This year marks the 150th anniversary since the Sand Creek Massacre, a tragic and unnecessary event of November 29, 1864 forever changed Indian relations with the U.S. government. What was the climate like in the years leading up to what happened at Sand Creek? Read this timeline to get a better picture.
1858—Gold Discovered in Colorado
Gold is found in the Platte River, causing a gold rush that would bring as many as 100,000 people—miners and those catering to such activities. Denver would be established on November 22 of this year. All of this added to strained relations between white settlers and prospectors encroaching on Cheyenne and Arapaho lands previously agreed in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and with these guarantees confirmed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Pressure was put on governmental leaders to do something about the Indians hindering this progress.
February 28, 1861—Establishment of the Colorado Territory
After the gold rush into the region, Congress passes an act creating the Colorado Territory, which remains essentially the same as the state today. The act was signed on this date by President James Buchanan.
September 1861—The Treaty of Fort Wise
This treaty was the answer to calls to do something about the “progress-hindering” Indians in Colorado. Signed by 10 chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, it greatly reduced the hunting territory previously agreed upon in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, and created a triangular-shaped reservation between the Sand Creek and Arkansas River. The treaty included an agreement to change from a hunting to an agricultural economy for the people. Many problems arose from the treaty. While the Native people understood it as an agreement specific to the band’s signing, the whites believed it to include all of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, expecting them to give up buffalo hunting and to move within the reservation boundaries. That did not happen, frustrating the plans of Colorado Territory Gov. John Evans and increasing frictions between the two cultures. The Sand Creek Massacre occurred within this would-be reservation boundary.
May 16, 1864—The Murder of Chief Lean Bear
Reduction of buffalo herds, imported diseases like smallpox and the encroachment of white settlements made life extremely difficult for the Plains people in the Colorado and Kansas territories in the early 1860s. These conditions contributed to cattle raiding and to increased conflicts between soldiers and Native peoples. In April, an encounter between Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and troops ended with two troopers killed and four dog soldiers wounded. One tragedy connected to these tensions resulted in the unprovoked murder of Cheyenne Chief Lean Bear. A column of soldiers approached the chief’s Smoky Hill River camp. He and a large group of men rode out to meet the soldiers. With another man, Star, Chief Lean Bear further approached the soldiers to greet them. He displayed the peace medal and document he had received from President Lincoln during negotiations a year earlier to assure them of his intent. The troop commander took no notice of these items and ordered his men to shoot the two Cheyenne men. “Then the troops shot Lean Bear to pieces as he lay on his back on the ground,” George Bent, Sand Creek survivor born to a Cheyenne mother and white father, would report later. Cheyenne Chief White Antelope told the Colorado Territory governor that this murder ignited the beginning of hostilities in 1864.
June 11, 1864—Murder of the Hungates
Throughout the summer of 1864 tensions and clashes between Native and non-Native people occurred. When the Hungates, a white family on a ranch located about 30 miles southeast of Denver, were found brutally murdered, it was alleged that an Arapaho raiding party was to blame. The 4-year-old and infant girls were almost beheaded and the parents stabbed and scalped. Any motive for the murders remained unknown. The bodies were brought to Denver and put on public display, sparking many settlers from rural areas to move into town for protection and causing increased panic about a massive attack from local tribes. Gov. Evans would point to this as evidence of a “war” being launched.
June 27, 1864—Evans’ “Proclamation to Friendly Indians of the Plains”
In this proclamation, Colorado Territory Gov. John Evans warns “friendly Indians” not to mingle with those causing hostilities and to identify themselves by gathering at places like Fort Lyon, where provisions and safety would be provided. The sad truth is that believing this promise—and others like it—is what caused the encampment at Sand Creek and the people being set up for slaughter.
August 10, 1864—Evans’ Telegraph to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs
Gov. Evans sends a frantic telegraph stating his certainty that the Plains tribes have combined for war against the whites. “It will be the largest Indian war this country ever had, extending from Texas to the British lines, involving nearly all the wild tribes of the Plains. Please bring all the force of your department to bear in favor of speedy re-enforcement of our troops, and get me authority to raise a regiment of 100-days’ mounted men.”
