Finding Sand Creek: History, Archeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site

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The 1864 Sand Creek Massacre is one of the most disturbing and controversial events in American history. While its historical significance is undisputed, the exact location of the massacre has been less clear. Because the site is sacred ground for Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, the question of its location is more than academic; it is intensely personal and spiritual.

In 1998 the National Park Service, under congressional direction, began a research program to verify the location of the Sand Creek site. The team consisted of tribal members, Park Service staff and volunteers, and local landowners. In Finding Sand Creek, the project’s leading historian, Jerome A. Greene, and its leading archeologist, Douglas D. Scott, tell the story of how this dedicated group of people used a variety of methods to pinpoint the site. Drawing on oral histories, written records, and archeological fieldwork, Greene and Scott present a wealth of evidence to verify their conclusions.

Greene and Scott’s team study led to legislation in the year 2000 that established the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806138015
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerome A. Greene is retired as Research Historian for the National Park Service. He is the author of numerous books, including Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876, Battles and Skirmishes of the Great Sioux War, 1876–1877: The Military View; Lakota and Cheyenne: Indian Views of the Great Sioux War, 1876–1877; and Morning Star Dawn: The Powder River Expedition and the Northern Cheyennes, 1876, all published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Douglas D. Scott is retired as supervisory archaeologist, Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service. Widely known as an expert on military archaeology, he is the author or co-author of numerous publications, including They Died with Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn, and Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis: Historical Archaeology of the Royal Buffalo Hunt.

Christine Whitacre is Historian for the Intermountain Support Service, National Park Service.

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Read an Excerpt

Finding Sand Creek

History, Archeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site

By Jerome A. Greene, Douglas D. Scott


Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5009-3



At dawn on November 29, 1864, more than seven hundred U.S. volunteer soldiers commanded by Colonel John M. Chivington attacked a village of about 500 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. Using small-arms and howitzer fire, the troops drove the people out of their camp. While many managed to escape the initial onslaught, others, particularly noncombatant women, children, and the elderly, fled into and up the bottom of the dry streambed. The soldiers followed, shooting at them as they struggled through the sandy earth. At a point several hundred yards above the village, the people frantically excavated pits and trenches along either side of the streambed to protect themselves. Some attempted to fight back with whatever weapons they had managed to retrieve from the camp, and at several places along Sand Creek, the soldiers shot into them from opposite banks and presently brought forward the howitzers to blast them from their scant defenses. Over the course of seven hours, the troops succeeded in killing at least 150 Cheyennes and Arapahos, mostly the old, the young, and the weak. During the afternoon and the following day, the soldiers wandered over the field, committing atrocities on the dead, before departing the scene on December 1 to resume campaigning.

Since the day it happened, the Sand Creek Massacre has maintained its station as one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history, a seemingly senseless frontier tragedy reflective of its time and place. The background of Sand Creek lay in a whirlwind of events and issues registered by the ongoing Civil War in the East and West, the overreactions by whites on the frontier to the 1862–63 Dakota uprising in Minnesota and its aftermath, the status of the various bands of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians vis-à-vis each other as well as other plains tribes, the constant undercurrent of threatened Confederate incursions, and the existing state of politics in Colorado along with the self-aggrandizing machinations of individual politicians in that territory. Perhaps most importantly, the seeds of Sand Creek lay in the presence of two historically discordant cultures within a geographical area that both societies coveted for disparate reasons, a situation designed to ensure conflict.


