This month, 150 years ago, more than 600 troops—temporary militia in the Third Colorado Cavalry and professional soldiers in the First Colorado Cavalry—converged above the camps of mainly Cheyenne and Arapaho people beside Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory. In the quiet, slightly snow-sprinkled morning, the troops executed the most horrifying massacre of as many as 200 people—mainly women, children and elder men. This inhuman killing and subsequent mutilation of even children’s bodies happened at the location where chiefs—Black Kettle, White Antelope, Left Hand and others—were sent to await word on peace negotiations with the U.S. military and Colorado government.
Immediately afterward, Col. John Chivington, leader of the unprovoked attack, extolled the “battle” to his superiors, but it soon became evident through letters of other officers and the bloody scene itself that this was nothing less than mass murder, a finding confirmed by federal investigations. The massacre outraged even some of the Civil War-hardened politicians and military men of the time and it likely set in motion the years-long wars between tribes and the U.S. government that followed. Trust had been broken beyond repair, making peaceful negotiations between the clashing cultures more difficult. In remembrance of this event, here are six selected insights into the times and short introductions to some key people involved.
Capt. Silas Soule Tried to Stop the Attack
Capt. Silas Soule, who refused to attack the people at Sand Creek, actually tried to stop the massacre in advance. Days before November 29, Soule encountered Col. John Chivington and the hundred-days men while on patrol. Chivington asked about the Sand Creek camp and Soule reminded him that these chiefs and their people were sent there after peace discussions with the colonel himself. Hearing conversations about Chivington’s men, Soule recognized their murderous intentions.
He first approached officers, chiding anyone who would take part in an attack on a peaceful community as “cowardly sons of bitches,” but some officers reported him to Chivington. He next approached Maj. Scott Anthony, the military head of the region who had assured Chief Black Kettle that he would continue protection given by his predecessor, Maj. Ned Wynkoop. Rather than helping to stop the attack, Anthony told Soule that he was only bidding time until he could gather a large enough force to kill all the Indians.
Testimonies of three young military officers, who verified the truth of the bloody mass murders at Sand Creek, quickly brought governmental condemnation, unlike the massacres in the Cheyenne village at Washika River in Oklahoma (1868) or in the Lakota encampment at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1890), after which some soldiers were actually given medals.
Soule, like his commander, Col. Chivington, was an avid abolitionist. His family was involved in the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves. But Soule did not subscribe to Chivington’s bloody ambition. He ordered his troops not to fire during the Sand Creek attack and immediately sent a letter detailing the killings and mutilations to Maj. Wynkoop after the massacre. He was the first to testify in the federal inquiries about the Sand Creek Massacre that began in February 1865. Just a few months later, in April, he was shot and killed in Denver. His gravesite has been a stopping point along the Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run. Lt. Joseph Cramer also ordered his men not to shoot at Sand Creek, wrote to Wynkoop and testified at the investigation. A third officer, Lt. James Cannon, would also testify.
Of all those involved in Sand Creek and its aftermath, lifelong soldier Maj. Edward “Ned” Wynkoop probably experienced the most dramatic change in attitude toward race relations, eventually risking his career receiving death threats for supporting the Native peoples he came to admire.
Wynkoop, born in Philadelphia, was among the first to settle in the town that became Denver after developing a friendship with Kansas Territory Gov. James Denver. Wynkoop’s change of heart began after meeting with Chief One Eye, who risked his life to bring a letter of peace to him, and then with other chiefs at the Smoky Hill Council. Unfortunately, his hope for peace may also have set the stage for Col. Chivington’s “battle.” Wynkoop arranged for a meeting with Col. Chivington and Gov. Evans to negotiate peace and encouraged Arapaho and Cheyenne people to camp near his troops at Fort Lyon. Not long after, he was relieved of his duties, recalled to Kansas and replaced with Maj. Scott Anthony, who told the tribes to move to Sand Creek.
After the massacre, Soule and Lt. John Cramer wrote to Wynkoop, graphically describing the killings and mutilations. Wynkoop was able to make the right political contacts to get the matter investigated. He later was reinstated at Fort Lyon and became the agent for contact with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. In 1868, two days after Custer’s massacre at Washita River, he resigned his commission before he even knew his friend, Chief Black Kettle, was killed there.
While some might believe there were no relations between Native and non-Native residents of Colorado, there were many familial ties, even among the major figures connected to the massacre.
MaHom, the sister of Arapaho Chief Niwot (Left Hand), was married to a white man, John Poisal, who taught English to both of her younger brothers. George Bent, who witnessed the massacre, was the son of a white father, William Bent, and a Cheyenne mother, Owl Woman. Amachee, the daughter of Cheyenne Chief Onichee, was married to a successful white cattleman named John Prowers. Shortly before proceeding to Sand Creek, Chivington ordered the house arrest of Prowers and those on his ranch to prevent them from aiding their in-laws. Sadly or ironically, a Japanese interment camp would later be named for Amachee.
Chief Black Kettle
Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle survived one massacre only to become the victim of another—a sign of the frightening times into which he was born.
An accomplished warrior in his youth, Black Kettle would become a staunch supporter of peace among tribes and between Native and non-Native people. He was among the chiefs who signed the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1860, which considerably reduced the land base for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in exchange for annuities and other federal aids largely ignored after start of the Civil War. In 1864, Black Kettle tried to keep peace alive as conflicts rose between settlers and Native peoples. He wrote a letter just after Gov. Evans’ proclamation to “friendly Indians,” agreeing to peace with the Americans if they also negotiated peace with the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache and Lakota people. He survived the attack at Sand Creek, and his wife, Woman to Be Hereafter, also lived despite being shot nine times. He voiced regret and shame forever believing the whites, but did sign the Treaty of the Little Arkansas, meant to give land in Kansas and Oklahoma as reparation to Sand Creek Massacre survivors. Eventually he took his band to the Washita River in Oklahoma, where on November 27, 1868—almost four years to the day from Sand Creek—Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer lead the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to a massacre in the villages. Black Kettle and his wife died in the attack.
Survivor George Bent
George Bent, son of Owl Woman, a Cheyenne, and Col. William Bent, a white trader who operated Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in Colorado, provided a rare written account from a Native perspective as a Sand Creek massacre survivor.
Bent had served with the Confederate Army, and upon returning home lived mainly with his Cheyenne relatives. Through letters and other written works, Bent discussed the Native point of view on events, and gave a better “insider” picture of the intertribal conflicts that also complicated the times. In letters to writer George E. Hyde (later published in the book Life of George Bent) he addressed the anxiety at Sand Creek as the chiefs there wonder why no word came on their peace proposals: “The chiefs remained puzzled by what Chivington had said and could not make out clearly what his intentions were. The truth probably was that he had already laid out plans for the attack on our camp, which he carried out with such terrible effect a few weeks later.”
Of the hundred-days men, Bent wrote: “This regiment has been hastily recruited from among the worst class of frontier whites—toughs, gamblers and ‘bad men’ from Denver and the mining camps, rough miners, ‘bush-wackers’ and so on. The men were not disciplined at all … The men were not even in uniform, and they were alike in only one thing: they were all eager to kill Indians.”
Bent also provided a chilling description of how the massacre began: “I looked toward the chief’s lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole, and was standing in front of the lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the grey light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from the two sides of the camps.”