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

Top Ten Western Novels

(in my opinion)

Haunted Mesa1o. Haunted Mesa, by Louis L’Amour

One of Louis L’Amour’s longest and clearly most researched novels, Mesa  is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical thriller. While a detective working to solve a murder makes up the plot, the marrow of this novel is the mesmerizing history of the Anasazi that L’Amour weaves in so seamlessly.

The Man Who Killed the Deer9. The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters

Frank Waters was a historian who was a poet who was a novelist. The story explores both the physical world and the metaphysical as Martiniano, a Pueblo Indian, struggles to find balance between the old, traditional ways of his family, and the new, inevitably commonplace ways of the white man.

jesse james hansen8. The Assassination of Jesse James, by Ron Hansen

With a few tiny tweaks of the narrative style, this could easily be a non-fiction book, and a great one at that. Even better though is Hansen’s ability to blend real history into a novel about idolization, despondency, and fame. This is as close as we will ever come to knowing Jesse James and his killer.

little big man berger7. Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

A modern classic about a man who finds a place in both the frontier army and the Cheyenne Indians they’re pursuing. Told by a narrator who may or may not be reliable, Little Big Man is about an inconsequential man caught up in a lot of consequential events. Kind’ve like Forrest Gump set in the Old West

michener centennial western6. Centennial, by James Michener

Epic and informed – the signature style of its author – Centennial tells the story of eastern Colorado. The whole story. From the formation of the prairies and streams, to the dinosaurs, the horses, the Indians, the mountain men, the ranchers, all the way to the modern day country singer.

sea of grass richter5. Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter

Slim yet expansive, poetic and powerful, Grass makes every word count. This is the kind of book you ingest slowly, purposefully, like a quality wine. The effect is a deep, somber understanding of what the west was, and why it changed.

ox-bow incident western4. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Written when the Third Reich was at its peak, Ox-Bow is a harrowing story about mob-mentality and man’s thirst for vengeance even in the face of reason. When most western authors were writing pulp, Tilburg Clark was writing literature.

Lonesome Dove greatest western3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One review on the back cover says, “If you only read one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove.” Sound advice. For me, the soul of this immortal adventure/romance/historical novel is summed up when Augustus says, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for.”

all the pretty horses western2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Set in the middle of the last century, the characters’ ability to simply mount their horses and begin (but not continue) simpler lives in northern Mexico is a solemn reminder of how far and how fast civilization has progressed. The romance behind John Grady’s escape is only pronounced by the tragedy of his return.

call of the wild western1. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Set in what is perhaps the only remaining American frontier, Call of the Wild is the best of the western novel’s three main pillars: adventure, adaptation, and wilderness. Most of all, it is the story of the primitive, alive and wild self lying dormant but not dead within us.

New Mexico Massacre: The Taos Rebellion

It was a gray and bitter morning on February 4, 1847. Colonel Sterling Price and more than 300 American soldiers and vengeful mountain men had the St. Jerome church surrounded. Set in the northwestern corner of the Taos Pueblo, the church was a formidable building of clay walls packed six-feet thick with twin belltowers looming thirty feet high. Inside, the only light being the few candles flickering along the wall and the slits of silty dawn streaming in through freshly-punched rifle holes, huddled 200-some Mexican and Indian rebels.

Price let loose the batteries and all through the morning the Americans bombarded the walls with artillery shells to little effect. Men with hatchets stormed the heavy front door, some of them falling to sniper shots, and managed to hack a small breach in the wood. They lit cannon shells and tossing them inside the cramped quarters. The results were devastating. The breach was widened and the Americans pushed their giant howitzer within ten yards of the hole and blasted the corralled  insurgents with wave after wave of six-pound grapeshot. Men set up ladders and set the church’s roof ablaze and the Americans rushed through the broken door and engaged the remaining survivors in intense hand-to-hand combat — the air thick with smoke and flaming timbers raining from above — until more than 150 Mexican and Indian rebels lay mutilated. Those that surrendered were arrested and led away to meet their own bleak fates.