Throughout the first years of the Civil War, Colorado officials brooded over possible secessionist tendencies of the territory's populace, and apprehensions arose over Confederate influences in Texas, the Indian Territory, and New Mexico potentially spilling across the boundaries to disrupt Colorado's relations with its native inhabitants. In Colorado Territory, reports of the Minnesota Indian conflict fostered an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that, however unjustified, contributed to the war with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in 1864–65. During 1862 and 1863, most regional depredations involved, not warriors from these tribes, but Shoshones and Utes, whose repeated raids on emigrant and mail routes south and west of Fort Laramie (in present southeastern Wyoming) disrupted traffic and threatened the course of settlement. Aggressive campaigning in 1863 by columns of California and Kansas troops, including the massacre of a village of Shoshones at Bear River in present Idaho by a force commanded by Colonel Patrick E. Connor, abruptly ended these tribes' forays. Meanwhile, on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains, Indian troubles were mostly confined to bands of Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Arapahos, and occasional Comanches, who stopped wagon trains bound over the Santa Fe Trail; elsewhere, the Lakotas and Pawnees maintained traditional conflicts with each other, encounters with only incidental effect on regional white settlement.


Of all the plains tribes, the Cheyennes and Arapahos appear to have been the least offensive to white settlers at this particular time. Both tribes had been in the region for decades. The Cheyennes, Algonquian-speaking people whose agriculturalist forebears migrated from the area of the western Great Lakes, had occupied the buffalo prairies east of the Missouri River by the late seventeenth century. With the acquisition of horses, their migration continued, and over the next few decades, the Cheyennes ventured beyond the Black Hills as far north as the Yellowstone River and south to below the Platte. By the first part of the nineteenth century, the tribe had separated into northern and southern bodies that still maintained strong band and family relationships. In the conflicts that followed over competition for lands and game resources, the Cheyennes became noted fighters who forged strong intertribal alliances with the Lakotas and the Arapahos. The Arapahos, Algonquian speakers possibly from the area of northern Minnesota, had located west of the Missouri River by at least the late 1700s and probably very much earlier, and by the early nineteenth century they were variously established in what is now Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Their alliance with the Cheyennes extended back to the Cheyennes' entrance onto the eastern prairies, when both were semisedimentary peoples, and was grounded in mutual enmity (at that time) toward the Lakotas' growing regional domination as well as intertribal trade considerations. (Like the Cheyennes, in time the Arapahos gravitated into northern and southern regional divisions, with the southern group eventually coalescing in the area that included south-central Colorado.) Despite occasional Cheyenne-Arapaho rifts, mutual warfare with surrounding groups during the early 1800s solidified their bond and presently included the Lakotas; together, the three tribes variously fought warriors of the Kiowas and Crows, and in the central plains Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors drove the Kiowas and Comanches south of the Arkansas River. A relatively small tribe, the Arapahos were driven by circumstances to become resourceful in the face of intertribal conflicts and the potential adversity wrought by the presence of Anglo-Americans.


In 1851 the Cheyennes and Arapahos subscribed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which acknowledged their occupation of land lying between the Platte River on the north and the Arkansas River on the south, running from the area of the Smoky Hill River west to the Rocky Mountains. By the late 1850s, the southern divisions of both tribes ranged through central Kansas and eastern Colorado as they pursued their hunting and warring routine with enemy tribes and, for the most part, ignored the gradual inroads of whites into their country. In 1857 the Southern Cheyennes experienced a confrontation with troops at Solomon's Fork, Kansas, and their subsequent attitude toward whites had become one of tolerance and avoidance. During the Colorado gold rush and the concomitant movement by whites into and through the territory, most of the Cheyennes and Arapahos remained tranquil, and peace factions headed by Black Kettle and White Antelope of the Cheyennes and Little Raven of the Arapahos sought to maintain this. But the tide of emigration associated with the gold rush, particularly along the Platte and Arkansas valleys, led government authorities to impose new strictures on the people.

In 1861 these chiefs touched pen to the Treaty of Fort Wise, a document that surrendered most of the land previously prescribed in the Fort Laramie Treaty and granted them instead a triangular-shaped tract along and north of the upper Arkansas River in eastern Colorado, where they would henceforth receive government annuities and learn to till the soil. The accord, however, did not include the consent of all Cheyennes and Arapahos living in the Platte country, and those leaders who signed drew enduring resentment from the northerners who were resisting such changes. Many of the affected people, including the band of Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldiers who repudiated the concept of any territorially confining pact, continued their age-old pursuits in the buffalo country and refused to move onto the new reservation. Similarly, the Kiowas and Comanches to the south remained disinclined to participate in the treaty.

