Slaughter of 450 Cheyenne and Arapaho by the 3rd Colorado Volunteers under Col John Chivington, during an unprovoked attack on Cheyenne peace chief Black Kettle's camp at Sand Creek, Colorado, on 29 November 1864. Although Chivington's actions were praised in Denver, the capital of Colorado, when news of the mutilated bodies of women and children leaked to the press in the East, the massacre was condemned by the rest of the US nation.
Background to the massacre The roots of the events at Sand Creek lay in the massive westward expansion of the USA from the 1840s onwards. The US government attempted to solve the competing demands for land and resources between the USA and the American Indians in the East by the Indian Removal Act and Permanent Indian Frontier policy of 1830, which relocated almost all the Indian peoples to the Permanent Indian Domain of the Great Plains, west of the Mississippi. However, the policy failed before the end of 1830s. An increasing flood of Americans, beginning in the 1830s with the work of the mountain men (beaver fur trappers) and ending with the influx of miners and settlers from the late 1840s, began to press westwards, invading Indian territory. Treaties were signed from the 1850s, but both sides found it impossible to keep to their terms, either because they were unrealistic or the signatories had no intention of keeping to the treaties.
Fort Lyon Treaty, 1861 In 1861 Black Kettle signed a new treaty with the US government, the Fort Lyon Treaty. This agreement was needed because the discovery of gold at Pike's Peak, Colorado, in 1859 had led to a massive influx of miners to the region. These prospectors ignored the promises made to the Cheyenne in the Fort Laramie Treaty (1851) and started to live and work on lands they were officially forbidden to enter. Settlers and railroad companies were also moving into the region and all demanded access to the Cheyenne lands.
The US government would not, and possibly could not, uphold the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. It, therefore, adopted its usual tactic of simply forcing the Plains Indian tribes to renegotiate the treaties. This involved the Cheyenne giving up vast tracts of land in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, which they had been guaranteed forever, only ten years previously. Although leaders such as Black Kettle were prepared to sign to avoid war, many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors refused to accept the new Fort Lyon Treaty. The structure of American Indian society made it impossible for Black Kettle to force the warriors to accept the treaty if they did not want to, and fighting in Colorado intensified between 1861 and 1864. Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors attacked outlying settlements of farmsteads, mining camps, and mail coaches.
Instability and anti-Indian feeling By 1864 the situation in Colorado was explosive. The people of Denver and other new settlements were increasingly terrified of what the Cheyenne and Arapaho would do. Daily reports of murdered settlers and miners, as well as destroyed homes, flowed into Denver. On 11 June 1864, the mutilated bodies of rancher Nathan Hungate, his wife, and two children were brought into Denver and put on public display. Denver's citizens could now see what they believed would be their fate if nothing was done to destroy the Indian menace. The miners and settlers were hardly sympathetic to the rights of the Plains Indians anyway, and the clamour for vengeance and blood grew to fever pitch. The US government was unable to spare large numbers of troops as it was involved in the American Civil War, and so the people of Colorado territory felt that they had to defend themselves.
The mining community from which many of Chivington's 3rd Colorado Volunteers were to be drawn was not noted for its level-headedness. The mining camps of the Colorado gold rush were similar in composition to those of the California Gold Rush in 1848. Dominated by single young men, they were relatively lawless places, where drinking and gambling were rife.
Colorado was also in a political ferment. The campaign for early statehood was growing, with figures such as Methodist minister John Chivington in the frontline. Chivington was tipped to be the first Republican senator for Colorado, and was whipping up anti-Indian sentiment in support of his political campaign. Chivington was already an accomplished military officer, following his service in the Civil War. He was well known for his involvement in the defeat of the Confederate forces at Glorietta Pass in 1862, and was not averse to the publicity. When, in August 1864, a new regiment of 1,000 men was formed, the 3rd Colorado Volunteers, Chivington was made its commanding officer with the rank of colonel. Chivington believed that military honour could only help his political ambitions. He had also made his hatred of the American Indians clear in speeches. In August 1864 he declared that ‘the Cheyenne will have to be ... completely wiped out’, and planned a campaign against the local Cheyenne and Arapaho to end their threat. Chivington's 3rd Colorado Volunteers were under the control of General Curtis, and both Chivington and Curtis were of one mind about the need to crush the threat posed by the Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.
Black Kettle's peace negotiations In the months leading up to the Sand Creek massacre in November, Black Kettle tried to negotiate with the various government, political, and military leaders in Colorado. He first went to meet with Major Edward Wynkoop at Fort Lyon. Wynkoop was sympathetic to the Cheyenne chief's problems and agreed to accompany Black Kettle to Denver for a meeting with territorial governor John Evans. Evans, however, was not sympathetic and dismissed Black Kettle's attempts to surrender or produce a real peace. Major Scott Anthony soon replaced Wynkoop at Fort Lyon. Maj-Gen Samuel Ryan Curtis, the US Army commander for the region, believed that Anthony would be less sympathetic to the Cheyenne and would be more useful in the coming conflict that he believed inevitable.
