This month, 150 years ago, more than 600 troops—temporary militia in the Third Colorado Cavalry and professional soldiers in the First Colorado Cavalry—converged above the camps of mainly Cheyenne and Arapaho people beside Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory. In the quiet, slightly snow-sprinkled morning, the troops executed the most horrifying massacre of as many as 200 people—mainly women, children and elder men. This inhuman killing and subsequent mutilation of even children’s bodies happened at the location where chiefs—Black Kettle, White Antelope, Left Hand and others—were sent to await word on peace negotiations with the U.S. military and Colorado government.
Immediately afterward, Col. John Chivington, leader of the unprovoked attack, extolled the “battle” to his superiors, but it soon became evident through letters of other officers and the bloody scene itself that this was nothing less than mass murder, a finding confirmed by federal investigations. The massacre outraged even some of the Civil War-hardened politicians and military men of the time and it likely set in motion the years-long wars between tribes and the U.S. government that followed. Trust had been broken beyond repair, making peaceful negotiations between the clashing cultures more difficult. In remembrance of this event, here are six selected insights into the times and short introductions to some key people involved.
Murder of Chief Lean Bear
The unprovoked murder of a respected Cheyenne leader in the spring of 1864 not only ignited hostilities, but also echoed ominously in actions at Sand Creek.
A year before, Chief Lean Bear joined a delegation negotiating with President Abraham Lincoln, so in May 1864 when soldiers arrived at his village on the Smoky Hill River he did not expect trouble. Lean Bear led a large group of Cheyenne men to meet the soldiers and then he and another man, Star, approached them, showing the peace medal and documents from Lincoln. Before they reached the soldiers, an officer ordered his men to fire on the two. Even after Lean Bear and Star fell to the ground, the soldiers kept firing. This incident spurred the hostile actions against white settlers later that summer, Cheyenne Chief White Antelope would tell Colorado Territory Gov. John Evans. White Antelope, a former Dog Soldier, died at Sand Creek.
This disregard for the symbols of peace echoed at the massacre. Soldiers ignored the waving of an American flag and white flags by the Cheyenne and Arapaho people there, trying to show their peaceful intents.
Left Hand Learned All He Could
Niwot, or Left Hand, the Arapaho chief who advocated peace with the white settlers and died with his family at Sand Creek, invested much effort into understanding the culture and nature of the incoming white immigrants.
The chief spoke fluent English, taught by his sister’s white husband, and also spoke the language of the Lakota and Cheyenne. In 1858, he traveled with his family to Iowa and Nebraska to learn more about the non-Native culture. On the return trip, he hooked up with a wagon train traveling west and created an impression when, riding bareback on his horse, he killed a buffalo when a herd was unexpectedly encountered. Left Hand tried to make connections with the newly arrived culture. He tried, unsuccessfully, to vote in a Denver election in 1861 and spoke passionately about peace between the cultures at the end of a performance in Denver’s Apollo Theater. The town of Niwot and Left Hand Canyon and Left Hand Creek are named for this promoter of peace who died so violently.
Governor John Evans
John Evans, the millionaire Chicago businessman appointed by Lincoln as the second governor in the Colorado Territory, reflected the state of panic felt by some in the white community.
Starting in 1863, the year after the Dakota War in Minnesota, Evans subscribed to false rumors of tribal plots to attack Colorado settlements. He repeatedly requested additional troops and was largely ignored because of the ongoing Civil War. He found a foothold for his ideas in June 1964, with a brutal murder outside Denver of the Hungate family, including the 4-year-old and infant girls, allegedly by four Arapaho men. Motivation for the attack was unknown, but the hacked bodies of the murdered family were displayed in Denver, according to Carol Turner, author of The Forgotten Heroes & Villains of Sand Creek.
Some outlying settlers moved into Denver in fear. Again, though, Evans requests for more troops were ignored. Though hostilities increased, there was nothing to justify Evans’ mounting panic of a massive tribal attack. In August, Evans issued a proclamation calling for a citizen militia to hunt down all “hostile” Indians and offering arms, pay and the right to taken property for those who participated. Almost immediately afterward, Washington gave the go-ahead to raise a regiment for 100 days. These “hundred-days men” would become the main massacre forces. Evans, though ultimately deposed by the outfall of the massacre, would be remembered by the towns of Evansville in Illinois and Evans in Colorado, as well as Mount Evans.
The “Bloodless Third”
The Third Colorado Cavalry, hired in late August 1964 for 100 days to protect the white population, first became tauntingly known as the “Bloodless Third.” They had nothing to do—the fears of tribal attacks were unfounded.
Career ambitions, however, rode on some heroic outcome from these temporary soldiers. Both Col. John Chivington and Gov. John Evans saw themselves in higher positions of power and an expensive failure, like the hiring of this 100-day regiment, could prove damaging. Certainly Chivington’s ambition was a motivation for the horrific attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho camps. He wanted some “battle” before the hundred-days funding was gone. The “Bloodless Third” ended with innocent blood on their hands.
The “Fighting Parson”
Col. John Chivington, the Methodist minister who ruthlessly led the hundred-days militia and full-time soldiers against the peaceful encampment, was a zealous abolitionist and an honored Union veteran of the Civil War.
Chivington headed a unit of the First Regiment of the Colorado Volunteers that bolstered Union forces for an 1862 victory against Confederate troops at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Known as the “Fighting Parson,” he once preached—a Bible and pistols at the pulpit—against slavery despite threats from pro-slavery congregation members of his Missouri church. It might seem incongruous that a fervent abolitionist would also be a rabid hater of another race of people, but according to Ari Kelman, author of A Misplaced Massacre, abolitionists often opposed slavery as a hindrance to economics and expansion rather than as a human abomination. “It’s not clear whether Chivington was actually sympathetic to African slaves; he believed that slavery was bad for the United States,” Kelman told ICTMN. “Very few white abolitionists were racially enlightened.”
No More Honors for Chivington
Officially reprimanded after the Sand Creek atrocities came to light, Chivington was still extolled as a hero by some, but today there are moves to eliminate any lingering “honors.”
A young woman, Vicki Lefthand, has begun a petition to change the name of Chivington, Colorado, in remembrance of the 150th anniversary of the massacre “Genocidal mass murders should NEVER be allowed, let alone HONORED,” she wrote on the petition site, which has more than 3,700 signatures.