Colonel Chivington and the Sand Creek Massacre
John Chivington was an officer in the Union Army and commanded the 1st Colorado Volunteers during the Indian wars. He had a major role in what may have been the worst of atrocities in the Indian Wars on the great Plaines of the western United States. If a different man had been in charge it might not have happened and possibly Custer’s last Stand might have been averted. That is speculation on my part, however.
What was the Sand Creek Massacre? The event was the killing of Cheyenne Indians, primarily women, children and old people who were under an agreement with the U.S. government of being in a state of peace. Colonel Chivington led the attack without provocation. His troops were made up of 700 soldiers of the Colorado Territory militia against about less than two hundred peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children, who were killed and mutilated. Scalps and body parts were taken as trophies.
Ironically, Chivington was an ordained Methodist minister, had a good record in the Civil War and was against slavery. However, his feeling toward Indians was mostly hatred.
The lust for silver and gold brought tens of thousands of miners to Colorado in the1850’s and 1860’s. They invaded the places that the Cheyenne and Arapaho considered their homeland. In 1858 the Pikes Peak Gold Rush brought tensions to the point of a clash, according to Wikipedia. The Indians attacked wagon trains, mining camps, and stagecoach lines during the Civil War. The Army troops were short of men out west because of the war. John Evans, the governor of Colorado Territory wanted to open the Indian hunting grounds to white development, but the tribes did not want to sell and go to reservations. Evans used isolated incidents as an excuse to “...order troops into the field under the ambitious, Indian hating territory military commander Colonel Chivington,” according to the Wikipedia article “The Sand Creek Massacre.”
Chief Black Kettle, the chief of about 800 Indians, most of whom were Cheyenne went to Fort Lyon to establish peace and afterward along with his followers camped near Sand Creek. The Indians known as Dog Soldiers, who had made many of the raids against whites, were not there. Most of the warriors went hunting because the government had given assurances of peace. They had been given to believe that if they flew an American flag it would show that they were peaceful and prevent attack from U.S. Troops. Despite what were probably sincere promises of peace from U.S. government officials they were attacked and slaughtered by the militia under Chivington.
Unfortunately, Fort Lyon changed its command officer to one who was in favor of Chivington. The soldiers under Chivington were drinking heavily the night before the attack. They ignored the white flag and the American flag in the village and massacred the majority of the Cheyenne. One officer, Captain Silas Soule, refused to follow Chivington’s order and told his men to hold fire. About 15 soldiers were killed and about 50 wounded. According to Wikipedia these were mostly friendly fire, likely from the soldiers who had been drinking. Reports conflicted regarding casualties. The Wikipedia article on Chivington reports 150 to 200 Indians estimated killed whereas Chivington testified to a Congressional committee that they had killed 500-600 Indians and that few were women and children. He denied that very many were women and children. Other witnesses disagreed. “ ...prominent mixed–race Cheyenne witness Edmond Guerrier, said that about 53 men and110 women and children were killed,” from Wikipedia.
In the beginning with Chivington’s testimony that they had defeated hostile Cheyenne the incident was at first considered a victory. Later Captain Soule testified to the contrary and the U.S. Congressional investigation found that Chivington had “acted wrongly.” A soldier that had been involved in the massacre later murdered Soule.
Although Chivington was condemned for his involvement in the massacre charges could not be made against him because he resigned from the Army and avoided charges got amnesty because of a post-Civil War amnesty.
There was public outrage over the Sand Creek incident and it may have caused a change in Indian policy.
The incident led to Indians seeking revenge and retaliation against whites. The liner notes to the book Month of the Freezing Moon, the Sand Creek Massacre November 1864 by DuaneSchultz mentions Custer attacking another peaceful Cheyenne village. A few years later Cheyenne braves along with warriors from other tribes would get revenge on General Custer.
My feeling about the Indian wars differs from much of what many people believe. War and what leads up to war, in my opinion, is usually a lot of circumstances and events. In many cases different actions or decisions could well have changed events and results. I also believe that the roots run deep. It is possible that this event led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s last stand. I do not accept the idea that we can blame
- Greed, which is the popular catchall for everything today.
In my opinion the culprit, so to speak, is the clash of cultures. Think how many cultures were involved over a very long time. On the “white” side there are the English, French, Spanish and American Cultures, which have similarities but also differences. On the Indian side are several hundred different peoples with different cultures—some opposite of others. Even very sincere negotiations can go wrong through misunderstandings. Each side has a tendency to think the other side understands things in the same manner they do. A big question on both sides is who has the authority to bind their side to anything.
What often created problems in the Indian wars was the fact that many American soldiers on the frontier were not professional. Those who followed Chivington were militia supplemented by short-term volunteers who called themselves “Hundred Dazers” according to Wikipedia article on the Sand Creek Massacre. Many of these soldiers might be out of work miners who consider it a lark.
The Sand Creek Massacre is a sad episode in American history. The Cheyenne and other Indians died for no good reason by an officer who probably should not have been in charge of anything.
Note on sources: Much of the data in this article is from articles in Wikipedia about Colonel Chivington and of The Sand Creek Massacre.
Reference is also made to the book Month of the Freezing Moon, The Sand Creek Massacre November 1864 by Duane Schultz
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