"But what do we want to live for? The
white man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not
satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children."
Southern Cheyenne Council
THE SAND CREEK MASSACRE
BLACK KETTLE (1813-1868)
"All we ask is that we 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 willing to do what I say. We
want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in
peace. I want you to give all these chiefs of the soldiers here to
understand that we are for peace, and that we have made peace, that we
may not be mistaken by them for enemies. I have not come here with a
little wolf bark, but have come to talk plain with you."
-Motavato (Black Kettle) speaking to Gov. Evans, Col. Chivington, Maj.
Wynkoop & others in Denver, autumn, 1864
Black Kettle had been
a great warrior in his youth. Now, in late summer of middle age, he was a
widely recognized Chief of the Southern Cheyenne. Accompanied by Lean
Bear, he had recently been to Washington and shook hands with the Great
Father Lincoln. Lean Bear and Black Kettle had been friends since they
were babies; it must have blown their minds to visit the Capitol City. It
is not hard to imagine them walking amidst all the bustle and building
thinking,, just what are these white folks trying to do?
presented them with pretty medals to wear and papers stating that they
were good friends of the United States. But since then, things had been
getting more confusing on the plains. There was talk of soldiers attacking
One morning Lean Bear
rode out to meet the Bluecoats as they approached the Cheyenne camp on Ash
Creek. He wore the medal and brought the papers to show the soldiers that
he was peaceful. When he was close enough, they opened fired and killed
Black Kettle did not understand this. He and Lean
Bear tried to avoid conflicts and steered their people away from the
unforeseen dangers encountered through too much contact with buffalo
hunters, stage roads, white man's forts and railroads.
The warriors of the
Southern Cheyenne, the young men who comprised the Dog Soldiers, were more
attracted to leaders like Roman Nose who loved a good fight, especially if
there seemed to be a noble cause. As things got crazier on the plains,
indiscriminate attacks became mutual fare. The Dog Soldiers believed that
they could realize their ends through armed struggle and conducted a
guerrilla war along the Platte, launching many bloody raids against the
inexorable advance of the whites across the Great Plains.
In 1864, officials in Colorado issued an ultimatum;
all friendly Indians should surrender by reporting to the local forts
where they would be instructed on what to do and be protected. Hostile
Indians and those not complying with this form of surrender would be
hunted down and killed. The soldiers who killed Lean Bear had been
instructed to kill Indians, period.
Governor John Evans of
the Colorado Territory, had leaned on his connections in Washington and
received permission to raise a new regiment for protection against
marauding Indians. The possibility of peace offered by Black Kettle, White
Antelope and other Cheyenne chiefs was not what Evans had in mind.
Evans wanted to satisfy
his constituents and had already committed himself to a course of action.
He felt it would compromise his credibility with his connections in DC as
well as betray the locals who desired to avoid conscription by joining a
regiment to fight poorly armed Indians rather than well-seasoned
Confederate troops. As the Governor explained, "They have been raised to
kill Indians, and they must kill Indians."
On November 29, 1864, troops under the command of
Colonel John M. Chivington, a former Methodist preacher with political
ambitions, attacked and destroyed the Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle
and Chief White Antelope by Sand Creek, on the plains of eastern Colorado.
Upon hearing the
approaching soldiers in the early morning light, White Antelope went out
to meet them. The Bluecoats raised their rifles and White Antelope sang a
death song as the bullets tore through him.
Black Kettle stood in
the middle of the camp and raised his American flag as well as a white
flag in case anyone thought the first one was just a souvenir.
The previous year in
Washington, Colonel Greenwood, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, had
presented Black Kettle with this huge 34 star flag, saying that soldiers
would not fire upon anyone standing under the Stars and Stripes. Black
Kettle always mounted it above his tipi in the middle of the village when
he stayed in one place for any length of time.
He and the other chiefs
in his camp had already declared themselves at peace and were led to
believe they had done what they were told to do. They were now under the
military protection of Fort Lyon.
