1864 Sand Creek Massacre: History and Impact

Cheyenne who were promised safety were attacked and massacred

Plains Indian delegation visiting the White House in 1863.
Some of the Native Americans killed in Colorado had been guests at the White House in March 1863, where they met with President Lincoln and had their photo taken in the White House conservatory.

Mathew Brady / Library of Congress

The Sand Creek Massacre was a violent incident in late 1864 in which volunteer cavalry soldiers, commanded by a fanatical hater of Native Americans, rode up to a camp and murdered more than 150 Cheyennes who had been assured of their safety. The incident was denounced at the time, though the perpetrators of the massacre escaped any serious punishment.

To most Americans, the massacre in a remote corner of Colorado was overshadowed by the ongoing carnage of the Civil War. However, on the western frontier the killings at Sand Creek resonated, and the massacre has gone down in history as a notorious act of genocide against Native Americans.

Fast Facts: The Sand Creek Massacre

  • Attack on peaceful band of Cheyenne in late 1864 cost more than 150 lives, mostly women and children.
  • Native Americans had been flying two flags, an American flag and a white flag, as instructed by government officials who had assured their safety.
  • Cavalry commander who ordered the massacre, Col. John Chivington, had his military career ended but was not prosecuted.
  • The Sand Creek Massacre seemed to herald a new era of conflict on the Western Plains.

Background

A war between Native American tribes and American troops broke out on the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Colorado territory in the summer of 1864. The spark of the conflict was the killing of a chief of the Cheyenne, Lean Bear, who had played the role of peacemaker and had even traveled to Washington and met with President Abraham Lincoln a year earlier.

Following the meeting with Lincoln at the White House, Lean Bear and other leaders of the Southern Plains tribes had posed for a remarkable photograph in the White House conservatory (on the site of the present day West Wing). Back on the plains, Lean Bear was shot from his horse during a buffalo hunt by U.S. cavalry soldiers.

The attack on Lean Bear, which was unprovoked and came without warning, was apparently encouraged by Colonel John M. Chivington, the commander of all federal troops in the region. Chivington had reportedly instructed his troops, "Find Indians wherever you can and kill them."

Chivington was born on a farm in Ohio. He received little education, but had a religious awakening and became a Methodist minister in the 1840s. He and his family traveled westward as he was assigned by the church to lead congregations. His anti-enslavement pronouncements prompted threats from pro-enslavement citizens of Kansas when he lived there, and he became known as the "Fighting Parson" when he preached in his church wearing two pistols.

In 1860, Chivington was sent to Denver to lead a congregation. Besides preaching, he became involved with a Colorado volunteer regiment. When the Civil War broke out, Chivington, as a major of the regiment, led troops in a western engagement of the Civil War, the 1862 battle at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. He led a surprise attack on Confederate forces and was hailed as a hero.

Returning to Colorado, Chivington became a prominent figure in Denver. He was appointed commander of the military district of the Colorado Territory, and there was talk of him running for Congress when Colorado became a state. But as tensions increased between White people and Native Americans, Chivington persisted in making inflammatory comments. He repeatedly said that Native Americans would never adhere to any treaty, and he advocated killing any and all Native Americans.

It is believed that Chivington's genocidal comments encouraged the soldiers who murdered Lean Bear. And when some of the Cheyenne seemed intent on avenging their leader, Chivington was presented with an excuse to kill more Native Americans.

Recruiting poster for volunteers.
Recruiting poster for cavalry unit that later perpetrated the Sand Creek Massacre. MPI/Getty Images

The Attack on the Cheyenne

The chief of the Cheyenne, Black Kettle, attended a peace conference with the governor of Colorado in the fall of 1864. Black Kettle was told to take his people and camp along the Sand Creek. The authorities assured him the Cheyenne with him would be given safe passage. Black Kettle was encouraged to fly two flags over the camp: an American flag (which he had received as a gift from President Lincoln) and a white flag.

Black Kettle and his people settled into the camp. On November 29, 1864, Chivington, leading about 750 members of the Colorado Volunteer Regiment, attacked the Cheyenne camp at dawn. Most of the men were away hunting buffalo, so the camp was most filled with women and children. The soldiers had been ordered by Chivington to kill and scalp every Native American they could.

Riding into the camp with guns blazing, the soldiers cut down the Cheyenne. The attacks were brutal. The soldiers mutilated the bodies, collecting scalps and body parts as souvenirs. When the troops arrived back in Denver, they displayed their grisly trophies.

Estimated Native American casualties varied, but it is widely accepted that between 150 and 200 Native Americans were murdered. Black Kettle survived, but would be shot dead by U.S. cavalry troopers four years later, at the Battle of the Washita.

The attack on defenseless and peaceful Native Americans was at first portrayed as a military victory, and Chivington and his men were hailed as heroes by Denver residents. However, news of the nature of the massacre soon spread. Within months, the U.S. Congress launched an investigation of Chivington's actions.

In July 1865, the results of the Congressional investigation were published. The Washington, D.C., Evening Star featured the report as the lead story on page one on July 21, 1865. The congressional report severely criticized Chivington, who left military service but was never charged with a crime.

Chivington had been thought to have potential in politics, but the shame attached to him following the condemnation of the Congress ended that. He worked at various towns in the Midwest before returning to Denver, where he died in 1894.

Aftermath and Legacy

On the western plains, news spread of the Sand Creek Massacre and violent clashes between Native Americans and White people increased during the winter of 1864-65. The situation calmed for a time. But the memory of Chivington's attack on the peaceful Cheyenne resonated and amplified a feeling of distrust. The Sand Creek massacre seemed to herald a new and violent era on the Great Plains.

The exact location of the Sand Creek Massacre was disputed for many years. In 1999, a team from the National Park Service located specific places believed to be where the troops attacked Black Kettle's band of Cheyenne. The location has been designated a National Historic Site and is administered by the National Park Service.

Sources

  • Hoig, Stan. "Sand Creek Massacre." Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, edited by Dinah L. Shelton, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 942-943. Gale eBooks.
  • Krupat, Arnold. "Indian Wars and Dispossession." American History Through Literature 1820-1870, edited by Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 568-580. Gale eBooks.
  • "Conflicts with Western Tribes (1864–1890)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: War, vol. 1, Gale, 2008. Gale eBooks.