The Sand Creek Massacre

SandCreekThe sky was gray, the air brittle, and a sparkling layer of frost spread over the brown plain grass around Sand Creek on the dawn of November 29, 1864. To the Cheyenne, the time of year was known as Hikomini, the Month of the Freezing Moon. The women had just begun stirring in their teepees, preparing to make their way to the half-frozen creek to draw water.

Gazing unsuspected meanwhile at the dozing encampment of 500-some Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians was U.S. Army Colonel John M. Chivington. Hunkered behind him and awaiting Chivington’s orders were 700 members of the Colorado Territorial militia, along with a small detachment of First New Mexico Volunteers.

sand creekFrom inside the Indian camp, families bolted awake, alerted to what sounded like thousands of stampeding buffalo. Chivington and his men had just scattered the entire herd of Indian ponies.

“Off with your coats men,” Chivington ordered as below the Indian camp now swarmed like a boot-mashed anthill. “You can fight better without them. Take no prisoners.”

What happened next was a disaster of military control, and an atrocity on human life.

While Black Kettle waved an American flag above his head and called for his people to remain calm, that the soldiers meant no harm, Chivington and his men surrounded the village and opened fire. Colorado’s Third Cavalry, known also as the “Hundred Dazers” for their 100-day voluntary enlistment time, unleashed weeks of aimless drilling and anti-Indian rhetoric in a barrage of wild rifle shots – directly through the ranks of the First Colorado. Resembling less an army and more a mob, soldiers fired indiscriminately at braves, women, children, and in some cases even at one another. Chief White Antelope ran weaponless towards one line of soldiers, stopped, crossed his arms, and chanted his death song:

Chief White Antelope
Chief White Antelope

Nothing lives long,                                                                             Except the earth and the mountains.

He fell wearing a peace medal given him by President Lincoln, betrayed for the last time.

When the battle was through and nearly 160 men, women, and children lay fallen, the real carnage began. The following descriptions are from real testimonies given by soldiers and witnesses in the hearings that were to follow:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about 75 yards, and draw up his rifle and fire – he missed. Another man came up and said, ‘Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar remark, and the little fellow dropped.

I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all.

sand creekI saw one squaw lying on the bank whose leg had been broken by a shell; a soldier came up to her with a drawn saber; she raised her arm to protect herself, when he struck, breaking her arm; she rolled over and raised her other arm, when he struck, breaking it, and then left her without killing her.

 One old squaw wandered sightless through the carnage. Her entire scalp had been taken, and the skin of her forehead fell down over her eyes to blind her.

Several troopers got into a quarrel over who should have the honor of scalping one body. The issue could not be decided; so all took scalps from the same carcass.

A group of soldiers paused amid the firing to take turns profaning the body of a comely young squaw, very dead.

Indians’ fingers were hacked away to get their rings as souvenirs. One soldier trotted about with a heart impaled on a stick. Others carried off the genitals of braves. Someone had the notion that it would be artistic work to slice away the breasts of the Indian women. One breast was worn as a cap, another was seen stretched over the bow of a saddle.

On December 22nd, after a few weeks of searching halfheartedly for more Indians now scattered along the frozen prairie, Chivington and his Hundred Dazers (now aptly renamed the Bloody Third) returned to a hero’s welcome in Denver. Hoisting a live bald eagle laced to a stick, Chivington paraded before cheering throngs along the sidewalks. In the nights to follow, men would drink and boast of their deeds at Sand Creek, and steadily the whole truth would emerge.

Denver, 1859
Denver, 1859

Colorado’s tensions with the Indians of the eastern plains started with the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains and the consequent rush to settle the territory. With the 1851signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the U.S. granted a vast expanse of land to the Cheyenne and Arapaho stretching between the North Platte River and the Arkansas, and eastward from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas.

In 1861 however, following the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush and the subsequent formation of the Colorado Territory, members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, lead by Chief Black Kettle, ceded most of that land in the Treaty of Fort Wise for a much smaller tract near Sand Creek.

Chief Black Kettle
Chief Black Kettle

Naturally, Black Kettle and the signers of the Fort Wise Treaty could not speak for all Cheyenne and Arapaho. Enraged by increased white settlement into their ancestral lands and suspicious, for good reason, of any new treaties, many renegade bands, particularly the famed Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, fought back by stealing livestock, raiding remote homesteads, and, in a few isolated incidents, killing or taking prisoner Anglo settlers.

In Denver meanwhile, residents needed little help in cultivating wariness towards their Indian neighbors. Nonetheless, a select few prominent citizens took it upon themselves to fan the flames of prejudice. William Byers, who in 1859 carted a printing press from Omaha to Denver, used his Rocky Mountain News to stir public angst by publishing anti-Indian editorials almost daily. John Evans, second governor of Colorado and also its Superintendent of Indian Affairs, refused to negotiate with Indians or believe in any gestures of peace. Instead, Evans beseeched Washington for permission to raise a temporary force of volunteer Indian fighters – the Hundred Dazers.

