“My Shame is as Big as the Earth” – Massacre at Sand Creek

Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle, above, tried to make peace with the whites..  The results was the betrayal of the Indians by the whites and the bloody and horrific Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.  Black Kettle somehow survived, and afterward, in relation to his attempts to make peace, he said “My shame is as big as the earth.  I once thought that I was the only man that persevered to be the friend of the white man, but it is hard for me to
believe the white man any more.”  He felt that he had betrayed his people by attempting peace.

The Sand Creek Massacre was one of he darkest pages in the history of white/Indian relations.  The story is so horrific that I almost can’t bear to write about it at all.

This atrocity occurred on November 29, 1864, when a 700-man force of Colorado Territory militia attacked and destroyed a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho encamped in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing and mutilating between 70 and 163 Indians, about two-thirds of whom were women and children. The soldiers subsequently removed and desecrated body parts of the Indians, even the children, as mementos.

The painting above depicting the Sand Creek Massacre was completed by warrior, Howling Wolf, who, at age 15, defended the Indians against the unprovoked attack along with his father, Eagle Head.  Later, imprisoned along with other Cheyenne, he became famous for his “ledger art.”

The events leading up to this massacre all began with the discovery of gold.

By the terms of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the United States and seven Indian nations, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the US recognized that the Cheyenne and Arapaho held a vast territory encompassing the lands between the North Platte River and Arkansas River and eastward from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas. This area included present-day southeastern Wyoming, southwestern Nebraska, most of eastern Colorado, and the westernmost portions of Kansas.

In November 1858, the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, then part of the Kansas Territory, brought on the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. There was a flood of European-American migrants across Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. They competed for resources and some settlers tried to stay. Colorado territorial officials pressured federal authorities to redefine the extent of Indian lands in the territory, and in the fall of 1860, A.B. Greenwood, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, arrived at Bent’s New Fort along the Arkansas River to negotiate a new treaty.

On February 18, 1861, six chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne and four of the Arapaho signed the Treaty of Fort Wise with the United States, in which they ceded most of the lands designated to them by the Fort Laramie treaty. The Cheyenne chiefs included Black Kettle, White Antelope, Lean Bear, Little Wolf, and Tall Bear; the Arapaho chiefs included Little Raven, Storm, Shave-Head, Big Mouth, and Niwot, or Left Hand.

Above, a delegation of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho chiefs in Denver, Colorado on September 28, 1864.  Black Kettle is 2nd from left front row in this photo.

The new reserve, less than one-thirteenth the size of the 1851 reserve, was located in eastern Colorado between the Arkansas River and Sand Creek. Some bands of Cheyenne, including the Dog Soldiers, a militaristic band of Cheyenne and Lakota that had evolved beginning in the 1830s, were angry at the chiefs who had signed the treaty. They disavowed the treaty and refused to abide by its constraints. They continued to live and hunt in the bison-rich lands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, becoming increasingly belligerent over the tide of white migration across their lands. Tensions were high particularly in the Smoky Hill River country of Kansas, along which whites had opened a new trail to the gold fields.

Cheyenne who opposed the treaty said that it had been signed by a small minority of the chiefs without the consent or approval of the rest of the tribe; that the signatories had not understood what they signed; and that they had been bribed to sign by a large distribution of gifts. The whites, however, claimed that the treaty was a “solemn obligation.”  Officials took the position that Indians who refused to abide by it were hostile and planning a war.

The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 led to the organization of military forces in Colorado Territory. In March 1862, the Colorado men were mounted as a home guard under the command of Colonel John Chivington.  Chivington and Colorado territorial governor John Evans adopted a hard line against Indians, whom white settlers accused of stealing livestock. Without any declaration of war, in April 1864 soldiers started attacking and destroying a number of Cheyenne camps, the largest of which included about 70 lodges, about 10% of the housing capacity of the entire Cheyenne nation. On May 16, 1864, a force under Lieutenant George S. Eayre crossed into Kansas and encountered Cheyenne in their summer buffalo-hunting camp at Big Bushes near the Smoky Hill River. Cheyenne chiefs Lean Bear and Star approached the soldiers to signal their peaceful intent, but were shot down by Eayre’s troops. This incident touched off a war of retaliation by the Cheyenne in Kansas.

“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”

—- Col. John Milton Chivington, U.S. Army

As conflict between Indians and white settlers and soldiers in Colorado continued, many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including bands under Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope, were resigned to negotiate peace. The chiefs had sought to maintain peace in spite of pressures from whites. They were told to camp near Fort Lyon on the eastern plains, and that their people would be regarded as friendly.

