Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado

Cheyenne and Arapaho still return here to pay tribute to
ancestors who both perished and survived the 1864 massacre.

          Many of our national parks inspire awe, motivating visitors to look outward and be wowed by scenic splendor.  Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, established in April of 2007, is not one of those parks.  It asks the visitor to look inward and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man, to absorb the silence and reflect on the lessons to be learned there. 


          A great American tragedy occurred in late November of 1864.  This tragedy is part of our history, but it's not one we schoolchildren learned while studying the European conquest of North America. 

          During the early 1800s the US government signed treaties with Indian nations promising them much of the land on the Great Plains in exchange for safe passage for whites.  After the discovery of gold and other valuable minerals in the area, those treaties were no longer considered convenient (read, profitable). So Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans proclaimed that a new policy take effect in 1864, its mission “... to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians”.

          United States volunteer cavalry soldiers such as Colonel John Chivington took that message to heart, and to mean “all Indians, hostile or otherwise”.  On November 28, 1864 Colonel Chivington led a surprise attack on the peaceful Indian settlement of predominately women and children camped at Sand Creek. 

          Two captains with the US Volunteer Cavalry, Joseph Cramer and Silas Soule, refused to take part in the massacre and had their regiments stand down, all the while witnessing this horrific tragedy.  The passage below is taken from letters detailing the eye-witness accounts of captains Cramer and Soule.

“The massacre lasted six or eight hours.  I tell you it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.  One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain.  Some tried to escape on the prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen.  They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head.  They were all horribly mutilated.  One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped.”
                                                                                                           --Captain Silas Soule

          After the massacre soldiers paraded the streets of Denver holding body parts in their hands, cheered on by some in the crowd.

          If not for the bravery of Captains Soule and Cramer, the acts described above may have continued unabated.  As it was, these accounts of the massacre led to congressional hearings in 1865 and a new method of dealing with the “Indian problem” was launched.  From this point on our government’s old policy of extermination was replaced by a new policy of assimilation.  This assimilation attempt would be only partially "successful", due to the resilience of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people.


          I should mention that Colonel Chivington has his apologists as does Governor Evans.  I’ve read that the US Cavalry was only doing onto the Indians what was done onto them, that Captains Soule and Cramer had hidden agendas when they wrote their damning accounts of this massacre.  And we’ve all heard this argument:  “All was not peace and love on native lands, you know.  Tribes continually warred with one another.”

          Well, yes.  Humans are a warring species. 

          But, no.  The “everybody’s doing it” excuse CAN NOT justify what happened here. 

          See for yourself.  Travel to Sand Creek, near the town of Chivington—named in "honor" of the savage colonel—in southeastern Colorado.   

          Visit the high plains site where the massacre occurred.  Listen as the breeze rustles the thistles and grasses.  View the meadow below the escarpment, the willowy trees lining the banks of what once was a small stream.  Imagine the camp there, the place where several hundred women, children and retired warriors were promised safe haven by Colorado territory officials.  Remember the atrocities which occurred there, atrocities for which Colonel Chivington and his men were never held accountable.   Then, take heed as the park’s rangers remind you that this place was established with the belief that we’re a better people now, that what happened here could never happen again.

          I would like to believe that too.

Meadow below the escarpment; site of the 1864 Cheyenne and Arapaho
temporary settlement.

Colonel Chivington has a town named for him.
In 1895 the Colorado state legislature re-named a prominent Colorado
mountain peak in honor of the esteemed and murderous Governor Evans.

The least we could do for Cheyenne Chief White Antelope—who raised the white
surrender flag when the US Cavalry approached Sand Creek and who
was mutilated and killed in the attack—was to name this dirt road after him.


  1. This is a rather uncommon post from you, Rita, as uncommon it is to read about exterminations committed on American soil.
    Let's all take our lessons from history, for it has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

    1. I agree that this is an uncommon post for me. Usually when I report on our national parks my post is full of wonder and delight. But this very new addition to our national park system had an effect on me, and I thought the story of what happened there was worth telling.

      As you say, Soumyendu, it's a lesson worth remembering in order to prevent this sordid part of our past from ever being repeated.

  2. Rita,

    A powerful and moving account of an atrocity that should never be forgotten - thank you for sharing your visit to Sand Creek.

    Your post reminded me that as schoolchildren we tend to learn what's considered a more palatable version of history; I recently had to research the Trail of Tears - a reference to the forced relocation (many would say death march) of native Americans to reservation lands, another tragic example of our terrible prejudice as early visitors to this land - all because I'd never heard of it in school.

    1. Hi Vickie,

      You're right, the Trail of Tears and other less palatable parts of our nation's history were not in any textbooks that I know of. I was fortunate to have had an 11th grade American History teacher who was definitely "outside the box". She taught us the other side of history—that of the contributions of minorities and women to American culture for instance. Also she assigned alternative readings to go along with our "white-washed" history books. Thanks to her I realized that our standard curriculum contained only part of the story.
      As they say: "The truth is out there somewhere..."!

  3. What a thought-provoking blog posting, Rita! It certainly evokes those immortal words written by Robert Burns: "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!"

    Also, it brings to mind some rather provocative words by Carl Sagan in his writings:
    " The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity - in all this vastness - there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."


    1. Thanks for sharing those quotes, John.
      Carl Sagan's words were indeed provocative and it's clear that he was a man ahead of his time. Humanity needs more spokespeople such as Sagan.
      I would like to believe that we ARE a better people now, in 2016. Aren't we??

  4. Wow! That was very hard to read. It's a reminder that humans can be vicious and inhumane to other humans when they are told to believe that they are less than human or there is some "higher" and more righteous cause. We all have to rise above, speak for peace, and guard against these philosophies and avoid the horrid outcomes that can result. How wonderful that there is now such a place of peace to replace the screams with gentle breezes.

    1. Hi Karen,
      I love your line about replacing the screams with gentle breezes.
      The first part of your reply reminds me of the line from the great Eagles song "The Last Resort": "We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds—in the name of destiny, and in the name of god." How true that was.
      Also true that we need to rise up and guard against those awful philosophies.
      Thanks for your comments.