John Chivington
John Chivington

But no one man was keener to stoke anti-Indian fervor than Colonel John Chivington. After finding quick fame and glory by leading the First Colorado Infantry to a brilliant, pivotal defeat over the Texans at the Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico in 1862, Chivington had since watched his star fall. In that same year, Chivington suffered public ridicule for his supposed involvement in the staged escape and execution of the Confederate bandit Jim Reynolds. His reputation tainted, Chivington lost his 1862 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the early 1860s, both Chivington and Evans held high political aspirations. While Chivington sought the congress, Evans eyed the senate – a post he could not achieve as long as Colorado remained a territory. The two joined together as vocal proponents for statehood, and, along with the PR assistance of their friend Byers, promulgated the region’s Indian problem as cause for greater government.

dnchiefsTheir trouble, however, was that the Indians were becoming less troublesome. On September 28, 1864 a delegation of Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs under the escort of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Wynkoop paid a surprise visit to Governor Evans, Colonel Chivington, and other territorial leaders in Denver. In his famed eloquence, Black Kettle implored Evans:

                                                                                                                                                          We have come with our eyes shut, following [Wynkoop’s] handful of men, like coming through the fire. All we ask is that we may have peace with the whites. We want to hold you by the hand. You are our father. We have been traveling through a cloud. The sky has been dark ever since the war began. These braves who are with me are all willing to do what I say. We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace.

Evans, who agreed to meet with the delegation reluctantly, answered back:

Governor John Evans
Governor John Evans

My proposition to the friendly Indians has gone out. I shall be glad to have them all come in under it. I have no new propositions to make. Another reason that I am not in a condition to make a treaty is that war is begun, and the power to make a treaty of peace has passed from me to the great war chief. My advise to you is to turn on the side for the government, and who by your acts that friendly disposition you profess to me.

When the chiefs asked what Evans meant by turning to the side of the government, Evans suggested only that, “Whatever peace you make must be with the soldiers and not me.”

After recent successful parleys with more amicable officers like Wynkoop, the chiefs believed that such peace was achievable. When the meeting had ended, both sides embraced and shook hands, and Wynkoop escorted the band back to Fort Lyon.

Edward Wynkoop
Edward Wynkoop

On November 5th, Wynkoop was relieved of his command at Fort Lyon for rumors that he was supplying the Indians camped outside with rations. His successor, Major Scott Anthony, directed Black Kettle and the other Cheyenne and Arapaho families to move their camp forty miles away long the banks of Sand Creek, where, Anthony assured them, they would be safe.

The very next day, Anthony wrote in a letter to his immediate commander, General Samuel Curtis, that the Indians “pretend that they want peace, and I think they do now, as they cannot fight during the winter, except when 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…”

Two weeks later, Anthony wrote a second letter to Curtis, this one describing the need to conquer all Indians in the region, as well as how easy it could be done. He mentioned one band in particular, currently camped along Sand Creek.

Just a few short days later, Chivington had his men assembled and on the march.

The glory of Chivington and the Bloody Third was short lived in Denver following the massacre. After reports of the depredations committed against non-hostile Indians reached the ears of lawmakers in the east, multiple formal inquiries into the matter were held in Washington and Denver. Although neither was officially charged with any crime, both Chivington and Evans were forced to resign from their respective offices. Any further dreams of the congress or senate were forever dashed, like many things more, at Sand Creek.

Sand Creek National Historic Site
Sand Creek National Historic Site

Sources used:

MonthoftheFreezingMoon

Slavery: Southwestern Style

Southwest Slavery

The American Southwest during the late Spanish colonial period was home to one of the most precarious family systems in the world. Beginning late in the 17th century and continuing all throughout Mexican rule and into American conquest, settlers within these Spanish borderlands built their homes, haciendas, and communities on a slavery-based political economy. Such a foundation was hardly unique in the New World, although the system’s origins, motivations, and outcome were wholly Southwestern. The Southwest gave birth to a different kind of slave, the Genízaro – a captive Indian without a tribe who, if not in the minds of their captors then at least in the vernacular – was considered not a slave but a servant. More than that, quite often did the slave become an integrated member of the family.

The Viceroyalty of New Spain1786 - 1821
The Viceroyalty of New Spain
1786 – 1821

Considering the isolation and cultural makeup of the Southwest in the 18th century, it is little surprise that such a unique economy came to be. Given its distance from the central governing body in Mexico City as well as the Eastern influence of a young United States, New Mexico enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. Spain managed only a weak economic control over this area, allowing for the evolution of complex arrangements made between the different cultural groups in order to serve mutual economic needs.

