Never Forget: The Sand Creek Massacre

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

~Elie Wiesel

As a church whose name is grounded in the violent history of our county and country, we give over our blog this week to a remembrance of the Sand Creek Massacre where the man we know as Chief Left Hand was brutally killed along with many Arapaho and Cheyenne women, children and elderly.

Trigger warning:
This narrative contains disturbing graphic violent content.
Please only read it if you are emotionally prepared to do so.

The below text is an excerpt from American Holocaust by David Stannard, Chapter 4, pp. 129-134 (Kindle Version)

Among all these instances of horror visited upon America’s native peoples, however, one episode perhaps stands out. It occurred in eastern Colorado in November of 1864, at a small and unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho village known as Sand Creek. It is not that so many Indians died there. Rather, it is how they died—and the political and cultural atmosphere in which they died—that is so historically revealing. It is, moreover, representative in its savagery of innumerable other events that differ from it only because they left behind less visible traces.

Colorado at this time was the quintessence of the frontier west. Various incidents had earlier raised tensions between the Indians there and the seemingly endless flow of white settlers who came as squatters on Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. As tempers flared, so did the settlers’ rhetoric, which became inflamed with genocidal threats and promises. During the year preceding the incident that has come to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre, a local newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, launched an incendiary campaign that urged the Indians’ extermination. “They are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth,” wrote the News’s editor in March of 1863. In that year, of twenty-seven stories having anything at all to do with Indians, ten went out of their way to urge extermination.

The following year was election time in Colorado. In addition to political offices that were up for grabs, a constitution was on the ballot that would have opened the door for statehood—something that was not especially popular with most settlers. The faction allied with the Rocky Mountain News (which included the incumbent governor) supported statehood and apparently perceived political gain to be had in whipping up hatred for the Indians. As a rival newspaper put it, the pro-statehood forces believed that if they “cooked up” enough settler fear of the Indians they would be able to “prove [to the voters] that only as a state could Colorado get sufficient troops to control her Indians.” While the election year wore on, stories in the News continued to stir those fears: wild rumors of Indian conspiracies were heralded as fact; any violence at all between whites and Indians was reported as an Indian “massacre.”

The public and the military began taking up the chant. After a skirmish between Indians and soldiers in which two soldiers died, the military replied by killing twenty-five Indians. “Though I think we have punished them pretty severely in this affair,” stated the troops’ commander, “yet I believe now is but the commencement of war with this tribe, which must result in exterminating them.” More skirmishes followed. Groups of Indians, including women and children, were killed here and there by soldiers and bands of vigilantes. To many whites it had become abundantly clear, as the News proclaimed in August of 1864, that the time was at hand when the settlers and troops must “go for them, their lodges, squaws and all.”

Then, at last, the excuse was at hand. A family of settlers was killed by a group of Indians—which Indians, no one knew, nor did anyone care. The governor issued an emergency proclamation: regiments of citizen soldiers were authorized to form and to kill any and all hostile Indians they could find. Their compensation would be “whatever horses and other property they may capture, and, in addition, [the Governor] promises to use his influence to procure their payment by the general government.” In effect, this was an official government license to kill any and all Indians on sight, to seize their horses and other property, and then—after the fact—to claim they had been “hostiles.” In the event that this point might be missed by some, the governor’s journalistic ally, the News, urged all out “extermination against the red devils,” making no distinction between those Indians who were friendly and those who were not. With identical intent the governor issued another proclamation—a clarification: the evidence was now “conclusive,” he declared, that “most” of the Indians on the Plains were indeed “hostile” it was, therefore, the citizens’ and the military’s right and obligation—for which they would be duly paid—to “pursue, kill, and destroy” them all.

This, then, was the mood and the officially sanctioned setting when about 700 heavily armed soldiers, under the command of a former Methodist missionary (and still an elder in the church), Colonel John Chivington, rode into Sand Creek village. Several months earlier Chivington, who that year was also a candidate for Congress, had announced in a speech that his policy was to “kill and scalp all, little and big.” “Nits make lice,” he was fond of saying—indeed, the phrase became a rallying cry of his troops; since Indians were lice, their children were nits—and the only way to get rid of lice was to kill the nits as well. Clearly, Colonel Chivington was a man ahead of his time. It would be more than half a century, after all, before Heinrich Himmler would think to describe the extermination of another people as “the same thing as debusing.”

The air was cold and crisp, the early morning darkness just beginning to lift, when they entered the snowy village on November 29. The creek was almost dry, the little water in it crusted over with ice, untouched yet by the dawn’s first rays of sun. The cavalrymen paused and counted well over a hundred lodges in the encampment. Within them, the native people were just stirring; as had been the case with the Pequots in Connecticut, more than 200 years earlier—and with countless other native peoples across the continent since then—the village was filled almost entirely with women and children who had no inkling of what was about to happen. Most of the men were away on a buffalo hunt. One of the colonel’s guides, Robert Bent, later reported that there were about 600 Indians in camp that morning, including no more than “thirty-five braves and some old men, about sixty in all.” The rest were women and children.

A few days before riding into the Indian camp Colonel Chivington had been informed that the village at Sand Creek could be taken with a small fraction of the troops at his command, not only because most of the Cheyenne men were away on the hunt, but because the people had voluntarily disarmed themselves to demonstrate that they were not hostile. They had turned in all but their essential hunting weapons to the commander at nearby Fort Lyon. Technically, the colonel was informed, the government considered the Indians at Sand Creek to be harmless and disarmed prisoners of war. Witnesses later reported that Chivington—who just then had been going on at length about his desire for taking Indian scalps—dismissed this news, drew himself up in his chair, and replied: “Well, I long to be wading in gore.”

