Sand Creek Massacre

Last Updated on September 25, 2013 by Dennis

On the night of November 28, 1864, about seven hundred and fifty men, cavalry and artillery, were marching eastward across the plains below Fort Lyon. There was a bitter, determined look on their hard-set features that betokened ill for some one. For five days they had been marching, from Bijou Basin, about one hundred and fifty miles to the northwest, as the crow flies, but some fifty miles farther by their route. When they started the snow was two to three feet deep on the ground, but, as they progressed, it had become lighter, and now the ground was clear. The night was bitter cold; Jim Beckwith, the old trapper who had been guiding them, had become so stiffened that he was unable longer to distinguish the course, and they were obliged to rely on a half-breed Indian. About one third of the men had the appearance of soldiers who had seen service; the remainder had a diversity of arms and equipments as well as of uniforms, and marched with the air of raw recruits. About half a mile in advance were three men, the half-breed guide and two officers, one of the hitter of such gigantic proportions that the others seemed pygmies beside him. Near daybreak the half-breed turned to the white men and said: “Wolf he howl. Injun dog he hear wolf, he howl too. Injun he hear dog and listen; hear something, and run off.” The big man tapped the butt of his revolver in an ominous way, and replied: “Jack, I haven’t had an Indian to eat for a long time. If you fool with me, and don’t lead us to that camp, I’ll have you for breakfast.” They found the camp. There were one hundred and twenty Cheyenne and eight Arapahoe Indians in it, stretched along the bank of a shallow stream, which crept sluggishly down a broad bed of sand. On each side of the camp, ranging out perhaps a mile, was a herd of ponies, the two numbering about eleven hundred. It was between daybreak and sunrise; the Indians were just beginning to move. A squaw heard the noise of the approaching horses, and reported that a herd of buffalo was coming. Others ran out, who quickly discovered that the rumbling was the tread of horses, and that a large body of troops was approaching. In a moment all was confusion. Men, women, and children ran here and there, getting their arms in readiness or preparing for flight. The principal Cheyenne chief hastily ran up an American flag over his teepee, with a white flag above it. A white trader, who was in one of the teepees, came out and hastened towards the soldiers. At the same time two detachments of cavalry were galloping towards the herds, and some of the Indians were running in the same directions.

Firing began between these parties. The white trader seemed confused, and stopped. A cavalryman said:

“Let me bring him in, major,” and, starting from the ranks, galloped towards him, but a bullet from the camp tumbled him from his horse, and the trader turned and ran back.

The herd of ponies on the farther side of the camp became alarmed and ran towards the camp, the soldiers cutting off only about half of them. The main body of troops pressed forward, firing as they came, led by their giant commander, who rode through the ranks, calling out:

“Remember our wives and children, murdered on the Platte and the Arkansas.”

The Indians were beginning to fall rapidly under the deadly fire. Part of them caught the straggling ponies which had reached the camp, and fled. The remainder, warriors and squaws, with some children, retired slowly up the creek, fighting as they went. They continued thus for about three quarters of a mile, to a point where the banks rose from three to ten feet, on either side of a level expanse of sand, some three hundred yards wide. Along the banks the Indians made their stand, protected by them on one side, and on the other by heaps of loose sand which they had scraped up. Most of the troops were now in confusion, each doing about as he liked. About one half of them were firing on the line of Indians in the creek bed, and squads were riding about, killing stragglers, scalping the dead, and pursuing the flying. No prisoners were being taken, and no one was allowed to escape if escape could be prevented. A child of about three years, perfectly naked, was toddling along over the trail where the Indians had fled. A soldier saw it, fired at about seventy-five yards distance, and missed it. Another dismounted and said: ” Let me try the little____ ____; I can hit him.” he missed too, but a third dismounted, with a similar remark, and at his shot the child fell. At the creek bed the fight was at long range and stubborn. A private was tiring at an Indian who climbed up on the bank from time to time, and made derisive gestures at the soldier’s fruitless efforts. “Let me take that gun of yours for a minute, colonel,” said the soldier. The colonel handed him his rifle, an elegant silver mounted one, presented him by the citizens of Denver; the Indian showed himself again; the rifle cracked and he dropped dead. The squaws were fighting along with the men. One had just wounded a soldier with an arrow, and a comrade put his rifle in rest, remarking, “If that squaw shows her head above the bank again, I’ll blow the whole top of it off.” An officer, standing by him, said: “I wouldn’t make a heathen of myself by shooting a woman.” The words had hardly dropped from his lips when the same squaw sent an arrow through the officer’s arm, and his philanthropic remark changed to a howl of  “Shoot the _____ ____ ,” and the soldier did it. The Indians could not be dislodged by the small arms, but towards noon two howitzers were brought into action and they broke the line. The Indians fell back from one position to another, the combat becoming gradually a running fight, which was kept up for five miles or more, and abandoned by the pursuers a short time before dusk. The soldiers then gathered at the Indian camp, where they remained until the second day following. Most of the corpses were scalped, and a number were mutilated as bodies are usually mutilated by Indians, with all that implies. Near evening, on the day after the battle, Jack Smith, the half-breed who had guided the soldiers to the camp, and a son of the white trader who was in the camp, was shot by one of the men. He had tried to run away during the fight, but had been brought back. The colonel commanding was warned that he would probably be killed if the men were not ordered to let him live. He replied: “I have given my orders, and have no further instructions to give.” There were, at the time, seven other prisoners in the camp, two squaws and five children, who were taken to Fort Lyon and left there. They were the only prisoners taken. When the camp was broken, the buffalo robes were confiscated for the sick, the soldiers took what they wanted for trophies, and the remainder was burned. The Indians lost three hundred, all killed, of whom about one half were warriors and the remainder women and children. The whites lost seven killed and forty-seven wounded, of whom seven afterwards died.

