Massacre at Sand Creek

November 29, 1864 – U.S. troops slaughtered peaceful Native Americans on their reservation, which paved the way toward permanently banishing Indians from Colorado.

In 1851, U.S. officials signed a treaty with various Indian tribes allowing for white settlement west of Kansas in what later became Colorado. Both parties agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”

White settlement exploded during the Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1858, leading to the establishment of Denver City and other villages. The U.S. Indian commissioner admitted, “We have substantially taken possession of the country and deprived the Indians of their accustomed means of support.”

This vast encroachment led to another treaty in early 1861, in which Indians agreed to live on a reservation as long as they retained the freedom of movement needed to hunt for food. Movement held special importance because the reservation held little game and the land was too poor to farm.

The Territory of Colorado was established less than a month after the treaty was signed, and the Civil War broke out soon afterwards. The war caused both an influx of settlers and a drop in military presence in Colorado. This resulted in heightened tensions that included Indian attacks on the incoming farmers and miners, and settlers’ reprisals. Consequently, the Federal troops still stationed in Colorado began gradually restricting Indian movement.

To ease tensions, U.S. officials invited Cheyenne Chiefs Mo’ohtavetoo’o (Black Kettle) and Awoninahku (Lean Bear) to Washington, where President Abraham Lincoln received them in March 1863. They received medals, a U.S. flag, and assurances that as long as they held the flag, no troops would attack them. Lean Bear was hailed by his tribe as “a big friend of the whites.”

But by 1864, Territorial Governor John Evans had determined that Indians were impeding Colorado’s development, so he began working to remove them from the territory. Federal troops attacked an Indian band and killed Chief Lean Bear before he could show them proof of his loyalty to the U.S. The troops were part of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, which consisted of “street toughs, claim jumpers, and assorted riffraff.” They were commanded by Colonel John M. Chivington, who ordered them to “kill Cheyennes whenever and wherever found,” regardless of whether they were peaceful.

Evans then ordered all “Friendly Indians of the Plains” to prove their friendship by reporting to military posts within the territory. Black Kettle accepted a deal in which the Southern Cheyennes would move to the Sand Creek Reservation in exchange for Federal protection at Fort Lyon, 40 miles northeast of Sand Creek. Black Kettle said:

“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. 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.”

Soon afterward, the commander was removed for “letting the Indians run things at Fort Lyon” and replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony, an officer of Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers. Black Kettle considered leaving Colorado, but Anthony’s assurances that they would continue receiving protection convinced him and his band to stay at Sand Creek.

Meanwhile, Anthony worked to disarm and disband the Arapaho tribes, and he called for military reinforcements to attack hostiles. Before his 100-day enlistments expired, Chivington led them in an attack on Black Kettle’s camp. Some men, including interpreter John Smith, protested that such an attack would violate pledges given to Black Kettle’s tribe, but Chivington replied, “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.”

On the morning of the 29th, 700 Federal troops under Chivington and Anthony attacked Black Kettle’s tribe at Sand Creek. Most of the Indian men were out hunting buffalo when the troops descended on their camp. The Federals slaughtered the Indians’ ponies first to prevent escape. Then, as they entered the camp from three sides, hundreds of women and children huddled under Black Kettle’s flagpole, which held both his U.S. flag and a white flag of surrender. White Antelope, a 75-year old chief, was shot dead while calling for the troops to stop.

The Sand Creek Massacre | Image Credit:

The troops rode through the camp and indiscriminately killed men, women, and children. Many victims were scalped or otherwise mutilated, and the encampment was burned down. Only lack of discipline and drunkenness from the night before prevented more carnage. Chivington’s men left 28 men and 105 women and children dead. Federal losses were minimal, mostly caused by troops accidentally shooting each other.

Chivington officially claimed to have killed up to 500 Indians. He reported, “It may perhaps be unnecessary for me to state that I captured no prisoners.” Many western settlers who feared Indian attacks applauded the action, but news of the massacre horrified easterners, including army officials in Washington. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck called for Chivington’s court-martial, but by that time Chivington had resigned from the army.

Members of Congress demanded an investigation of “the condition of the Indian tribes and their treatment by the civil and military authorities of the United States.” In May 1865, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded that Sand Creek was “the scene of murder and barbarity,” with Chivington’s conduct disgracing “the veriest savage” and Governor Evans’s testimony consisting of “prevarications and shuffling.” President Andrew Johnson demanded and got Evans’s resignation as territorial governor.

Despite this massacre, Black Kettle continued calling for peace, if only because the Indians could not hope to win a war against the U.S. But he acknowledged, “Although wrongs have been done me, I live in hopes. I have not got two hearts… I once thought that I was the only man that persevered to be the friend of the white man, but since they have come and cleaned out our lodges, horses, and everything else, it is hard for me to believe white men any more.”

The Southern Cheyenne chiefs disagreed with Black Kettle and joined with the Kiowas and Arapahos to go on the warpath. This ensured that more anguish and bloodshed would follow. In October 1865, the remaining Cheyennes and Arapahos signed yet another treaty with U.S. officials, under which the Indians would “relinquish all claims or rights” to the Colorado Territory in exchange for “perpetual peace.” Thus, the Sand Creek massacre began a process that ended with Indians forever losing their land in Colorado.



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