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This year’s other sesquicentennial: The Sand Creek Massacre

Central City, circa early 1860s
Central City, circa early 1860s
Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy Collection

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War may be getting the lion’s share of attention in 2014, but another conflict will see its sesquicentennial later this year as well.

Plans are coming together at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site for the commemoration of the events of November 29, 1864, when as many as 200 essentially defenseless Indians died at the hands of U. S. armed servicemen who attacked their camp.

Programs are expected to include guest speakers on the Cheyenne and Arapaho experience and oral histories, interpretive programs run by National Park Service rangers, and an annual healing ceremony, organized by tribal representatives. The annual event also includes a tribal run from the Sand Creek site to Denver, planned for sometime during the weekend of the anniversary.

“We typically treat the anniversary as part of a larger interpretive opportunity spanning from Thanksgiving through the weekend following the anniversary,” said park guide Eric Saino, in an email. “On the 29th specifically, we’ll be offering interpretive talks, speeches by tribal representatives and park managers, a prayer and healing ceremony, and the start of the tribal run to Denver.”

In 1864, when the Colorado gold rush drew tens of thousands of fortune hunters from the east, the area around Sand Creek became a prime target for prospectors. These Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal lands turned into gold fields, filling with makeshift settlements and white residents who grappled with their Indian neighbors over territory.

Conflicts became bloody by 1864, after five years of newcomers—as many as fifty thousand each year—refused peaceful coexistence and made greater and greater demands on the tribes for land. The conflict escalated until November 29, when U. S. Colonel John M. Chivington led about 675 U.S. soldiers in an attack on a village of roughly 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek. The troops drove the Indians out of their camp and up the dry creekbed, essentially trapping the women, children, and elderly in the sandy soil and brutally murdering many of them. As many as 200 Indians died in the unprovoked attack, and the soldiers maintained their hold on the land for at least two more days after chasing the remaining Indians out, committing atrocities on the dead bodies and looting the village. Many soldiers left the area with scalps and genitalia they had cut from the bodies.

The scope of the chilling events at Sand Creek might have remained between the men who committed them, were it not for letters written by two officers who refused to participate in the crimes they witnessed. Captain Silas S. Soule and Lieutenant Joseph A. Cramer of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry held their men back from the massacre, and wrote their observations to their former commander, Major Ned Wynkoop, sparing no details of the horrors they saw. Captain Soule described the scene at dawn:

We arrived at Black Kettle and Left Hand’s Camp at day light. Lieut. Wilson with Co.s C, E & G were ordered to in advance to cut off their herd. He made a circle to the rear and formed a line 200 yds. from the village, and opened fire. Poor old John Smith and Louderbeck ran out with white flags but they paid no attention to them, and they ran back into the tents … by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us and getting on their knees for mercy. [Major] Anthony shouted, “kill the sons of bitches.”

The letters led to hearings by congressional committees—and to the death of Captain Soule, who was killed in a Denver street after testifying before an army commission.

The Congressional Joint Committee of the Conduct of War condemned the massacre in 1865:

[Chivington] surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek [sic], who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deeds he and the men under his command had performed.

Despite this finding, however, Chivington and his men were never tried for their crimes.

Today the National Park Service manages the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in collaboration with the Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. While specific plans for the sesquicentennial day are still in flux, the site is releasing a monthly series of news stories about the people and events surrounding the massacre. You can read the series here.

Whenever you visit, more than a mile of trails takes you to observation points that overlook the site, and rangers provide interpretive programs to help you understand the events that took place here. Trails along the bluffs give you the opportunity to view the High Plains landscape, and to look for unusual birds, animals, and plants on the Colorado plains.

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