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Sometimes called "The Chivington Massacre" by those who would emphasize his responsibility for the attack and "The Battle of Sand Creek" by those who would imply that it was not a massacre, this event has become one of our nation’s most controversial Indian conflicts. The subject of army and Congressional investigations and inquiries, a matter of vigorous newspaper debates, the object of much oratory and writing biased in both directions, the Sand Creek Massacre very likely will...
Sometimes called "The Chivington Massacre" by those who would emphasize his responsibility for the attack and "The Battle of Sand Creek" by those who would imply that it was not a massacre, this event has become one of our nation’s most controversial Indian conflicts. The subject of army and Congressional investigations and inquiries, a matter of vigorous newspaper debates, the object of much oratory and writing biased in both directions, the Sand Creek Massacre very likely will never be completely and satisfactorily resolved.
This account of the massacre investigates the historical events leading to the battle, tracing the growth of the Indian-white conflict in Colorado Territory. The author has shown the way in which the discontent stemming from the treaty of Fort Wise, the depredations committed by the Cheyennes and Arapahoes prior to the massacre, and the desire of some of the commanding officers for a bloody victory against the Indians laid the groundwork for the battle at Sand Creek.
The discontent stemming from the treaty of Fort Wise, the murders committed by the Cheyenne and Arapahoe and the commanding officer's need for victory.
BETWEEN THE RIVERS
Daybreak of November 29, 1864, swelled over the land's edge in southeastern Colorado Territory and moved westward across the mesquite-spotted sand hills, revealing the village of Black Kettle's Cheyennes nestled in a bend of the dry-bedded Sand Creek. Here a small range of bluffs halted the southerly meandering of the creek, forcing it to an easterly course for nearly a mile before it once again turned southward. A few cottonwood and willow, bare of foliage, marked the bend, and near them, below the Cheyennes, were camped eight lodges of Arapahoes under Chief Left Hand. On the flat land north of the river, east of the encampment, a horse herd grazed indolently while another was scattered over the backside of the bluffs to the south.
The cone-shaped lodges, more than one hundred of them, gleamed white and clean in the early light. Only a few trails of smoke rose from the village, hardly swirling in the frozen air of morning. A tightly-blanketed Indian woman, out to gather firewood, saw a strange cloud of dust to the south along the river and hurried to report it. At first the cloud was thought to mean a buffalo herd; then someone said the soldiers were coming. Even as the village jerked to life, the crisp silence of the winter's sunrise was split by the slap of gunfire and the shrill yelping of cavalry troops galloping around the sand bluffs and across the creek. Thus began the Sand Creek Massacre.
For more than forty years the country between the Platte and the Arkansas rivers, from central Kansas to the Rocky Mountains, had been the domain of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. South of the Arkansas the arrogant and powerful Kiowas and Comanches held the broken lands of the Staked Plains. North of the Platte ranged the angry Sioux. But between the rivers the Cheyennes ruled, a proud and warlike people who shared the vacuous prairies with their confederate tribe, the less noble but equally warlike Arapahoes. Here bands of the two tribes wandered nomadically over the naked hills, camped their villages along the wide-bottomed streams, hunted buffalo, and made war for war upon enemy tribes.
It was early in the nineteenth century that the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes split, and a large portion of them drifted to the region south of the Platte, held there by the great buffalo herds, by the trading posts of the fur traders, by the commerce along the Arkansas wagon route, and by the government annuities issued at Atkinson and other forts. In 1851 the treaty of Fort Laramie legally defined the country between the rivers as the domain of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes and cemented the peaceful relations between the Indians and the whites who migrated across their land.
The Cheyennes and Arapahoes had traditionally been friendly to the white man, and it wasn't until 1856 that an incident occurred between troops at Fort Laramie and a band of Northern Cheyennes, creating the first outbreak of hostilities by the tribes. This trouble was resolved the following year when Colonel E. V. "Old Bull" Sumner took to the field and routed a large body of Cheyenne warriors on the Republican River with a saber charge, later confiscating their annuity goods at Bent's New Fort on the Arkansas.