This was “the massacre of the friendly Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, by the Colorado troops, under Colonel John M. Chivington,” or “the battle on the Big Sandy, with the hostile Cheyennes and Arapahoes,” as you may be pleased to consider it. That is to say, it is a statement of what occurred there, as nearly as the truth can be arrived at, without favor or reservation. It is but just to add that the great majority of the troops who participated in it say it was not so bad as here represented, and that the witnesses of the action and events connected with it, who subsequently denounced it, make it no worse, notwithstanding the fact that many, who knew nothing of the facts in the case, have added much to the statement above given. The number killed was the point most in controversy in the investigations of the matter, ranging from about seventy, in Major Wynkoop’s estimate, to six hundred, in Colonel Chivington’s original report. The Indians conceded a loss of one hundred and forty, of whom sixty were warriors, and the testimony of all who counted bodies, after the battle, indicates the number stated above. Concerning this affair there has been much of exaggeration, much of invective, much of misunderstanding, and much of wholly unfounded statement. Indeed, so much has been said in regard to it that the controversy is far more extensive than the original trouble, and the historical shape that it has assumed is the creation of the controversy, not the fight. Now that twenty years have passed away that the Indian is only a memory where he then roamed that a new generation has taken the place of the old let us try calmly to unravel the thread of truth from the fantastic fabric which has so long concealed it; and to do this we must first know something of the actors on that field.

Who was Colonel Chivington? In 1840 he was a rough, uncouth, profane child of nature, just stepped across the threshold of manhood. He lived in Warren County, Ohio, about two miles south of the line of Clinton. At a logrolling in the neighborhood a good old Methodist brother reproved him, one day, for profanity, and the sturdy youth answered defiantly:

“I will swear when I please and where I please.” But he brooded over the rebuke, and a few days later he went to his reprover’s house, determined to swear there, before his family. He did not do as he intended. Some unknown power beat down his resolution, and the curse died trembling on his tongue. He went away, but the mysterious influence followed him; his eyes were turned inward on his guilty soul; he could not rest. He struggled against it, but in vain, and soon he sought at the altar the pardon for his sins. Scoffers may smile at the change of heart by divine grace, but sure it was there was a change in him. He became an industrious, orderly man; he joined the Methodist Church and lived consistently with its discipline; he apprenticed himself to a carpenter and thoroughly learned the trade. Towards 1850 he determined to move West and enter the ministry, and this he did, working meantime at his trade. At the end of the second year of his clerical service he was transferred to the Missouri Conference and continued his labors there. It was a troubled field for him, for he was peculiarly a Northern man. Mobs collected at various times to hinder his preaching, but his apparent abundance of “muscular Christianity” kept him from serious trouble, and his intended disturbers often remained to hear him preach.

His kindly nature helped him to preserve peaceful relations, also. One day he met an old planter, hauling logs, with his team mired down. Chivington dismounted, tied his horse, waded into the mud, and helped him out. The planter desired to know to whom he was indebted, and, on being told, exclaimed: “Come right home with me. A preacher that will get off in the mud to help a stranger won’t steal niggers.” They were good friends thereafter. A few years later Chivington was in Kansas, taking an active part with Lane and his friends in the border war. After the Kansas troubles were settled, we find him serving acceptably, for two years, as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians, and afterwards, as interpreter and guide, travelling through the West with the Methodist bishops who were establishing missions among the Indian tribes. Soon after the beginning of the war he went to a quarterly meeting at Denver, being then a Presiding Elder in Western Kansas and Colorado, and, while there, preached to the soldiers at their barracks. They liked his style and urged him to stay with them. Governor Gilpin offered him a chaplaincy, but he said that if he went with the soldiers he wanted to fight, so he was made a major instead. There is one point in his character that must not be lost sight of, if his history is to be understood. He was, like other Kansas free-soilers, an uncompromising Union man, and had no use for a rebel, white or red. His dislike to anything savoring of treason got him into trouble time and again, but he never held back on that account. On one occasion, after the war, he seriously disturbed his domestic peace by peremptorily shutting off some reminiscences from his brother-in-law, an ex-confederate.

