Included in the land guaranteed to the Cheyennes and the Arapahos in Article V of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was eastern Colorado from its border with Kansas and Nebraska westward to the Rocky Mountains and south to the Arkansas River. However, the discovery of gold at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek drew a multitude of prospective miners into Cheyenne territory during the latter half of the 1850s. New trails transversed Cheyenne hunting grounds, opening the way for immigrants, who constructed settlements and towns on land promised to the Indians. Soon the buffalo and other wildlife grew scarce. Tensions mounted as hunger and disease spread through Indian bands.
The U.S. government sought to relieve the friction by further reducing Indian land. Believing obstinacy and delay would result in a less favorable settlement, Cheyenne leaders Black Kettle and White Antelope, along with an Arapaho delegation led by Little Raven and Left Hand, met with government agents on February 8, 1861, and placed their X on the Treaty of Fort Wise. The document ceded to the United States the vast territory granted to the Indians in the 1851 Fort Laramie agreement in exchange for annuity payments and a small reservation of 600 square miles in southeastern Colorado between the Big Sandy and the Arkansas River. The treaty establishing the so-called Sand Creek Reservation was never approved by Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders, who were not present at the signing.
The Sand Creek Reservation was unable to sustain the Indians who were compelled to live there. Unsuitable for agriculture, the desolate, gameless terrain proved to be a breeding ground for epidemic diseases. With the nearest buffalo herd over 200 miles away, young Cheyenne men left the reservation in search of food. Raids on livestock and passing wagon trains became more and more frequent. Between 1861 and 1864, sporadic violence spread across eastern Colorado and the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, as men from Cheyenne and Arapaho bands clashed with soldiers and volunteer militia units. Fear and panic swept through white homesteaders, who were fully aware of the incidents associated with the Dakota uprising of 1862, which resulted in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history at Mankato, Minnesota.
In June 1864, John Evans, who became the second governor of Colorado Territory two years earlier, issued a proclamation inviting all "friendly Indians" to certain designated forts where they would be fed and allowed to camp under the protection of the military. Those Indians who chose not to comply with this directive would be considered hostile and subject to punitive raids. With most of the territory's regular troops away fighting Confederates, Evans called for civilians to join the Third Colorado Cavalry for 100 days to carry out his plan, stressing that "Any man who kills a hostile Indian is a patriot . . . and no one has been or will be restrained from this" (Hughes, 1977, 59).
The commander of the Colorado volunteers was Colonel John M. Chivington, a forty-three-year old Methodist minister-turned-soldier-turned-politician. In 1862, Chivington replaced his clerical attire with a major's uniform in the Colorado Volunteer Regiment and won acclaim for his role in defeating Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorietta Pass in eastern New Mexico. Now he was to lead an expedition against the Indians, "fully satisfied . . . that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado."
Black Kettle and six other chiefs decided to accept the governor's invitation and traveled with Major Edward Wynkoop, the commander of Fort Lyon, to Denver to meet with Evans and Chivington. Meeting at Camp Weld on September 28, the Indians were told to submit to military authority as represented by the garrison at Fort Lyon. Black Kettle believed that he had secured peace and safety for his band and others. Unknown to the Indians, Chivington received an order that same day from Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding officer of the Department of Kansas, instructing him not to make peace with the Indians. Chivington readily assented to this, with the blessing of Governor Evans.
On November 4, 1864, Major Wynkoop was relieved of command of Fort Lyon, owing to his benevolent dealings with Black Kettle, Left Hand, and Little Raven. His replacement was Major Scott Anthony, who proceeded to disperse the Indians, sending them away from the fort and north to Sand Creek. Chivington, meanwhile, moved his column of nearly 600 men down the Arkansas River toward Fort Lyon, arriving at the post on November 28. The enlistment of his hundred-day volunteers was about to expire, and the men were already disappointed at having never experienced a battle. Chivington, as well, had been ridiculed in the press for his inactivity. Accompanied by 125 men under Major Anthony and four mountain howitzers, the volunteers started out for Black Kettle's camp at 8 p.m. that evening. Having covered the forty miles to the village that night, Chivington's men were in position to attack as dawn broke on November 29.
Black Kettle's camp along Sand Creek was composed of approximately 450 southern Cheyenne and forty Arapaho, split into separate groups of lodges, each headed by a chief. Although a few women were up starting fires for cooking, most of the village was still asleep when the volunteers struck. Major Anthony drove away the herd of ponies and then approached the village from the west. Three companies of the First Colorado crossed the mostly dry creek bed and attacked from the east and north, while the Third Colorado Cavalry under Colonel George L. Shoup charged straight into the center of the encampment. Cheyenne oral history is replete with accounts of confusion and chaos as the Colorado volunteers swept through the village firing indiscriminately into the lodges. The mountain howitzers positioned on the south bank of the creek began to rain grapeshot down on the fleeing Indians. Black Kettle and others were in a state of disbelief over what was happening. The Cheyenne chief tied an American flag that he received in Denver along with a white flag of truce to one of his lodgepoles in an unsuccessful effort to halt the slaughter. Black Kettle, along with Left Hand, was left with no choice but to try and escape with his life. White Antelope chose to remain and face death and was shot in front of his lodge.
The bloodletting continued as Chivington's men chased the remaining Cheyenne and Arapaho for miles up Sand Creek, overtaking and killing as many men, women, and children as they could find. Some of the refugees, including Black Kettle, managed to escape by digging into the sandy soil or hiding under the embankments of the creek. Returning to the village, the Colorado volunteers proceeded to kill all the remaining wounded and mutilate the bodies of the dead—taking scalps, ring fingers, ears, and even genitalia for souvenirs. Chivington did nothing to halt the carnage. On December 1, the remains of the village and its inhabitants were set on fire and the Colorado volunteers left the area bound for Denver. Chivington's casualties at Sand Creek were nine killed and thirty-eight wounded. The Cheyenne and Arapaho dead numbered 148—only sixty were men.
At first, Chivington and his volunteers were wildly praised and rewarded for their actions, as celebrations filled the streets. Soon, however, rumors and testimonials about what really happened at Sand Creek convinced the U.S. Congress to order a formal investigation. Never formally punished for his actions, Chivington nevertheless resigned and withdrew from political life. Black Kettle, having miraculously escaped the carnage, returned to his efforts for peace on the Plains. On October 14, 1865, Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives agreed to a treaty giving up the Sand Creek Reservation in Colorado in exchange for a reservation in southwestern Kansas and Indian Territory.
A 12,000-acre Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was dedicated by the National Park Service April 28, 2007.
Alan C. Downs
Hughes, J. Donald. 1977. American Indians in Colorado. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing.; Josephy, Alvin M. 1991. The Civil War in the American West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.