The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal

John killerlane - August 4, 2017

The Sand Creek Massacre has gone down in American history as one of the darkest events of the decade’s long conflict between the United States military and the Native Americans during the 19th century.

The brutality of the attack by Colonel Chivington’s men on a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho camp, which at the time of the assault consisted predominantly of women and children, led to two military investigations and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. The testimonies of those present at Sand Creek unveiled the true horrors of the massacre which occurred there.

The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was a peace agreement between the United States Government and seven Indian Nations which formally recognized the territorial rights of those Native American tribes to large swathes of land stretching across Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas.

The signatories of the Fort Laramie Treaty included chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The hope was that each tribe would remain within their territorial boundaries to prevent inter-tribal conflict as well as allowing for the safe migration of European-American immigrants along the Oregon Trail.

The discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado resulted in an influx of gold prospectors passing through Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. The inevitable competition for resources escalated tensions between the two groups so much so that it ultimately led to the signing of a new treaty at Fort Wise on February 18, 1861. Six chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, which included Black Kettle and White Antelope, and four from the Southern Arapaho tribe signed the treaty. The treaty reduced their territory to one-thirteenth the size of what it had been after the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The terms of the treaty caused outrage amongst the more militaristic elements of the Northern Cheyenne, who were known as the Dog Soldiers, a band of young warriors who also included warriors of the Lakota tribe. They refused to recognize the treaty as binding because it had not been agreed by the Council of 44, the highest authority in the Cheyenne tribal system. The Dog Soldiers believed that Black Kettle and the other chiefs who signed the treaty did not fully understand what they were signing and that they had been duped into signing by the large allocations of gifts they were due to receive in return.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal
Black Kettle. alchetron

Over the following years, it started to become clear to Black Kettle and the other chiefs that signing the Fort Wise treaty had been a mistake. The non-payment of government annuities, along with the increased hunting of bison for their pelts by whites, which had decimated their numbers, had made life very difficult for the natives. Accusations of marauding bands of Indians terrorizing white ranchers and stealing their cattle led to Colorado forces seeking out and destroying Cheyenne camps by 1864.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal
Colonel John Chivington. thearda

War and retribution

In May of that year, at their summer buffalo hunting camp at Big Bushes, two Cheyenne chiefs, Lean Bear, and Star, while attempting to convey their peaceful intentions, were shot and killed as they approached Lieutenant George S. Eayre’s forces. The killing of the chiefs in cold blood led to a retaliatory war by the Cheyenne in Kansas. The Dog Soldiers embarked on a campaign of attacks on rail stations, wagon trains, and white settlements.

On June 11, 1864, four Arapaho warriors murdered Nathan Hungate, his wife and two young daughters at a ranch in Elder Creek, twenty-five miles east of Denver. The owner of the ranch brought their badly mutilated bodies into Denver and put them on public display. Colorado Governor John Evans repeatedly requested reinforcements from General Samuel R. Curtis to help protect Denver from an imminent Indian attack. Curtis eventually granted Evans’ request and the Third Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment under Colonel John Chivington’s command were enlisted for one hundred days.

Chivington was a former Methodist preacher, who had served as colonel in the United States Volunteers in the Colorado War and the New Mexico Campaigns of the Civil War. He had gained the title of the “Fighting Parson” as a result. Both Evans and Chivington had political aspirations. Evans was a proponent of statehood for Colorado and intended to run for senator before eventually withdrawing. Chivington ran for Congress but failed to be elected. Chivington felt that a “heroic” Indian war would help his future political career.

On June 27, 1864, Evans sent out a circular to the Plains Indians, informing them that in order to guarantee their safety, all “friendly” Indians of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes should go to Major Colley, U.S. Indian agent at Fort Lyon, “who will give them provisions and show them a place of safety.” All Indians who did not do so would be deemed hostile and therefore at war with the United States.

