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The Sand Creek Massacre

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Published: Fri, 28 Apr 2017

Although the American general public in the 1860’s believed that Native American Indians were nothing more then savages, there are a few cases where the general public were sympathetic to Native Americans. The Sand Creek Massacre is the most public example of where the United States government mistreated Indians, as well as an ideal example of where the public was outraged at the handling of Indians. The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on the 29th of November 1864 forty-two miles away from Fort Lyon Colorado, on this day friendly Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians were attacked by a group of Colorado militia led by a man called Colonel John Chivington. (History.com, n.d.) The Sand Creek Massacre was a horrific tragedy in which many terrible war crimes were committed.

Important People

Colonel Chivington is one of the most prominent figures of the Sand Creek Massacre. Colonel Chivington was the commanding officer of the Colorado Militia. Chivington was born in 1821; he later became a Methodist minister in 1844 who preached against slavery. When the Civil War started he signed on for a fighting commission, in 1862 Chivington had worked his way to the position of Major in the Colorado Volunteer Regiment. He was herald as a military hero for his role in battle of Glorietta Pass. (THE WEST, 2001)

Tensions between whites and Indians were approaching its climax in the middle of Chivington political career. He openly opposed the idea of having peace talks with Native Americans. (THE WEST, 2001)

Chivington was a known bigot, who was known to have said “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” (A Closer Look, 2002) In August of 1864, he declared that “the Cheyenne’s will have to be roundly whipped — or completely wiped out — before they will be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them.” (THE WEST, 2001) On November 29 of 1864 Colonel John M. Chivington lead a group of Colorado Militia of around 700-750 to attack the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian reservation, that had approximately only 500 men, women, and children. (Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre, 1864-1865)

Colonel Chivington, in the interrogation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had reported that there were “about eleven (11) or twelve (12) hundred Indians: of these about seven hundred were warriors, and the remainder were women and children.” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865) When Chivington was questioned by the Committee on the Conduct of the War about the number of Indians killed including women and children killed he responded by saying “I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed,” and “From all I could learn, I arrived at the conclusion that but few women or children had been slain.” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865) However the actual numbers are more likely around “105 women and children and 28 men, as well as mutilating the dead and wounded.” (A Closer Look, 2002) Chivington was asked for what reason did he commit the attack and what led he believe that Black Kettle’s Cheyenne Indians were aggressive towards whites. To which he replied “My reason for making the attack on the Indian camp was, that I believed the Indians in the camp were hostile to the whites. That they were of the same tribes with those who had murdered many persons and destroyed much valuable property on the Platte and Arkansas rivers during the previous spring, summer and fall was beyond a doubt.” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865) In his testimony, Chivington was asked if he had any reason to suspect that Black Kettle and the Indians with him had been peaceful. Chivington responded by saying “I had no reason to believe that Black Kettle and the Indians with him were in good faith at peace with the whites.” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865) This is in fact a boldfaced lie because “several witnesses testified that Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer led a large contingency of Fort Lyon soldiers that confronted Chivington and told him that Black Kettle had surrendered.” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865)

Eventually Chivington was court marshaled for his part in the massacre, nothing came of it because he was no longer part of the Army, and hence no charges were ever made. He did however lose his military and political power in Colorado, he moved back to Ohio where he attempted to run for a state legislature seat but was quickly shut out. He then moved to Denver where he became a deputy sheriff until his death in 1892. (THE WEST, 2001)

Black Kettle was the Chief of the Southern Cheyenne. Black Kettle lived on an enormous area of land that reached from western Kansas to eastern Colorado which was given to the Indians on the conditions of the signing of Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. “The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty defined territory for each tribal group in order to end intertribal rivalry and it permitted travelers and railroad workers on the Platte River Road.” (“Nd.gov,”)

However this treaty was broken after the discovery of gold at Pikes Peak in 1859. Instead of removing the unlawful settlers, the U.S. government forced the Southern Cheyenne to sign a new treaty forfeiting most of their lands, with the exception of the Sand Creek reservation. Even though the Sand Creek reservation was inhabit, not able to grow crops and not close to any herds of buffalo, Black Kettle was fearful of the United States Massive Military power and what would happen if they refused. Due to the lack of food and supplies, younger male Indians started to raid settlers and wagon trains. In the spring of 1864 a Colorado Militia group attacked a group of peaceful Cheyenne Indians. This horrid incident sparked Indian uprisings all over the Great Plains region. Black Kettle knowing that even with the Civil War going on the whites still had a vastly superior military power, so in order to secure his tribes survival, Black Kettle went to Fort Weed, Colorado, where he was promised that his tribe would be safe as long as they stayed on the Sand Creek reservation. (Black Kettle, 2001)

