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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Black Kettle’s village of more than 100 tipis was quiet on the frosty morning of Nov. 29, 1864. The lodges were set up a short distance from the dry bed and bluffs of Sand Creek. Many of the men were away hunting buffalo, leaving the elderly, women and children at the camp. At sunrise, the village heard the thundering of hundreds of hooves in the distance. “Buffalo!” someone shouted. But then they saw the truth. “Soldiers!”

It was Chivington. The day before, he had arrived with the Third Colorado Cavalry at Fort Lyon, where he gathered more troops from the First Colorado Cavalry stationed there. Some 675 cavalrymen with a battery of 12-pounder mountain howitzers had set out in the dead of night, guided by the North Star, for the peaceful Indian encampment.

Black Kettle tried to reassure his frightened people, shouting, “Don’t be afraid! There is no danger! The soldiers will not hurt you!” He put up an American flag on his tipi to make it obvious that they were friendly. For good measure, he tied a white flag beneath it.

It was to no avail. Chivington, with no great victories to his credit and his soldiers’ enlistments about to run out, went to the one place he knew he would find Indians to attack. It made no difference to him that it was the village of the Cheyennes’ greatest peace chief.

“Kill and all, big and little,” was Chivington’s philosophy. “Nits make lice.”

The soldiers began encircling the village, opening fire with carbines and pistols, their deadly fire ripping into the sides of tipis. They were soon joined by the boom of a battery of 12-pounder cannons. Some of the First Colorado soldiers from Fort Lyon were horrified – the village was supposed to be under their protection. Captain Silas Soule, in command of Company D of the First Colorado, defied orders to attack and ordered his men to stand down.

“I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” Soule wrote less than a month later.

Cheyenne Chief White Antelope, like Black Kettle, a committed peace chief, refused to believe the soldiers had come to hurt his people. White Antelope was one of the greatest and bravest Cheyenne warriors, and had he wanted to, he could have fought the soldiers with unrivaled ferocity. But he didn’t want bloodshed. To show the oncoming soldiers he was not going to fight, he stood near Black Kettle, folded his arms across his chest and began singing his death song – “Nothing lives forever, only the earth and the mountains” – when he was shot dead in a hail of bullets.

The few fighting-age men who were at the village used bows and arrows and what firearms they had to put up a defense while the women and children ran for their lives. The soldiers lost all organization and broke into smaller groups to chase down the fleeing Cheyennes and Arapahos, many of whom sought shelter in sand pits beneath the bluffs on the creek bank, only to be trapped there and killed.

The massacre lasted all day, the soldiers pursuing their victims until their ammunition ran out. The number of Cheyennes and Arapahos killed is commonly given as 163, but recent estimates put the figure at more than 200, if not 300.

The brutality of the Colorado volunteers is hard to fathom. Soldiers took turns shooting at a toddler as if at target practice, firing until the child was killed. A cavalryman attacked a woman with a hatchet, hacking off her arm before driving the axe through her head and scalping her. A pregnant woman’s belly was slashed open and her unborn child taken out. “It was hard to see little children on their knees, having their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized,” Soule wrote.

Fingers, ears and private parts were cut from the dead bodies, and nearly all were scalped. Chivington’s men returned to Denver in triumph a few weeks later and paraded their trophies down Larimer and Blake streets as bands played and crowds cheered. Scalps and other body parts, already nearly a month old, were strung up across the stage of the Denver Theater to an admiring audience. But the admiration was short-lived.


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