On This Day

On this day 154 years ago a small group of about 750 Cheyenne and Arapahoe people sheltered in the Sand Creek basin on their own deeded reservation 170 miles southeast of Denver. They lodged there after receiving instructions to do so from authorities at Fort Lyon, who were following the previous summer's dictate of Territorial Governor John Evans. Most of the indigenous men were absent searching for buffalo. Only women, children, the ill, the elderly and a few younger men slept.

In the predawn cold, Colonel John Chivington, a former pastor (and ironically, an abolitionist), ordered his volunteers of the Colorado First and Third Cavalry to attack.

Colonel John Chivington

The initial idea had been for the soldiers to steal the people's horses so they could not "escape" to join other bands. However, morale was low in Chivington's new regiment, now only 100 days from the end of their posting. Ashamed because they hadn't killed any "savages," they were known in military circles as the "Bloodless Third."

An inevitable argument erupted. Chief Mo'ohtavetoo'o (known as Black Kettle in English), a Cheyenne warrior who had much earlier realized the futility of fighting the US Army and had worked energetically for a dignified peace, tried to prevent an escalation.

Mo’ohtavetoo’o, left of center with peace pipe on lap

He raised a US flag on a tall branch while others waved white flags and kneeled "for mercy."

Preliminary stage of a Sand Creek Memorial sculpture by Henry Pratt

There was none.

Depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre by Cheyenne survivor, Howling Wolf

"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux
(History Colorado H.6130.67)

Bloodless no more, the Third vented its frustration with the continuing plains "Indian Wars" using four twelve-pound mountain howitzer guns and assorted small arms. Some people fled north up the dry river bed, some scrambled for the banks, hurriedly excavating trenches in which to hide. The guns cut them down.

Soldiers beat to death, decapitated, cut open or ran over with their horses those who survived the shooting. Over eight hours, the US Army murdered about 230 souls, mostly women and children. Afterward, according to eyewitnesses, including Captain Silas S. Soule, the soldiers wandered among the bodies mutilating them for trophies.

"Nothing lives long, only earth and mountains."
Death song of White Antelope, Cheyenne chief killed at Sand Creek

Today, the site of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site stands testament on the windswept Colorado plain. I visited on a dreary day. It is the only NPS park with the word, "massacre," in its name. Some say, in the early morning, when fog protects this sacred ground, you can hear children crying.

Thank you to the following sources for facts and images regarding the Sand Creek Massacre:
Two bibliographies you might find interesting: