The 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.
From 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:
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
Their 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:
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.
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.