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Sand Creek Other Names: Chivington Massacre
Location: Kiowa County
Campaign: Sand Creek Campaign (1864)
Date(s): November 29-30, 1864

Principal Commanders: Col. John Chivington [US]; Black Kettle, Cheyenne [I]

Forces Engaged: Third Colorado Regiment (approx. 700 men) [US]; 500 Cheyennes and a few Arapahos [I]

Estimated Casualties: Total unknown (US unknown; I 200)

Description: Scattered Indian raids had caused much ill-will between the white settlers and the Native Americans. In the autumn, Territorial (Colorado) officers had offered a vague amnesty if Indians reported to army forts.

Black Kettle with many Cheyennes and a few Arapahos, believing themselves to be protected, established a winter camp about 40 miles from Fort Lyon.

On November 29, Col. John Chivington, who advocated Indian extermination, arrived near the camp, having marched there from Fort Lyon. In spite of the American flag and a white flag flying over the camp, the troops attacked, killing and mutilating about 200 of the Indians, two-thirds of whom were women and children.


      On November 29, 1864, approximately 450 Southern Cheyennes following Black Kettle, and 40 Southern Arapahos under Left Hand, camped on Sand Creek, about fifty miles north of present-day Lamar, Colorado.

      At dawn, Colonel John M. Chivington's 700 Colorado volunteers, along with Major Scot Anthony's command of 125 regular army troops, attacked the unsuspecting villagers.

     These Plains Indian peoples thought themselves under U.S. Army protection, but the deaths of over 70 Indians, and the horrible mutilation of many of their bodies, proved otherwise. This unwarranted attack came after mounting numbers of freighters, overlanders, and military personnel had, with their thousands of stock animals, destroyed the bison economy of the Plains Indians.

      Recently arrived farmers and ranchers had little regard for the Indians' plight. Retaliatory raids launched by a few Plains warriors inflamed the settlers' irrational fears and sparked demands for the eradication of all Indian peoples in the region. 

      After the Sand Creek Massacre, Black Kettle and his people abandoned the Colorado plains, and white Coloradans hailed Chivington as a hero. But when detailed news of the attack reached the East, many reacted with disgust. Both an army and a congressional commission investigated Chivington's actions, but no official censure resulted.

    In the summer of 1993, as a result of federal legislation passed in 1989 directing the Smithsonian Institution to repatriate its Indian remains, a delegation of Southern Cheyenne traveled to Washington, D.C., and retrieved the remains of six Sand Creek victims for a ceremonial burial at Concho, Oklahoma.

November 29, 1864
     Colorado Territory during the 1850's and 1860's was a place of phenomenal growth spurred by gold and silver rushes. Miners by the tens of thousands had elbowed their way into mineral fields, dislocating and angering the Cheyenne and Arapahos.

     The Pike's Peak Gold Rush in 1858 brought the the tension to a boiling point. Tribesmen attacked wagon trains, mining camps, and stagecoach lines during the Civil War, when the military garrisons out west were reduced by the war.

    One white family died within 20 miles of Denver. This outbreak of violence is sometimes referred to as the Cheyenne-Arapaho War or the Colorado War of 1864-65.

     Governor John Evans of Colorado Territory sought to open up the Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting grounds to white development. The tribes, however, refused to sell their lands and settle on reservations. Evans decided to call out volunteer militiamen under Colonel John Chivington to quell the mounting violence.

     Evans used isolated incidents of violence as a pretext to order troops into the field under the ambitious, Indian-hating territory military commander Colonel Chivington. Though John Chivington had once belonged to the clergy, his compassion for his fellow man didn't extend to the Indians.

In the spring of 1864, while the Civil War raged in the east, Chivington launched a campaign of violence against the Cheyenne and their allies, his troops attacking any and all Indians and razing their villages. The Cheyenne, joined by neighboring Arapahos, Sioux, Comanche, and Kiowa in both Colorado and Kansas, went on the defensive warpath.

     Evans and Chivington reinforced their militia, raising the Third Colorado Calvary of short-term volunteers who referred to themselves as "Hundred Dayzers". After a summer of scattered small raids and clashes, white and Indian representatives met at Camp Weld outside of Denver on September 28. No treaties were signed, but the Indians believed that by reporting and camping near army posts, they would be declaring peace and accepting sanctuary.

     Black Kettle was a peace-seeking chief of a band of some 600 Southern Cheyenne and Arapahos that followed the buffalo along the Arkansas River of Colorado and Kansas. They reported to Fort Lyon and then camped on Sand Creek about 40 miles north.

     Shortly afterward, Chivington led a force of about 700 men into Fort Lyon, and gave the garrison notice of his plans for an attack on the Indian encampment. Although he was informed that Black Kettle had already surrendered, Chivington pressed on with what he considered the perfect opportunity to further the cause for Indian extinction.

     On the morning of November 29, he led his troops, many of them drinking heavily, to Sand Creek and positioned them, along with their four howitzers, around the Indian village.

     Black Kettle ever trusting raised both an American and a white flag of peace over his tepee. In response, Chivington raised his arm for the attack. Chivington wanted a victory, not prisoners, and so men, women and children were hunted down and shot.

