Thursday, December 01, 2005

An Anniversary Missed

I knew this but for some reason got distracted and failed to write anything about it in a timely manner. On November 29, 1864, about a thousand Colorado troops calling themselves the Colorado Volunteers under the command of Col. John Chivington attacked a peaceful village of 500 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. This took place at a location called Sand Creek and is known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Chief of the Southern Cheyenne, Black Kettle, had run up an American flag with a white flag below it on his lodge. Another chief named Left Hand stood with arms folded and insisted that the white soldiers would not kill him for they were his friends, saying, "Soldiers no hurt me - soldiers my friend," up until he fell from the volleys fired by attacking soldiers. It is estimated that about 500 Indians were in the village which in reality was a temporary camp. Of these, maybe 30% were men, the remaining 350 or so were women and children. More than 200 of them, the majority of whom were women and children, were massacred. After the killing stopped, many bodies were mutilated by the Colorado Volunteers. Pregnant women were cut open and fetuses pulled out, babies had their brains bashed out, ears were cut off for souvenirs, scalps taken for bragging rights. Col. Chivington himself appeared in a Denver theater some time later and displayed 100 Indian scalps including pubic hair of women.

I stated that the village was actually a temporary camp. Black Kettle had camped there under the directions of the commander of Fort Lyon, one Major Anthony, who ordered the Indians to encamp some 30 or 40 miles away from the fort to avoid any possible conflicts between the Indians and soldiers or passing white settlers. Black Kettle chose the exact site for its water supply and access to buffalo.

The Indians were there at the invitation of both Col. Chivington and Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans (Evanston, IL is named for him, he is the founder of Northwestern University and he founded, along with Chivington, what is now the University of Denver). Both men had met with Black Kettle at Camp Weld, outside Denver, on September 28, just one month before. Gov. Evans had instructed the Indians to go to their nearest military outpost, give themselves up along with any contraband they might have obtained in raids on white settlers and to follow the orders of their local military commander. Black Kettle and his people were following those instructions. Gov. Evans then ordered Chivington and his Colorado Volunteers to track down and kill any Indians they could find.

Col. Chivington was running for Congressman from Colorado Territory and was looking for something to put a little more gloss on his resume for the voters. He knew full well that the village was a peaceful one and that the few warriors there were poorly armed. He knew this because he knew that they had visited Fort Lyon before moving to the Sand Creek encampment and had given up most of their firearms. It was too juicy a target to resist.

Chivington also knew that what he was about to do was illegal. To carry it off before he could be stopped, he did some very curious things. During his march toward Fort Lyon, Chivington ordered telegraph lines to be cut, anyone met along the way was forced to accompany his troop, and, when he arrived at Fort Lyon, he set up pickets around the fort to stop anyone from leaving. In addition, he placed several people under arrest whom he thought might oppose the impending attack.

Two officers under Chivington's command refused his orders to attack and later testified against him in US congressional hearings as well as Army disciplinary hearings. Lt. Joseph Cramer and Capt. Silas Soule both believed that Chivington's actions prior to the attack as well as the attack itself were illegal. They refused to participate in the attack itself and later testified against Chivington before the US Congress. In fact, Captain Soule met with a number of officers prior to the attack and told them, "that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch." When Chivington was informed of Soule's statement he threatened to hang the captain. Captain Soule was murdered by one of Chivington's soldiers shortly after he testified.

Black Kettle was initially believed to have died in the massacre but it turned out that he managed to escape - twice. He returned after his first escape to rescue his critically wounded wife, Medicine Woman Later. She had been wounded 9 times but somehow survived. Incredibly, Black Kettle continued to support peace with the whites. Unfortunately for him, Lt. Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry caught up with him and the surviving members of his band at Washita River, just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. On November 27, 1868, almost 4 years to the day after the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer and the 7th attacked Black Kettle's sleeping village, killing him and Medicine Woman Later. In mind of the outrage over the Sand Creek affair 4 years before, Custer ordered a halt to the butchering of the women and children at Washita.

To be fair, there was a national outcry over the massacre (outside of Colorado where Gov. Evans and most people considered the massacre a great military victory and Chivington a hero). There were two Congressional investigations as well as Army disciplinary hearings but the outcomes were less than satisfying for the Indians. Chivington was forced to resign his military commission and was unsuccessful in his congressional bid. His career as both a soldier and a politician was over. Governor Evans went on to found the Denver Seminary which became the university and died as president of the seminary's Board of Governors. An otherwise exemplary career was forever besmirched by his response to the massacre.

It is believed by historians that the Sand Creek Massacre so hardened many Indians against the United States that 25 years of warfare ensued that may well have been avoided. Many of the surviving Dog Soldiers (a warrior fraternity) of the Southern Cheyenne participated in Custer's debacle at the Little Big Horn River, June 18, 1876, the greatest military disaster in American history. The Indian's response to Sand Creek caused the army to send Fightin' Phil Sheridan west to confront them. Sheridan was a Civil War commander of great repute but he is also credited with "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Custer fought and died under Sheridan's command.

The site of the Sand Creek Massacre is located approximately 10 miles east of the town of Eads and approximately 9 miles north of the town of Chivington (Coloradans of the time held him great esteem), in Kiowa County, Colorado. It is now a National Historic Site controlled by the National Park Service. Here is how the NPS describes the site.
On November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Although the Cheyenne and Arapaho people believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, Chivington's troops attacked and killed about 150 people, mainly women, children, and the elderly. Ultimately, the massacre was condemned following three federal investigations.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was authorized by Public Law 106-465 on November 7, 2000. The purposes of the Act are to recognize the national significance of the massacre in American history, and its ongoing significance to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and descendents of the massacre victims.
Last of the Independents
Colorado College Tutt Library
Rebel Cherokee
History Learning Site
National Park Service

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