As winter winds blow snow across Eastern Colorado’s High Plains where I grew up, I think again about Sand Creek and the November 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho who thought they were safe in camp. Many of the men were gone on horseback to hunt bison for meat and robes. Women and children stayed in camp and were there that frigid dawn when Col. John M. Chivington’s troops attacked.
The Civil War raged back east and Chivington’s men were 100-day volunteers from communities, farms and ranches along the Front Range. They volunteered to protect settlers from potential Native American threats and to keep supply lines open along the South Platte River.
Two years earlier, Chivington – a bearded Methodist minister – had distinguished himself in New Mexico at the battle of Glorietta Pass, which has been labeled the “Gettysburg of the West.” Confederates marched up the Rio Grande corridor headed for gold mines in Colorado Territory. Volunteers, many of them Hispanic New Mexicans, rallied to stop the Southerners just north of Santa Fe. Union troops and volunteers lost the skirmish but won the battle when Chivington circled behind enemy lines to burn the Confederates’ supply wagons, food stores and ammunition. Defeated, the Confederates limped back toward San Antonio.
Had Chivington resigned his commission, he would be considered a Colorado hero. Instead, two years later he exceeded his authority and attacked peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos. They had agreed to move their tipis far east on Colorado’s plains. Native American leaders sought to avoid trouble. But it came to them anyway as the first rays of light illuminated prairie grasses and cottonwood trees Nov. 29, 1864.
All night it had been walk, trot, gallop, dismount and then lead their tired horses. The 1st Colorado Cavalry commenced fighting, soon joined by the 3rd Regiment of 100-day-volunteers. They charged with pistols and rifles blazing, some calvary sabers outstretched, sunlight glinting off the cold steel. The large Native American camp exploded into action with women and children running, fleeing west and north, fiercely digging shallow holes as they sought safety along Big Sandy Creek. Small groups of warriors offered cover for those fleeing the onslaught.
Other soldiers sat their horses. These were seasoned, well trained Union troops. Officer Silas Soule, one of Colorado’s true heroes, raised his right arm, his hand encased in a large leather glove or gauntlet, to give the signal to charge or advance. His troops would spur their horses once he dropped his hand, but he kept his arm high in the air.
That image and story may be apocryphal, but in the heat of battle voice commands would often fail. Hand signals make historical sense. Regardless of Soule’s exact actions, witnesses testified that Soule’s soldiers did not advance. His regular army troops watched in disgust as Chivington’s soldiers shot and stabbed defenseless women.
Capt. Silas Soule would testify against Chivington and for his honest recounting of the day’s horrific events, Soule would be assassinated on the streets of Denver. He was shot in the back by Chivington sympathizers or perhaps by one of the volunteers themselves who had returned with bloody scalps and other female body parts to display on the stage of the Denver Opera House. More than 230 Native Americans died that November day. Half were women.
U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, himself of Northern Cheyenne descent, championed federal legislation creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Kiowa County near Eads, Colorado. I attended the dedication in 2007 and it was a forceful and moving event. The National Park Service acquired the site of unplowed shortgrass prairie land, but subsequent Cheyenne and Arapaho oral histories indicated the massacre had stretched farther north along Big Sandy Creek. Most of the deaths had been beyond the historic site’s original boundaries.
A federal agency can only pay appraised value to acquire property from private owners. Despite Native stories proving the need for additional land, adjacent ranch families sought more dollars per acre to expand the site than the government could pay. I had been on a nearby ranch with its stands of old growth, original cottonwood trees, and short grass along the creek’s riparian path. I’d listened to the wind, and though I had not heard cries from spirits of the dead, Native descendants claim they can still hear their ancestors. I do not doubt them. I had seen swales and shallow pits along the embankment where women had tried to hide. Bloodstains in soil endure in memories. Sorrow and ghosts persist.
How do you heal a massacre site? How do you interpret a “site of shame” where a dominant group forced its will on a defenseless minority? How do we, as Americans, talk and teach about racism? In this case, National Park Service staff members interviewed descendants and then The Conservation Fund here in Colorado, with financial support from the National Park Foundation and Great Outdoors Colorado, last year purchased 3,478 additional acres from willing sellers. Dollars also came from the reauthorized Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“The newly acquired property will help to protect the historic site and sacred tribal lands,” said Janet Frederick, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Superintendent. “These new parcels include lands listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their significance to the devastating events of Nov. 29, 1864. These lands also have significant archaeological remains of the massacre including evidence of the village where Cheyenne and Arapaho families were camped, and an intact view shed that is key to the historical integrity of the National Historic Site.”
At this recent dedication Oct. 5, 2022, our Colorado politicians paid their respects. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, and representatives from the Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes came together at this sacred place.
“It is our solemn responsibility at the Department of the Interior, as caretakers of America’s national treasures, to tell the story of our nation,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a Native American from New Mexico. “We will never forget the hundreds of lives that were brutally taken here – men, women and children murdered in an unprovoked attack. Stories like the Sand Creek Massacre are not easy to tell but it is my duty – our duty – to ensure that they are told. This is part of America’s story.”
To this day, there is no Cheyenne or Arapaho Indian reservation in Colorado. There should be. They were promised one. Instead, White Antelope sang his death song at Sand Creek. Chief Left Hand was mortally wounded. Black Kettle was shot at despite the American flag in front of his tipi and the white banner he waved at advancing troops.
“This history is uncomfortable, challenging and graphic at times. But we cannot look the other way any longer,” says Dawn DiPrince, executive director of History Colorado. She describes, “The lasting scars the Sand Creek Massacre left behind can only heal if all of us make an effort to better understand its history.”
I commend The Conservation Fund’s staff members for the multiple years they worked to make the site whole, to enable future National Park Service rangers and tribal leaders to tell the story of what happened here – a singular event that ignited plains warfare north to Montana and south to Texas for the next two decades.
“The freshwater spring on this land, the creek bed, the mature stand of cottonwoods – all are associated with the Cheyenne and Arapaho encampments that were attacked at Sand Creek,” says Christine Quinlan, Colorado Associate State director for the Conservation Fund. “Adding this land to the National Historic Site helps us to venerate the traumatic events of 1864.”
History is never simple. The history of Sand Creek bears this out in the complexity of events that led up to the carnage. What we do best as Americans is to try to tell the truth, though it might take us a century or more. At Sand Creek National Historic Site, thanks to The Conservation Fund and other donated dollars, we have preserved sacred ground. I want to walk under those cottonwood trees again. I want to walk through that shortgrass prairie and think about how far we have come as a nation, and how far we have to go.
Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.