Sand Creek massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre (also known as the Chivington massacre or the Battle of Sand Creek or the Massacre of Cheyenne Indians) was an incident in the Indian Wars of the United States that occurred on November 29, 1864, when Colorado Territory militia attacked and destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho encamped in southeastern Colorado Territory. Based on the oral history of Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird Cometsevah, around 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed at Sand Creek. More than 700 American soldiers were involved.

A delegation of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho Chiefs in Denver, Colorado in September 28, 1864.

By the terms of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, between the United States and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes (according to the Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird Cometsevah, the Cheyenne and Arapaho people did not have legal counsel during the Treaty negotiations), the Cheyenne and Arapaho were recognized to hold a vast territory encompassing the lands between the North Platte River and Arkansas River and eastward from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas. This area included present-day southeastern Wyoming, southwestern Nebraska, most of eastern Colorado, and the westernmost portions of Kansas. However, the discovery in November 1858 of gold in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado(then part of the western Kansas Territory) brought on a gold rush and a consequent flood of white emigration across Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. Colorado territorial officials pressured federal authorities to redefine the extent of Indian lands in the territory,[4] and in the fall of 1860, A.B. Greenwood, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, arrived at Bent's New Fort along the Arkansas River to negotiate a new treaty.

On February 18, 1861, six chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne and four of the Arapaho signed the Treaty of Fort Wise(The Cheyenne chiefs and Arapaho attendees were with legal counsel according the Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird Cometsevah) with the United States, in which they ceded to the United States most of the lands designated to them by the Fort Laramie treaty. The Cheyenne chiefs included Black Kettle, White Antelope, Lean Bear, Little Wolf, and Tall Bear; the Arapaho chiefs included Little Raven, Storm, Shave-Head, Big Mouth and Left Hand.

The new reserve, less than one-thirteenth the size of the 1851 reserve,[4] was located in eastern Colorado[6] between the Arkansas River and Sand Creek. Some bands of Cheyenne including the Dog Soldiers, a militaristic band of Cheyennes and Lakotas that had evolved beginning in the 1830s, were angry at those chiefs who had signed the treaty, disavowing the treaty and refusing to abide by its constraints. They continued to live and hunt in the bison-rich lands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, becoming increasingly belligerent over the tide of white immigration across their lands, particularly in the Smoky Hill River country of Kansas, along which whites had opened a new trail to the gold fields.[9] Cheyennes who opposed the treaty said that it had been signed by a small minority of the chiefs without the consent or approval of the rest of the tribe, that the signatories had not understood what they signed, and that they had been bribed to sign by a large distribution of gifts. The whites, however, claimed that the treaty was a "solemn obligation" and considered that those Indians who refused to abide by it were hostile and planning a war.

The beginning of the American Civil War in 1861 led to the organization of military forces in Colorado Territory. In March 1862, the Coloradans defeated the Texas Confederate Army in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Following the battle, the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers returned to Colorado Territory and were mounted as a home guard under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Chivington and Colorado territorial governor John Evans adopted a hard line against Indians, who were accused by white settlers of stealing livestock. Conflicts between settlers and Indians in the spring of 1864 included the capture and destruction of a number of small Cheyenne camps. On May 16, 1864, a force under Lieutenant George S. Eayre crossed into Kansas and encountered Cheyennes in their summer buffalo-hunting camp at Big Bushes near the Smoky Hill River. Cheyenne chiefs Lean Bear and Star approached the soldiers to signal their peaceful intent, but were shot down by Eayre's troops. This incident touched off a war of retaliation by the Cheyennes in Kansas.
“ Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ”

—- Col. John Milton Chivington, U.S. ArmyBury my heart at Wounded Knee, 1970

As conflict between Indians and white settlers and soldiers in Colorado continued, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos (including those bands under Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope who had sought to maintain the peace in spite of pressures from whites) were resigned to negotiate peace. They were told to camp near Fort Lyon on the eastern plains and that they would be regarded as friendly.

U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington's portrait. Chivington was a Methodist preacher and an opponent to slavery.

