1800s · Army · Manifest Destiny · Murder · Old West · United States · US Civil War

November 29,1864 – The Massacre at Sand Creek

A delegation of Arapaho and Cheyenne leaders met with the U.S. military on Sept. 28, 1864, at Camp Weld, Colo., to seek peace on the plains east of Denver
A delegation of Arapaho and Cheyenne leaders met with the U.S. military on Sept. 28, 1864, at Camp Weld, Colo., to seek peace on the plains east of Denver.
Image Source: Northwestern.edu

This article is a touchy subject, and I left out some of the offensive verbiage from eye witnesses.

In my opinion, this is the most horrendous, vulgar, and deplorable act that has ever been perpetrated by anyone wearing the uniform of a US serviceman.

I understand that the massacre at Lieutenant William Calley‘s actions at My Lai in 1968 were deplorable. I will talk about that subject in March.

I want you to imagine for a moment that you have been uprooted from your homes, your jobs, and you customs. You are forced to move to a small, desolate area of the valley that you call home. There are no jobs, there is not food, and you no longer have the culture you once considered yours.

You might be okay with this, you might want to get along with those that forced you to move. What about your children? Those teenage boys that want to drive a car, go on dates, and do the same things that you and your parents did to become adults.

In the spring of 1864 this was what the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were dealing with on the camps along Sand Creek. There had been a number of attacks on white settlers and stage coaches that were being blamed on the youth of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.

The Colorado Territory Governor John Evans wanted the “hostile” indians killed and destroyed. This was in Colorado during the height of the Civil War and military troops were serving in the eastern United States. The governor called on civilian volunteers to answer his call to wage war. Governor Evans had the perfect blunt instrument in Colonel John Chivington who was hoping to make a name for himself and become a congressman. Governor Evans called for “peaceful” Indians to report to US forts for protection.

Fearing that his band of Cheyenne would be confused with those of aggressive bands, Chief Black Kettle went to Denver to declare their non-aggressive intentions. US Army Major Edward Wynkoop showed Black Kettle an area along the Sand Creek where his people could remain safe while Wynkoop asked for clarification.

Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington wanted retribution on ALL tribes in the territory. Chivington and his Bloodless Third had not seen any action, and the militias 100 day enlistment was almost up.

Colonel Chivington
Image Source: Smithsonianmag.com

Colonel Chivington –I have always believed you respect the rank, not the man, but it kills me every time I write this man’s name.– gather 700 men for a night time ride to Sand Creek.

There are no trees there now, and it was the same 151 years ago.  In the pre-dawn darkness of November 29, 1864 the sound of hundreds of horses carried a long way.

Chief Black Kettle raised an American flag and several of the band raised white flags.

Colonel Chivington’s account of the day.

“The morning of the 29th day of November, 1864, finds us before the village of the Indian foe. The first shot is fired by them. The first man who falls is white. No white flag is raised. None of the Indians show signs of peace, but flying to rifle pits already prepared they fight with a desperation unequalled, showing their perfect understanding of the relations that existed as regards peace or war as forty-nine killed and wounded soldiers too plainly testified.”


The colonel’s account stated the there were between 900 – 1000 warriors, and they killed between 400-500 of them “almost an annihilation of the entire tribe.” They attacked the village with rifles and canons. After they were done, they burned the village and

This massacre was not the thing that makes incident deplorable. What makes this what has to be the most egregious of atrocities ever committed someone wearing a US military uniform is what happened after the massacre.

When the “soldiers” arrived back in Denver they marched as if they were in a roman triumph after conquering the Gauls. “Soldiers paraded with babies impaled on bayonettes, while others eviscerated the sexual organs of murdered women and stretched them over their hats like ornamental hat bands.” – savagesandscoundrels.org

Not everyone under Chivington’s command was willing to participate in this massacre. Captain Silas Soule refused to order his men into the fight or to participate in the desecration of the bodies.

Captain Soule was appalled by what he witnessed and sent a report to Washington.

“Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” he wrote, only to be shot and “have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Indians didn’t fight from trenches, as Chivington claimed; they fled up the creek and desperately dug into its sand banks for protection. From there, some young men “defended themselves as well as they could,” with a few rifles and bows, until overwhelmed by carbines and howitzers. Others were chased down and killed as they fled across the Plains.


