The following story was written 25 years ago as part of the series created by the Eads High School history project—Kiowa County: A Retrospective at the Dawn of a New Millennium. This series was written by EHS juniors and seniors in 1999—as the new century was about to come on to the scene. Each student chose a subject they were interested in and then through first-hand interviews and primary sources did the research and wrote the article. Each article was printed in the Kiowa County Press. The high school staff that guided this project included Pete Conrad, EHS English teacher, and Betsy Barnett, District Media Specialist. The project won a state history award in 2000.
Whether you feel the event that happened at Sand Creek was a battle or a massacre, there is little doubt that the event was a terrible and tragic one. As the popular narration goes, Colonel John Chivington, a brave and noble man who was a Methodist minister and well-respected by most, was on the trail of a ruthless band of Cheyenne and Arapaho Dog Soldiers who had murdered and mutilated the Hungate family near Denver earlier that summer of 1864. When Chivington learned that the Cheyenne village was camped along the Sand Creek in a spot nine miles north of the present-day town of Chivington, Colorado, in Kiowa County, he decided to go end the Indian’s reign of terror. At approximately 6:00 am on the cold morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington’s third Regiment Colorado Volunteer Calvary came upon the camp and killed any Indian they could find. “I believe that was part of the understanding, that none should be spared,” said one volunteer man after the incident had occurred. When the smoke and dust had finally settled on the camp, many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho lay dead. Historians, even to this day, disagree as to the estimate as to how many were killed at Sand Creed, although a common guess is usually around 150 men, women, and children killed. In any case, few in the camp managed to escape Chivington’s soldiers. Chivington and his men rejoiced in their victory over many ruthless warriors. The Territory of Colorado did, too—for a time.
However, as time went on, several eyewitnesses and government officials questioned Chivington’s methods, particularly when it became obvious that the minister had killed mostly women, children, and old men, only killing a few actual warriors who presented a threat to the soldiers.
With not much being known about the Cheyenne’s interpretation of the incident, until recently with a huge collection of literature being published which examines the Indian side, I decided to investigate the matter a little further. I found a lot of information on the topic.
Now imagine, if you will, that you are a Native American. Your land is being taken over by the White Man, who promised that they would only build roads and military forts on your land for safer travel to California. However, this has not been the case as more and more settlers pour into your homeland every day. Imagine, also, that your nomadic way of life of following the buffalo for food and sustenance has all but disappeared. You have watched helplessly, as the only way of life you know and your life source of survival is systematically cut off, little by little. The buffalo is being killed for their furs only, then left to rot on the open plains, being useless to you. The gold rush near the great mountains has made more and more white people come into your hunting grounds, and now a huge city stands where you once roamed freely—called Denver City. You and your people are finally pushed further out on the plains to an area between the Arkansas River and the Sand Creek. This makes your people angry and some revolt against the White Man by attacking isolated homesteads. Many Whites are killed, but so, too, are many of your people. Your chief, Black Kettle, decides that to fight the White Man is wrong, and you agree because he is a wise leader. He is a chief that has been honored by the Whites, he was even given a medal of peace by the Great White Father, Abraham Lincoln, during a peach trip to Washington. So, you go along with them.
During the terribly cold autumn and winter of 1864 your band goes to Fort Lyon, because the fort promises protection and food for you and your people during the long winter. You live in Tepees outside the fort, and you eat what you are given. You hear stories about great warriors who still challenge the What Man. You hear that a man called Evans is the new leader of the White Man in your territory and he has sent a colonel Chivington out to kill your revolting brothers. Chivington claims, “I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” This scares your people, and they realize that the White Man wants your people totally destroyed. You stay at the fort until the Month of the Freezing Moon. To the White Man, this is November. You and your people leave the fort because you have used all the rations available to be given to you. Your people are told that they can find refuge on Big Sandy Creek, some miles to the northeast of the fort. There you will find buffalo and no soldiers. The White Man’s chief at the fort, called Wynkoop, stresses to you that you will be safe from the calvary and that no harm will come to your people. Black Kettle agrees to leave with this understanding. You pack up your things and go towards Sand Creek.
While you are camped at Sand Creek, the feared Chivington arrives at Fort Lyon. He is told about where you are camped and that you were told the facts, nevertheless, the Colonel sets out for your village with his Colorado Volunteers in tow. Early one morning, you hear a pounding noise coming from the south. Your chief thinks it is a herd of buffalo approaching. As the sound gets closer, your people see a herd of blue coats riding horses. It is Chivington and his calvary. You are shocked. You just stand and watch them come into your peaceful village. You see the old Arapaho Chief, White Antelope, shot down as he chants words of death and dying. Many of your people are shot as they try to run. You try to move, but you are frozen with fear. You feel a sword go through you. You fall to the ground and watch as the men mutilate your body. As blood flows to your eyes, you look to the sky. You see the American flag flying proudly above your chief’s teepee. The one given to your chief by the White Man. You remember that the flag was given, and the giver said that no harm will come to your people if you fly this flag. The last thing you see is the bright white surrender flag flying below the American flag, then there is nothing but darkness.
This event that happened at Sand Creek in November of 1864 was, whatever else, surely a tragedy for all involved. Whether it was a battle or a massacre, I can’t tell you, and it depends on who you ask. Many believe that it was a battle between great warriors, others believe it was a massacre of innocent and helpless people. I can only say that it was a tragic event and hopefully this story will broaden your view of the incident. Citizens of Kiowa County must be aware of the issues of the Sand Creek incident as Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s national bill to create a national park at the site of the battle has created a hornet’s nest of controversy from both sides of the issue. Since the signing of the bill, experts disagree as the actual site of the incident. Furthermore, those involved, the Arapaho and Cheyenne people, government officials, local landowners, and local politicians all have their own opinions as to what should be done with Sand Creek. The ideas are wide and varied including making it a national park; creating a sacred burial ground for the Cheyenne and Arapaho which would render the area virtually off limits to tourists; another idea is to turn the land into a reservation; and finally, some want the area to become a state park. The debates and discussion are far from over.
We, as citizens of Kiowa County, should be interested in the political mind storm going on around us and make it our business to determine what the future of the Sand Creek site will be.