At sunrise on Nov. 29, 1864, the 3rd Colorado Regiment attacked an encampment of peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne people – who believed they were under the protection of the United States flag – along the banks of Sand Creek not far from the present day town of Eads in 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. Descendants of those who perished are among those featured in the documentary.
At the time, Denver “was a turnstile town, with people coming and going, probably 4,000-5,000 population,” said former Colorado chief historian David Halaas. The main push of the Colorado gold rush – “Pikes Peak or Bust” – had happened only five years before. “It had newspapers, churches. It was showing some signs it was going to last, but it was still pretty raw.”
When the soldiers returned to Denver in December, Col. John M. Chivington portrayed Sand Creek as a final victory over the Cheyenne, and there was jubilation in the streets. “Trophies” – that is, fingers, ears, scalps and whatever else the soldiers hauled back – were displayed at the Denver Theater for three nights running.
But another narrative about Sand Creek quickly took hold. Two other U.S. military officers, leaders of companies from the 1st Colorado Regiment stationed at Fort Lyons, ordered their men not to fire, and both wrote letters and testified about what they had witnessed from Chivington’s wild band of new recruits.
As a result, said historian Halaas, Sand Creek became one of the most investigated incidents of the American Civil War era. A national historic site was dedicated at Sand Creek in April 2007.
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