And what of the Colorado troops? They included men from all ranks and classes in life; many of them are prominent and respected citizens of Colorado now. About two thirds of those at Sand Creek were one hundred days’ men, of the 3d regiment; the remainder were veterans, mostly of the 1st regiment. These last had established a military reputation beyond all cavil and, without referring to other services, a brief sketch of their work in New Mexico will satisfy the reader that no equal body of men ever did greater or more gallant service for the Union. In the early part of 1862 General Sibley invaded New Mexico with an army of twenty-five hundred, including a large number of Texan Rangers, having evidently in view the conquest of the entire mountain country. Our government had been paying little or no attention to the Far West; its hands were full in the East. Even the official communications in some departments had not been replied to in a year past. The Confederacy was more watchful. Full information of the situation in the West had been given to its leaders by officials, civil and military, who had been located at various Western points, and had hastened to the South as soon as the war opened. The United States troops in the country were few in number. The Indians were ready for war whenever an opportunity presented itself. The Mexicans were supposed to be friendly to the Sooth, and the lower classes were known to be ready for rapine and pillage, at any time and against anybody. The Mormons were in ecstasy over the apparent fulfillment of their late Prophet’s war prophecy, and were willing to help on the “Kilkenny-cat fight.” Besides, they were still sore over the troubles of 1857, and had no love for the national government. The Secession element in California was quite strong, especially in the southern part, which was to have been a slave state under the Calhoun plan. These facts at once determined the policy of the South, and the invasion was begun. If it had been successful what an awful possibility! the South would have had a coastline impossible of blockade, the entire line of Mexico for external communication, the mines to fill her depleted treasury, and an extensive country which could have been reconquered only at immense cost of life and money. The Texans entered New Mexico; from the south. They took Fort Fillmore without resistance, and marched up the Rio Grande unchecked, until they reached Fort Craig, where General Canby awaited them. They decided not to attack the fort, and were flanking it, to go forward, when Canby came out and attacked them at Valverde. They rather worsted him, and he retired to the fort, while they pursued their march up the river. They occupied Santa Fe, and found that the Mexicans were not nearly so glad to see them as they had anticipated; still, little discouraged, they pushed on towards Fort Union, some sixty-five miles northeast, on the edge of the plains, the arsenal and supply depot for that section.

Governor Gilpin, all this time, had been moving in the mining camps of Colorado, and, on February 22, the 1st Colorado regiment, under Colonel Slough, left Denver through snow a foot deep. They reached Fort Union on March 11, after a journey of great hardship, and were there armed and equipped. They pressed forward, and, on the 23d, reached the mouth of Apache Cañon, the location of “Pigeon’s Ranch,” or, more properly, the ranch of M. Alexandre Vallé; the Texans had by this time reached the opposite end of the cañon. In this canon, where Armijo had failed to meet Kearny, the Greek miner met the Greek cowboy. It was a contest the like of which never occurred elsewhere. The Southerners had adopted as their favorite name, “Baylor’s Babes;” the Coloradoans gloried in their chosen title of “Pet Lambs” grim satires these, as well on the plainsmen who charged McRae’s Battery with revolvers and bowie knives, as on the mountaineers who never learned what it was to be whipped. On the 26th the advance of the Texans met two hundred and ten cavalry and one hundred and eighty infantry under Major Chivington, and, in the words of a local writer, it “was more like the shock of lightning than of battalions.” Said M. Vallé, who witnessed the fight, “Zat Chivington, he poot down ‘is ‘ead, and foight loike mahd bull.” Both detachments reeled back from this hard bump, and on the 28th, the main forces having arrived, they went at it again. The Texans surprised the Coloradoans’ camp, but the Lambs stood their ground, and, after a desperate fight, the Babes were forced to retire, and they retired to a little surprise party at home. While they had been making their attack, Chivington had led a force of one hundred men up the precipitous side of the canon, along a rugged and dangerous path, and down on the Texan rearguard of some six hundred men. It was a desperate charge to make, but it resulted in a brilliant success, and the Texan train of sixty-four wagons and two hundred mules, with all their supplies and ammunition, were destroyed. The Texan invasion was ruined. Sibley began his retreat, and Slough fell back on Fort Union for his supplies, but only for a breathing space. On April 13 the Coloradoans had joined General Canby and begun a pursuit of the retiring Texans, which was kept up for one hundred and fifty miles; a pursuit so disastrous to the pursued that one half of their original force was left behind, dead, wounded, and prisoners, together with all their stores, public and private. So much for the Colorado troops.

