Sand Creek Massacre 1864

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Sand Creek Massacre

During the summer of 1864 an Indian war erupted over the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Colorado Territory following the murder of Cheyenne Chief Lean Bear. Lean Bear, a leading peacemaker who had previously met with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., was shot from his horse without warning by U.S. troops during a Kansas buffalo hunt. The troops were acting under orders from Colonel John M. Chivington who commanded the military district of Colorado: "Find Indians wherever you can and kill them" (The War of the Rebellion, 1880–1881, pp. 403–404).

In September 1864 the principal chief of the Cheyenne, Black Kettle, and other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders hazarded a visit to Denver to hold peace talks with Chivington and Governor John Evans. The chiefs were assured that they would be safe from attack if they made the trip to Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River. When Black Kettle arrived there, however, post commander Major Scott J. Anthony turned him away, ordering the Cheyenne leader to remain in camp on Sand Creek, forty miles north of the fort (Hoig, 1961, p.125).

In Denver, meanwhile, Chivington gathered his military forces for a strike against the Cheyenne. He and his command arrived at Fort Lyon at noon on November 28 and prepared for an assault on the Indian camp. With his Colorado First Cavalry, Anthony joined Chivington. But other officers, who had helped escort Black Kettle to Denver, attempted to dissuade Chivington from such an attack. Chivington, a former Methodist minister, threatened to put them in chains, ranting, "Damn any man who is in sympathy with an Indian!" (U.S. Senate, 1867, p. 47).

Chivington's army of nearly seven hundred men with four mule-drawn mountain howitzers arrived at the bend of Sand Creek at the break of dawn, November 29. Even as the cavalry began its charge and howitzers shelled the village, Black Kettle hoisted a U.S. flag over his lodge. Chief White Antelope, who had visited Washington, D.C., in 1851, pressed forward to meet the soldiers, insisting that the village was peaceful and posed no threat. He was cut down midstream.

Indian villagers fled from their lodges only to be pursued in every direction and killed by the mounted troops. A number of women and children took refuge in a cattail pond. Soldiers surrounded it and began shooting them at will. The atrocities did not end when the battle was over. Witnesses described the horrific aftermath. John Simpson Smith, a long-time Cheyenne associate who was in the camp and whose half-blood son was murdered by Chivington's men, with his body dragged behind a horse, testified as follows: "They [the Indians] were terribly mutilated, lying there in the water and sand, dead and dying, making many struggles. They were badly mutilated" (U.S. House of Representatives, 1865, p. 8).

Chivington and his Colorado Third troops returned to Denver and proudly displayed Cheyenne scalps and other body parts they had removed from men, women, and even children. Newspapers and citizens exulted in the soldiers' victory. The intensity of hatred became apparent when Senator Benjamin Doolittle later addressed a Denver crowd regarding Indian policy. His audience shouted, "Exterminate them! Exterminate them!" (Scott, 1994, p. 168).

Chivington's massacre at Sand Creek raised a fire-storm of protest nationally and led to investigations by both the U.S. Army and Congress. The embattled Indian tribes of the Plains saw the U.S. military action as strong evidence of the white man's perfidy. Black Kettle, who had somehow survived, felt he had betrayed his people in trying to make peace. "My shame is as big as the earth," he said. "I once thought that I was the only man that persevered to be the friend of the white man, but it is hard for me to believe the white man any more" (Annual Report, 1865, p. 704).

SEE ALSO Indigenous Peoples; Massacres; Native Americans; Trail of Tears


Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior) (1865). Washington, D.C.

Hoig, Stan (1961). The Sand Creek Massacre. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Scott, Bob (1994). Blood at Sand Creek, the Massacre Revisited. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Publishers.

U.S. House of Representatives (1865). "Massacre of Cheyenne Indians." Report on the Conduct of the War. 38th Cong., 2d sess.

U.S. Senate (1867). "Sand Creek Massacre." Senate Document 26. 39th Cong., 2d sess.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1881). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Stan Hoig

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Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre remains one of the most historic events in American history. It is symbolic of the injustice suffered by the Native Americans at the hands of white people.

The nineteenth century was fraught with battles between whites and Native American tribes. This period of fighting was known as the Plains Indian Wars (1854–90). It was a violent era in history, one fueled by a general distrust and lack of communication.

In 1864, Colorado territory was governed by superintendent of Indian Affairs John Evans (1814–1897; served 1862–65). Unable to talk the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples out of their hunting grounds (which he wanted for their rich mineral content), the governor ordered Colonel John M. Chivington (1821–1894) to get rid of the Native Americans. Chivington, a former Methodist minister, hated all Native Americans and publicly declared that all should be killed and scalped, including babies.

Together, the men raised a troop of volunteers known as the Third Colorado Cavalrymen. These men were drawn mostly from the territory's mining areas, which were known for their violence. They agreed to serve for one hundred days. Before the regiment could organize into action, a large number of Native Americans, led by Chief Black Kettle (d. 1868), approached Fort Lyon and requested peace. Major Edward Wynkoop (1836–1891) informed Evans of the request, whose response was to wonder what he would do with the regiment if they were not allowed to fight.