Colonel Chivington however, attacked the Sand Creek reservation, by some miracle Black Kettle and his wife both survived the attack. Even having lived though the carnage at Sand Creek he continued to advocate peace with the U.S. After being moved to another reservation, Black Kettle signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which moved his people onto two smaller reservations in modern day Oklahoma. History tends to have a way of repeating itself. On the 27th of November 1868, just two days shy of the fourth anniversary. On this fateful day Lieutenant Colonel Custer attacked Black Kettle’s village and both Black Kettle and his wife’s luck had run out and they were killed. (Black Kettle, 2001)

The Battle of Sand Creek

The Battle of Sand Creek, as the Rocky Mountain News called it, was stated that it was “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.” (Rocky Mountain News, p.1) Although Colonel Chivington portrayed the attack on the Sand Creek reservation as a battle in which there were, “at the time of the attack, about eleven (11) or twelve (12) hundred Indians: of these about seven hundred were warriors” (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865). However in truth there were only about “500 men, women and children” according to John Smith in the village. (Smith, 1865)

The Indians were in fact peaceful and tried to surrender. When the Indians first saw the soldiers, they rushed to go and get the “United States Indian interpreter and special Indian agent” John S. Smith who was stationed in the village in order to get intelligence on the Indians. “Black Kettle ran this American flag up to the top of his lodge, with a small white flag tied right under it, as he had been advised to do in case he should meet with any troops out on the prairies.” (Smith, 1865) That is a crystal clear picture of a peaceful group of Indians, the white flag of truce or peace is a near universal symbol. Regardless of this the soldiers attacked with artillery and then foot soldiers “swept the Creek bed, killing every Indian they could find, often hunting down fleeing children. “Kill them big and small,”” (Smith, 1865) Chivington was reported saying. “After six hours, about 150 Indians, a quarter of the camp’s population, lay dead. The soldiers took three prisoners, all children. A dozen soldiers were killed, some apparently by friendly fire in the frenzy.” (Smith, 1865) Much less then what Chivington who “estimated that between three and four hundred of the savages got away with their lives”, and taking into account the huge exaggeration of “about eleven (11) or twelve (12) hundred Indians: of these about seven hundred were warriors” at the camp. (U.S., Congress, House of Representatives, 1865).


The Sand Creek Massacre was packed full with scores of despicable atrocities. The Sand Creek Massacre in itself was horrific, more women and children were killed then actually warriors. Out of 150 dead Indians more than 70 percent were women and children. “Seventy dead bodies lying there; the greater portion women and children. There may have been thirty warriors, old and young; the rest were women and small children of different ages and sizes.” (Smith, 1865) This was said by John Smith a Native American interpreter in his congressional testimony.

Furthermore there was massive mutilation to the corpses of the deceased Indians. In John Smiths testimony he declared “I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.” (Smith, 1865) When asked how they were cut? Smith replied “With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.” (Smith, 1865) Even Mr. Smith half-breed son was not spared, even though several officers thought that the kid could be handy as a translator and guide. (Smith, 1865)

Those are the more extreme, of course there was the usually spoils of war, or looting depending on who you ask.

The Repercussions

The Sand Creek Massacre forced the United States government to reconsider the treatment of Native Americans. Many members of congress started to look into the mistreatment of Indians and stated “To maintain peace with the Indian, let the frontier settler treat him with humanity, and railroad directors see to it that he is not shot down by employees in wanton cruelty. In short, if settlers and railroad men will treat Indians as they would treat white men under similar circumstances, we apprehend but little trouble will exist.” (New Directions, 1868)

After the Sand Creek Massacre there were two major conflict category events that involved Indians happened, the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Many people in the United States do not know that the Sand Creek Massacre was a major turning point in the treatment of Native Americans. This is due to the Civil War that was in full swing at this point in time. Because of the Civil War the Indian problem, this is including the treatment and the general racism against Indians, took a backseat in favor of the issue of racism towards African Americans.

The Sand Creek Massacre brought the issue of Indian mistreatment to Congresses front door.

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