In the early morning of November 29, 1864, with the fate of the Union still uncertain, part of the First Colorado and nearly all of the Third Colorado volunteer regiments, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, surprised hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped on the banks of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. More than 150 Native Americans were slaughtered, the vast majority of them women, children, and the elderly, making it one of the most infamous cases of state-sponsored violence in U.S. history. A Misplaced Massacre examines the ways in which generations of Americans have struggled to come to terms with the meaning of both the attack and its aftermath, most publicly at the 2007 opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
This site opened after a long and remarkably contentious planning process. Native Americans, Colorado ranchers, scholars, Park Service employees, and politicians alternately argued and allied with one another around the question of whether the nation’s crimes, as well as its achievements, should be memorialized. Ari Kelman unearths the stories of those who lived through the atrocity, as well as those who grappled with its troubling legacy, to reveal how the intertwined histories of the conquest and colonization of the American West and the U.S. Civil War left enduring national scars.
Combining painstaking research with storytelling worthy of a novel, A Misplaced Massacre probes the intersection of history and memory, laying bare the ways differing groups of Americans come to know a shared past.
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About the Author
Ari Kelman is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Two: Looters
In late summer 1993, two amateur artifact collectors traveled to southeastern Colorado, headed for a parcel of land owned by a rancher named William Dawson. Variously described by people familiar with the effort to memorialize the massacre as “history buffs,” “treasure hunters,” or, with tongue in cheek, “looters,” the men drew attention to themselves in Eads, a Ford pickup kind of town, by arriving in a luxury car. Passionate about Western history, they wanted to return home with a small part of the past, to own a piece of one of the region’s greatest tragedies. They came looking for arrowheads, minié balls, regimental pins, or any other materials associated with the Sand Creek massacre. And they chose Dawson’s land because conventional wisdom dictated that Black Kettle’s and Left Hand’s people had, on the night of November 28, 1864, camped in a large bend in the creek there. The next morning the massacre reputedly had begun at that spot, before continuing upstream, a running engagement, for several miles. Oddly, though, no matter how hard the two men scoured the ground, systematically working a series of grids with their metal detectors, they found none of the relics that should have been spread across a site where more than a thousand people had fought for their lives during a daylong slaughter. The absence of artifacts made no sense. Unless there was a simple explanation: the men were prospecting in the wrong place.
Puzzled, the two collectors traveled to Denver, where they contacted David Halaas, then the chief historian at the Colorado Historical Society (CHS). They told Halaas that, “the ground was completely sterile, there wasn’t any evidence at all that a massacre happened there,” and suggested that maybe the slaughter had taken place in another creek bend, eight miles to the north of the Dawson ranch. Halaas, a native Coloradan and one of the leading experts on the massacre’s history, at the time was almost finished writing a book about George Bent. Although he found the prospect that the site had been misplaced “potentially earthshaking,” akin, in his words, to “suddenly losing track of the Gettysburg battlefield,” he remained uncertain about the story’s credibility. Still, he approached his co-author on the Bent book, Andy Masich, who, as vice president of the Historical Society, also served as Halaas’s boss at the time. Together, they began the initial search for the Sand Creek massacre site.
Their hunt ultimately would prove significant not for its results but for the interdisciplinary methodology it introduced, for bringing a disparate cast of characters together, and for touching off a series of nettlesome controversies. All of which would later shape the National Park Service’s effort to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Still, even if Halaas and Masich’s search would end in anti-climax, it began cinematically. The two historians convinced the Colorado National Guard to take them up in Huey helicopters during a training exercise on September 1, 1993. Halaas recalling the film Apocalypse Now, noted how much he regretted not bringing along a recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for background music. The gunships took off from Buckley Field, near Denver, and headed southeast before flying over Dawson’s property and then further upstream to a second large bend in the creek. After spending nearly a full day in the air and poking around on land, Halaas, Masich, and the colleagues they brought along found no compelling evidence of the massacre at all. Still, they believed that Dawson’s ranch might have hosted the bloodshed. “It looks right, feels right, and meets all contemporary descriptions,” Masich wrote after their fieldtrip. But he also cited “an archeological rule of thumb”: “no battle-related artifacts, probably no battlefield.” The two men decided that the search was “way too big of a project for a weekend kind of thing.” So they turned for help to the Colorado State Historical Fund (SHF), one of the nation’s most ambitious historic preservation initiatives.
Table of Contents
List of Maps and Illustrations vii
1 A Perfect Mob 1
2 Looters 44
3 The Smoking Gun 87
4 Accurate but Not Precise 135
5 Indelible Infamy 180
6 You Can't Carve Things in Stone 221
Epilogue: When is Enough Enough? 263
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kelman's book starts by recounting the story of the Sand Creek Massacre. He introduces us to three characters: John Chivington, committed abolitionist, Union colonel, and inveterately racist Indian hater, led the attack and devoted himself to defending (and exaggerating) it in newspapers and official statements for years afterwards. Captain Silas Soule, gold seeker and mama’s boy, refused to participate in it or order his men to, and blew the whistle afterwards, leading to the investigation and condemnation of Chivington’s actions. George Bent, the son of a federal Indian agent and a Cheyenne woman, was a Confederate volunteer, captured by Union soldiers and released, who went to live with his mother’s people to protect himself from anti-Confederate sentiment in Colorado; he was wounded in the massacre, but survived and published his story in a six-part series almost forty years later. Sand Creek is an important part of United States history, though one that most Americans know little, if anything, about. In late November 1864, towards the end of the Civil War, Chivington led two Colorado regiments to a site near Fort Lyon, where a peaceful group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians had been promised protection by the U.S. Military. Chivington’s troops proceeded to decimate the encamped Cheyenne and Arapaho in a massacre that fueled the subsequent Indian Wars throughout the American West and, fascinatingly, demonstrates that the U.S. Civil War was both a war against slavery and, less nobly, a war of westward expansion. It freed the slaves, but it also opened the door to the near-destruction of the Plains Indians. This is a timely story, and a profound one. But Kelman is not merely adding to our current fascination with the Civil War. He is also, and even more importantly, explaining to the educated general public how history gets made. That process is the book’s true subject, and accordingly, after this first chapter, we leave the massacre itself behind and focus instead on the real meat of the book: the 20th- and 21st-century struggle over commemorating it. The negotations involved in establishing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site are themselves fascinating, involving a fair bit of situational humor, a cast of compelling characters almost big enough to warrant a Russian novel-style reference list, a genuinely engaging set of theoretical and ideological problems, and real emotion. I found myself tearing up as the book’s closing pages described the internment of the massacre victims’ remains. Kelman’s methodology is his content, which makes the book interesting both as a story and as a window into historiography. He relies heavily on interviews, which is both unusual for an academic historian and eminently appropriate to the subject. It also gives the book both dramatic thrust and a its humor: again and again, some hurdle gets in the way of history, is overcome with a great deal of diplomacy and difficulty, and then some new character rises up with some new agenda that needs addressing. Highly recommended.