Indian RaidDuring the Spanish colonial period, these needs included marketplaces for trade, trade routes, buffer zones between hostile tribes, labor, and, perhaps most importantly, wives and children. And so it was that for centuries slave raiding and trading acted as perpetual solutions. Indian tribes raided the Spanish, as well as amongst one another, capturing women and children who would then become Genízaros for sell or trade. The Spanish raided similarly, forcing their captives to work on their haciendas or else convert them into soldiers. Just like weapons, livestock, and pottery, “…captives simultaneously embodied real value in the exchange economy” (James Brooks, Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, p74) On top of this, the act of raiding regional tribes for slaves and then conducting counter-raids coincidentally established a network of trade routes and established marketplaces where various groups could meet to trade or ransom slaves, as well as exchange other items.

Yet whatever the initial purpose for acquiring a slave, more often than not that captive would eventually evolve into an extended member of the family. And this is perhaps what makes the Southwest borderlands system of slavery so unique.

“Unlike chattel slavery elsewhere in North America… captive women and children in this system often found themselves integrated within the host community through kinship systems – adoption and marriage in the indigenous cases or compadrazgo and concubinage in the Spanish colonial cases – they participated in the gradual transformation of the host society” (Brooks, 34).

navajo familyThus, Genízaros took a vital position in the Southwestern political economy, for not only did they provide labor in the burgeoning settlements, but they also served as wives and child-bearers for the otherwise male-dominated population. Captive children often became godchildren. Servitude gave way to kinship, and colonial law and custom regarding slavery and mixed-marriages grew ever-convoluted in this stark, Northern territory.

Nonetheless, despite earning valued places in Southwestern society, Genízaros remained at the very bottom of the region’s caste system – lower both in the eyes of the Spaniard and the native, for at least members of enemy factions had a people to call their own. But in 1821, a change swept the territory. Mexico had won her independence from Spain, and a new constitution was drafted seeking to banish the lines between ethnic classes. It was an admirable and bold ambition, and nowhere would it prove so difficult to implement than Mexico’s northernmost province.

UnknownUnder Spanish rule, Mexico’s native people were widely looked down upon as second-class citizens. Following Mexican Independence however, according to the newly-signed Treaty of Cordoba, all Mexican-Indians were henceforth to be considered equal citizens of Mexico. The word, ‘Genízaro,’ was even removed from official government usage. Unfortunately, by the time the treaty was enacted, New Mexicans had not only honed the practice of slave raiding and ownership, but come to rely upon it. So it was that the raiding of slaves and their designation at the bottom of society, despite their regular integration into families, died hard in New Mexico during independence.

Beginning in the 1820s and continuing well through American occupation, networks of cross-national trade routes opened up throughout New Mexico, and cultural divisions in the territory blurred further. With the opening of the St. Louis–Santa Fe–Chihuahua trade route, French, Scottish, Canadian, English, and American entrepreneurs poured into the territory. Settlements expanded deeper into the perimeters of the territory with Anglo migrants quickly adopting New Mexico’s unique brand of commerce and striking out upon raids of their own. As they did the territory’s slave-based economy rooted deeper, and its cultural and family make-ups grew ever more complex.

Mexican rebellionAnd unnofficial caste system persisted among the population, one which seemingly grew more defined with the arrival of self-entitled white trappers and speculators. This is not to say the Genízaros quietly accepted their given social statuses. Quite the opposite. In 1837, after more than twenty years of widening social and economic gaps combined with much political infighting, poor and mistreated New Mexicans – the Genízaros at the forefront – revolted against Governor Albino Perez in Santa Fe. The rebels decapitated Perez, and soon after replaced him with José Angel González, a native Genízaro from the Taos Pueblo.

While González’s election marked a historical cultural achievement in New Mexico’s history, the Chimayo Revolt of 1837 ultimately did not expel the slave system from New Mexico entirely. In fact, despite Mexico’s initial efforts at a free society “The 1820s would inaugurate a ferocious expansion in the New Mexican slave trade that would last until the defeat of the Navajos in 1864…” (Brooks, 250). In 1846, New Mexico Territory fell under American control. And while America would finally face its own slavery affliction not long after, the society the Genízaros helped create would live on in New Mexico for generations to come.

Works Cited:

captives-cousins-slavery-kinship-community-in-southwest-borderlands-james-brooks-paperback-cover-art

Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, by James Brooks

Mystery of the Anasazi

The Anasazi were a civilization of Native Americans that thrived in the American Southwest from roughly 750 to 1150 CE. In their time, they became masters of pottery, architecture, and astronomy. As agriculturalists, many of the tribes developed intricate systems of irrigation that fed large fields of maize, squash, and beans. They built complex cities of stone and earth high above the ground inside cliff faces, or else sprawling desert-floor structures meticulously arranged in accordance with the heavens. A distinct culture emerged, one threaded with religion and tradition, and the population boomed.

