Last updated: April 16, 2020
On November 29, 1864, roughly 700 federal troops attacked a village of 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho on Sand Creek in Colorado. An unprovoked attack on men, women, and children, the massacre at Sand Creek marked a turning point in the relationship between American Indian tribes and the Federal Government. From the day of the attack, US Army actions at Sand Creek have been controversial, because the Cheyenne and Arapaho thought they were at peace with the government and innocent people died. The distrust that grew from what occurred at Sand Creek led to later conflicts at Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and Washita. Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site tells the story of that fatal attack and its repercussions.
In the 1800s, life on the Plains was changing. The attack at Sand Creek was part of a series of conflicts between Plains Indian tribes with newly arrived settlers from the East and federal troops. Against the backdrop of the Civil War that divided the country as a whole, Indian tribes of the Great Plains and settlers from the east struggled for land and resources. To provide safe travel and opportunities for settlers spreading west, the Federal Government signed treaties with many of the Plains tribes. but these did not stem the conflict. Leaders of some tribes advocated for peace, including those of the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the lands around Denver.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho arrived in the area at the beginning of the 1800s. Not long after, treaties between the United States government and the tribes began to limit Indian territory. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie reduced Cheyenne and Arapaho land but promised annual payments to the tribes in exchange for guaranteed passage of settlers through tribal land. The discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 brought a greater influx of people coming in search of gold. Though some tribes fought with the growing number of settlers, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were largely tolerant of the settlers’ movement onto their land. Designed to encourage the adoption of settled farming, a new treaty in 1861 dramatically reduced the amount of land available to the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
During the Civil War, gold in Colorado was an important financial resource. The governor of the Territory of Colorado, John Evans, wanted to limit the presence of Indians on the land to protect the gold and encourage further settlement in the territory. He felt that white settlers were in danger of attack and that the Indians could disrupt the establishment of white communities in the territory. In addtion, he believed the tribes were an obstacle to routing the transcontinental railroad through Colorado. Further, fears of the spread of Confederate sympathies created a highly charged situation.
In the fall of 1864, Governor Evans ordered all Indians who sought peace to relocate near military posts. Those who didn’t would be considered at war with the government. Under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle, the Cheyenne and Arapaho registered with the military that they were not hostile to the government. The Indians thought they were at peace, having followed the governor’s instructions. Both the governor and Colonel Chivington, leader of the Third Colorado Cavalry, were vague as to where the Cheyenne and Arapaho under Chief Black Kettle stood, however.
Governor Evans issued a proclamation that reversed his previous decision. He had obtained authority from the Federal Government to create the Third Colorado Cavalry of 100-day volunteer soldiers. Having created a force to fight Indians, Evans and Chivington needed some to fight. Even though the Indians under Black Kettle made clear their peaceful intentions, Evans and Chivington were intent on an attack.
On November 20, 1864, Chivington and his troops left Denver for the area around Sand Creek and a little more than a week later attacked the village. Led by Chief Black Kettle, the Indian villagers fled for their lives as federal troops descended upon them. The troops captured the villagers' horses to prevent an easy escape, surrounded the village and began raining howitzer shells and bullets down on the men, women, and children. Most of the Indians fled to the nearby creek bed where they quickly dug trenches and pits to hide in as the troops continued to shoot at them. After finishing the massacre in the creek bed, the troops hunted for anyone who had escaped, then scalped and mutilated the bodies of the dead Indians, and destroyed the village. In all, roughly 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho died in the massacre.
The citizens of nearby Denver welcomed the troops when they returned as having helped to rid the Plains of hostile Indians, but Chivington’s actions were controversial almost immediately. Some of his own men refused to participate in the massacre. Later, three federal investigations examined the actions at Sand Creek and found that Chivington and his men fabricated a reason for the attack. By then, Chivington and his men were no longer in the military. Despite the lack of a judicial punishment for Chivington, the impact of the massacre was great. The destruction of the village and the death of many leaders fragmented the culture of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Public outcry at the massacre led eventually to more humane policies relating to Indian tribes following the Civil War.
Visitors to Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can see the massacre site and learn about the attack along a half-mile walk with wayside exhibits. During the park’s regular season between April and November, rangers lead daily tours. A picnic area and overlook with shelter are located in the park. Much of the rest of the park is a sacred site, preserved as an open landscape with few facilities. Some parts of the park are open only to tribal members. The Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run is held annually around Thanksgiving. The run follows the route of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to Denver, passing through Eads.
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located near Eads, CO. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. The park entrance is approximately 30 miles north and east of Eads, along County Road W a mile east of County Road 54 or several miles west of County Road 59. There is no fee to visit the site which is open daily April to November. The park closes in the winter, but may still be visited between December 1 and March 31 by appointment. For more information, visit the National Park Service Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site website or call 719-438-5916.