One hundred fifty-three years have lapsed since one of the most infamous chapters in the annals of Colorado, the Sand Creek Massacre, on November 29, 1864. While the Civil War was raging in the East, in the West conflicts with American Indians defending their homeland from intruders had increased in frequency and severity. When territorial Governor Evans formed a temporary 100 day militia in August 1864 to deal with the “Indian Problem”, he invested Colonel John Chivington with its command. Hero of the Battle at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in 1862, his forces had helped prevent an army of Texas Confederates from taking over the Colorado gold fields.
Evans and Chivington, both Methodists – the latter an ordained minister before his military career – did not conceal their hostile views of the Indians which reflected the attitude of most settlers. They conspired to attack an encampment of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, about 40 miles north of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, choosing to disregard that leaders of this group had sought out the Governor in Denver to express their peaceful intentions, as well as his own earlier proclamation to the “friendly Indians on the plains” to go to designated “places of safety”. Evans wanted to placate Coloradans who were demanding forceful actions against worsening attacks by marauding Indian bands. He was determined to use his volunteers before their term of service expired, even if he had to overlook that this gathering of Indians at Sand Creek was nonviolent.
Chivington marched the volunteers of the 3rd Colorado Regiment from Denver to Fort Lyon, where he arrived on the evening of November 28. He immediately imposed a lockdown, thereby preventing any potential sympathizer from warning the Indians. Under cover of night, he led nearly 700 men, his contingent reinforced by troops from Fort Lyon, to Sand Creek, where the American flag was flying above the camp. As the army advanced in the early morning hours of November 29, Chief Black Kettle, one of the recent delegates to Denver, hoisted a white flag. Since most of the warriors were away hunting for food, the majority of the remaining 600 to 700 villagers were elderly men, women and children. Nevertheless, the soldiers attacked, supported by field Howitzers. At least 150 Indians were murdered and a similar number injured, while the rest managed to flee, having to leave all their possessions behind, with winter looming.
The casualties would certainly have been higher had two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer from Fort Lyon not refused to fight people who had been assured safety at their Sand Creek site by the US Army. Thanks to their eyewitness accounts, the extent of the bloodshed and the subsequent mutilation of the victims became common knowledge. The public display of body parts of the “savages” paraded in Denver once the “victorious” brigade returned corroborated their descriptions. Soule and Cramer testified in the subsequent government investigation and by doing so, risked not only their military careers, but also their lives. Captain Soule was, in fact, shot in Denver several months later in what was generally acknowledged to be retribution for his courageous moral stance. His murderer(s) were never brought to justice. Evans and Chivington, even though they stepped down from their respective posts and were reprimanded by Congress, never suffered legal consequences and were considered heroes in the eyes of many throughout their lives.
To defenders of this massacre who point out that the perpetrators were children of their age and merely represented the existing worldview I reply that many contemporaries condemned the crimes committed, Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer first among them. In Colorado Springs, writer Helen Hunt Jackson, profoundly affected by the speech of a different Chief, Standing Bear, became an American Indian Activist. She called a spade a spade, and publicly criticized the mistreatment of North America’s native inhabitants. They are heroes I can look up to.
Since 1999, descendants of the survivors of Sand Creek honor Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer with their annual 180 mile Spiritual Healing Run in late November, from Sand Creek to Captain Soule’s grave at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.
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