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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Chivington boasted of having won a battle against 700 hundred Indian warriors, and The Rocky Mountain News hailed it as being “among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare.” But First Colorado junior officers Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer wrote outraged letters to Army officials explaining the awful truth. Chivington resigned from the Army less than a month after the massacre, which meant that he couldn’t be punished, but a military inquiry and Congressional committees investigated the matter.
Despite threats to his life from Chivington’s supporters, Soule was the first to testify against him at the military hearing in Denver. Soule would pay for his words. On the evening of April 23, 1865, he and his wife – they had married just three weeks earlier – emerged from a theater and heard gunshots. Soule drew his revolver and went to see what was going on. Two men in blue army uniforms jumped from the shadows at the corner of 15th and Arapahoe and shot Soule. Mortally wounded, Soule fired a single shot then collapsed dead in the street. His killers were never brought to justice.
Nor did Chivington see any punishment, though Congress condemned his actions as an unprovoked massacre. It found that Chivington “surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting women on Sand Creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.”
The loss to the Cheyennes was devastating. It had been a “chiefs’ camp,” and present were many members of the Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four, a key part of the tribe’s leadership. Of the 14 council members there, 13 were killed – only Black Kettle escaped. Cheyennes today compare that to one-third of the U.S. Congress being wiped out. Word of the massacre quickly spread among the Plains Indian tribes, who took it as a sign the U.S. government meant to kill them all.
In terms of Indian-white relations, there isn’t any event that comes close to the deadly results of Sand Creek, said David Halaas, former Colorado state historian. Black Kettle was a known and committed peace chief. If his village could be destroyed, any village could be attacked.
The Sand Creek Massacre ended hope of peace on the plains. A decade and a half of war erupted between the plains tribes and the U.S. government. Cheyennes joined their Sioux allies in stunning defeats of the Army at the Fetterman Fight in Wyoming in 1866 and the Battle of Little Bighorn – Custer’s Last Stand – in 1876. But by the end of the 1870s, the Cheyennes and Arapahos laid down their arms.
Brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation listening to stories passed down from their great-grandfather, Braided Hair (later Anglicized to Arthur Brady), who was at Sand Creek that day.
At night, their grandfather would speak to them in Cheyenne – their first language – as they went to sleep, telling them stories of the past. They heard how Braided Hair emerged from his tipi as the bullets began to fly, with the Cheyennes’ horse herd stampeding away from the gunfire.
That he was able to lasso a horse and throw his pregnant wife on its back to ride to safety before turning to fight the cavalrymen, surviving the melee with a bullet through his elbow. How he returned to the village at night to find nothing but burned tipis and dead bodies being eaten by coyotes.
Sand Creek remains seared into the Cheyennes’ memory, said Otto Braided Hair. “It’s this wound, this pain,” Otto said. “You mention Sand Creek, and a lot of people, they immediately start weeping when they hear about it or think about it.”