The immediate circumstances leading to Sand Creek grew out of the Treaty of Fort Wise and the desire of Colorado territorial governor John Evans to seek total adherence to it by all of the Cheyennes and Arapahos. Within the atmosphere prevailing in the wake of the Minnesota outbreak, Evans, an ambitious visionary, became committed to eliminating all Indians from the plains so that travel and settlement could proceed safely and without interruption; he was also interested in seeing the transcontinental railroad reach Denver and wanted eastern Colorado free of tribesmen to facilitate that development. Adding to this, Evans and others feared that the tribes might somehow be influenced by the Confederate cause, to include being drawn into a plan to cut communications between the East and California by seizing posts in the Platte and Arkansas valleys. Concentrated on the Upper Arkansas Reservation, the Indians not only might be better controlled but also would be altogether cleared from roads used by miners and settlers. To this end, Evans invited the tribal leadership to attend a council scheduled for September 1863 on the plains east of Denver.

The Cheyennes and Arapahos were clearly not interested, however, and none appeared to negotiate; most regarded the treaty as a swindle and refused to subject themselves to living on the new reserve. Moreover, they believed the area devoid of buffalo, whereas the plains of central Kansas still afforded plentiful herds. Coincidentally, at Fort Larned, Kansas, a Cheyenne man was killed in an incident that fueled considerable controversy among the Indians and hardened their resolve against more treaties. Governor Evans took the refusal to assemble as a sign that the tribes were planning war; he used the rebuff, along with rumored incitation of area tribes by northern Sioux, to promote the notion to Federal officials that hostilities were imminent. Although Evans may have sincerely believed that his territory was in grave danger, it has been suggested that he lobbied to create a situation that would permit him to forcibly remove the tribesmen from all settled areas of Colorado.


Evans's accomplice in the evolving scenario was Colonel John M. Chivington, a former Methodist minister who had garnered significant victories against Confederate troops at Apache Canyon and Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Nicknamed "The Fighting Parson," Chivington governed the Military District of Colorado within the Department of the Missouri, whose commanders were often preoccupied with operations elsewhere, thus affording the colonel an opportunity to play out his military and political fortunes on the Colorado frontier. In January 1864, reorganization of the military hierarchy placed Chivington's district under Major General Samuel R. Curtis's Department of Kansas, a jurisdiction that remained considerably immersed in campaigns against Confederates in eastern Kansas and the Indian Territory. As the war proceeded in the East, however, both Chivington and Evans grew alarmed at seeing territorial troops increasingly diverted to help fight Confederate forces in Missouri and Kansas. The governor lobbied for their return and requested that regulars be sent to guard the crucial supply and communication links along the Platte and Arkansas valleys. Facing widespread manpower deficits in the East, Washington initially rejected his appeals.

Chivington endorsed Evans's notion that the Indians in his territory were ready for war, even though evidence indicates that, despite the transgressions of a few warriors, the tribesmen believed they were at peace. In April 1864, however, when livestock, possibly strayed from ranches in the Denver and South Platte River areas, turned up in the hands of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Evans and Chivington interpreted it as provocation for the inception of conflict. In response, troops of the First Colorado Cavalry skirmished with those Indians at Fremont's Orchard along the South Platte River. Acting on Chivington's orders to "kill Cheyennes wherever and whenever found," soldiers during the following month assaulted numerous innocent Cheyenne camps, driving out the people and destroying their property, and in one instance killed a peace chief named Starving Bear, who had earlier headed a delegation that met with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington. In retaliation, parties of warriors mounted raids along the roads in Kansas, especially between Forts Riley and Larned, but refrained from all-out conflict. Attempting to stem the trouble, Curtis's inspector general advised against further Chivington-like forays and instead counseled conciliation with the Cheyennes and protection of the travel routes. He complained that the Colorado men did "not know one tribe from another and ... will kill anything in the shape of an Indian."

