Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre and the Founding of America

Following the UB Intercultural and Diversity Center’s efforts to shed light on the history of Thanksgiving, the Young Americans for Freedom, a campus student organization, hosted a protest outside the Student Union. The group, which claimed the IDC’s efforts were aimed at erasing Thanksgiving, condemned the initiative as historical revisionism and an attack on family values. 

In response to these events I originally planned to pen a brief overview of several hundred years of U.S.-Native American relations. I’ve long believed that history is the antidote to intolerance. But after drafting an outline — one which briefly included the Sand Creek Massacre — I decided simply telling the story of Sand Creek conveys the attitudes and atrocities that shaped hundreds of years of U.S.-Native relations far better than a brief overview could. The story of the Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek is a powerful demonstration of the vicious, unrelenting and callously cruel attitudes that gripped America during this century.

I ask readers to forget politics for a brief moment and consider this history with open minds and hearts. While easy to get caught up in the culture wars and partisan political grievances, we should not lose sight of the humanity of the people who first occupied these lands. It can be tempting to see those who lived long before us or those whose culture differs from our own as distant and alien, but really, they were and are just like us.

The Founding of Colorado and the Sand Creek Massacre

In the first half of the 19th century, European immigration to the U.S. soared and white settlers began to cross the Mississippi in large numbers. As the population of the West began to increase dramatically, by the mid 19th century it became clear to the government the “Indian problem” could not be solved only by forcibly exiling Native Americans westwards. There became increasing pressure on recently removed groups in the West to give up some of their new lands, and on groups indigenous to the West to give up large swaths of their historic lands.

In 1851, the Cheyenne, Arapahos, and several other tribes who had been living freely in the Colorado plains met with U.S. representatives and agreed to allow the establishment of roads and military posts across their territory. Both parties to the treaty swore to maintain good faith and friendship and to make an effective and lasting peace. In signing the treaty, the Plains Indians did not relinquish any rights to their lands, nor did they surrender the right to move freely about these lands and hunt, fish, or travel as they desired. 

In 1858, a gold rush in the Colorado area brought thousands of miners who wished to claim the land. In 1861, Congress created the Territory of Colorado, breaking the treaty they signed ten years prior. Despite these intrusions, the Cheyenne and Arapahos remained peaceful. As the influx of settlers continued, however, U.S. officials tricked the Cheyenne and Arapahos into signing another treaty — one that was purposefully misrepresented to them. Chiefs were told that while they would agree to live within a specified area of territory, they would retain their land rights and freedom of movement. Freedom of movement was especially vital, as the reservation assigned to them was unsuited to agriculture and lacked wild game. 

Months later, several Cheyenne hunters encountered American soldiers with cannons approaching their camp. As the Cheyenne attempted to make peace, the soldiers opened fire, killing several. Such was the beginning of American soldiers attacking peaceful Cheyenne without warning. Even women and children were not spared in the attacks.

Concerned about the future of the Cheyenne (especially after hearing the stories of neighboring tribes), Cheyenne leaders instructed warriors not to make revenge attacks. Later, however, they would find out that American soldiers were under command to “kill Cheyenne whenever and wherever found.” This would mark the start of a war between the Cheyennes and Arapahos and the American soldiers to take control of the Colorado Territory, part of the larger American Indian Wars to take over the American West.

When an American ally of the Cheyenne traveled to Denver to inform high ranking official Colonel Chivington that the Natives only wanted to live peaceably, the Colonel responded that peace was not an option. He wanted war and bloodshed. Several weeks later, the governor of Colorado Territory, John Evans, issued a circular to the Plains tribes that stated their members went to war with white people, despite the fact that it was the white soldiers who had always attacked first. The Governor declared that those who wished to remain friendly with the whites would be protected if they fled to their reservation established by the treaty signed in 1851. (It is important to note that the Cheyenne and Arapahos signed the treaty under the pretense that they would retain their land rights and freedom of movement). The Governor also led the Cheyenne and Arapahos to believe that they would be able to leave the reservation once the “hostile Indians” could be subdued. 

During the period where the Cheyenne and Arapahos were being reached with the Governor’s message, clashes between the Natives and the soldiers increased. The Natives were attacked again and again by American troops without any cause, so they began retaliatory raids. Several weeks later, the Governor of Colorado Territory issued a proclamation authorizing all citizens of Colorado to pursue, kill and destroy Natives wherever they may be found, referring to them as “enemies of the country.” Only those that had fled to the assigned reservation, the Governor asserted, could be spared. Upon hearing this, Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne leaders, wrote a letter to a U.S. agent telling him yet again that his people wished only for peace. He also agreed that his people would come peacefully to the reservation. In response, the agent deceptively wrote to the Governor that they could not depend on the Natives to keep peace, and that “a little powder and lead is the best food for them.”