In 1858 the gold rush to the Pikes Peak and South Platte region ignited a stampede of whites across the plains equivalent to that of the California gold rush of 1849. But this time the whites did not pass on into the mountains. Instead, they built towns and settled down to stay.
The Indians continued their friendly acceptance of the whites who passed through their hunting grounds, content to exact what tolls they could for the passage. In newly founded, rapidly growing Denver City, Indians were seen daily on the streets or in camp near the town. One of the most noted of the Indian visitors was the Arapaho Chief Little Raven, who had a talk with the people of Denver and "pledged his word for the preservation of peace and law and order by his people."
Little Raven explained that he liked the white men and was glad to see them getting gold, reminding them, however, that the land belonged to the Indians. He hoped they would not say anything bad to his people who were scattered over the prairie and that they would not stay around too long.
Following this conference, the Indians visited Denver in numbers and associated with the whites on equal terms. Such familiarity, as Tom Fitzpatrick, their first agent, had strongly opposed, was bound to lead to trouble. On April 14, 1860, a group of white men, reportedly led by Big Phil the Cannibal, visited an Arapaho camp near the town while the men were gone and raped some of the women. When they left, they stole three of the Indians' mules. Youthful Chief Left Hand threatened reprisal but was talked out of it by old Jim Beckwith, who wrote a letter to the Rocky Mountain News denouncing the Denver "drunken devils and bummers," warning readers, "The Indians are as keenly sensible to acts of injustice as they are tenacious of revenge." This and other misconduct by the whites greatly disturbed the Indians, who were concerned already by the number of whites crowding in on their lands.
William Bent, whose forts on the Arkansas had long been the citadels of the untamed country between the Missouri River and the Rockies, had foreseen the great dangers involved. As Cheyenne and Arapaho agent in 1859, he wrote:
The concourse of whites is therefore constantly swelling, and incapable of control or restraint by the government. This suggests the policy of promptly rescuing the Indians, and withdrawing them from contact with the whites.... These numerous and warlike Indians, pressed upon all around by the Texans, by the settlers of the gold region, by the advancing people of Kansas, and from the Platte, are already compressed into a small circle of territory, destitute of food, and itself bisected athwart by a constantly marching line of emigrants. A desperate war of starvation and extinction is therefore imminent and inevitable, unless prompt measures shall prevent it.
Commissioner of Indian Affairs A. B. Greenwood reported that "There is no alternative to providing for them in this manner but to exterminate them, which the dictates of justice and humanity alike forbid." He recommended new treaties with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and in 1860, Congress appropriated $35,000 for the holding of a council with those tribes on the Upper Arkansas.
In August of that year, Commissioner Greenwood himself left Washington for Bent's New Fort with a party consisting of his son, a nephew, a brother-in-law, the son of Secretary of the Interior Thompson, and several private friends. He also hired two Delaware Indians as escorts at five dollars a day, "there being nothing to guide them, except the river and the broad wagon road extending all the way." Greenwood arrived at the fort on September 8, followed by thirteen wagonloads of trinkets and goods for treating with the Indians.
The War Department, in the meantime, had decided to build an army post at the site of Bent's New Fort, which had been purchased by the government. The post was to be called Fort Wise, in honor of the governor of Virginia. Major John Sedgwick, who had been pursuing the marauding Kiowas and Comanches along the Arkansas and had just returned to the Pawnee Fork from Bent's Fort, was ordered back up the river for the purpose of building the army post and assisting in the treaty with the Indians.
A site was selected up the river a mile from Bent's place, and 350 troops of First Cavalry and Tenth Infantry began construction of Fort Wise early in September. The wagon train carrying the tools and building supplies having been delayed by the cost-conscious army, the soldiers improvised their own implements, cutting long cottonwood poles to use as crowbars for prying up the huge ledge stones which jutted from the surrounding bluffs in abundance. Axes were used to quarry the rock, and trowels for the masonry were fashioned from old stovepipe and wheel iron.