So the Chief held up the
poles in the early November air and his breath condensed into mist as he
called to his people and with prayerful confidence, told them not to be
afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them.
troops then opened fire from both sides of the camp, shooting directly
into the crowd around Black Kettle and scattering them.
estimates figure the Indian dead at 105 women and children and 28 men. The
Army also drove off about six hundred horses and mules.
In a few nauseating hours, a gang of white devils
had "destroyed the lives and power of every Cheyenne and Arapaho chief who
had held out for peace." (Dee Brown)
The slaughter would soon cause a massive public
reaction, but what exactly had happened on the banks of Sand Creek was not
immediately obvious to the general public.
The soldiers, many of them drunk, had killed
indiscriminately. After the battle, they went on to scalp, bash in skulls
and otherwise mutilate the dead. Officers and enlisted men alike cut off
the private parts of men, women and children and kept them as souvenirs.
Others cut off fingers to obtain rings. Women and children prisoners were
killed and scalped by the Bluecoats who were "wading in gore" as
Chivington had promised.
A full two weeks after the massacre, the Colonel was
honored with a big parade through the streets of Denver. He even appeared
onstage displaying some of his grisly trophies. A Denver editorial
boasted, "Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent
campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals,
and none to exceed it in final results." They go on to state, "Colorado
soldiers have again covered themselves with glory."
Caught up in his own demented illusions, Chivington
decided to publicize the cowardice of Captain Silas Soule (1839-1865) and
other officers at Fort Lyon who denounced the treacherous attack, saying
that it would be murder and a disgrace to the Army to participate in such
Ordered to accompany the expedition or face
court-martial, they went along, but ordered their troops to stand down
unless fired upon. When Chivington spoke in Denver about Soule, Captain
Soule's men could no longer contain themselves and in proud defense of
their leader, spoke about what they had seen and heard that day. Soule
wrote, that it was "... hard for me to see little children on their knees
begging for their lives, to have their brains beaten out like dogs."
This led to an investigation into Chivington's
conduct which was not a popular move in Denver that year and proceedings
were conducted under a cloud of intimidation. But Soule, who had
previously schemed with the Jayhawks, and helped the Underground Railroad,
and who had fought alongside Chivington against the Confederates at
Glorieta Pass, had seen too much that was contrary to his ideals at Sand
Creek that day to be shut down.
He knew Black Kettle and his people and that this
was a peaceful band seeking refuge. It was deceit to consider the Army's
actions as anything but cold-blooded murder. Soule spoke out against the
deeds of his old commander and alerted the world to the holocaust
happening in the American west.
Soon afterwards, he was shot by a friend or
supporter of Chivington who moved to California and was never brought to
Major Wynkoop, an eyewitness to events preceding
the slaughter at Sand Creek, offered this report to the American
Geographical and Statistical Society at the Cooper Institute, on Christmas
Eve, 1864. It appeared on page one of the New York Tribune;
In regard to the causes of the Indian war which
has existed, at intervals, since 1863, speaking alone from my own
personal knowledge, I would say, without hesitation that the initiative
has in every instance been taken by our own people.
Ten years ago I was one of a party of 17
adventurers who started from the Territory of Kansas to seek their
fortunes in the region of the Rocky Mountains that was then known as the
Pike's peak country, now the Territory of Colorado.
During our journey thither we passed through
numerous bands of Indians, viz.: Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahos, Cheyennes,
and Apaches. Thousands of them were camped along the Arkansas River, all
the way to the Rocky Mountains.
We were treated hospitably by them and with the
utmost kindness; we were the vanguard of an army of emigrants, who were
soon to take possession of their hunting grounds, and it would have been
but a simple effort for them to have crushed us at that time had they
felt so disposed.