      With cannons and rifles pounding them, the Indians scattered in panic. Then the crazed soldiers charged and killed anything that moved. A few warriors managed to fight back to allow some of the tribe to escape across the stream, including Black Kettle.

The colonel was as thourough as he was heartless. An interpreter living in the village testified:
 "They were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their rifle butts, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word."
     By the end of the one-sided battle as many as 200 Indians, more than half women and children, had been killed and mutilated.

      While the Sand Creek Massacre outraged Easterners, it seemed to please many people in Colorado Territory. Chivington later appeared on a Denver stage where he regaled delighted audiences with his war stories and displayed 100 Indian scalps, including the pubic hairs of women.

     Chivington was later denounced in a congressional investigation and forced to resign. When asked at the military inquiry why children had been killed, one of the soldiers quoted Chivington as saying, "Nits make lice." Yet the after-the-fact reprimand of the colonel meant nothing to the Indians.

     As word of the massacre spread among them via refugees, Indians of the southern and northern plains stiffened in their resolve to resist white encroachment. An avenging wildfire swept the land and peace returned only after a quarter of a century.

      The battle of sand creek came with no warnings or premonitions; the Indians were completely surprised and unprepared.

      On November 29, 1864, with the Civil War going full force in the East, territorial governors organized volunteer armies in an effort to defend and protect the settlers. An aura of greed and self-interest permeated the air that surrounded the brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre. This was an attack that came with no warnings or premonitions; the Indians were completely surprised and unprepared.

     The massacre occurred when Colorado Volunteers, under the leadership of Colonel John Chivington, attacked a nonviolent tribe of Cheyenne Indians, led by Black Kettle, on the banks of Sand Creek. The Volunteers erratically and viciously slaughtered the Indians, including women and children, with an estimated death count nearing the five hundred mark.

       Many of the corpses were grotesquely mutilated, in a massacre that shocked the nation. However the most heinous part of this massive slaughter was the fact that the Indians were under the impression that they were residing in the protective custody of the US Government, under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.

      Their unjust eviction was a result of the 1861 gold rush in Colorado, which generated a massive population boom, forcing the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes into the desolate Sand Creek reservation in Southeastern Colorado.

      Even the U.S. Indian Commissioner admitted that "We have substantially taken possession of the country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support."

      Evicting the white settlers was not considered a viable option, yet the government needed to resolve the situation. Its solution was to demand that the Southern Cheyenne sign a new treaty relinquishing all of their lands except for the undersized Sand Creek reservation in southeastern Colorado.

      Black Kettle, afraid that overpowering U.S. military command might result in an even less equitable settlement, agreed to the treaty in 1861 and did what he could to see that the Cheyenne complied with its provisions. Unfortunately, the Sand Creek reservation was not adequate to sustain the Indians who were forced to reside there.

     The land was in poor condition for agriculture, yet was a virtual breeding ground for epidemic diseases which swept like wildfire through the Cheyenne encampments.

      By 1862 there was not a herd of buffalo within two hundred miles. Many Cheyenne, especially young men, began to depart the reservation to prey upon the livestock and goods of nearby settlers and passing wagon trains.

      One such raid in the spring of 1864 incensed white Coloradoans so strongly that they dispatched their militia, which opened fire on the first band of Cheyenne they happened to meet. None of the Indians in this band had participated in the raids.

     When the white settlers continued to infiltrate the Sand Creek territory, the Indians became unrelenting in their attacks on the stage coach lines to Denver, as well as other reprehensible acts, all in the name of self-defense.

     Regardless, the US Government officially wanted peace with these tribes and had ordered the military to take no action against them.

     As Colonel Chivington approached the peaceful ridge on the morning of November 29th, adhering to this request was the last thing on his mind.

     Chivington and his troops had been unsuccessful in finding a Cheyenne band to fight, so when he learned that Black Kettle had returned to Sand Creek, he made plans to attack the unsuspecting encampment.

     As he surveyed the situation below him, trying to determine the best method in which to dispatch his 750 Colorado Volunteers, he spotted scores of tepees of Southern Cheyenne and their Arapaho allies, which spread across nearly a mile of land stretching along the bend of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado.

     Once the slaughter was complete, Chivington's men sexually desecrated, physically mutilated and scalped many of the dead, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.

     Miraculously, Black Kettle managed to escape the Sand Creek Massacre physically unharmed, even after returning to the scene to rescue his critically injured wife. Also under the heading of miraculous was that Black Kettle continued to advocate peace when the Cheyenne attempted to strike back.

      By October 1865, he and other Indian leaders had approved a rough truce on the plains, signing a new treaty that exchanged the Sand Creek reservation for reservations in southwestern Kansas, but ultimately dispossessed the Cheyenne of access to the majority of their coveted Kansas hunting grounds.

      The era of the Indian trader in Colorado came to an end with the Sand Creek Massacre. The dominance of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to the land east of the mountains was broken, and years of bloody battles with the plains tribes ensued.

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JD Challenger

JD Challenger

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