His wish was soon fulfilled. As Chivington and his five battalions moved into the village that morning, two whites who were visiting the camp tied a tanned buffalo hide to a pole and waved it to signal the troops that this was a friendly town. They were met with a fusillade of gunfire. Then old chief Black Kettle, the principal leader of the Cheyenne, tied a white flag to a lodge pole, and above that he tied an American flag that had been given him by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He gathered his family around him and he held the pole high—again, in an effort to show the American soldiers that his was not a hostile camp. He “kept calling out” to his people “not to be frightened,” Robert Bent’s brother George recalled, “that the camp was under protection and there was no danger. Then suddenly the troops opened fire on this mass of men, women, and children, and all began to scatter and run.”

The massacre was on. Chivington ordered that cannons be fired into the panicked groups of Indians first; then the troops charged on horseback and on foot. There was nowhere for the native people to hide. The few Cheyenne and Arapaho men in camp tried to fight back, and Robert Bent says they “all fought well,” but by his own count they were outnumbered twenty to one and had virtually no weapons at their disposal. Some women ran to the riverbank and clawed at the dirt and sand, frantically and hopelessly digging holes in which to conceal themselves or their children

From this point on it is best simply to let the soldiers and other witnesses tell what they did and what they saw, beginning with the testimony of Robert Bent:

After the firing the warriors put the squaws and children together, and surrounded them to protect them. I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons, to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all. . . . There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side. Captain Soule afterwards told me that such was the fact. . . . I saw quite a number of infants in arms killed with their mothers.

I went over the ground soon after the battle [reported Asbury Bird, a soldier with Company D of the First Colorado Cavalry]. I should judge there were between 400 and 500 Indians killed. . . . Nearly all, men, women, and children were scalped. I saw one woman whose privates had been mutilated. 

The bodies were horribly cut up [testified Lucien Palmer, a Sergeant with the First Cavalry’s Company C] skulls broken in a good many; I judge they were broken in after they were killed, as they were shot besides. I do not think I saw any but what was scalped; saw fingers cut off [to get the rings off them], saw several bodies with privates cut off, women as well as men. 

Next morning after the battle [said Corporal Amos C. Miksch, also of Company C], I saw a little boy covered up among the Indians in a trench, still alive. I saw a major in the 3rd regiment take out his pistol and blow off the top of his head. I saw some men unjointing fingers to get rings off, and cutting off ears to get silver ornaments. I saw a party with the same major take up bodies that had been buried in the night to scalp them and take off ornaments. I saw a squaw with her head smashed in before she was killed. Next morning, after they were dead and stiff, these men pulled out the bodies of the squaws and pulled them open in an indecent manner.I heard men say they had cut out the privates, but did not see it myself.

I saw some Indians that had been scalped, and the ears were cut off of the body of White Antelope [said Captain L. Wilson of the First Colorado Cavalry]. One Indian who had been scalped had also his skull all smashed in, and I heard that the privates of White Antelope had been cut off to make a tobacco bag out of. I heard some of the men say that the privates of one of the squaws had been cut out and put on a stick.

The dead bodies of women and children were afterwards mutilated in the most horrible manner [testified David Louderback, a First Cavalry Private]. I saw only eight. I could not stand it; they were cut up too much . . . they were scalped and cut up in an awful manner. . . . White Antelope’s nose, ears, and privates were cut off.

All manner of depredations were inflicted on their persons [said John S. Smith, an interpreter], they were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word . . . worse mutilated than any I ever saw before, the women all cut to pieces. . . . [C]hildren two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.

In going over the battle-ground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner—men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c. [reported First Lieutenant James D. Cannon of the New Mexico Volunteers]. I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on the hand. . . . I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks. . . . I heard one man say that he had cut a squaw’s heart out, and he had it stuck up on a stick.

Once the carnage was over, and the silence of death had descended on the killing-field, Colonel Chivington sent messages to the press that he and his men had just successfully concluded “one of the most bloody Indian battles ever fought” in which “one of the most powerful villages in the Cheyenne nation” was destroyed. There was exultation in the land. “Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt,” joked the Rocky Mountain News. “Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east.”

Outside of Colorado, however, not everyone was pleased. Congressional investigations were ordered, and some among the investigators were shocked at what they found. One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and “picked up skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed,” later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado’s governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to “civilize” the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, “there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield—a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house—‘EXTRMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!’”

The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing ever was done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek Massacre was “as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.”

Join Us: Chief Left Hand Book Study

If this week’s blog remembrance of the Sand Creek Massacre left you wanting to learn more, it’s not too late to join our November Book Study of Chief Left Hand by Margaret Coel.

Get all the details, along with a 7-page interpretive summary if you are short on book reading time:

https://www.lefthandchurch.org/2020/11/02/november-book-study/

On Thursday, 12/3 from 6-8pm we will gather via Zoom socialize, summarize and discuss the book.

We’re delighted to announce that Margaret Coel, the author, will join us for a 30 minute Q&A as part of our 12/3 gathering!

See our events calendar for the Zoom link and details.

If you have a question you would like to submit for the Q&A, please email nicole@lefthandchurch.org