With Anthony in place at Fort Lyon, Black Kettle's channels of communication for peace were reduced. Black Kettle attempted to negotiate with Anthony at Fort Lyon, and the major initially promised him protection. However, this was withdrawn when Anthony considered the likely reaction of General Curtis if he attempted to negotiate peace. Black Kettle was told to take his Cheyenne to a bend on Sand Creek, approximately 56 km/35 mi northeast of Fort Lyon. Soon 30 lodges of Arapaho accompanying Chief Left Hand joined Black Kettle's Cheyenne. This brought the total Indian population at Sand Creek in November 1864 to 700, occupying 130 lodges. Black Kettle settled his people in for the winter, thinking that he had the protection of the US Army and would soon be able to negotiate for peace.
The attack on Sand Creek Chivington and Curtis did not intend to allow Black Kettle's Cheyenne and Left Hand's Arapaho to stay in peace on Sand Creek. Curtis ordered Chivington to ‘Pursue everywhere and chastize the Cheyenne and Arapaho’. Chivington also knew that the 100-day term of service for his 3rd Colorado Volunteers would soon be up. The men, mainly drawn from the mining camps and saloons that surrounded Denver, were being mocked by Denver newspapers as the ‘Bloodless Third’. They had done no fighting and were desperate for action. Chivington knew he had little time for action if he was to achieve his goal of destroying the American Indians and raising his status in Colorado. With the support of General Curtis he moved out from Denver on 24 November 1864 heading towards Sand Creek. Chivington had almost 1,000 men and four howitzers. He met up with Major Anthony at Fort Lyon on the evening of 28 November and Anthony guided the 3rd Colorado Volunteers to Sand Creek by the dawn of 29 November 1864.
Chivington ordered his soldiers in and led the charge in an undeclared attack, although Black Kettle had raised the US flag and the white flag of surrender over the camp as a sign of peace and friendship. The Cheyenne and Arapaho did not immediately collapse, and the fighting continued throughout the day until 4 p.m. The death toll is unclear; estimates put it at between 150 and 450 of the 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho. The different estimates depend on the viewpoint of the person offering the figures. The members of the 3rd Colorado Volunteers tended to give lower figures relating to the bodies they actually saw. Many of Chivington's enemies, or those who traded with the Indians and stood to lose from their deaths, gave higher figures. Chivington himself claimed he left ‘between 500 and 600 Indians ... dead upon the field’, when he reported to General Curtis in December 1864.
Of the dead, it was estimated that around two-thirds were women and children. This is one of the key pieces of evidence to suggest that the events of Sand Creek were a massacre not a battle. The bodies of these victims were mutilated, children having their skulls smashed in and women having their breasts and genitals removed, these were strung across saddlebows for later display in Denver. Part of the reason for the excessive number of women and children among the dead may be explained by the fact that many of the Cheyenne warriors had not followed Black Kettle to Sand Creek. They were among the 2,000 Indians camped to the north, in the Smokey River region of Colorado.
US reaction to the massacre The Sand Creek incident was referred to as a massacre rather than a battle by both American Indians and the USA. News of the barbarity of the massacre first leaked out from the soldiers and officers who had refused to take part. Chivington tried to silence them by having six of them arrested but this failed. Press and politicians in the East felt an instant revulsion for the massacre and barbaric mutilation of the victims and immediately condemned the actions of Chivington and his volunteers. The US government and Army held inquires into the events of Sand Creek, and the Congressional Committee of Inquiry declared that Chivington had ‘executed a foul and dastardly massacre’. The politicians of the East wanted to punish Chivington for his actions, but by January 1865 Chivington had left the Volunteers and was no longer subject to military justice. Neither he nor any of the members of the 3rd Colorado Volunteers were punished for their actions, but Chivington's political hopes were over and he was regarded as a villain by the rest of the USA.
In Denver the reaction was completely different. On his return from Sand Creek Chivington was given a hero's welcome, and the ‘Bloodless Third’ became the ‘Bloody Third’. The scalps taken from the victims of Sand Creek were strung across the Opera House stage in Denver for all to see. The people of Denver did not feel the sense of revulsion and outrage felt by the people in the East after the facts about Sand Creek became public knowledge. Indeed the people of Denver showed their continuing respect for Chivington when, towards the end of his life, he returned to the city after failing to escape the stigma of Sand Creek elsewhere in the USA. Chivington became a deputy-sheriff in Denver in 1884, giving him a respectable role in Colorado society again.
Black Kettle, meanwhile, was killed in 1868 by Lt-Col George Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Washita in Oklahoma.