At sunrise on Nov. 29, 1864, the 3rd Colorado Regiment attacked an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne people – who believed they were under the protection of the United States flag – along the banks of Sand Creek in what is present day southeast Colorado.
What followed became one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the American West, as some 200 Native Americans, largely women and children and the elderly, were killed, with many being mutilated for souvenirs. Some 200 more were wounded, according to historical accounts.
The Sand Creek Massacre is the subject of an evocative and sharply poignant new documentary on Colorado Experience on Rocky Mountain PBS that premiered Thanksgiving night at 7. The documentary commemorates the 150th anniversary of the massacre.
When the 3rd Regiment returned to Denver that December, they were greeted in the streets with wild cheering and a parade. The Rocky Mountain News proclaimed that the soldiers had covered themselves in glory.
There was a presentation of “trophies” – including ears, fingers and scalps – at the Denver Theater on three different nights. At the time, Denver was something of an “instant city,” said former Colorado chief historian David Halaas, created in large part by the Colorado gold rush of five years before.
“It was a turnstile town, with people coming and going, probably 4,000-5,000 population,” Halaas said. “It had newspapers, churches. It was showing some signs it was going to last, but it was still pretty raw.”
Colorado, which achieved statehood in 1876, was still a territory, and the territorial governor was the estimable John Evans, founder of both Northwestern University and the University of Denver, physician, railroad promoter, noted abolitionist and prominent Methodist. But with a resume like that, he also loathed Indians, considering them heathens without souls.
The commander of the Colorado Military District was Col. John M. Chivington, known alternately as the hero of Glorietta Pass, a defeat of Confederate troops in eastern New Mexico, and the butcher of Sand Creek.
Given everything else that was taking place in the country at the time – Lincoln was reelected president earlier that November and Sherman, having burned Atlanta, was engaged in his “march to the sea” – it seems almost curious that Sand Creek elevated to what was almost immediate notoriety. The jubilation in Denver hadn’t tamped out when a very different version of events gained circulation.
That was because there was another military presence at Sand Creek that fateful day, the 1st Colorado Regiment operating out of nearby Fort Lyon, said historian Halaas, a presence in the new documentary.
“The 3rd wasn’t well-trained,” he said. The War Department, under strong prodding from Evans, had only approved the 3rd in August. “They came into being with the very specific mission to kill Indians. The 1st Regiment had been in service since 1862. They were well-equipped and well-trained, and were a legitimate fighting force.”
Although ordered to Sand Creek, the two 1st Regiment companies under the command of Capt. Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer were ordered to stand down. Soule and Cramer, assessing the situation before them, ordered their men not to fire.
“Those 100 men were well-trained and had they fired there wouldn’t have been any survivors, so that is why that is so important,” said Halaas, who presently serves as an adviser to the Northern Cheyenne. Both Soule and Cramer also wrote letters detailing what they had witnessed, which led to the initial investigation of Sand Creek.
Both Soule and Cramer testified before the military commission investigating the massacre. Soule was appointed provost marshal in Denver and was lured into an ambush in which he was shot down in the streets by two men who were never brought to trial.
After going missing for 135 years, the letters from Soule and Cramer were rediscovered in 2000, just as a Colorado delegation was petitioning Congress to declare Sand Creek a national historic site. They were read aloud in hearing by then Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell to powerful emotional impact. The national historic site was dedicated on a hot April day in 2007.
“The park boundaries contain about 2,000 acres, mostly flat but I say rolling,” said park ranger Craig Moore, also a presence in the documentary. “Short grass prairies, sage grass, sandy soil, but with a little rain it gets green.”
With its remoteness, the site doesn’t draw heavy traffic. “With the anniversary, we should get up to 6,000-7,000 (visitors) for the year,” Moore said, adding with a chuckle, “that’s our equivalent of 10 million at Yellowstone.”
For those who do make it, Sand Creek can have powerful resonance.
“A lot of people see a bigger picture with Sand Creek, something familiar to them personally or going on in the world,” Moore said. “It can be loaded with all kinds of metaphors. It’s a loaded, emotional story for a lot of people and they take it very personally.”
As does ranger Moore. He’s a genealogist who studies the Cheyenne, including who was at Sand Creek and their descendants, right up to the present day.
In another remarkable development in this Sand Creek sesquicentennial year, both Northwestern and DU released study reports from academic groups formed to assess John Evans’ culpability for Sand Creek, documents that are publicly available.
Ironically, Sand Creek at the time was a “chief’s camp,” and the 20 chiefs who were present largely represented the peace faction among the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Seventeen were killed. Black Kettle, one of the more prominent, who was flying the American flag over his lodge along with a white flag of truce, survived, only to be shot down four years later.
With the peace faction decimated, an alliance of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Sioux warriors some 1,500 strong attacked Julesberg on Jan. 7, 1865, creating a front some 100 miles long, “destroying everything, shutting Denver from the outside world,” said Halaas. “The war dreamed up in John Evans’ head really came into existence.”
In the wake of Northwestern University’s academic inquiry into the role of its co-founder John Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre, the school is looking for ways to bolster ties to the Native American community. Read more here.