Brimming with a historian’s need to know, retired special agent Jeff Campbell is putting his investigative skills to use as he gathers Sand Creek massacre records for a new research center in the southeast Colorado community of Eads.
The Sand Creek massacre took place near Eads on November 29, 1864, when some 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of them women, children, and the elderly, were promised safety but died in a sneak attack by U.S. cavalry. That location is now the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service (NPS) for present-day massacre descendants and the public.
Campbell, a non-Native independent historian, is one of several volunteers helping the NPS, tribes, History Colorado, the United Methodist Church, and other sponsors amass records for the tentatively named Sand Creek National Historic Site Research and Visitor Center, ultimately to be a large facility in the center of Eads, a town of about 700 residents.
He is a former special agent who worked statewide with the New Mexico attorney general’s office, Criminal Investigations Division, mostly on racketeering and homicide cases but also on cases related to antiquities and historic preservation.
Campbell is, according to Alexa Roberts, NPS southeast Colorado group superintendent, one of the most knowledgeable sources for Sand Creek history.
His investigatory skills have helped him to research and understand the emotional climate of Colorado Territory and to sometimes challenge events that preceded the Sand Creek massacre, including the killing of the Hungates, a white settler family that included a husband, wife, and two young daughters.
The Hungates’ bodies were displayed in Denver “to raise the hysteria level” over fears of marauding Indians that would justify the killings at Sand Creek five months later, he said, but it’s not conclusive they were murdered by Indians at all.
The official coroner’s report at the time said the Hungates “came to their death by being feloniously killed by some persons to the jury unknown, but supposed to be Indians,” Campbell said. The Denver Weekly Commonwealth newspaper of June 15, 1864 said “moccasins, arrows and other Indian signs were found in the vicinity,” prompting Campbell to query, “What Indian, Cheyenne or Arapaho, in their right mind would leave their moccasins or arrows behind?”
Bottom line, he says, is that in only one instance were the murderers identified as a group of four or five Arapahos who had earlier had a run-in with a rancher on whose land the Hungates were staying at the time. That identification was in some personal notes taken at Camp Weld, in present-day Denver, and not in any official transcript.
Some of Campbell’s fact-finding requires less investigating and more records-searching as he pores over manuscripts, old newspapers, and even ledger art to complete the history of Sand Creek as fully as possible, but the material is “literally everywhere,” he notes. Some of it is on the internet and he does research there, too, since his work is being done “on (his) own dime.”
His research-related trips have taken him to several states including, for example, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City that has “amazing archives” of which, he said, he has “just scratched the surface.” Among the treasures he has found there are books of ledger art by Howling Wolf, Cheyenne, and by other Cheyenne and Arapaho prisoners of war.
About 90 percent of his findings have already gone to the nascent Center in the form of copies or reports, among which are primary sources, his special interest, which he checks and counter-checks with attention to detail.
“And I don’t scorn oral histories from today, because they may have been passed down in families from grandmothers to children, and so on,” he says.
Campbell talks to the families of both descendants of massacre victims and those from soldiers’ families. “They may tell a complete story,” he says, but adds that, as in his law enforcement days, he wants to corroborate the information with other accounts.
“Soldiers and survivors talk about the same things” in details of the massacre, but also about general conditions of the time. “Even though it’s difficult to understand, there was some similarity between soldier and Cheyenne and Arapaho mindsets” but they may have been distorted by the politics of the day, he believes.
The planned center in Eads will involve a nonprofit foundation, being formed at present, before the $3 million bricks-and-mortar phase can be completed in an estimated four to five years, said the NPS’ Roberts, who notes that those who use the material will likely include descendant families, tribal nations, tribal and other colleges and universities, and private scholars.
The nearby Sand Creek massacre site itself is “a place for contemplation,” she said, with a spiritual nature and open Plains setting that would be at odds with the large building needed to house research files and archives. They will be maintained at the center, which will provide a venue for study that should “help to prevent similar incidents in the future and will help to put things in global context.”