Regardless, Evans and Chivington promised safety to the Cheyenne and Arapaho if they would lay down their arms. They agreed and marched forty miles to Sand Creek, where they would receive rations (food) and await further instructions. Wynkoop treated the Cherokee and Apache decently, something Chivington could not abide. He replaced the commander with Scott J. Anthony (1830–1903), whose first order was to cut the rations and demand the surrender of weapons.

By the end of November, only the Cheyenne tribal members remained at Sand Creek. As agreed, they continued to live there peacefully, and believed they would be afforded the safety they had been promised. The regiment, however, was nearing the end of its one hundred-day enlistment, and Chivington decided his men would see the battle he had promised them. On November 29, 1864, seven hundred volunteers surrounded the peaceful, unarmed village. The cavalry dismembered, tortured, and murdered around one hundred sixty-three Cheyenne, two-thirds of them women and children. Eyewitness accounts reported soldiers combing through the mutilated bodies in search of “souvenirs” such as scalps, body parts, and clothing.

The Sand Creek Massacre did not force the Native Americans to give up, as Evans and Chivington had hoped. Instead, it led to an investigation into the conduct of the volunteers and their commanders. Congress and army officials denounced Chivington, who had, by then, left the army and thus escaped discipline. The brutality also caused a review of Indian policy, and it would remain the symbolism for military brutality in the years to come.

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SAND CREEK MASSACRE, an attack on a village of sleeping Cheyenne Indians by a regiment of Colorado militiamen on 29 November 1864 that resulted in the death of more than 200 tribal members. About two-thirds of the dead were women and children. Many bodies were brutally mutilated and their scalps were strung across a Denver theater stage to the delight of an applauding audience.

By 1864, the previously united Cheyenne had divided into two bands that followed the northern and southern buffalo herds. In that year, with regular army troops redeployed for Civil War service and the borders between Indian and non-Indian settlements often in dispute, American settlers on the plains feared tribes like the Cheyenne who had access to weapons. In Colorado, Governor John Evans authorized the commander of the state's militia, a former Methodist minister named John M. Chivington, to patrol the eastern borders of the territory to guard against Indian attacks. Chivington's aggressive tactics worried the friendly Southern Cheyenne sufficiently that they sought out Major Edward Wynkoop at Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River. The Southern Cheyenne's leader, Black Kettle, turned four white captives over to Wynkoop and promised to live peacefully on a reservation. News of this breakthrough did not please Evans and Chivington, however, for they had just organized a new regiment of Colorado militiamen who had volunteered for 100 days of service and had been promised an Indian war.

Wynkoop brought Black Kettle to Denver to meet Chivington. On 28 September, Chivington met with the Cheyenne and invited them to establish a camp near Fort Lyon. By November nearly 230 lodges of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho had surrendered. Because of the need to hunt game, Black Kettle's group set up more than 100 of their lodges along Sand Creek. It was this camp that Chivington and his forces attacked on 29 November. When Chivington attacked, Black Kettle assumed it was a mistake. The chief raised an American flag and a white flag over his tipi in a sign of friendship. The Colorado volunteers rode on. Remarkably, Black Kettle was not killed at Sand Creek; he would die four years later in another unprovoked attack by American soldiers on the Washita River in Indian Territory.

While celebrated in Denver, a great many Americans met the Sand Creek Massacre with horror. Congress launched an investigation of the tragedy and within two years had established a Peace Commission to draw up equitable treaties with groups like the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Sioux. Sand Creek remains a biting memory for both

the Cheyenne and non-Indians, but efforts to acquire the site of the massacre for a national park have only recently borne fruit.


Moore, John H. The Cheyenne. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

Utley, Robert. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846–1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Frederick E.Hoxie

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The Sand Creek Massacre (1864) was a tragedy inflicted on the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle by local Colorado troops.Antagonized by Colorado officials, Cheyenne and other Plains tribes had raided settlements and travel routes throughout the summer of 1864. With the approach of winter, the peace chiefs, of whom Black Kettle was the foremost, sought terms. The commander of the military district was Col. John M. Chivington, a former Methodist clergyman with political ambitions who had entered the volunteer service at the outbreak of the Civil War. He directed the chiefs to camp on Sand Creek until further arrangements could be made. Here Black Kettle believed himself at peace and under military protection.

Chivington, however, had raised a regiment of 100‐day militia to fight Indians, and citizens expected it to do so. With great secrecy, he concentrated a force of 700 men, consisting of the territorial militia and units of federalized volunteers, and at daybreak on 29 November, he launched a surprise attack on Black Kettle's village. On Chivington's orders, the troops took no prisoners and indiscriminately shot down men, women, and children. Of some 500 people in the village, 200 were killed and their bodies scalped and mutilated. About two‐thirds of the dead were women and children. A few, including Black Kettle, survived.

Sand Creek set off Indian warfare that engulfed the Great Plains through 1865 and 1866. It also prompted official investigations that exposed the perfidy of Chivington's actions and led to new Indian policies emphasizing diplomacy rather than war. Chivington, however, escaped court‐martial by leaving the service.
[See also Militia and National Guard; Plains Indians Wars.]


Stan Hoig , The Sand Creek Massacre, 1963.

Robert M. Utley

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