All the buildings of the new post were made of stone, with flat, dirt-covered roofs, dirt floors, and windows made of beef hides stretched on stick frames. A steady stream of wagons—165 six-mule loads of stone each day—made their way from the post to the bluffs on the north, while soldiers worked feverishly at unloading rock and plastering it into walls to out-speed the cold weather that was due to set in soon.
A large group of Arapahoes had preceded Sedgwick and encamped along the Arkansas Valley, filling the bottom with lodges, while droves of ponies, mules, and oxen grazed indolently on the prairie along the river. Indians walked about the area slowly and stately, covered, as a reporter put it, "with blankets, leggings, paint, lice and dirt."
Bent's Fort, perched on a stone bluff at the river's edge below the new post, had taken on the atmosphere of a thriving frontier community. Indians, Mexicans, half-bloods of all varieties, men from the plains and mountains, tenderfeet from the East rode in and out of the fort. William Bent was there, joined by his friend Albert G. Boone. Frontiersmen like John Hatcher, Charlie Autobees, and John Smith were also present, impressing the "civilized world" with a wide variety of languages and dialects. An added attraction was provided by the appearance of a young man named Mark Ralfe, who had recently been speared in the back three times, shot in three other places, scalped, and left for dead by a band of Kiowas. Ralfe managed to make it the thirty-five miles to the fort, where he bid fair to recover, though now without hair except for a small lock above each ear.
Thus far only the Arapahoes had shown. A Captain Potts had been sent out in advance by Greenwood for the purpose of getting the Indians together. Arriving at the fort, he sent out messengers to the Indians, but the ones sent to the Cheyenne camp, supposedly 250 miles away, were not heard from and others were sent out. Then, when a band of Kiowas threatened to attack the fort, Potts left for a healthier climate.
A band of Comanches with about fifty lodges had encamped some twenty-five miles above Bent's, and three of the chiefs, known as Old Woman, Black Bird, and Strong Arm, came in for an interview with Greenwood. After ceremoniously shaking hands with the "Great Captain" and embracing him with a couple of ardent hugs, the head chief opened his parley with, "Christ is over us, and we should be good children." Greenwood, however, pointed out that the Comanches had not been very good children with their constant attacks along the road and refused to issue them the goods they desired.
Medals bearing the likeness of "Old Functionary," President Buchanan, were presented to Arapaho Chiefs Little Raven and Storm. Little Raven lost his and was unconsolable, offering ten horses as a reward for its recovery. A couple of frontier wags ceremoniously gave two Arapaho bucks medals of their own—political campaign buttons, one for Douglas and one for Lincoln—which they wore about with lofty pride.
Left Hand, who had been out on a raid against the Pawnees with forty of his braves, returned to the fort bearing a "scalp with no hair on it," disgusted with an enemy who was cowardly enough to shave his head without leaving a scalp lock. The lone scalp, however, provided an excuse for a victory dance, which rendered complete the carnival of frontier life.
Since the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had been treated together in the treaty of Fort Laramie, it was desired to do so again. Finally toward the middle of September Cheyenne Chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope, with several of their subchiefs, arrived at the fort. Their bands, they said, could not reach the fort in less than twenty days, but Greenwood, who had a treaty-making date with the Kaws in Kansas, could not wait for them. He hurriedly called the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs together for a council, issuing them a third of the treaty goods—blankets, shirts, scissors, knives, camp kettles, flour, bacon, sugar, coffee, and tobacco—promising to distribute the remainder of the gifts when the chiefs had signed a treaty.
An agreement seemed difficult to reach. Bent insisted that, as the Indians wished, the whole Fontaine-qui-bouille River region should be reserved for the Cheyennes, while the Arapahoes wanted all of the Arkansas River country above Bent's Fort. "Of course," a correspondent wrote, "settlers would object; and if any arrangement is made, the Indians will probably be put over on the Republican, or in some other locality where they will not interfere with 'our manifest destiny.'"
