History & Culture

"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux portrays his concept of the assault on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village by the U.S. Army.
"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux portrays his concept of the assault on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village by the U.S. Army.

Courtesy of History Colorado H.6130.37

The morning of November 29th, 1864, the Chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, One Eye, Yellow Wolf, Big Man, Bear Man, War Bonnet, Spotted Crow, Bear Robe, and others such as Grey Beard (aka Wolf Grey) and Little Bear were encamped by the Big Sandy Creek, some 40 miles north of Fort Lyon. Alongside these Chiefs were around 750 people from the Arapaho and Cheyenne Plains Native American Tribes. After years of turmoil caused by the western expansion by the American Colonist, the Cheyenne and Arapaho people suffered greatly from reduced hunting grounds. The Treaty of Fort Laramie began the process of limiting how much land Native Americans would have in the Great Plains. It was the encampment by the Big Sandy Creek of Arapaho and Cheyenne people who were hoping to find peace between the American Colonist’ Military and the Tribes who lived on the plains for many generations.

A proclamation sent out at the beginning of the summer of 1864 by the Governor of the Territory of Colorado, John Evans, had commanded all “Friendly” Native Americans of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to go to Fort Lyon to receive supplies and to find safety. Unfortunately, this was in direct conflict with the standing order at all Forts within the Territory of Colorado that all members of the Military should shoot and kill any Native American that approached a Fort. Responding to the proclamation, Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne had taken the steps to negotiate peace and had contacted Major Wynkoop at Fort Lyon. It was Chief Black Kettle’s hope that, should this peace be successful, he and his people could live free once more. But until that peace was settled, Chief Black Kettle was fearful for his people, who were subject to violence by the American Military.

Despite the best efforts of Edward Wynkoop, both Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington failed to negotiate peace with Chief Black Kettle. Wynkoop was instructed to indicate where the Arapaho and Cheyenne should stay near Fort Lyon until negotiations could be continued. At the command of the American Military, Chief Black Kettle settled his people, around 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho, in a bend of the Big Sandy Creek. Made up of women, children and the elderly, this encampment was prepared to move to Fort Lyon at a moment’s notice, where they could find safety and supplies from the American Military.

On that cold November morning, Colonel Chivington and elements of the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment of Volunteers (US) and 3rd Regiment of Colorado Cavalry Volunteers (US), arrived just southwest of the Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. Colonel Chivington was never given orders to leave Denver, and at around 6:30, the soldiers would open fire amongst the lodges of the innocent and unaware Arapaho and Cheyenne civilians. Over the course of eight hours the American troops killed around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children, and the elderly. During the afternoon and following day, the soldiers wandered over the field committing atrocities on the dead before departing the scene on December 1st.

Since the barbarism of November 29, the Sand Creek Massacre maintains its status as one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history, a tragedy reflective of its time and place. The Sand Creek Massacre lay in a whirlwind of events and issues exacerbated by the ongoing Civil War. Critically, the Sand Creek Massacre stands as a testament to a brutality that should be learned from and never repeated, a lesson of what the rejection of conscience in the face of fear and hysteria can lead to, and the suffering that this betrayal has imparted on generations of Arapaho and Cheyenne people.

In 2000, manuscript copies of letters from Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer were found in Denver. These letters, as firsthand accounts of the massacre, reveal the moral resistance of some of the soldiers to the barbarism that surrounded them. As primary sources, these letters show much about the atrocities at Sand Creek while also demonstrating how a hundred men stood in resistance to orders.

To learn more about the people involved and who witnessed the tragic events of the Sand Creek Massacre, go to our People page to read their stories.


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