Black Kettle, a chief of a group of around 800 mostly Northern Cheyennes, reported to Fort Lyon in an effort to declare peace. After having done so, he and his band, along with some Arapahos under Chief Niwot, camped out at nearby Sand Creek, less than 40 miles north. The Dog Soldiers, who had been responsible for much of the conflict with whites, were not part of this encampment. Assured by the U.S. Government's promises of peace, Black Kettle sent most of his warriors to hunt, leaving only around 60 men and women in the village, most of them too old or too young to participate in the hunt. Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge, since previously he had been assured that this practice would keep him and his people safe from U.S. soldiers' aggression.
“ I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces ... With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors ... By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops ... ”

—- John S. Smith, Congressional Testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, 1865

Setting out from Fort Lyon, Colonel Chivington and his 800 troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers marched to Black Kettle's campsite. On the night of November 28, soldiers and militia drank heavily and celebrated their anticipated victory. On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his troops to attack. One officer, Captain Silas Soule refused to follow Chivington's order and told his men to hold fire. Other soldiers in Chivington's force, however, immediately attacked the village. Disregarding the American flag, and a white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced firing, Chivington's soldiers massacred the majority of its mostly unarmed innocent inhabitants.
“ Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles-the last for a tobacco pouch ... ”

—- Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre, 1974

Fifteen members of the assembled militias were killed and more than 50 wounded.

Between the effects of the heavy drinking and the chaos of the assault, the majority of the militia casualties were due to friendly fire. Between 150 and 200 Indians were estimated killed, nearly all elderly men, women and children (Over 400 children, women, mentally- and physically-challenged, and elders were brutally murdered according to Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird Cometsevah as based on his oral history)[1]. In testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the massacre, Chivington reported that as many as 500-600 Indian warriors were killed. One source from the Cheyenne said that about 53 men and 110 women and children were killed. Before Chivington and his men left the area, they plundered the tee- pees and took the horses. After the smoke cleared, Chivington's men came back and killed many of the wounded. They also scalped many of the dead, regardless of whether they were women, children, or babies. Chivington and his men dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia. They also publicly displayed these battle trophies in Denver's Apollo Theater and area saloons.


The Sand Creek Massacre resulted in a heavy loss of life, mostly among Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children. Hardest hit by the massacre were the Wutapai, Black Kettle's band. Perhaps half of the Hevhaitaniu were lost, including the chiefs Yellow Wolf and Big Man. The Oivimana led by War Bonnet, lost about half their number. There were heavy losses to the Hisiometanio (Ridge Men) under White Antelope. Chief One Eye was also killed along with many of his band. The Suhtai clan and the Heviqxnipahis clan under chief Sand Hill experienced relatively few losses. The Dog Soldiers and the Masikota, who by that time had allied, were not present at Sand Creek. Of about ten lodges of Arapaho under Chief Left Hand, representing about fifty or sixty people, only a handful escaped with their lives.

The massacre also devastated the Cheyenne's traditional power structure, thanks to the deaths of eight members of the Council of Forty-Four: White Antelope, One Eye, Yellow Wolf, Big Man, Bear Man, War Bonnet, Spotted Crow, and Bear Robe were all killed as were the headmen of some of the Cheyenne military societies. Among the chiefs killed were most of those who had advocated peace with white settlers and the U.S. government. The net effect of the murders and ensuing weakening of the peace faction exacerbated the social and political rift between the traditional council chiefs and their followers on the one hand, and the militaristic Dog Soldiers on the other.

Beginning in the 1830s, the Dog Soldiers had evolved from a Cheyenne military society of that name into a separate band of Cheyenne and Lakota warriors that took as its territory the headwaters country of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers in southern Nebraska, northern Kansas, and the northeast of Colorado Territory. By the 1860s, as conflict between Indians and encroaching whites intensified, the influence wielded by the Dog Soldiers, together with that of the military societies within other Cheyenne bands, had become a significant counter to the influence of the traditional Council of Forty-Four chiefs, who were more likely to favor peace with the whites. To the Dog Soldiers, the Sand Creek Massacre illustrated the folly of the peace chiefs' policy of accommodating the whites through the signing of treaties such as the first Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Treaty of Fort Wise and vindicated the Dog Soldiers' own militant posture towards the whites.

The traditional Cheyenne clan system was dealt a fatal blow by the events at Sand Creek. It had already been dealt a severe blow by an 1849 cholera epidemic which killed perhaps half the Southern Cheyenne population[, especially the Masikota and Oktoguna bands, and further weakened by the emergence of a separate Dog Soldiers band.


After this event many Cheyenne, including the great warrior Roman Nose, and Arapaho men joined the Dog Soldiers and sought revenge on settlers throughout the Platte valley, including an 1865 attack on what became Fort Casper, Wyoming.

Official investigations

The attack was initially reported in the press as a victory against a brave opponent. Within weeks, however, a controversy was raised about a possible massacre. Several investigations were conducted — two by the military, and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The panel declared:

“As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless [sic] condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man."

Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deed he and the men under his command had performed.

In conclusion, your committee are of the opinion that for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.