But, on the contrary when the nucleus which we
formed had gathered together hundreds of gold seekers at the mouth of
Cherry Creek where now stands the city of Denver and the Indians knew
that the supposed treasures of these mountains would attract thousands
who must necessarily encroach upon their rights, still their intercourse
was of the most pacific character.
As the emigration continued to flow in during
the years '58, '59, '60, '61 and '62, I know of no instance in which the
friendly relations, existing between the Indian and the white man were
But during the year 1863 that country was
cursed with the presence of a man in power, the commander of a military
District, in which was included the Territory of Colorado, whose
position gave him absolute sway, and whose name is synonymous with
infamy, Col. J. M. Chivington.
Having had his command reduced by frequent
calls of troops to take the field against those who were endeavoring to
dissever our Union, found that it was necessary to do something to
retain him in the most exalted position he had ever held--that of a
commander of a military district where troops were not really required.
He, therefore, thought it was politic to
inaugurate an Indian war. Finding a good opportunity, on the pretense
that a certain hunting party of Cheyenne Indians had run off some stock
which they had found on the prairie, and at the time were driving toward
a ranch to return to their lawful owners, he ordered a detachment of his
troops to make an attack upon them.
They naturally defended themselves, and the consequence was a skirmish,
in which some lives were lost; and from that arose the cry of an Indian
Under the orders of this monster, the troops
then took the field to kill all Indians that they might meet. The
Indians, in retaliation for the wrongs had been imposed upon them,
naturally committed depredations whenever they had an opportunity; but
after this state of affairs had existed for a couple of months, under
the influence of the older and wiser heads of their race, retired from
the highways and the vicinity of the settlements, and sued for peace.
An armistice existed for a short time, and then
came the fearful massacre of Sand Creek, with the details of which
almost every one is familiar, where Indian women and children were
murdered in cold blood by United States troops and their bodies
mutilated in the most horrible manner.
A year later, Black Kettle, still determined to find
a way to live in peace with white men,
again met with US government treaty makers at the mouth of the Little
Arkansas River in Kansas...
"Although the troops have struck us, we throw
it all behind and are glad to meet you in peace and friendship. What you
have come here for, and what the President has sent you for, I don't
object to, but say yes to it...
The white people can go wherever they please
and they will not be disturbed by us, and I want you to let them know...
We are different nations, but it seems as if we
were but one people, whites and all...
Again, I take you by the hand, and I feel
These people that are with us are glad to think
that we can have peace once more, and can sleep soundly, and that we can
-Motavato (Black Kettle), October, 1865
The chiefs present at the
meeting on the Little Arkansas, signed away all claims of the Southern
Cheyenne and Arapaho to the Territory of Colorado and agreed to 'perpetual
peace'. As agreed, they moved south of the Arkansas River where they
enjoyed a few good seasons, able to resume some semblance of their former
lives and attempt to raise their families on the grassy plains.
"These were happy days for us," recalled George
Bent, a half-breed who married Black Kettle's niece. But there were soon
problems. The government did not hold up their part of the bargain and
failed to supply the Indians with arms and ammunition as promised.
Game was becoming scarcer every day; and unable to
procure subsistence for their families, with no means to acquire the
absolute necessities of life, some became desperate.
to Major Wynkoop,
"Some of the wilder spirits, incensed at treatment which they supposed
to be most unjust, started on the war-path against the whites, but they
were the outlaws of their tribe, and were so declared by those chiefs
whom I saw after they had committed their depredations.
Their whole race should not have been made
responsible for the evil doings of a few, for the head men of their
tribe, with whom I held council, considered that those outlaws had done
more injury to their own people than to mine, and were willing and
anxious to deliver them up to us to be handed over to justice; but the
troops were in the field and the Indians in flight before the same could
The next council was at
Fort Larned, Kansas in the fall of 1866, General Winfield Scott Hancock
presiding. The Indians called him Old Man of the Thunder, and he was
intent on getting something done. Maybe it was the shadow of defeat
hanging over him from the Civil War, the repeated insults to his warrior's
pride suffered under Confederate clout, but Hancock was not a good man to
have sent west.