But suddenly, sometime near the end of the 12th century, this advanced society began to collapse. With the civilization’s “golden age” still fresh in their memory, the people fled their ancestral homelands in one sweeping and mysterious exodus. In many instances they did not even bother bringing their possessions with them, simply leaving behindpottery and tools for future generations to come upon like signs of a once rapture. At other sites they went so far as to burn their homes and ceremonial structures as if to seal off and renounce their ancient traditions. For decades researchers have sought answers to explain this abrupt migration. A number of theories have since been formulated, each one of them viable yet consistently prone to the next scientific discovery or hypothesis. So which one of these theories is best? Which most adequately fills this unsolved gap in anthropological knowledge?

One of the earliest and most popular of explanations is the drought theory. Through the examination of tree rings, scientists observed signs of a long dry spell afflicting the southwest beginning late in the 13th century. This dry spell has come to be referred to as the “Great Drought,” and for decades it served as the most widely-accepted answer for why the Anasazi abandoned their homelands. The civilization simply had no choice but to, quite literally, move on to greener pastures.

But following a series of archaeological discoveries later in the 20th century, along with further examinations of tree rings showing evidence of additional devastating droughts existing throughout the centuries leading up to the Great Drought, the theory was brought into question. For why, if they had weathered many severe droughts before, did they choose not to endure this particular one? Moreover, signs indicated that the Anasazi had in fact already begun their evacuation before the full onset of this Great Drought.

New theories began to evolve, ones that did not discredit the Great Drought but provided it accomplices, claiming other forces had worked in combination with the drought to persuade the Anasazi to evacuate. For instance, through more tree ring research scientists discovered evidence of a “Little Ice Age” occurring around the time of abandonment. This dramatic cooling of the earth would explain why the Anasazi simply did not relocate to closer, higher elevations where it was moister instead of fleeing completely. Those higher elevations were too cold, yet to move even lower was to move into deserts even dryer. Thus the people were trapped and possibly forced to relocate somewhere drastically different, likely far to the south.

But this theory does not explain recent archaeological excavations, like those near Dolores, Colorado and Kayenta, Arizona in which Anasazi skeletons were revealed demonstrating extreme signs of violence. Could warfare have been a contributing factor in the Anasazi’s decision to leave the Four Corners region? Around the time of the Great Drought, new Indian tribes, like those of the Numic (Ute) and Athabaskan (Navajo, Apache) families were entering the region for the first time. Could it be then that the Anasazi, previously a peaceful people of hunter-gatherers, found themselves outnumbered and outfought in their struggle to claim the land’s dwindling natural resources? Strong evidence for warfare and outside harassment can be seen in the Anasazi’s move from their original homes in canyons and desert floors up into cliff-side fortresses. For instance, starting in 1150 CE the people began to leave Chaco Canyon, only to develop Mesa Verde in 1200 CE.

Still, the theory of warfare poses a whole new question. If competing tribes like the Navajo and Utes drove away the Anasazi from their homelands, why then didn’t they stay and enjoy the spoils? How could it be that the evacuation of sites like Chaco Canyon, and later Mesa Verde, was so sudden and complete – all the pottery and tools left behind? As mentioned, before departing certain sites some Anasazi groups destroyed their homes and ceremonial structures. These acts suggest a dramatic shift in the civilization’s spirituality. Could new religions, like those emerging from the Zuni and the Mesoamericans to the south, have drawn the Anasazi out of their homelands and into places sacredly anew? Could these once-masters of astronomy and agriculture have come to view the Great Drought as a sign of Mother Earth’s distaste for their manipulation of her, causing them to not only abandon their scientific and religious structures but destroy them?

Possible 1054 Crab Nebula supernova petroglyph at Chaco Canyon

On July 4, 1054, a supernova exploded across the sky. It was visible twenty-four hours a day and for twenty-three days straight. A few years later Halley’s comet soared past the earth. Both of these phenomena are thought to be depicted in Chaco Canyon. Could Chaco’s inhabitants have perceived the two incidents as omens – signs for them to leave before it was too late?

As it stands today, each of the above theories have their own individual merits and their own well-studied base of proponents. In all likelihood, the Anasazi abandoned their homelands because of a combination of these factors, if not all of them. On the other hand, perhaps that final missing link of evidence has yet to be discovered. Perhaps there is yet another explanation for why these people so abruptly and resolutely departed their magnificent stone cities, one that has nothing to do with drought, climate change, warfare, or spirituality. For like so many other ancient questions, perhaps the only constant answer is that we may never fully know.