would let them know. They were not in the camp two miles from Fort Lyon at any time; they were never disarmed; and they were never held as prisoners.

Neither did these Indians have any promise of immunity from Governor Evans or Colonel Chivington, as is intimated by the committee. They met but once, at the council in Denver, on September 28. It has been stated over and over that the Cheyennes came to Sand Creek, in response to Governor Evans’s circular, calling on the friendly Indians to take refuge at the forts friendly Cheyennes and Arapahoes at Fort Lyon. This statement is absolutely and unqualifiedly untrue. The circular was dated June 27. Three months later the chiefs appeared in Denver to talk peace, in consequence of the circular, but were plainly told it was too late for any treaty. Governor Evans said to them:

“Whatever peace they make must be with the soldiers, and not with me;” and the entire talk was on that basis. I quote again:

“White Antelope. “How can we be protected from the soldiers on the plains?”

Gov. E. “You must make that arrangement with the military chief.”

White Antelope. “I fear that these new soldiers who have gone out may kill some of my people while I am here.”

Gov. E. “There is great danger of it.” Again, Governor Evans said: “I hand you over to the military, one of the chiefs of which is here today, and can speak for himself to them if he chooses.”

The chief referred to was Colonel Chivington, Commander of the District it should be noted, however, that Fort Lyon was not in Chivington’s district. He said: ” I am not a big war chief, but all the soldiers in this country are at my command. My rule of fighting white men or Indians is to fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority. They are nearer Major Wynkoop than anyone else, and they can go to him when they get ready to do that.” If anyone can torture those utterances into promises of immunity he is welcome to do so.

Some five weeks later the messengers of the Cheyennes arrived at Fort Lyon and were turned away, as above stated. They did not arrive there until after Major Wynkoop was superseded by Major Anthony. They did not make any arrangement with Major Wynkoop; it was impossible for them to do so, as he was not in command. More than that, Major Wynkoop never, at any time, had any authority to make any treaty with them, and the Indians knew it. White Antelope said, in the council: “When Major Wynkoop came, we proposed to make peace. He said he had no power to make a peace, except to bring them here and return them safe.” The Cheyennes went over to Sand Creek and camped, not anticipating any trouble, because there were no soldiers near them, except the garrison, and it was too small to risk an attack. Indeed, they were ready for an attack from it, and sent word that, “If that little ______ ____ red eyed chief wants a fight, we will give him all he wants.” The chief referred to was Major Anthony, who was afflicted with sore eyes at the time. The Indians were not allowed to visit the fort, and none of their friends or supposed allies, except on first being blindfolded. This was under general orders which were adopted a few weeks previously, after a Sunday morning performance by friendly Indians at Fort Larned. On that occasion the Indians had drawn supplies for the week, and some squaws were executing a dance for the edification of a part of the officers and men, when the braves stampeded the cattle belonging to the post, with all the horses and mules, and succeeded in getting away with them. At the first whoop of the stampede the dancers jumped on their ponies and scampered away, demonstrating that the affair had been planned in cold blood. Major Anthony testified that he had no friendly relations with these Cheyennes; that he should have attacked them before Chivington came if his force had not been too small; that he told Chivington it was only a question of policy whether they should be attacked or not, as it would probably cause an attack by the large band, which was not far distant. So far as the propriety of attacking these Indians was concerned, there is not the least question but that Chivington was justified in his attack, under all the rules of civilized warfare. They were hostiles, and there was no truce with them. There is another matter it seems almost absurd to mention it, but it were well to prevent any further misunderstanding and that is the display of flags by Black Kettle, which some persons have seemed to lay much stress upon. The uniform testimony of the soldiers was that they saw nothing of the kind, but that is immaterial. No one of common understanding would profess that the display of a flag of any kind was cause for stopping troops in the midst of a charge, and especially in the midst of a surprise of an enemy’s camp.

Having now shown the propriety of the attack, we arrive at the question of the propriety of the manner in which it was made, a question much more difficult of solution. One point is certain everyone in authority felt that the Indians ought to be punished. Major Wynkoop testifies that Governor Evans at first objected to seeing the chiefs at all, but finally consented to hold the council which has been mentioned. His feelings on the subject were exposed to the Indians at the council in these words: ” The time when you can make war best is in the summer time; when I can make war best is in the winter. You, so far, have had the advantage; my time is just coming.” He told them, as before stated, that they would have to talk to the military authorities, and his action was approved by the Indian Bureau. The military had no desire for peace at the time. It is quite true that the field orders of General Curtis directed hostilities only against hostile Indians, and expressly stated that “women and children must be spared, “but hostile Indians” meant Indians who had been hostile, and neither he nor any other commander in the West was in favor of treating till the Indians had been punished. On the day of Governor Evans’s council with the chiefs, General Curtis telegraphed the District Commander:

“I fear agent of the Interior Department will be ready to make presents too soon. It is better to chastise before giving anything but a little tobacco to talk over. No peace must be made without my directions.” The last telegram Chivington received from him, before marching, was: “Pursue everywhere and punish the Cheyennes and Arapahoes; pay no attention to district lines. No presents must be made and no peace concluded without my consent.”

The reader will observe that General Curtis is not by these directions made responsible for killing the women and children, or deciding that the Sand Creek camp was hostile, but his desire to punish the Indians was clear and decided. And it was so all through the West. A few weeks later, when Colonel Ford wanted to make peace with the Kiowas and Comanches, General Dodge, his Department Commander, telegraphed him:

“The military have no authority to treat with Indians. Our duty is to make them keep the peace by punishing them for their hostility. Keep posted as to their location, so that as soon as ready we can strike them.”

So, in New Mexico, General Carleton had instructed Colonel Kit Carson:

“If the Indians send in a flag and desire to treat for peace, say to the bearer that when the people of New Mexico were attacked by the Texans, the Mescaleros broke their treaty of peace, and murdered innocent people, and ran off their stock; that now our hands are untied, and you have been sent to punish them for their treachery and their crimes; that you have no power to make peace; that you are there to kill them wherever you can find them; that if they beg for peace, their chiefs and twenty of their principal men must come to Santa Fe to have a talk here; but tell them fairly and frankly that you will keep after their people and slay them until you receive orders to desist from these headquarters.”

On September 19 Curtis writes to Carleton:

“General Blunt is at or near Fort Larned looking out for Indians, and may cooperate with you in crushing out some of the vile hordes that now harass our lines of communication.” On October 22 Carleton writes to Blunt, hoping he will effect a union with Carson, “so that a blow may be struck which those two treacherous tribes will remember.” On January 30, 1865, Curtis writes to Governor Evans: “I protest my desire to pursue and punish the enemy everywhere, in his lodges especially; but I do not believe in killing women and children who can be taken.”

See Previous: Sand Creek Massacre
See Further: Desire to Punish the Cheyenne Indians

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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