Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Spirits of Sand Creek Part l

On a bitterly cold snowy November morning in 1864 the Colorado 3rd and 1st Cavalry, more a militia than a military unit, committed murder. The victims of this atrocity were mostly Cheyenne woman and children who were slaughtered for greed, revenge and shallow political aspirations.

Native peoples in American especially during the westward expansion were considered less than human--“savages.”

The true story of the massacre at Sand Creek makes one wonder-- Who were the real savages?

Chief Black Kettle
Black Kettle one chief of the Cheyenne people at first like many warriors resisted and fought the white mans' invasion. But with experience came wisdom--he was a true leader who realized that to make peace was best-- for the survival of his people was paramount.

His compromise to attain this goal found his people confined to a small patch of land that bordered Kansas and Colorado where there was no game to hunt and where more and more white people encroached. The Cheyenne starving were forced to beg food from white settlers.

To make matters worse several unscrupulous and corrupt Indian Agents who were entrusted to dole out supplies and provisions that the U.S. Government sent as part of the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise, instead sold these goods for their own profit.

The Cheyenne’s way of life--their very survival--depended upon their ability to hunt. Their tradition was to follow the buffalo. The Cheyenne now desperate started to send hunting parties into territory the white men had claimed as their own.

The stage was set for a series of events that caused the massacre at Sand Creek.

In the spring of 1864, a band of Indians, not connected to Black Kettle, murdered and scalped a farmer, by the name of Hungate, his wife, and their two young children. Their mutilated bodies were brought to Denver City--now Denver-- where everyone looked upon them in horror. The people of Denver City now wanted revenge.

Territorial Governor of Colorado
John Evans
In the summer of 1864 Colorado’s Territorial Governor, John Evans issued an order that all Indians should report to the nearest fort and surrender their weapons. He stated in exchange for this they would receive provisions and supplies and they would be shown how to grow crops.

In another twist of fate, the Cheyenne did not hear about this demand until 3 months after it was issued. By the time they reported to Fort Lyon they were already viewed with suspicion.

The Cheyenne were then sent to Sand Creek 40 miles from this fort and told to wait for provisions and supplies.

More fuel was added to the fire when John Evans received information that the Sioux and Cheyenne were gathering at Smoky Hill. It was reported they were going to attack Denver City, which at the time had a population of 15,000 people.

Evans twice requested that the U.S. Government send 10,000 troops--he was convinced that an attack on Denver City was imminent. But the Civil War still raged and the U.S. had no troops to send.

Evans had major political ambitions--he ran for Congress but when Colorado Territory residents voted down a bid to become a state he removed his name from the ballot. After the U.S. refusal to send troops, Evans sent out a request for civilian volunteers. Hundreds of men stepped forward. *

Colonel Chivington
The man who became this civilian militia’s leader was a Methodist minister, Colonel John M. Chivington ** who also had major political ambitions--he had run for Congress as well.

In response to the question, "Should the children be spared?" Chivington an Indian hater, once said to a group of people “nits make lice” nits according to Chivington were Indian children.

At the end of November, Governor Evans ordered the militia attack. Chivington led 700 men to a place on the "Big Sandy" called Dawson’s Bend. It was here the Cheyenne and Arapaho camped--waiting for the provisions promised.

At dawn on the morning of the 29th a member of Black Kettle's group saw the white men riding in-- he alerted Black Kettle who then raised both the U.S. Flag and a white flag of truce--Chivington and his men saw these flags but ignored them.

The camp contained mostly women, children and the elderly for the able-bodied men were out hunting or at the larger camp further north. For six hours the militia proceeded to rape, slaughter and mutilate the bodies of 150 Indians. They then plundered the camp.

Nine of Chivington’s men were killed, another three dozen were wounded. A few Indians did escape including Black Kettle who managed to go back and rescue his wife.

Twelve days later Chivington's men returned to Denver City to a “heroes” welcome. They paraded decapitated Indian heads and other dismembered body parts up and down the streets proudly. These "souvenirs" were then displayed in a Denver City saloon for months afterward. ***

Later, Major Scott Anthony among many others openly “distained” the fact that Chivington and his men had not pursued the Cheyenne further north to the larger encampment where most of the Indian men were.

The U.S. Government investigated the massacre at Sand Creek. The hearings were widely covered leading to a national outcry of shock and outrage. Governor Evans who had ordered the bloody attack found his political career in ruins--he was forced to resign as Governor. But he recovered and played a major role in bringing the railroad to Colorado. 

Chivington who pointed fingers and misrepresented the facts found his reputation ruined. After this he attempted several new ventures--most were unsuccessful.

This betrayal of promises and slaughter resulted in the Cheyenne and Arapaho banding together with the Sioux in1865. They spent years killing the Vehos (whites) in an attempt to drive these emigrant settlers off their land.

Black Kettle continued to counsel peace even as other Cheyenne sought revenge. Tragically, four years after Sand Creek in November of 1868 Black Kettle and his wife were killed by Custer's troops. They were camped on the reservation living peacefully at the time.

The story of the Sand Creek massacre is one more historical reminder of the sorrow inflicted on America’s native people.

Ever since the massacre at Sand Creek spirits have haunted the area. In The Spirits of Sand Creek Part ll, I share some of these stories.

* These volunteers were called "100-daysers" because they signed up to fight the Indians for just 100 days.

** Before Sand Creek, in 1862 Chivington had led the Colorado volunteers into New Mexico Territory and defeated the Confederate soldiers at Glorieta Pass. I wrote about this battle in another post entitled, New Mexico: The Ghosts of Glorieta Pass. I didn’t mention Chivington's name--for good reason.

*** Today several of these souvenirs are at the Smithsonian.

Here is a short version of an award-winning documentary about the Sand Creek Massacre where descendants of these Indians discuss this tragedy.

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