I recently realized that the natural areas I enjoy roaming have human histories that I too often am unaware of. Unfortunately, they are sometimes violent and disturbing, but they also contain important lessons that we need to remember. This is the story of one place in southeast Colorado, a wide sagebrush grassland with a dry creek bed running through it, bordered by a few bluffs.
If you stood here on November 29, 1864, you would’ve seen Colorado volunteer militia slaughtering Cheyenne and Arapaho children, women, and men. At dawn that morning, 675 white men with rifles, pistols, swords, and even four howitzers surprise-attacked a peaceful and starving village of Native Americans. One of their leaders, Chief Black Kettle, raised a U.S. flag and a white flag in surrender. He was shot at. For the next several hours, the militia shot, stabbed, and beat to death every Indian they could catch. “Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen,” wrote Captain Silas Soule, who ordered his men not to attack. By the end of the day, 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed. About 150 were women and children.
This is not ancient history in a faraway place. This happened 155 years ago, recent enough for some people’s grandparents to have been there. This happened 150 miles from Denver, just a three-hour drive today. This was one of the most horrible things our state has ever done. Yet do we teach this in schools? Do our citizens know about it?
Last May I visited the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. It was a disturbing experience that I want to share with you. Please read along.
“…pursue, kill and destroy all hostile Indians that infest the plains, for thus only can we secure a permanent and lasting peace.” That is what Colorado’s territorial governor John Evans wrote in a proclamation in Rocky Mountain News, Colorado’s premiere newspaper at the time, on August 13, 1864. In the 1800s, white settlers were forcing the Cheyenne and Arapaho into smaller and smaller territories. First the whites wanted their land for travel routes, then cattle grazing, then gold mining.
In the process, they broke treaties, killed the native people, stole their land, and exterminated the bison, leading to their starvation. In desperation, some Cheyenne and Arapaho fought back. They attacked white travelers and settlers, sometimes to steal desperately needed food, and sometimes out of revenge. But the whites saw them only as violent, dangerous savages that threatened Colorado’s future.
“Self preservation demands decisive action, and the only way to secure it is to fight them in their own way. A few months of active extermination against the red devils will bring quiet, and nothing else will,” wrote the Rocky Mountain News, in an editorial published on August 10, 1864.
Wiping out Indians was not only an act of racist hate; it was part of Colorado’s economic strategy. “Make the eastern capitalist feel that it is but a gala trip across the plains, and we will soon have sufficient means by the sale of our valuable claims to enjoy life like rational men…” the Rocky Mountain News wrote in another editorial published January 4, 1865.
So it’s not surprising that in 1864, after desperate Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a treaty with the governor of Colorado and Colonel Chivington agreeing to relocate to a reservation with inadequate water or food (and slowly starve to death) in exchange for “protection”, that Chivington led a band of volunteer militia (not U.S. soldiers) to exterminate those Indians. The massacre was more horrible than you can imagine.
“…it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One squaw with her two children, were on their knees begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all, firing – when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself…One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped.”
These are the words written by U.S. Captain Silas Soule, describing the atrocities he witnessed Coloradans commit against the surrendered and starving Cheyenne and Arapaho during the Sand Creek Massacre. The savagery didn’t end at the battle. Afterwards, Coloradans mercilessly killed the wounded and nightmarishly mutilated the corpses.
“After the fight was a sight I hope I may never see again. Bucks, women, and children were scalped, fingers cut off to get the rings on them…little children shot, while begging for their lives…women shot while on their knees, with their arms around soldiers begging for their lives.” – Lieutenant Joseph Cramer
“White Antelope, War Bonnet and a number of others had Ears and Privates cut off. Squaw’s snatches were cut out for trophies.” – Captain Silas Soule
“The bodies were horribly cut up, skulls broken in a good many; I judge they were broken in after they were killed, as they were shot besides. I do not think I saw any but what was scalped; saw fingers cut off [to take rings] saw several bodies with privates cut off, women as well as men.” – Sergeant Lucien Palmer
“One little child 3 months old was thrown in the feed box of a wagon and brought one days march and there was left on the ground to perish.” – Lieutenant Joseph Cramer
I tried to find Cheyenne and Arapaho accounts of the massacre, but the only thing I could find was this elk hide painted by Eagle Robe, the great-grandson of one of the escaped Arapaho. In the center, a soldier cuts off the genitals of a dead Indian.
How did Coloradans react when they heard about the Sand Creek Massacre? Initially, the militia portrayed it as a heroic battle of a few brave soldiers against hundreds of armed and ferocious Indians. In Denver, crowds cheered when returning soldiers displayed human trophies. “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,” wrote the Rocky Mountain News. “As the ‘bold sojer boys’ passed along, the sidewalks and the corner stands were thronged with citizens saluting their old friends: and the fair sex took advantage of the opportunity, wherever they could get it, of expressing their admiration for the gallant boys, who donned the regimentals for the purpose of protecting the women of the country by ridding it of red skins,” went another editorial.
When soldiers of conscience reported the atrocities that had been committed, the U.S. military called for an investigation. Coloradans were outraged, not by the atrocities, but by the fact that the government was investigating them. Captain Soule testified against Colonel Chivington (the man who led the massacre) at the military inquiry in Denver and played a major role in revealing the truth. Soule was then shot dead in broad daylight on a busy Denver street. His murderer was never charged.
Chivington was never formally charged nor tried. The year after the massacre, the U.S. government admitted responsibility for it and promised reparations to survivors. They have never been fulfilled.
But what I think is the greatest insult to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people is that few Coloradans today even know that any of this happened. The Sand Creek Massacre happened 155 years ago, but it still bears important lessons for us today. It demonstrates the nightmares that can become reality if we dehumanize people and encourage hatred. It’s a reminder of the shameful way the United States acquired its land, wealth, power, and “freedom.” The Sand Creek Massacre is not a unique event; our history is full of similar slaughter and disempowerment, and they continue today. We need to understand them in order to prevent them.
Please, honor the massacre’s victims and respect their descendants by educating yourself on the history of Native Americans near you. Learn about the complex and vibrant culture that your ancestors may have tried to exterminate. And respectfully celebrate and support the indigenous cultures that persist around you. This history is not far behind us. Let’s not repeat it.
I am not Cheyenne or Arapaho. I’m not trained in Native American studies. I do not have any expertise in the Sand Creek Massacre. I’m just an ethnically half-indigenous (South America) Coloradan who believes in respecting all people and learning from history. Please let me know if anything I wrote is inaccurate or insensitive to the Cheyenne or Arapaho people.