Legacy of the Sand Creek Massacre
On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, 700 peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos gathered in their tipis on the bend of Sand Creek. Legendary peace chief Black Kettle believed he was leading his people into safety under the protection of the US Army, but instead found his home the site of one of the most atrocious massacres in the history of the West.
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(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
IT WAS A HOMECOMING more than a century in the making. In the chill of a late November morning, dozens of people from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian nations ran down modern-day Broadway in Denver, the lead runner holding aloft an eagle-head staff lined with feathers. Their destination: the Colorado State Capitol.
The runners ascend the hill and reach the capitol steps, where they come upon a bronze statue of a Civil War Colorado Volunteer solider – the very image of the soldiers who violently drove their ancestors out of Colorado. In a spontaneous moment, the young American Indian man carrying the staff leaps atop the statue’s pedestal, raises the staff and strikes the bronze soldier on the head. He has counted coup. In Plains Indian culture, to count coup is to touch an enemy without killing him – as if to say, “I could kill you, but I give you your life.” The growing crowd shouts with joy. They have returned to Colorado, after all these years. They have survived.
The Cheyennes and Arapahos lived in Colorado before there was such a thing as Colorado. There were no borders hundreds of years ago as they followed the great buffalo herds, which met almost all of their needs: meat for food, buffalo hide for tipis and clothing. The tribes’ territory stretched north across the plains to Montana, east to Kansas and south to Oklahoma, but Colorado was at the heart of their world.
There came a trickle of white settlers to Colorado in the early 1800s, but it became a flood when gold was discovered in 1858. Denver grew quickly along the banks of Cherry Creek, and in 1861, Colorado Territory was established. Territorial Gov. John Evans wanted Colorado to become a state, and he saw Colorado’s native people as the roadblock keeping the territory from statehood.
Evans wanted a war to drive the Indians out of Colorado, and he needed a reason. That came on June 11, 1864, with the murder of the Hungate family on their homestead just 30 miles southeast of Denver. Their four bodies, each scalped and mutilated, were displayed downtown. It was never discovered who was responsible for the killings, but the incident sparked rage against the Cheyennes and Arapahos. The people of Denver were convinced there would be a full-fledged Indian attack on the city. When a Mexican horse herder drove his animals into Denver, the cloud of dust the herd created outside town sent the populace into a panic, thinking it was an advancing army of natives.
“Self preservation demands decisive action, and the only way to secure it is to fight them in their own way,” The Rocky Mountain News editorialized. “A few months of active extermination against the red devils will bring quiet, and nothing else will.”
Evans called for the formation of a regiment of Indian fighters, the Third Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. Commanding the Army in Colorado was Evans’ friend Colonel John M. Chivington, a blustery, barrel-chested Methodist minister with a reputation for preaching an aggressive form of “muscular Christianity.” He was called “the fighting parson,” and he spoke from the pulpit wearing a pair of Colt revolvers. Chivington was admired as the hero of the Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass, and he had dreams of being appointed brigadier general, and from that a career in politics. “If I can get this appointment now, after the war is over I can go to Congress or U.S. Senate easy,” Chivington wrote to a supporter. Chivington felt a great military victory against the Indians would win him that brigadier’s star.
But Chief Black Kettle, one of the influential Cheyenne peace chiefs, desperately wanted to avert a war. He called for a conference with Evans and Chivington, who were dismayed – they had raised a regiment to fight the Cheyennes and Arapahos, not to make peace. The Camp Weld Conference in Denver was an ostensible success, ending with Black Kettle embracing Evans. Black Kettle agreed to lead his 700 Cheyennes, along with some Arapahos, to Fort Lyon in southeast Colorado, where they would surrender under the Army’s protection. When the Indians got there, they were instructed to camp at a safe place 40 miles to the northeast, along the great bend of Big Sandy Creek – known to history as Sand Creek.