150 years after the Sand Creek Massacre, the fight of land and culture still scars the Eastern Plains Colorado.
When bison roamed the high plains of southeastern Colorado cold winds blew and Cheyenne and Arapaho tribesmen crouched in wait for the opportunity to kill and to sustain their families and the larger tribe for another season.
Today another cold wind moans across the same plains with the groans of the murdered and the mutilated. The bison have been hunted out of existence and the tribes, or what little is left of them, have been sequestered away from white man’s manifest destiny and fallible, futile dreams.
While the nation stood divided against itself over human and natural resources and battled for dominance in the east, a similar battle raged between resources on the plains. Except the perceived enemy was the other, people not like the white settlers. In pursuit of continuing independence and freedom from war, white settlers left the east in waves to escape the civil war and to plant their flagged stakes in the new land and a promise, though oftentimes an empty promise, of a brighter future. Justified and encouraged by the U. S. Government and the railroads, they moved in droves across the plains. The gold rush in the Rocky Mountains was also in full tilt.
The indigenous people of the plains were themselves battling for territory with each other, because they were all being pushed aside and pushed down by the white man. Drought conditions dominated in 1863 making game scarce as well as winter provisions. But even more brutal days lay ahead for all involved.
In the spring of 1864 four Arapaho Indian renegades killed the Hungate family who homesteaded 30 miles southeast of Denver. Because Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans’s unfounded fear of an Indian War brewing against the whites, this brutal incident spurred him to request funds and guns for a citizen militia to fight the Indians. However, Evans had diametrically opposed interests: as governor he was charged with protecting all of those who lived in Colorado Territory, native and settlers alike, but he was also a successful business man who had worked to bring the railroad to Denver. The natives stood in the way of that endeavor. His need to remove obstacles for his financial ventures lead to quick solutions to complex problems and instigated violence against the predominantly non-violent Cheyenne and Arapaho bands in Colorado.
A long-time friend of Governor Evans was Colonel John Chivington, who had successfully defeated the Confederate Army during the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in 1862, had not seen battle nor the subsequent glory of winning in two years. He and Evans shared the philosophy of manifest destiny and worked for the manpower and weapons to support it in Colorado Territory. In August, Evans proclaimed all natives to be “at war and hostile to all whites;” the next day he called for the formation of a citizens’ militia, the 100 Days Men, and put them under Chivington’s command. They were later referred to as the Bloodless Third.
The confluence of the inner conflicts of two clashing societies, two vastly different values systems, created the perfect storm for not only loss and betrayal but a near complete and on-going genocide fueled by power, technology, and ignorance.
That confluence was the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864, where nearly 150 peacefully camping Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered – mostly women, children and the elderly – even as Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle waved the white flag. At the time, Governor Evans was running for Congress should Colorado gain statehood and Chivington was running for Congress. A show of strength and aggression would bolster their campaigns and crown them war heroes. Before dawn, Chivington ordered more than 700 soldiers to assault the sleeping camp of 500 with pistols, rifles, and howitzers, the precursor to the machine gun. Few of the natives had such weapons and, in fact, had been told by officials at Fort Weld earlier in the year they would be safe camped on Sand Creek.
When Black Kettle visited Fort Lyon in the autumn of 1864, he did so with a posture of cooperation and with shame for the attacks carried out against the white settlers by disagreeable members of his tribe. In pursuit of food for their children and elders, as well as revenge for a series of broken treaties or disagreements with their leaders, rogue bands of Indians attacked settlers and towns. But they were the exception, not the rule. An over simplified perspective about the indigenous peoples of the Americas worked against Black Kettle and his people camped on Sand Creek.
The official massacre site–long held as sacred ground by the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendents of massacre survivors–was identified by the National Park Service in cooperation with tribal descendants of survivors, landowners, and historical archaeologists. After two years of intense study of the archaeological site, legislation established the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near present-day Lamar, Colorado. Only a stone grave marker and a simple fence indicate anything happened below the bluffs where they stand.