Back in '62, the press had dubbed him Hancock the
Superb for his military exploits. This was the man who wasted Pickett's
Charge at Gettysburg . But by the fall of '64 he left his field command
because of discouragement and burn out. His men had been severely
butchered, his guns had been overrun, the glory had faded in a series of
defeats during the Virginia campaign. Grant had sent Hancock's men to the
slaughter in a futile charge at Cold Harbor.
Discouraged with the quality of the new troops under
his command, Hancock was no longer in the mood to rebuild and chose to
move on. Having come west, he was intent on a no-nonsense session that
would produce results. He had presidential ambitions and actually ran
against Garfield in 1880, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
First, he must enact the heroic deeds which would
make his name a household word. The General especially wanted to meet with
the leaders of the Dog Soldiers. He was angry and insulted that the great
warrior Roman Nose had not come to the council.
In response, Hancock marched his troops out
toward the Indian camp. The Indians, many of whom had been at Sand Creek,
could quickly see where this was leading and sent most of the women and
children away on ponies.
Hancock told the remaining young men to bring the
others back. The warriors rode off, but did not return. Hancock waited a
few days, then inventoried and burnt over 300 lodges, turning everything
these people possessed to ashes.
Now whole families were destitute, in a starving
condition, and without shelter on the open prairie. The enraged Dog
Soldiers struck back with renewed vigor.
General J.B. Sanborn, one of the Indian
"For a mighty nation like us to be carrying on a war with a few
straggling nomads, under such circumstances, is a spectacle most
humiliating, an injustice unparalleled, a national crime most revolting,
that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the
judgment of heaven."
Hancock was recalled
and his troops were sent elsewhere. General Sherman arranged the council
next fall. The government wanted the Indians to share a reservation south
of the Arkansas and would provide land and cattle to assist in their
Over four thousand Indians were present for the
discussions at Medicine Creek Lodge, although the lack of Cheyenne at this
gathering disturbed the US commissioners, their main goal was to convince
the Dog Soldiers to accept the land south of the Arkansas as a move in the
direction of peaceful co-existence.
Roman Nose was not interested in accepting these
limits and his band moved north. Still, many leaders of the Dog Soldiers
were coaxed into attending.
"We were once friends with the whites but you
nudged us out of the way by your intrigues, and now when we are in
council you keep nudging each other. Why don't you talk, and go
straight, and let all be well?"
-Motavato (Black Kettle) to the Indians gathered at Medicine Creek
Lodge, October, 1867
When the gallant
Roman Nose was killed in a reckless charge against a group of scouts in
the fall of 1868, many of these young warriors lost heart in the struggle
and headed south to join Black Kettle's band.
Black Kettle was glad to see them return and warmly
accepted the braves back into his fold. No doubt he spoke with them about
the futility of making war against the whites. He had just returned from
Fort Cobb a few days before.
There he had met with General Hazen who assured him
that his village would not be attacked. The General issued them some
coffee, sugar and tobacco, knowing that he would probably never see them
Hazen was well aware of Sheridan's plans. Black
Kettle had resisted the entreaties of some of his people, including his
wife, to move their camp downriver closer to larger encampments of
Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Apaches wintered there. He refused to believe that
Sheridan would order an attack without first offering an opportunity for
peace. This was a serious miscalculation.
Abraham Lincoln had commented that Sheridan was, "One
of those long-armed fellows with short legs, that can scratch his shins
without having to stoop over." The Indians thought the stocky commander
looked like a little bear with a bad attitude.
A Comanche who had surrendered walked up to Sheridan, and
smiling, pointed to himself, and said; "Tosawi, good Indian." Sheridan is
then reported to have said ,"The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
Sheridan would one day become Commander in Chief of the entire US army
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