The attack had been retaliation for one of the most bloody insurrections ever conducted by native inhabitants against their American conquerors, and it had effectively squashed the only major resistance against the United States’ occupation of New Mexico.

General Stephen Watts Kearny

It began in August of 1846, shortly after the start of the Mexican-American War, as General Stephen Watts Kerny marched unchallenged into the northernmost Mexican province and declared it for the United States. Kearny inserted a new system of government, dubbed the “Kearny Code,” and appointed a number of territorial officials that included Charles Bent as Governor and Charles Beuabien as one of three federal judges. With that, Kearny departed New Mexico, leaving Colonel Sterling Price in charge of its military.

In the months that followed, tensions quickly rose between the territory’s Mexican and Indian population, and the new American regime. Under Price’s watch the soldiers digressed sometimes into cruel occupiers — requisitioning food and items from merchants without paying, abusing the women, and littering the villages. More than that, Mexican landowners grew justifiably concerned for their titles to plots previously granted by the Mexican government. And finally, due in large part to the efforts of a few paranoid and anti-American priests, Mexicans came to fear for the future of their Catholic church.

With the majority of American forces currently waging war further south in Mexico or else pressing further westward through California to the Pacific Coast under the dream of Manifest Destiny, the environment was ripe for rebellion. And as the year came to a close, Taos was to be the starting place.

Governor Charles Bent

On the morning of January 14, 1847, a roaring mob of Mexican and Pueblo Indians — some of them drunk on whisky — descended upon Taos. They were led respectively by a Mexican man named Pablo Montoya, and Puebloan known simply as Tomás, and their first stop was the home of Governor Charles Bent. Knocking rather civilly, the mob met Bent at his door and shot him three times in the face with arrows. Bent fell back, managed to bolt the door behind him, and with his wife and children, as well as Kit Carson’s wife Josefa and another woman staying with the family at the time, the group cowered in the corner of the small home as above them the mob ripped away the roof. The insurgents broke through, and with the arrows still sticking out of his face grabbed Bent by the hair and scalped him in front of his horrified family.

The massacre did not stop for two days. The mob destroyed American homes and slaughtered their inhabitants. They shot down Taos Sheriff Stephen Lee as he hid atop his roof. They discovered 13 year-old Narcisso Beaubien, son of Judge Charles Beaubien, who was absent at the time, huddled beneath a water trough with another young friend. When one of the Indian women spotted them, she yelled, “Kill the young ones, and they will never be men to trouble us,” the mob dragged the two boys out of their hiding place and lanced them to death. They broke into Kit Carson’s house, who was away with Kearny in California, and pillaged everything. A few miles north of town the mob surrounded Turley’s Mill, a distilling place of Taos Lightening, and burnt it to the ground. All but two died inside the fire; one of them Tom Tobin, who would go on to join the retaliation attack against St. Jerome, and John Albert, who fled nearly two hundred miles through the snow to Pueblo.

From there, the rebellion spread across northern New Mexico, and dispersed bands of Mexicans and Indians attacked American wagons, camps, and ranches. But as they raided their way toward Santa Fe and the big prize, they were met outside the city by Colonel Price and his command. The Americans quickly overcame the rebels and chased the survivors back northward until the majority of them had barricaded themselves inside Taos Pueblo’s missionary church. After that, Price and his men — all of them thirsting for vengeance — required only patience. That, and a few tons of cannon shells.

Judge Charles Beaubien

In the weeks that followed the siege of Taos Pueblo, the Indian leader Tomás was murdered in his prison cell. A few days later his counterpart Montoya faced a drumhead court-martial and became the star of Taos’ first public hanging. The remaining captured rebels stepped before a court presided over by none other than Judge Charles Beaubien — father of the slain Narciso and, coincidentally, father-in-law of Sheriff Stephen Lee. The jury box consisted entirely of vengeful Americans and their deliberations took only minutes. Sixteen men faced charges of murder while five more stood for treason. Sixteen times Judge Beaubien declared this same, irrefutable sentence: “Muerto, muerto, muerto.”

The Remains of old St. Jerome, Taos Pueblo