1864 - Sand Creek Massacre

         To the Arapaho, Sioux, and Cheyenne, it seemed as if the Great White Fathers now looked upon Horse Creek as another worthless document signed by people who were seen as nothing more than obstacles to the march of empire.  Like the treaties that preceded Horse Creek and all that were yet to follow in the next twenty years, the ground-breaking agreement forged between the Great White Fathers and the "wild and savage" tribes of the American Plains could fulfill its promise through rigid enforcement, but there is scant evidence to suggest that Congress ever gave serious consideration to this aspect of treaty-making. And no single event of that period would attest to the solemn consequences of Washington's neglect more than the Sand Creek massacre of December 29, 1864.

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        When he heard that Chief Black Kettle's band of Cheyenne were settled into their winter camp a few miles northeast of the frontier town of Denver, a firebrand Methodist minister, Colonel John Chivington, led his mounted command on a night-long march in search of the Indians.

Sandcreek 400

  An artist's depiction of the Colorado milita's massacre of Black Kettles band of Cheyenne women, children, and old people, at Sand Creek in 1864.  Soldiers paraded with babies impaled on bayonettes, while others eviscerated the sexual organs of murdered women and stretched them over their hats like ornamental hat bands.  "What we have learned about the Americans," said Cherokee philosopher John Ross, "is that the perpetrator of these crimes never forgives his victims." 


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         Having recently signed a new treaty of peace, Black Kettle had been promised protection by the U.S. Army from other bands of Indians that were trying to wrest away the Cheyenne hunting ground in eastern Colorado.  Black Kettle, whose camp of a hundred lodges was made up of mostly women, children, and old people, had proclaimed his neutrality in all the skirmishes being fought on the countryside around his winter camp.  With nothing to fear, the members of his band lay peacefully asleep as dawn broke on a cold winter morning.         

        When Black Kettle stepped from his lodge and saw the frieze of blue coats arrayed on the cut bank above the village, he quickly raised the American flag on a standard to display his neutrality, but the gesture was ignored. When Colonel Chivington was asked what they should do about the women and children, he ordered his men to kill them all.  Then, he waved his saber in the air and ordered his troops to open fire. 


        "Then the scene of murder and barbarity began -- men, women, and children were indiscriminately slaughtered," reads the report from Congress' official investigation.  "In a few minutes all the Indians were flying over the plain in terror and confusion.  A few who endeavored to hide themselves under the bank of the creek were surrounded and shot down in cold blood.  From the sucking babe to the old warrior, all who were overtaken were deliberately murdered.  Not content with killing women and children who were incapable of offering any resistance, the soldiers indulged in acts of barbarity of the most revolting character; such, it is to be hoped, as never before disgraced the acts of men claiming to be civilized. No attempt was made by the officers to restrain the savage cruelty of the men under their command, but they stood by and witnessed these acts without one word of reproof."

        Congressional investigators called Chivington's interpreter, John S. Smith, to submit to cross examination before members of Congress. 

Investigator: Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?

Smith: Indiscriminately.

Investigator: Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?

Smith: I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before, the women all cut to pieces.

Investigator: How cut?

Smith: With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying their, from suckling infants up to warriors.

Investigator: Did you see it done?

Smith: Yes sir, I saw them fall.

        When the guns fell silent, after the screams and wails of the dying had fallen quiet and the last crying babies had been run through with bayonets, the sordid work of the troops commenced in earnest.  As their commander looked on from the bluff above the village, Chivington's troops worked their way through the village from lodge to lodge, lopping off ears and fingers as they went, and gathering ornaments and scalps from the victim's bodies. Then came the signature atrocity of this massacre, the dissection of the women's genitalia with bayonets and Bowie knives.  Commonly, the eviscerated body parts were stretched over the soldier's caps and worn as hatbands - the prized souvenirs of battle. When Chivington and his men rode into Denver, they were welcomed by the governor and a throng of citizens as conquering heroes, all hats bristling.  The God-fearing women of Denver then collected the scalps and mutilated genitalia of the Cheyenne women and children and hung them like a Christmas swag over the stage at the Denver opera house.

         The government's investigation concluded: "As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct.  Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity…he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty…and took advantage of their inapprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. Whatever may have been his motive, it is to be hoped that the authority of this government will never again be disgraced by acts such as he and those acting with him have been guilty of committing."

          Chivington and his men rode away from Sand Creek as bona fide heroes in the eyes of their fellow Colorado citizens.  Despite the blistering verdict of congressional investigators, neither the Methodist minister, nor any of his subordinates, was ever punished, fined, or court marshaled for their deeds.  The United States government promised to compensate the Cheyenne and Arapaho for the massacre committed at Sand Creek, but when the treaty reached the Senate for ratification, the Select Committee on Indian Affairs quietly deleted that provision. "Today, Indians remember that the United States Army, led by a Methodist minister, ruthlessly slaughtered nearly five hundred defenseless Indians," wrote the late Sioux legal scholar, Vine Deloria Jr., in Utmost Good Faith.   "Before there can be any warm feelings that we are all "one people," the United States government must make compensation to the Cheyenne and Arapahos for Sand Creek."