The Cheyennes we know something of already. The village attacked was that of Black Kettle (Moke-ta-ve-to), the principal chief of the southern Cheyennes, and the few lodges of Arapahoes were under Left Hand (Na-watk), second in rank of the southern chiefs. There had been trouble in these tribes ever since the treaty of Fort Wise, in 1861. The warriors denounced the chiefs for making the treaty, and were particularly opposed to the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad through their lands, as they knew it would drive away the buffalo. The chiefs were threatened with death if they undertook to carry out its provisions, and so the intense desire of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes for an agricultural life, which is recited as the cause of the treaty, had to go ungratified. The first serious troubles, after Sumner’s campaign, occurred after this treaty was made, and all the succeeding troubles grew out of it. The Cheyennes began committing minor offences in 1861, and, as they were unpunished, they gradually grew bolder, until, in 1863, Agent Lorey reported that the Cheyennes were dissatisfied, and that the Sioux were urging them to open war. In other words, the war feeling had grown so strong that it was necessary to treat with them anew. Governor Evans went out, by agreement, to treat with them, on the headwaters of the Republican, but they failed to come as agreed. The governor sent his guide, a sqnaw-man named Elbridge Gerry (a grandson of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, of the same name), in search of them, he returned after an absence of two weeks, and reported that they had held a council and decided not to treat. One chief, Bull Bear (O-to-ah-nac-co), the leader of the “Dog soldiers,” had offered to come in, but his warriors would not allow him to do so. The Cheyennes afterwards confirmed this statement fully; they said they were going to remain at peace, but would make no treaty that they had to sign; that they were going to have their lands; and even if a railroad was built through their country, they would not allow anyone to settle along it. The chiefs who had signed the treaty of Fort Wise said they were obliged to repudiate it or their warriors would kill them. Minor depredations were committed during the remainder of 1863 and the early part of 1864, and, during the winter, word was received, from spies among them, that a coalition was being formed among all the plains tribes, to drive the whites out of the country. This information proved true, for in the spring and summer of 1864, the Sioux, Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes were engaged in active hostilities. The reader will note here, that no one has ever pretended that any of the eighteen hundred Southern Cheyennes, except the six hundred at Saud Creek, were not open enemies at the time.

The effect of this warfare on the whites was distressing. Nearly every stage was attacked, emigrants were cut off, and the settlements were raided continually. The overland trains, on which the entire settlements depended for supplier, were deterred from moving by fear of attack. On June 14 Governor Evans applied for authority to call the militia into the United States service, or to call out one hundred days’ men, which was not granted. Matters became worse. All the settlements from the Purgatoire to the Cache la Poudre, and for two hundred miles on the Platte, were in consternation. The settlers left their crops and built blockhouses for mutual protection. Those near Denver fled to that place. The governor was besieged with petitions for arms and authority to organize for protection. On August 8 all the stage lines were attacked. On August 11 Governor Evans issued a proclamation, calling the people to organize for self protection, and under this several companies were formed which were considered sufficient for the defense of the settlements. But they could not protect the settlements from famine. On August 18 Governor Evans despatched Secretary Stanton: “Extensive Indian depredations, with murder of families, occurred yesterday thirty miles south of Denver. Our lines of communication are cut, and our crops, our sole dependence, are all in exposed localities, and cannot be gathered by our scattered population. Large bodies of Indians are undoubtedly near to Denver, and we are in danger of destruction both from the attack of Indians and starvation. I earnestly request that Colonel Ford’s regiment of 2d Colorado Volunteers be immediately sent to our relief. It is impossible to exaggerate our danger. We are doing all we can for our defense.” There was no favorable answer received to this, and, on September 7, a second despatch followed: “Pray give positive orders for our 2d Colorado Cavalry to come out. Have notice published that they will come in detachments to escort trains up the Platte on certain days. Unless escorts are sent thus we will inevitably have a famine in addition to this gigantic Indian war. Flour is forty-five dollars a barrel, and the supply growing scarce, with none on the way. Through spies we got knowledge of the plan of about one thousand warriors in camp to strike our frontier settlements, in small bands, simultaneously in the night, for an extent of three hundred miles. It was frustrated at the time, but we have to fear another such attempt soon. Pray give the order for our troops to come, as requested, at once, or it will be too late for trains to come this season.” The troops were not sent, but, in the mean time, authority had been given by the “War Department to raise a regiment of one hundred days’ men, and the 3d Colorado was organized and impatiently waiting for arms and equipments, which they did not get until a short time before their march to Sand Creek.

See Further: Were the Cheyenne Responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre?

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

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