August 11, 1864—Evans’ Proclamation to Colorado Citizens
Gov. Evans authorizes citizens to pursue “hostile Indians,” encouraging them “to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” Those who joined up would be given arms, paid and could keep any property taken from the Indians.
August 13, 1864—Evans’ Proclamation Authorizing a 100-days Regiment
After finally receiving a funding authorization from Washington, Gov. Evans and Col. John Chivington begin recruiting from unemployed men in Denver and nearby mining towns to “pursue, kill, and destroy all hostile Indians that infest the Plains.”
September 4, 1864—Chief Ochinee Brings Black Kettle Letter to Fort Lyon
Neva, Chief Left Hand’s brother, tried earlier to bring a letter indicating interest in peace to Fort Lyon, but was run off by armed soldiers. In September, Cheyenne Chief Ochinee, also called One Eye, agreed to try bringing the letter. He, his wife, and a man named Eagle Head ran into a patrol under Lt. George Hawkins, and although under orders to kill Indians on sight, he instead brought the three to Fort Lyon to speak with Maj. Edward “Ned” Wynkoop. Ochinee persuaded Wynkoop to meet with leaders at Smoky Hill River, and after that council Wynkoop agreed to bring some of the leaders to meet with Chivington and Evans.
September 28, 1864—Camp Weld Conference
Black Kettle, White Antelope and Neva meet with Col. Chivington and Gov. Evans. Evans says he cannot negotiate peace; it’s up to the military. Chivington is dismissive and cryptic about the offer of peace, leaving the chiefs confused about his intentions. Maj. Wynkoop escorts the chiefs back to Fort Lyon and encourages them to bring their people near the fort for safety until further word is heard on their offer of peace.
November 2, 1864—Maj. Wynkoop Removed
Maj. Scott Anthony arrives at Fort Lyon with a letter indicating that he is to take over command of the First Colorado Cavalry and that Wynkoop is to travel to the regional headquarters in Kansas. After Wynkoop leaves, Anthony orders the Arapaho people who had been awaiting word near Fort Lyon to join the Cheyenne people already at Sand Creek.
November 14, 1864—Third Colorado Cavalry on the Move
Col. John Chivington orders the regiment of hundred-days men to move from Denver to Fort Lyon. From there, he leads them to Sand Creek.
November 28, 1864—Troops Leave
Some 700 troops leave Fort Lyon and ride through the night to reach the site of the village about 30 miles from the fort.
November 29, 1864—The Sand Creek Massacre
The 700 troops of the First and Third Colorado Cavalries descend upon the peaceful encampment of about 600 mainly Cheyenne and Arapaho people. As many as 200 die there—many mutilated by the soldiers. Among the chiefs killed were Standing-in-the-Water, Ochinee and War Bonnet, White Antelope, Tall Bear, Bear Robe, Little Robe, Spotted Crow, Big Man, Bear Man and Old Yellow Wolf. Afterward, the camp is burned.
December 14, 1864—Truth Told
Captain Silas Soule writes a letter to Maj. Ned Wynkoop vividly detailing the truth of the massacre. His letter and a December 19 letter from Lt. Joseph Cramer would launch the Congressional investigation and ultimate condemnation of the attack. The letters were found in Denver in 2000.
January 1865—Chivington Resigns Command of the First Colorado Cavalry
After the resignation of Col. John Chivington, Col. Thomas Moonlight takes command of the unit and orders an investigation of the massacre.
January-May 1865—The Investigations
Almost simultaneously, investigations of the Sand Creek attack are conducted in Washington and at Denver and Fort Lyon. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Civil War issues a report determining that the attack was a massacre. (Transcripts of testimonies by John Smith, a white interpreter nearly killed at Sand Creek and by John Chivington can be found at PBS.org.
April 23, 1865—Soule Shot
Capt. Silas Soule was shot dead near his home in Denver.
August 1, 1865—Gov. John Evans Resigns
A congressional committee had already recommended his removal because of his role in the events leading up to the massacre. Even today, his roll is being considered.
October 14, 1865—Reparations Promised
The Little Arkansas Treaty, signed by representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, included an apology for the Sand Creek Massacre and provisions for land to be given to those who had lost relatives in the massacre. Sand Creek survivor descendants say they are still awaiting these reparations, which were never given. A class action lawsuit was filed in 2013.