Civil War, American Indian Wars, Pioneers (1801-1900)

Massacre at Sand Creek

On September 17th 1851, a treaty was signed at Fort Laramie between the United States government and the Indian nations of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Crow, Assiniboine and Mandans. The treaty recognized Indian sovereignty over their vast traditional hunting grounds stretching from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas and included large areas of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.

For many years, wagon trains had crossed the Great Plains on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, carrying emigrants westwards and were left largely untouched by the Indians, but when gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak area of Colorado, the rush of miners and prospectors greatly increased this traffic. Matters worsened when many migrants, instead of passing through Indian Territory as before, began to settle and build homes in the area, resulting in Indian raids on wagon trains, stage coaches and homesteads. With the Civil War in full swing, troops were not available to intervene and retaliation by the whites escalated the atrocities committed by both sides.

Colorado territory officials pressured federal authorities to redefine the extent of Indian lands in the territory and in 1860, A.B Greenwood, Commissioner for Indian Affairs, arrived in the region to seek a new treaty. On February 18th 1861, six chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne, including Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Wolf, Lean Bear and Tall Bear, and four of the Arapaho, including Little Raven, Storm, Big Mouth, Shave Head and Niwot, signed a treaty at Fort Wise, in which they ceded most of the land previously designated to them in the Fort Laramie treaty.  Why they signed away so much has long been controversial, but it now seems clear that through clever wording, lies and bribery, the whites tricked the chiefs into accepting a deal they did not understand and left the Indians with lands less than one thirteenth the size of their 1851 holdings. In return they were promised the sum of $50,000 per year for the next 50 years, although this was amended almost immediately to 10 years. In the event, little, if any, of this money was ever paid.

When the tribes learned of the treaty many were outraged, arguing that the treaty chiefs had no authority to deal on their behalf and refused to abide by its terms. They continued to hunt bison in their old lands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas and began to fight the ever increasing numbers of migrants now arriving to settle.

The white authorities however, considered the treaty “A solemn obligation” and took the view that Indians who refused to abide by it were hostile and planning a war.

The American Civil War led in 1862 to the organisation of military forces in Colorado territory and in March of that year, the Coloradans defeated the Texas Confederate Army at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico and returned to Colorado where they were mounted as a Home Guard, calling themselves, The First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, whose compassion for his fellow man as a former Methodist priest did not extend to Indians. Chivington and his friend John Evans, the Governor of Colorado Territory both looked to the granting of statehood for the territory, Evans seeking the post of State Governor and Chivington looking to be a Congressman.  They whipped up popular feeling against the Indians, exaggerating claims of atrocities and cattle stealing, knowing that this would gain them support among the electorate.

In April 1864, without any warning, they sent troops out to attack Indian camps, destroying lodges and killing indiscriminately. In May of that year, a force under Lieutenant Eayre crossed into Kansas and found the Cheyenne in their summer buffalo hunting grounds of Big Bushes near the Smoky Hill River. Cheyenne chiefs Lean Bear and Star approached the soldiers to signal their peaceful intent, but were shot down by Eayre’s soldiers. The incident touched off a war of retaliation by the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho and Kiowa in Kansas and Colorado.

Chivington was under the direct orders of Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis who believed that Indian agents were too soft and made them difficult to deal with,” On a realistic basis”.  Tension increased when the mutilated bodies of a rancher, Nathan Hungate, his wife and two children were brought to Denver and put on public display. The townspeople were both outraged and horrified, Indian raids on supply wagons resulted in food shortages Governor Evans believed that a general Indian uprising was imminent and, hoping to break up what he saw as a united Indian front, appealed to the more peace inclined tribes to report to certain forts where they would be given food and the protection from attack.

In early June, the Kiowa chief Santana approached Fort Larned in Kansas, but were turned away. The Indians retaliated by shooting an arrow into the arm of a sentry and running of with the fort’s herd of horses. Some local Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs under a white flag to explain that their tribes were not responsible for the event, but on the basis that,” All Indians look the same”, they were fired on with cannon and driven off.

Chivington was quoted at the time as saying, “Damn any man who sympathises with Indians, I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honourable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians”.

Evans and Chivington raised a short term militia to deal with the Indians, naming them the Third Colorado Cavalry, but they became nicknamed as “The Hundred Dazers”, due to their 100 day enlistment period. No selection process or standard was made for the force and it inevitably became filled with drifters, chancers, outlaws and drunks.

Following a summer of fighting, whites and Indians met on 28th September at Fort Weld near Denver. No treaties were signed, but the Indians were led to believe that by reporting and camping near army bases, they would be declaring peace and accepting sanctuary. Chiefs Black Kettle, Niwot and White Antelope, leading an 800 strong band of peace seeking Cheyenne and Arapaho, arrived at Fort Lyon and were told by its commander, Major Scot Anthony that he had no authority to negotiate, but told the Indians to camp at Sand Creek (properly called Big Sandy Creek) some 40 miles north. He said that he would contact Major General Curtis and when he received orders to negotiate, he would notify them. This he failed to do. The Dog Soldiers, (a warrior cast of Indians who had done most of the raiding) were not among those making camp. Being assured that they were in sanctuary and with promises of peace, the remaining warriors went off buffalo hunting in preparation for the winter and leaving behind the women and children, plus males too old or too young to hunt.

Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge to signal friendship and was assured that this would protect his people from attack by soldiers.

Chivington and his militia had played little part in the summer fighting and he was frustrated that the 100 day limit would soon be reached without his Hundred Dazers being employed. Other units had taunted his men, calling them “The Bloodless Third”. On the 23rd November, Chivington and his force left their base at Bijou Basin and travelled through snowstorms towards Fort Lyon. Major Anthony did not tell Chivington that the Indians had come seeking peace and merely advised him that there was a camp of about 1,000 braves at Sand Creek. Chivington had been careful to ensure that nobody went ahead during his journey towards the fort and made sure that he would arrive unannounced. On the 28th November, Chivington with 700 men of the First Colorado Cavalry, The Third Colorado Cavalry and company of the First New Mexico Volunteers, left Fort Lyon. That night the soldiers drank heavily and celebrated their anticipated victory.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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