On November 29, 1864, US volunteer cavalry killed more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people—mostly women, children, and the elderly—who were camped peacefully along Sand Creek in what was then Colorado Territory.
Coloradans today must grapple with this dark chapter in their state’s history. Learning about the Sand Creek Massacre encourages people to reconsider the history of the American West and reflect on the ways the massacre was part of the larger effort by the United States to dispossess indigenous peoples across the region.
Far from the bustle of Denver and Colorado’s Front Range, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site sits on the dry, rural land of Kiowa County in southeastern Colorado. Visitors may see the waterless creek bed and prairie grasses and get a sense of the quiet, contemplative nature of the site, but for many it is harder to fully grasp the violence that happened there 150 years ago.
The Sand Creek historic site is particularly significant for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, as they have played a central role in the site’s development and repatriated the remains of their ancestors. The descendants are still working to tell the story of Sand Creek and help their communities heal from this trauma.
The Sand Creek Massacre was the result of a convergence of historical forces that spanned over three decades. First, American traders such as William Bent, Ceran St. Vrain, and Louis Vasquez built trading posts on the Colorado plains that pulled American Indians into a network of international commerce. Then, the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 added a massive amount of territory to the western United States, prompting American expansion under the belief of “Manifest Destiny.” As this was going on, epidemics of Old World diseases continued to decimate Cheyenne and Arapaho populations in Colorado and elsewhere. Finally, the Colorado Gold Rush in 1858–59 and the outbreak of the Civil War prompted the organization of the Colorado Territory in 1861.
Ten days before the territory’s establishment, US officials organized a peace council at Fort Wise in southeastern Colorado to renegotiate the terms of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, which had granted more than 40,000 square miles of present Colorado to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The terms of the Treaty of Fort Wise reduced indigenous lands by over 90 percent, exacerbating tensions between older Indian leaders and younger warriors and further weakening the Native Americans’ already tenuous position in Colorado.
At the end of March 1862, Abraham Lincoln appointed John Evans—an Illinois town developer, university founder, and railroad entrepreneur—as the second territorial governor of Colorado. Evans calculated that Colorado’s mining riches would make it a major rail destination in the West. The Cheyenne and Arapaho increasingly posed a threat to that vision. Additionally, Evans and other Colorado officials feared that the Confederacy, which already had a strong influence in Colorado, would form an alliance with Native Americans. Evans also worried about the potential of a large-scale massacre of whites, like the one in Minnesota involving the Santee Dakota in August 1862. The murder of the Hungate family on Box Elder Creek near Denver in June 1864 appeared to confirm the territorial governor’s darkest nightmares. Evans wired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that Indians of the Colorado plains had committed “extensive murders” within a day’s ride of Denver and demanded that troops of the First Colorado Cavalry be returned to Denver. The bizarre decision to display the mutilated bodies of the Hungate family on the streets substantially contributed to the terror among the territory’s white population.
Two months later, Evans received congressional approval to raise a new regiment of US volunteers to bolster the territory’s defenses. The new Third Colorado Cavalry fell under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington, an ambitious citizen-soldier in command of the military district of Colorado. Chivington, a former Methodist pastor who hated both slavery and Native Americans, had his own motives for precipitating war on the plains.
In the late summer of 1864, Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders contacted Major Edward Wynkoop at Fort Lyon in an attempt to secure peace with Colorado officials. Wynkoop escorted a contingent of Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives to Denver to meet with Evans and Chivington at Camp Weld. The meeting concluded not with a negotiated peace but with a veiled warning that war against the Plains Indians was still a real possibility. Instructed to turn themselves over to the authority of Wynkoop, the Indians drifted into Fort Lyon that autumn to find he had been replaced by Major Scott Anthony. Anthony directed the bands to move north, to camp along the dry streambed of Sand Creek.