Despite more attempts by the Cheyenne and Arapahos to make peace, U.S. officials could not be persuaded to abandon their pursuit of war. The Governor of the Colorado Territory remarked that the Natives should be punished before giving them peace, despite knowing that the whites had instigated all the violence. In a telegraph to the Colonel, the Governor wrote, “I want no peace till the Indians suffer more.” He also stated that the Third Colorado Regiment had been raised explicitly to kill the Natives, and they must do so, regardless of the Cheyenne and Arapahos’ peaceful intentions and willingness to flee to the reservation. The Governor proceeded to go to great lengths to falsely paint the Natives as hostile villains.

Once the Cheyenne and Arapahos arrived at the Sand Creek reservation they were assured that they would be protected from American soldiers and were ordered to surrender their weapons. As such, they agreed to stay at Sand Creek for the winter, rather than move to the south of Arkansas where they could also escape soldiers. U.S. officials deliberately made a point to make the Cheyenne and Arapahos feel safe at Sand Creek, lure them into a sense of security, and keep them camped where they were. At the same time, they were actively calling in reinforcements and the Colorado Calvary was on its way to carry out a mass murder.

Thus was the beginning of the deliberately planned massacre on the peaceful reservation. On November 29, 1864, seven hundred soldiers marched into Sand Creek with a plan to slaughter the Cheyenne and Arapahos. Soldiers who opposed the slaughter were threatened with imprisonment and death.

The Cheyenne and Arapahos were so confident of absolute safety on the reservation that at first many of them did not think they were in danger after seeing the soldiers. Once they became aware of the looming threat, hundreds huddled around their chief’s American flag to signify that they were not enemies. They were all promptly shot. 

For the next seven hours, the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children ensued. Hundreds who begged for mercy were beaten, shot and scalped. In the words of S.S. Soule, an American soldier present at the massacre, “By this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us and getting on their knees for mercy. [Major Scott Anthony] shouted, ‘Kill the sons of bitches.’”

Pregnant women were cut open and infants were killed with their mothers. Soule noted, “There was no organization among our troops — they were a perfect mob.” The Colonel advocated for the killing and scalping of all Natives, including children, telling his soldiers that “nits make lice.” Bodies were butchered in the most horrific of ways. By the end, over two hundred were dead or mutilated.

Those who survived marched in the bitter icy winter cold, without food and adequate clothing, for fifty miles to flee to another camp. When they arrived, survivors began screaming, crying and becoming ill, as nearly everyone had lost relatives or friends. 

Soule wrote in his account, “It was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. On squaw with her two children, were on their knees begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all, firing — when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself.”

Soon after the Sand Creek Massacre the white settlers claimed the Cheyenne and Arapaho lands of the Colorado Territory. The following year the Cheyennee and Arapahos had no choice but to abandon all claims to Colorado, despite their treaty rights.  While many of the Cheyennee and Arapahos fled north to take refuge with the Sioux, they too would soon face the same violence and deception. And like the other tribes, they would eventually be forced to give up their land and relocate to reservations. 

Such is the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, and in many ways, the founding of the American West. 

The Legacy of Sand Creek and the American Indian Wars

It is impossible to find the words to convey the magnitude of the suffering endured, all that was lost, and the callous inhumanity and cruelty of it all. It is a disgraceful and unforgivable past. It is a harrowing demonstration of the brutish and ruthless attitudes and actions that characterized U.S. policy; a reminder that unchecked cruelty and greed knows no limits. 

For those opposed to raising awareness about this past, I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of the Cheyenne and Arapahos. Imagine the fear, terror, and despair; the pain, tiredness and emptiness they must have felt as they watched their loved ones die, their culture come under attack, and their ways of life and freedoms be violently ripped from them. Consider the trauma and misery they must have endured as they were confined to small impoverished reservations; as they could no longer roam the seemingly endless miles of the earth that not only provided their sustenance but was deeply meaningful to them; as their ancestral lands and its animals, woven into their histories and hearts, were destroyed for profit before their eyes. Remember how the core of their freedoms, traditions and ways of life were ripped away so cruelly, leaving them forced to exist within unrecognizable, lonely and painful customs. Consider their descendants, who continue to bear the scars of U.S. policies and attitudes and face daily injustices, neglect, and broken promises. 

We often forget that the past is not as distant as it so often seems. While this history may seem far off, its legacies — not only the conditions it has created, but the attitudes it leaves behind — remain painfully with us. Every attempt we make to erase this history only continues this legacy of destruction and indifference. We owe it to the victims, and to their living descendants who still carry the weight of this history every day, to remember this painful past and learn their stories, rather than ignore them. While we can’t turn back time, we can choose to break the cycle started by those who came before us and unlearn attitudes defined by ignorance, contempt and disregard.

This year I am reminded of Red Cloud, an influential leader of the Oglala Lakota people who lived to see his people’s freedom fade into the confinement and brutality of the reservation system. Reflecting on the events of his lifetime, he said, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land, and they took it.” Readers who have witnessed, or even taken part in, the continuation of the false narratives and dismissiveness surrounding Native Americans and their history may now find it possible to understand why. Words so often feel inadequate in times like this, but where words might fall short, there is still so much that can be done. And that starts with acknowledging the truth.