Sand Creek Massacre: Slaughter of Innocent Indians
In the troubled history of clashes between whites and Indians in the 19th century, perhaps no incident is more disturbing or appalling than the Sand Creek Massacre. In the freezing dawn of Nov. 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington and 700 Colorado volunteer militia attacked a peaceful, friendly camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho led by Chief Black Kettle. With most of the village’s warriors away on a hunting trip, the militia savagely killed, scalped and mutilated the terrified Indians as they tried to flee. The militia killed as many as 160 Indians that morning—most of them women and children—and wounded many more, while losing 24 troopers.
After signing a treaty with the whites Black Kettle was known as a friendly Indian, and his people were instructed to camp on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, forty miles from the protection of Fort Lyon. Black Kettle was given an American flag to fly over his lodge to offer his people protection. Chivington, a former Methodist preacher, had raised the 3rd Colorado Regiment of volunteer militia to fight Indians, but their 100-day term of service was about to expire without seeing any major action; the Denver press was ridiculing them as the “Bloodless Third.”
Convinced a victory over the Indians would advance his political career, Chivington ordered the attack on Black Kettle’s village knowing full well they were friendly Indians. He instructed his men to kill everything in sight, including children, following his infamous declaration “nits make lice.” In addition to the American flag, Black Kettle ran up a white flag of truce when the attack first started, but nothing could save his people.
The nation’s newspapers at first welcomed the news of a big victory over the Indians. As details of the massacre emerged, however, the public—and press coverage—turned against Chivington. The Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) published this account of the battle, including Chivington’s official report, on Dec. 28, 1864:
A Bloody Battle with Indians
The Denver (Colorado) News of December 8th gives full accounts of the recent severe battle between Colorado troops and the Cheyenne Indians, in which the latter were surprised after a forced march of forty miles, and an entire tribe almost exterminated, including several distinguished chiefs. The official report is as follows:
Headquarters District of Colorado,
In the Field, Cheyenne County, South Bend, Big Sandy, November 29, 1864.
To Major Gen. S. R. Curtis, Fort Leavenworth.
General: In the last ten days my command has marched three hundred miles—one hundred of which the snow was two feet deep. After a march of forty miles last night, I, at daylight this morning, attacked a Cheyenne village of one hundred and thirty lodges, from nine hundred to one thousand warriors strong. We killed Chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Little Robe, and between four and five hundred other Indians, and captured between four and five hundred ponies and mules. Our loss is nine killed and thirty-eight wounded. All did nobly. I think I will catch some more of them about eighty miles distant, on Smoky Hill. We found a white man’s scalp, not more than three days old, in a lodge.
J. M. Chivington,
Colonel Commanding District of Colorado, and First Indian Expedition
Private letters give the following additional particulars: “Our loss is eight killed, one missing, and about forty wounded. The Indian loss is variously estimated at from three to five hundred—I think about three hundred—between five and six hundred Indian saddles, and over one hundred lodges, with all their camp equipage. Black Kettle, White Antelope, One Eye, and other chiefs are among the killed. I think this is the severest chastisement ever given to Indians in battle on the American continent. Our men fought with great enthusiasm and bravery, but with some disorder. There are plenty more Indians within a few days’ march.”
Another letter says: “We start for another band of redskins and shall fight differently next time. I never saw more bravery displayed by any set of people on the face of the earth than by those Indians. They would charge on a whole company singly, determined to kill someone before being killed themselves. We, of course, took no prisoners, except John Smith’s son, and he was taken suddenly ill in the night and died before morning. I shall leave here as soon as I can see our wounded safely on the way to the hospital at Fort Lyon, for the villages of the Sioux, which are reported about eighty miles from here on the Smoky Hill, and three thousand strong. So look out for more fighting. I will state for the consideration of gentlemen who are opposed to fighting these red scoundrels, that I was shown, by my chief surgeon, the scalp of a white man, taken from the lodge of one of the chiefs, which could not have been more than two or three days taken, and I could mention many more things to show how these Indians, who have been drawing Government rations at Fort Lyon, are and have been acting.”
It did not take long for other reports, contradicting Chivington’s official account, to appear in the press. For one thing, there were hardly any warriors in the camp at the time of the attack—certainly not the 900 to 1,000 Chivington claimed. Black Kettle was not killed; he escaped and lived four more years until killed in another dawn November attack on his peaceful village beside the Washita River, this time led by George Armstrong Custer. Despite Chivington’s claim that “all did nobly,” the revolting truth was beginning to be known. To its Dec. 31, 1864, report of the battle, the Springfield Weekly Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) added these lines:
This exploit of Chivington’s wasn’t much to brag over either, for the 500 Indians killed were women and children, and the village was friendly to the whites. The matter is to have an official investigation.
There was indeed an investigation. In its Jan. 4, 1865, issue the Daily National Intelligencer reported:
Massacre of Indians in Colorado
It has been stated that the Committee on the Conduct of the War are about to make investigation in respect to what seems to have been a wholesale massacre of Indians in Colorado for no just cause, so far as is known at the Indian Bureau. The affair is denominated by the United States Judge of the Territory (Harding) an attack upon defenceless savages among the most cruel that history records, and which should cause a shudder of horror to pervade the country. He represents that the “Indians had previously given up their arms; they molested no travellers; they claimed to be quiet and peaceable; yet they were surprised by a military force, coming some two hundred miles for the purpose at dead of night, and the victims included women and children. George Bent, son of Col. Bent, was killed, with a number of other half-breeds that were stopping at the lodges. Not a soul was spared—man, woman, or papoose—that fell into the hands of the soldiers. The Indians no more expected attack from the troops than they did from those at Fort Lyon, whom they visited almost every day.”