On November 29, Chivington led a force of 675 troops from the First and Third Colorado Cavalry in a surprise attack on the village. Over the course of the day, Chivington’s forces killed approximately 200 of the nearly 700 people in the village. Among the dead was the Arapaho leader Left Hand, who just six years earlier had graciously allowed American prospectors to camp on his land near present-day Boulder. US soldiers scalped and mutilated many of the bodies. The survivors, many of whom were wounded, fled to the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers’ camps more than 100 miles to the north. Enraged, the Dog Soldiers and other warrior bands retaliated in winter raids of unprecedented scale and ferocity; among the casualties was the town of Julesburg, which was burned to the ground in January 1865. Colorado had descended into full-fledged war.
The memory of Sand Creek has been contested since the massacre. In the immediate aftermath, people offered conflicting accounts and explanations for the event. Chivington and many of the soldiers who participated in the massacre described it as a heroic battle. Captain Silas Soule, an officer of the First Colorado Cavalry who refused to fight at Sand Creek, characterized it as an unjust and brutal massacre perpetrated on a peaceful camp.
In 1865 the US Joint Committee on the Conduct of War investigated Sand Creek and concluded that Chivington “deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre.” An army inquiry conducted at the same time reached essentially the same conclusion. Despite the findings of Congress and the army, many Coloradans at the time considered Sand Creek to be a justified battle. This idea was solidified on a Civil War memorial at the state capitol building in Denver, which lists Sand Creek as one of many Civil War “battles” in the West, and on a plaque at the massacre site that reads, “Sand Creek Battle Ground.” Aside from these monuments, local memory of Sand Creek had largely faded from public recognition by the early twentieth century.
Because Chivington’s commission had expired, he was immune from military justice. While the unprovoked slaughter at Sand Creek effectively ended Evans’s political career, he avoided criminal charges and went on to become one of the leading citizens of the territory and later the state of Colorado. Both Chivington and Evans fared better than Soule, who was gunned down outside his home in April 1865. It was widely suspected his killing was in retaliation for his testimony that detailed the horrors at Sand Creek. Later that year, tribal leaders and US officials signed the Treaty of the Little Arkansas, in which the government assumed responsibility and promised reparations to survivors of the massacre and descendants of those who were killed. Hostilities between the Cheyenne and Arapaho and US military continued until the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers were finally defeated at the Battle of Summit Springs in 1869.
Renewed attention to Sand Creek came with the publication of George Bent’s account of the massacre and increased tribal autonomy in the 1930s. The Arapaho and Cheyenne began pressing for the reparations guaranteed in the Treaty of the Little Arkansas. Tribal political activism in the 1960s and 1970s inspired even more public attention to and debate over Sand Creek.
Public attention further increased with the dedication of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007. In 1998 Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of Northern Cheyenne ancestry, sponsored legislation that began the long process of creating the historic site. The development of the site represents a successful collaboration between the descendants of the massacre survivors and National Park Service representatives.
During the summer and fall of 2014, considerable energy and focus went into commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. Governor John Hickenlooper established the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission, which supported Cheyenne and Arapaho events, including their annual Spiritual Healing Run. Northwestern University and the University of Denver released investigations on the role that John Evans, their founder, played in Sand Creek. The United Methodist Church, to which Evans and Chivington belonged, also investigated its role in Sand Creek. Museums, universities, and other organizations hosted a number of events related to Sand Creek and the 150th commemoration.
Today, Coloradans generally recognize Sand Creek as an unjust massacre. Reflecting this shift in public opinion, Governor Hickenlooper issued a formal apology to Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants in a culminating event of the sesquicentennial on the steps of the Colorado Capitol. In the twenty-first century, the focus has turned from debating the nature of the massacre to raising awareness and healing within Native American communities affected by the tragedy. Reckoning with the Sand Creek Massacre and other troubling parts of the state’s past allows Coloradans today to embrace the diversity and complexity of their history in a way that honors all Colorado residents, past and present.