Many of the soldiers who participated on that cold November day were temporary 100-days’ men, who had enlisted for a short time in return for food and supplies after they were disappointed by their gold claims farther north. Though their commissions were about to expire, they had yet to see any battles, unlike their brothers in arms in the east who had fought in the War between the States, fought at Gettysburg, and watched Atlanta fall.
George Bent, mixed-race son of pioneer William Bent and his Cheyenne wife Owl Woman, was caught between the white world of his father and the Indian world of his mother. George’s half-brother, Charley, who was rescued by Silas Soule, the Colorado Cavalry captain who refused to order his men to attack at Sand Creek, survived the attack, in part scouted by their brother Robert. Both joined the Dog Soldiers and sought revenge through continuous raids upon whites. Charley died in that pursuit, while George eventually attempted to forge peace among the warring factions.
While Amendments 24 and 25 of the United State Constitution, passed in 1868 and 1871 respectively, protecting the rights of recently freed slaves and provided them equal protection under the law, no such protection was afforded to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In fact, reservations had been established in Oklahoma for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe in 1867 and they lost their sovereignty in 1871.
Eventually, after much bloodshed wrought through advanced weapons’ technology, ruthlessness and lies prevailed.
George Bent died in 1918, accepted by neither Indian nor white, neither rich nor poor, but seeing his people forced on to reservations in Oklahoma, far from Sand Creek and Lamar.
The Colorado Plains are no longer home to anything Cheyenne or Arapaho except place names, school mascots, and scattered and remote memorials. The farms and ranches, which took over bison range and hunting grounds and nomadic homes, are struggling. The avarice for natural and economic resources, not to mention glorified egos wrought by simplistic solutions, destroyed a culture, removed it almost completely, and leaves history with a throbbing scar and little else except continued struggle for survival.
Even on a 100-degree summer day on the dry plains, one shivers at its stark beauty and memories of violent days. Cattle roam where bison grazed, wind blows the moisture out of the soil, and other battles are being fought. Ironically, southeastern Colorado is one of the poorest, most desolate places in the state and is struggling to hold on to its ability to make a living in the winds that play hot and cold across the plains.
The Sand Creek Massacre and its place in American and Colorado History.
- Colorado Territory established by Congress
- Coast-to-Coast telegraph line completed
- Congress passes the Pacific Railroad Act to build a rail line along the 42nd parallel and provides “public” lands and subsidies for building
- Homestead Act Passed which deeded homesteaders 160 acres of land which they had improved and stayed on for at least five years
- Battle of Glorieta Pass won by Col. Chivington and volunteers over Texas. Often referred to as the Gettysburg of the West
- Lincoln delivers Emancipation Proclamation
- Battle at Gettysburg fought and won by Union Army
- Second Pacific Railroad Act passed doubling the size of land grants and improving subsidies
- Fort Weld meeting between U.S. Army and Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle where Army agrees to protect Black Kettle’s tribe if they will settle at Sand Creek
- November 29, 1864 – Sand Creek Massacre
- U.S. General Philip Sheridan proclaims that peace with the Indian will be won when the buffalo is destroyed
- Medicine Lodge Treaty establishes reservations for Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Oklahoma
- Fort Laramie Treaty signed but Indians refuse to believe that the U.S. Army will abide by it and fighting escalates
- Amendment XIV to the Constitution, 1868: No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
- Amendment XV to the Constitution, 1870: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
- Indian Appropriations Act passed by Congress and makes Indians legal wards of the state and not sovereign people
- 3 million bison are being killed each year
- Colorado goes from being a territory to gaining statehood
- Laramie Treaty repealed by Congress, the Black Hills are legally opened to whites and gold mining.
- Lakota Sioux wage war.
For further reading:
- HALFBREED: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent by David Fridtjof Halaas
- Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek by Carol Turner
- Finding Sand Creek by Jerome A. Greene and Douglas D. Scott
- The Massacre at Sand Creek Narrative Voices by Bruce Cutler