Efforts for a peaceful resolution came in the form of a council at Smoky Hill on September 10, where the commander of Fort Lyon, Major Edward Wynkoop, met with Black Kettle and other chiefs, including Arapaho chief Left Hand, and Bull Bear, leader of the Dog Soldiers. As a sign of good faith and to show that they were sincere in the efforts to achieve peace, Black Kettle and Left Hand returned four child hostages taken by the Dog Soldiers and the Sioux in their raids on the Little Blue River in August 1864.

Wynkoop and Captain Silas Soule then invited Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders to Camp Weld in Denver to meet with Governor Evans, who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Evans reiterated what he had mentioned in the circular sent out in June, and advised Black Kettle and the other chiefs to go with Wynkoop to Fort Lyon where they would be under the protection of the armed forces until an official peace treaty could be established.

Chivington stated at the council that “his rule of fighting white men or Indians was to fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority.” He then added that Black Kettle and the other Indians should go to Fort Lyon with Major Wynkoop.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal
Major Scott Anthony. caturner.files.wordpress

No peace till the Indians suffer more

What Chivington failed to relay to Wynkoop was that on the day of the council his commanding officer, Curtis had contacted him saying that he wanted “no peace till the Indians suffer more.” Black Kettle and the other chiefs left the council believing their protection was secured and happily agreed to go to Fort Lyon. In his annual report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Evans stated that he felt that only a few Indians wanted peace and that most were hostile.

He also said that he felt there should be no peace treaty until the Indians had been beaten militarily. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington was not happy with Evans’ unwillingness to secure a potentially lasting peace with the chiefs at the Camp Weld council and even went as far as to suggest that the conflict on the Plains could have been prevented if a more conciliatory spirit been employed by the military and others.

After the Camp Weld Council, Wynkoop sent a report to Curtis informing him of the councils at Smoky Hill and Denver and suggested relocating all the Indian villages nearer to Fort Lyon, where he could monitor their actions. However, Curtis was not at Fort Riley when Wynkoop’s report arrived.

Curtis’ aide, Major B. S. Henning, received the report. Henning felt that Wynkoop had acted against policy toward the Indians he believed to be hostile, and by going to Denver, he had left his district without orders to do so. Henning relieved Wynkoop of his command of Fort Lyon and summoned him to Fort Riley to explain his actions.

Wynkoop’s replacement at Fort Lyon was Major Scott J. Anthony of the First Colorado Regiment. Anthony met with the Arapaho tribes encamped near Fort Lyon, and despite what he had been led to believe by Henning, he realized that their intentions were entirely peaceful.

Anthony also met with Black Kettle who was anxious to know if the possibility for peace still existed. Anthony informed Black Kettle that he had no orders or authority to make peace with him and that he along with the rest of his tribe should camp at Sand Creek, approximately forty miles from Fort Lyon, until he had received official orders from General Curtis.

Chivington and his men rode into Fort Lyon on November 28, 1864. When the officers there discovered that Chivington intended to attack the Indian camp at Sand Creek the following day, they protested. Captain Silas Soule, along with Lieutenant Cannon, Minton, and Cramer, voiced their opposition to the impending attack on a peaceful camp under the assumed protection of the United States Army.

Major Anthony told Soule that it was always his intention to attack, but he had to wait for reinforcements in the form of Chivington’s men before doing so. Chivington dismissed the officer’s protests before angrily saying, “Damn any man who is in sympathy with an Indian.” The stage for tragedy was set.

Keep Reading: The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Channel – Sand Creek Massacre

Smithsonian Magazine – In 1868, Two Nations Made a Treaty, the U.S. Broke It and Plains Indian Tribes are Still Seeking Justice

Smithsonian Magazine – The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Never Honored by the United States, Goes on Public View

National Public Service – A Tale of Two Treaties

National Archive – Sioux Treaty of 1868

National Park Service – Biography of Black Kettle

ThoughtCo – 1864 Sand Creek Massacre: History and Impact

The Conversation – Remembering The US Soldiers Who Refused Orders To Murder Native Americans At Sand Creek

History Collection – How the Plains Wars Were a Consequence of Brutal US Government Policies Against the Native Americans