But it was too late. Following the murders of several more of their people, the Cheyennes escalated their raiding, and their camps soon swelled with stolen goods. Marauding warriors from among the Arapahos, Kiowas, and Lakotas, usually without the endorsement of their chiefs, opened attacks on white enterprises along the trails bordering the Platte, Smoky Hill, and Arkansas Rivers in Nebraska and Kansas, killing more than thirty people and capturing several women and children. In Colorado warriors attacked and murdered an entire family, the Hungates, at Box Elder Creek, only thirty miles from Denver. Public display of the victims' bodies, coupled with fearful pronouncements from Governor Evans's office, drove most citizens from isolated ranches and communities to seek protection in Denver. In one panicked missive to the War Department, Governor Evans called for ten thousand troops. "Unless they can be sent at once," he intoned, "we will be cut off and destroyed." Although the Cheyennes received blame for the Hungate tragedy, Arapahos later confessed to the deed.

Responding to the crisis, in July and August 1864 General Curtis directed several columns of troops to scour the country west, north, and south of Fort Larned. While the campaign brought meager results, it succeeded in opening the route west along the Arkansas because of increased garrisons at the Kansas and Colorado posts. Curtis now strengthened his administration of the area by establishing a single district, the District of the Upper Arkansas, commanded by Major General James G. Blunt, to replace those that had previously monitored Indian conditions. Similar administrative changes were made in Nebraska. There, in August, Cheyennes attacked homes along the Little Blue River, killing fifteen settlers and carrying off others. In response Curtis mounted a strong campaign with Nebraska and Kansas troops to search through western Kansas, but the soldiers found no Indians. Similarly, in September Blunt led an expedition out of Fort Larned, eventually heading north seeking Cheyennes reported in the area. On September 25 two companies of Colorado troops under Major Scott J. Anthony encountered a large village of Cheyennes and Arapahos at Walnut Creek and engaged them, fighting desperately until Blunt arrived with support. The command pursued the Indians for two days, then withdrew from the field.


Following these operations, Blunt and Curtis became distracted from the Indian situation by a sudden Confederate incursion into Missouri that demanded their immediate attention. The diversion permitted Colonel Chivington to step forward, just at a time when the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and other tribes began slackening the war effort in preparation for the winter season. Buffalo hunting now superseded all else, and Cheyenne leaders like Black Kettle, who had previously urged peace, regained influence. Black Kettle learned of a proclamation issued by Governor Evans calling upon all "Friendly Indians of the Plains" to divorce themselves from the warring factions and to isolate their camps near military posts to ensure their protection. Those who did not thus surrender would henceforth be considered hostile. In late August the chief notified Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commander at Fort Lyon, along the Arkansas River near present Lamar, Colorado, of his desire for peace. Following up, the major led his command from the First Colorado Cavalry out to meet Black Kettle and the Arapaho leader, Left Hand, at the big timbers of the Smoky Hill River near Fort Wallace, Kansas. At that council the Cheyennes and Arapahos turned over several captive whites and consented to meet with Evans and Chivington in Denver to reach an accord. Then Black Kettle and the other leaders followed Wynkoop back to Fort Lyon.


Excerpted from Finding Sand Creek by Jerome A. Greene, Douglas D. Scott. Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Sand Creek massacre 3
Ch. 2 Historical documentation of the location and extent of the Sand Creek massacre site 26
Ch. 3 Identifying the Sand Creek massacre site through archeological reconnaissance 63
Ch. 4 Postarcheology archival conclusions regarding the location of the Sand Creek massacre site 99
App. A Archeological artifact description and analysis 123
App. B J. H. Haynes Cheyenne depredation claim 163
App. C Cheyenne and Arapaho annuity requests, receipts, and lists 165
App. D Lists of abandoned goods found in the camps at Pawnee Fork, Kansas (1867); Washita River, Oklahoma (1868); and Summit Springs, Colorado (1869) 177
App. E List of known arms and ammunition used by the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry 183
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