Statements taken by Major Edward W. Wynkoop and his adjutant substantiated the later accounts of survivors. These statements were filed with his reports and can be found in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, copies of which were submitted as evidence in the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War and in separate hearings conducted by the military in Denver. Lieutenant James D. Cannon describes the scalping of human genitalia by the soldiers, "men, women, and children's privates cut out. I heard one man say that he had cut a woman's private parts out and had them for exhibition on a stick. I heard of one instance of a child, a few months old, being thrown into the feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish; I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over their saddle-bows, and some of them over their hats".

During these investigations, numerous witnesses came forward with damning testimony, almost all of which was substantiated by other witnesses. At least one of those witnesses, Captain Silas Soule, was murdered in Denver just weeks after offering his testimony. However, despite the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Wars' recommendation, justice was never served on those responsible for the massacre. A Civil War memorial installed at the Colorado Capitol in 1909 listed the Sand Creek massacre as one of the Union's great victories.

Sand Creek today
A stone marker commemorates the "Sand Creek Battle Ground."

The site, on Big Sandy Creek in Kiowa County, is now preserved by the National Park Service with the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, which was dedicated on April 28, 2007, almost 142 years after the massacre.

The Sand Creek Massacre Trail in Wyoming follows the paths of the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne in the years after the massacre until their supposed wintering on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Riverton in central Wyoming, where the arapaho remain today. The Shoshones, the original inhabitants of the Wind River Reservation, call the Arapahos' continued presence "the Long Winter." The trail passes through Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper, and Riverton en route to Ethete in Fremont County in the reservation. In recent years, Arapaho youth have taken to running the length of the trail in an effort to bring healing to their nation. Alexa Roberts, superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, has said that the trail represents a living portion of the history of the two tribes.

[edit] Depiction in fiction

* Mike Blakely's fictional account of the factual event in his book.."come sundown" chapters 53 and 54.
* The Sand Creek massacre is the subject of the 1970 movie Soldier Blue and is portrayed in Little Big Man also from 1970. It is featured at the beginning of the 1957 Western, The Guns of Fort Petticoat, and forms one of the main plot devices in Tomahawk [1951], which is set a few years after the massacre but refers to it a number of times.
* The massacre is portrayed in Steven Spielberg's mini-series Into the West.
* Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz used the Sand Creek massacre as inspiration for his 1981 collection of poems From Sand Creek.
* American novelist James Michener included a fictionalized account of the massacre and its aftermath in his book Centennial, moving the incident further north, near the South Platte River and making the victims primarily Arapaho.
* American comic book artist Jack Jackson, aka Jaxon, told the story of the massacre in his 1975 story Nits Make Lice.
* The song "Cheyenne Woman" by Michael Mc Ginnis appearing on his "Let'um Buck" album references the battle and the fictional aftermath of one lone child survivor of the massacre.
* Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André wrote a song about the massacre, Fiume Sand Creek (The Sand Creek River), included in his 1981 anonymous album, which has been dubbed The Indian because of the picture of a Native American on the sleeve. Fiume Sand Creek is one of De André's best known songs.

* The song Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden chronicles the massacre.
* Banner Year on the album Our Newest Album Ever! by Five Iron Frenzy depicts the Sand Creek massacre, as well as the Battle of Washita River.
* In scene 10 of the film "Last of the Dogmen" (Savoy Pictures - 1995) actress Barbara Hershey, in her role as anthropologist Lillian Sloane, describes the Sand Creek massacre.

First to arrive were companies of the 1st Regiment. Soon, volleys were fired and artillery hurried forward. In the camp, people scurried towards the banks of Sand Creek. Others, unencumbered, made a dash for horses and weapons. Soon, an American flag was raised by Chief Black Kettle. Another Chief, White Antelope sang his journey song – “Only the Earth and Mountains Live Forever” – knowing that death was only seconds away

The 3rd Regiment came forward; dismounting, mounting, and crisscrossing the creek. By late morning, companies split, groups of volunteers on their own. Warriors defended their people’s retreat. Determined, fighting for their lives, Cheyenne and Arapaho proved formidable foes.

Several hundred of the people survived. For five miles or more the Cheyenne and Arapaho beat a bloody, torturous path up Sand Creek. Along the way, many dug hiding pits in the valley’s soft sand – here they were bombarded with gunfire and howitzer shells. Sand Creek, the scene of suffering and sacrifice became sacred ground. November 29, 1864 would never be forgotten.
Standing Water

By nightfall, ammunition had run low for the volunteers.

Tired and nervous, hundreds of young soldiers returned to
the abandoned village. They would spend the next two nights here, sleep interrupted by anxiety and exhaustion. While over a dozen paid the ultimate price, many more carried the wounds of Sand Creek for a lifetime. November 29, 1864 would never be forgotten.