Niwot (c. 1820s–64), known to English speakers as "Left Hand," was a prominent Arapaho leader in the mid-1800s. The tumultuous period in Colorado history followed the 1858 discovery of gold near present-day Denver, on the traditional lands of the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Diplomat, negotiator, linguist, and fluent English speaker, Niwot spent the last years of his life trying to establish a peaceful agreement between Indigenous nations of the Great Plains and the thousands of gold seekers converging on Colorado. He was killed in the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29, 1864, an event he had worked tirelessly to prevent.
The exact date of Niwot’s birth is unknown, but by 1860 he had become a respected leader and close confidant of the Arapaho chief Hosa (Little Raven). This suggests that Niwot was in his early forties, old enough to have gained prominence in the tribe. His Arapaho name means "Left Hand," and since Arapaho names often allude to physical characteristics, he was most likely left-handed.
Results of the Gold Discovery
The 1858 gold discovery electrified the country and sent an estimated 150,000 gold seekers to Colorado by the spring of 1859. The vast numbers overwhelmed the Arapaho and Cheyenne, small groups that together numbered about 10,000 people. The long wagon trains disrupted the buffalo herds, upon which the Indigenous nations depended for food, clothing, shelter, and tools. New towns sprang up, including Auraria and Denver City, as well as other towns along the Front Range and in the mountains.
The migration placed tremendous pressure on Indigenous people. They had to ride farther to find buffalo. Once a vast land of abundance, the plains and foothills became a natural arena in which white immigrants and Native Americans competed for timber, game, and other limited resources. White immigrants brought smallpox and other diseases to which indigenous people had no immunity. They raided the forests for timber and polluted the streams.
Violent clashes began to occur between Indigenous people and whites. Groups of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota warriors raided new outposts, killing the inhabitants and driving off the cattle. In retaliation, William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado, and his successor, John Evans, dispatched troops to pursue the Native Americans. Whites' invasion of the Front Range precipitated suffering on both sides, and anger and distrust settled over Colorado.
Niwot Seeks Peace
Niwot emerged during this period as the leading spokesman for the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Since the other leaders, including Hosa and the Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope, could not speak English, they relied on Niwot as an interpreter and a mediator. Niwot had learned English as a boy from John Poisal, who had married his sister, Mahom. In 1859, for instance, Boston journalists Horace Greeley and Albert D. Richardson interviewed Hosa with Niwot as interpreter.
On numerous occasions, Niwot met with Governor Evans and other white authorities to express the peaceful intentions of his people and ask for a peace agreement. At one point, he took ten warriors to a performance of Lady of Lyons at the Apollo Theater on Larimer Street in Denver. After the play, Niwot jumped onto the stage and told the audience that his people wanted peace. When the Rocky Mountain News printed an account of an Arapaho attack on a ranch, Niwot visited the newspaper and told editor William Byers what had actually happened: the rancher, without provocation, had attacked a young Arapaho man. Niwot then demanded reparations of food and clothing. Byers accepted Niwot’s account.
Attacks and Reprisals
In the summer of 1864, bands of Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho warriors broke with Niwot and the other peace chiefs and attacked wagon trains on the Overland Route, halting all traffic. Denver was isolated. For two weeks, no food or supplies from the East reached the settlement. Alarmed, Governor Evans petitioned the military for immediate help and received permission to raise a volunteer regiment for 100 days to fight the Indigenous groups and reopen the road.
Niwot and the other peace chiefs were also alarmed. With the help of George Bent—the educated son of the famous trader William Bent and his Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman—the chiefs composed a letter asking for a meeting with Evans to make a treaty. To demonstrate their peaceful intentions, Niwot and Black Kettle rode to hostile Cheyenne and Lakota camps and gave their own ponies and buffalo robes in ransom for white captives taken in raids. Niwot ransomed three white children and seventeen-year-old Laura Roper, whom he brought safely to an army camp on the plains.
The Camp Weld Council
As a result of the actions of the peace chiefs, in September 1864 Major Edward Wynkoop brought a delegation of Arapaho and Cheyenne leaders to Denver to meet with Governor Evans. The governor refused to see them, but Wynkoop persisted until the governor agreed.
The meeting, known as the Camp Weld Council, took place at Camp Weld near the present-day interchange of I-25 and 6th Avenue in Denver. Four Arapahos attended, including Neva, Niwot’s brother, and No-Ta-Nee, a relative. Niwot himself remained on the plains to prevent the warriors from attacking settlements while the chiefs worked for peace. At the council, Governor Evans and Colonel John M. Chivington, military commander of the district of Colorado, instructed the Indigenous leaders to bring their bands to Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River, place themselves under the protection of the commander, and await a peace agreement. Niwot and the other chiefs complied, but when their people began arriving at Fort Lyon, the commander told them to move to Sand Creek, forty miles away.
The Sand Creek Massacre
By late November 1864, between 500 and 600 Cheyenne under Black Kettle and White Antelope, as well as sixty Arapaho under Niwot, were camped along the dry bed of Sand Creek. A larger group of Arapaho under Hosa had not yet arrived. The Cheyenne and Arapaho believed themselves under the protection of the military, as Governor Evans had stated.
At dawn on November 29, 1864, Colonel Chivington, in command of the Third Colorado Regiment and troops from Fort Lyon, attacked the sleeping Indigenous camp. The attack raged all day. When it ended, more than 200 Indigenous people had been killed along with thirteen troops. Niwot’s band had been annihilated. The Cheyenne peace chief White Antelope was also killed.
Firsthand accounts confirm Niwot’s fate. Letters written by George Bent, Lieutenant Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer—all of whom were at Sand Creek—confirm that Niwot was mortally wounded. William Bent, George’s father, said that Niwot “got over to the Sioux [Lakota],” where he died. Later, Hosa said that it saddened his heart to leave Colorado, where Niwot was killed.
According to George Bent, Niwot and other survivors—many wounded—made their way out of the camp and onto the plains. Other survivors captured ponies and rode to nearby Indigenous camps to sound the alarm. When news reached a large Lakota camp near present-day Cheyenne Wells, warriors rode out with extra ponies, food, and blankets to look for survivors.
Among those rescued and brought to the Lakota camp were Niwot and George Bent. Within a few days, the Arapaho chief died from his wounds and was buried according to the Arapaho Way.
No known photographs of Niwot exist. Over the years, photographs of other Arapaho, including a later chief in Oklahoma with the same name, and No-Ta-Nee, have been erroneously identified as photographs of Niwot. The photograph of No-Ta-Nee was taken at the Camp Weld Council, which Niwot did not attend.
Niwot’s memory lives on in places that bear his name around Boulder, where he and his band spent the winters, including the town of Niwot, Left Hand Creek, and Left Hand Canyon.