The chiefs expressed their willingness to quit a wild life and go to farming if the government would send out farmers to show them how to work. Frontiersmen at the fort, however, doubted seriously that the tribes, especially the young men, were actually ready to settle down to an agricultural life, despite, as one expressed it, some signs that the Indians were "fast becoming civilized. They get drunk as readily as white men and swear with great distinctiveness."
Greenwood expressed the satisfaction of their great father that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had remained peaceful in the midst of other hostile tribes. The chiefs stated in return that they were greatly pleased that their white father had heard of their good conduct and that they wished to conform to the desires of the government in every way possible. Greenwood then showed them a diagram of the country assigned to them under the treaty of 1851 "... which they seemed to understand perfectly, and were enabled, without difficulty, to give each initial point. In fact, they exhibited a degree of intelligence seldom to be found among tribes, where no effort has heretofore been made to civilize them."
The Commissioner made verbal agreements with the Arapahoes, promising to send out the proper documents as soon as he reached Washington. Black Kettle and White Antelope were willing to accept Greenwood's propositions for settling the tribe on a reserve, but refused to bind their people until the question had been put to a vote of all their braves. They would make no commitments until the papers had arrived.
On September 20, Greenwood departed, placing F. B. Culver in charge of the treaty goods. William Bent resigned his office of Indian agent, and in replacement the Indians requested "that good man with a grey beard"—Colonel Boone.
Supported by Bent's recommendation, Boone was appointed to the position by Buchanan.
It was February of 1861 before Boone returned from Washington with the official papers for the Indians to sign and consumate the treaty of Fort Wise. By it the Indians agreed to relinquish their claims to all lands except a gameless, arid section of southeastern Colorado Territory, which was to serve as a reservation for them. In return the United States agreed to protect the Indians on the reservation, to pay them the sum of $30,000 a year for fifteen years ($15,000 to each tribe), to purchase stock and agricultural implements, to build storehouses, to fence land, and to break the soil for the Indians, the expense coming out of the $30,000. In addition, the government agreed to provide the Indians with a sawmill, one or more mechanic shops, dwelling houses, interpreters, millers, farmers, and mechanics to help them out, at a cost not to exceed $5,000 for the next five years. Each Indian was to have forty acres of land, with timber and water where possible.
The influence of Denver business interests in the affair is apparent in Article 11 of the treaty, later struck out by the Senate, which would have allowed Colorado businessmen to enter city and town lots on the reservation at $1.25 an acre. A postscript to the treaty awarded half-bloods Robert Bent and Jack Smith, son of Interpreter John Smith, each 640 acres of choice land along the Arkansas Valley.
The treaty was signed by Little Raven, Storm, Shave-Head, and Big Mouth for the Arapahoes, and for the Cheyennes by Black Kettle, White Antelope, Lean Bear, Little Wolf, Tall Bear, and Left Hand (signing with the Cheyennes) on February 18, 1861.
During the spring of 1861 the Indians were quiet along the Arkansas, preparing for the summer buffalo hunt. William Gilpin, governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for Colorado Territory, wrote on June 19, 1861, that Agent Boone had received and stored at Fort Wise the goods forwarded for the Cheyenne and Arapaho bands for the current season, but that he had instructed Boone to hold the annuities until fall, knowing that at the setting in of cold weather the Indians would be most destitute.
The summer of 1861 was a dry one, and the country along the Arkansas became parched and dried up with the heat and lack of rain. By September the tribes, suffering badly from hunger, were clamoring for their annuities. Several thousand Indians collected around Fort Wise, and some were threatening the fort, giving the whites ten days to pay their annuities. The commanding officer of the feebly garrisoned post, Captain Elmer Otis, distributed some provisions among the Indians and quieted them down.
In October, Boone was at Fort Wise with an amended version of the Fort Wise treaty, which had been ratified by Congress on August 6, for the Indians to sign. Toward the end of the month the Cheyennes began arriving at the fort, and on October 29, Boone again secured their signatures. On December 5, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the treaty.
Excerpted from The Sand Creek Massacre by Stan Hoig. Copyright © 1974 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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