Captain Soule’s report stated that there were 140 women and children, and 60 old men and boys murdered at Sand Creek. His report along with that of a Lieutenant that was present found their way to Washington in 1865.

The military and Congress launched an investigation into the events at Sand Creek. This fact in and to itself is amazing considering the nation was at war and this was a matter dealing with native peoples. Chivington stated that it was impossible to tell friend from foe when dealing with indians.

People were outraged –people back east at least were– that another human was capable of such atrocities. The joint commission found the following:

“As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their inapprehension and defenceless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. It is thought by some that desire for political preferment prompted him to this cowardly act; that he supposed that by pandering to the inflamed passions of an excited population he could recommend himself to their regard and consideration.”


In short: Colonel Chivington and his men were guilty of murder. He did not face court martial because he had already resigned and moved back to Ohio.

Aside: In case you were wondering, a military office cannot just resign their commission to avoid prosecution. They will be held at their current rank until the criminal case is over.

Captain Soule was gunned down on the streets of Denver shortly after his testimony most likely as a result of his testimony.

Chief Black Kettle tried to show that he was not a hostile native by raising an American flag. He survived the massacre and managed to carry off his badly wounded wife. Black Kettle was a “Peace Chief” and a year later moved his band to an Oklahoma reservation.  He was killed in another massacre on that reservation in 1868 by George Armstrong Custer.

The biggest damage done by this massacre was that it convinced the plains indian tribes that they United States did not want peace. They felt that any promises of safety from whites were empty.

Cheyenne young men called Dog Soldiers gathered together with young men of other plains tribes to wage war on settlers in the area. After the Civil War was over many US soldiers found themselves redeployed to the frontier as part of the Indian Wars.

The Indian Wars took five years to reach a conclusion. It was only over after yet another massacre of native tribes in 1890. The Massacre at Wounded Knee destroyed any last desire the native tribes had to resist.

“Sand Creek and Wounded Knee were bookends of the Plains Indian Wars, which were, in turn, the last sad chapter of the Civil War,” – Smithsonianmag.com

By 1909 the massacre had turned into a successful Civil War battle and was memorialized on the Colorado State Capital along side Chivington’s other battle at Glorieta Pass. Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington became state heroes and have many cities and towns named for them. The state historical museum displayed a scalp from a victim of the Sand Creek Massacre until the 1960’s.

Congress mandated that a Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site be opened in 1998. This was met with resistance from all sides of the argument. Native tribes felt that it was too forgiving, and many felt that it painted the soldiers as monsters.

Coloradans who disliked the name and mission of the site became particularly vocal after 9/11. To them, it seemed unpatriotic to memorialize a massacre by American troops, particularly at a time when many Colorado residents were serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. One historian challenged the notion that Sand Creek was a massacre at all, and said of Black Kettle, “he was harboring terrorists.”

The Park Service’s efforts to locate the massacre site became another flash point. Longtime ranchers in the area believed they knew where it lay. So did descendants of Cheyenne and Arapaho attacked at Sand Creek. The tribes had long hallowed a bend in the creek marked on a map made by a survivor and identified in subsequent visits by spiritual leaders. But the Park Service mainly relied on government maps and archaeological evidence, which put the massacre more than a half-mile away. The search for the site became a cultural clash, over different notions of history and knowledge, with Indians feeling they were being disrespected and dispossessed yet again.


In 2002 a retired New Mexico criminal investigator, Jeff Campbell, moved into the area and began to investigate the crime scene.

For years he investigated the area by pouring over maps and archival documents. He studied weather patterns and rainfall over the years. Campbell noticed that the creek had moved since the massacre and the bend that the natives held so important had moved. The ranchers were also right in the areas that they felt that the massacre happened in. The massacre spread for several miles as the Cheyenne and Arapaho fled the soldiers.

This was a horrendous moment in American history, and I am grateful that as a soldier I am not held to the sins committed by those that came before me.

Military personnel stationed in Colorado have been frequent visitors as well, including officers in a combat brigade headed to Afghanistan; for them, Sand Creek offered a harrowing and cautionary lesson about the treatment of native inhabitants.


If I were put in a situation much like the Native-Americans were in 1864, I am not certain that I would kowtow and play nice. I am a fighter and will defend my family with my life. I hope that I have not been too harsh of a critic, fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator.

The massacre of women and children is something entirely different than parading through town with the genitals of your victims as trophies. That action is deplorable and unforgivable.



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