The congressional joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the Sand Creek massacre and was appalled at the details it uncovered. Its report stated: “In conclusion, your committee are of the opinion that for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.”
Despite this official recommendation, however, no action was ever taken against anyone involved in the Sand Creek massacre. Chivington did not escape completely; with his reputation in ruins, his political career ended. The infamy he acquired is demonstrated in this scathing article, published by the Freedoms Champion (Atchison, Kansas) on Aug. 17, 1865:
The Chivington Massacre
Our old Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. Alex. McD. McCook, with his personal Aid, Major Bates, and other members of his staff, arrived here, from the West, yesterday morning. Gen. McCook has been on a tour to New Mexico and Colorado, accompanying Vice-President Foster and party, and has thoroughly investigated, by order of the War Department, all affairs connected with the Indians in the West.
Gen. McCook is no inexperienced judge of the Indian character and disposition; he has not learned what he knows of the red men from Cooper’s novels; he has fought them in many campaigns, and is influenced by no mawkish sentimentality in their favor. His opinions are, therefore, entitled to credence.
Of Chivington’s Sand Creek massacre, he gave us many interesting details, and he is of the opinion that it was the most cold-blooded, revolting, diabolical atrocity ever conceived by man or devil. The sworn accounts of witnesses of the affair are enough to make any man blush for his species. It was an indiscriminate, wholesale murder of men, women and children, accompanied by the disfigurement of dead bodies of both sexes, in every revolting and sickening form and manner. Unborn babies were torn from the wombs of dying mothers and scalped; children of the most tender ages were butchered; soldiers adorned their hats with portions of the bodies of both males and females; and the flag and uniform of the United States were disgraced by acts of fiendish barbarity, so revolting in their details that a truthful account cannot be published in a respectable journal, without giving offence to decency. And all these atrocities were committed on a band of Indians who had, voluntarily, entrusted themselves to the protection of this Government, received assurances of care, and who had flying above their encampment, at that time, a white flag and the National banner, given them by the military authorities at Ft. Lyon, with the promise that this was to be to them security and guardianship as long as they remained under it, and continued friendly.
These Indians were under the leadership of Black Kettle, a Chief whose friendship for the whites had been proverbial for years. He had been in the employ of our Government as a scout; had been engaged by Lieut. Colonel Tappan, of the 1st Colorado, to keep a watch upon the Sioux and other hostile tribes; had only a few days before prevented, by giving timely information, an intended raid; and he brought the men, women and children of his tribe together to live near the Fort and under the care of the whites. His trust was repaid by indiscriminate massacre; his friendship was rewarded by outrage on the living and disfigurement of the dead; his confidence requited by betrayal, by rapine, by murder so sickening in its forms that it passes all understanding to imagine how any one, be he either man or devil, could have executed it. Added to these crimes, and making them more heinous, is the fact that within some distance of the scene of the massacre were a body of hostile Indians, who had notoriously been engaged in committing depredations. These Chivington permitted to go unharmed, probably because their warriors numbered as many as did the men of his command. So to his cruelty must be added cowardice; to his barbarity, poltroonery.
All these facts are established by sworn statements in possession of Gen. McCook, and they agree in every respect with the testimony taken by Lieut. Col. Tappan, of the 1st Colorado, as he related them to us some days ago.
We are conscious that before we had fully heard of the facts we were disposed to judge of Col. Chivington and his acts charitably. We have no admiration for Indians, and but little confidence in their pretences of friendship. Knowledge of them and acquaintance with them has long ago dissipated those exalted ideas of their honor, truth, or nobility of character, which we had learned in our schoolboy days, and grown enthusiastic in admiring. And we had hoped that many of the stories afloat were untrue, and that investigation would clear Chivington’s fame. But instead of this it has only blackened it, and covered him with enduring and eternal infamy. We have had instances of intemperate zeal in excusing the Indians; we have had also the intemperance of hatred for them. But never before has the uniform of a United States officer or soldier been disgraced, or humanity shocked, by the contemplation of such vile and cowardly atrocities as those committed by Chivington and his command. Rich as is our language in the vocabulary of horror and baseness, and fertile as it is in invectives, it will not and cannot furnish words adequate to describe his actions or characterize his infamy. The deeds of Sand Creek approach nearer than any recorded account of history to the idea of total depravity; and when we remember that the instigator and author of them all is a minister of the Gospel, what charity can offer any excuse for him, what leniency avail him?
The contemplation of such actions and such a man as he who commanded them is not pleasant—it is disgusting. But this wretch, or fiend, has friends, who still cling to him, cowardly, mean, brutal, base, barbarous, hypocritical and atrocious as have been his actions. And, it is just and right that the public, too wont, in the West, to excuse the whites and blame the Indians, should know the truth. And, when it is known, and all the enormity of this Sand Creek massacre is exposed, we are sure that, nowhere will Chivington find a defender, or even an apologist.
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