Black Kettle, a chief of a group of around 800 mostly Northern Cheyenne, reported to Fort Lyon in an effort to establish peace. After having done so, he and his band, along with some Arapaho under Chief Niwot, camped out at nearby Sand Creek, less than 40 miles north. The Dog Soldiers, who had been responsible for many of the raids on whites, were not part of this encampment.  Assured by the U.S. Government’s promises of peace, most of the warriors were off hunting buffalo, leaving only around 60 men, and women and children in the village. Most of the men were too old or too young to hunt. Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge, since previously the officers had said this would show he was friendly and prevent attack by U.S. soldiers.

Setting out from Fort Lyon, Chivington and his 700 troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers marched to Black Kettle’s campsite. On the night of November 28, soldiers and militia drank heavily and celebrated their anticipated victory.

The Sand Creek Massacre site is shown above.  Archaeologists have found evidence, such as bullets, that the massacre occurred at this location.

On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his troops to attack. Two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, commanding companies D and K, respectively, of the First Colorado Cavalry, refused to follow Chivington’s order and told their men to hold fire.  Other soldiers in Chivington’s force, however, immediately attacked the village.  Disregarding the American flag, and a white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced firing, Chivington’s soldiers massacred many of its inhabitants.

“I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops …”

—- John S. Smith, Congressional Testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, 1865

“Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles-the last for a tobacco pouch …”

—- Stan Hoig

“Jis to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up thar at Sand Creek.  His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? What der yer ‘spose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile red skin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ’em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I despise the man who would.”

—- Kit Carson

Some of the Indians cut horses from the camp’s herd and fled up Sand Creek or to a nearby Cheyenne camp on the headwaters of the Smokey Hill River. Others, including trader George Bent, fled upstream and dug holes in the sand beneath the banks of the stream. They were pursued by the troops and fired on, but many survived. Cheyenne warrior Morning Star said that most of the Indian dead were killed by cannon fire, especially those firing from the south bank of the river at the people retreating up the creek.

In testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the massacre, Chivington claimed that as many as 500–600 Indian warriors were killed. Historian Alan Brinkley wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children. White eye-witness John S. Smith reported that 70–80 Indians were killed, including 20–30 warriors, which agrees with Brinkley’s figure as to the number of men killed. George Bent, the son of white William Bent and a Cheyenne mother, who was in the village when the attack came and was wounded by the soldiers, gave two different accounts of the Indian loss. On March 15, 1889, he wrote to Samuel F. Tappan that 137 people were killed: 28 men and 109 women and children. However, on April 30, 1913, when he was very old, he wrote that “about 53 men” and “110 women and children” were killed and many people wounded. Bent’s first figures are in close accord with those of Brinkley and agree with Smith as to the number of men who were killed.

Before Chivington and his men left the area, they plundered the tipis and took the horses. After the smoke cleared, Chivington’s men came back and killed many of the wounded. They also scalped many of the dead, regardless of whether they were women, children or infants. Chivington and his men dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia. They also publicly displayed these battle trophies in Denver’s Apollo Theater and area saloons. Three Indians who remained in the village are known to have survived the massacre – George Bent’s brother, Charlie Bent, and two Cheyenne women who were later turned over to William Bent.

One of the women, Mochi, below, later became a warrior as a result of her experience at Sand Creek.

After hiding all day above the camp, in holes dug beneath the bank of Sand Creek, the survivors there, many of whom were wounded, moved up the stream and spent the night on the prairie. Trips were made to the site of the camp but very few survivors were found there. After a cold night without shelter, the survivors set out toward the Cheyenne camp on the headwaters of the Smoky Hill River. They soon met up with other survivors who had escaped with part of the horse herd, some returning from the Smoky Hill camp where they had fled during the attack. They then proceeded to the camp, where they received assistance.

The Sand Creek Massacre resulted in a heavy loss of life, mostly among Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children. Hardest hit by the massacre were the Wutapai, Black Kettle’s band. Perhaps half of the Hevhaitaniu were lost, including the chiefs Yellow Wolf and Big Man. The Oivimana led by War Bonnet, lost about half their number. There were heavy losses to the Hisiometanio (Ridge Men) under White Antelope. Chief One Eye was also killed, along with many of his band. The Suhtai clan and the Heviqxnipahis clan under chief Sand Hill experienced relatively few losses. The Dog Soldiers and the Masikota, who by that time had allied, were not present at Sand Creek, as they were not seeking peace. Of about ten lodges of Arapaho under Chief Left Hand, representing about fifty or sixty people, only a handful escaped with their lives.

The massacre disrupted the traditional Cheyenne power structure, because of the deaths of eight members of the Council of Forty-Four. White Antelope, One Eye, Yellow Wolf, Big Man, Bear Man, War Bonnet, Spotted Crow, and Bear Robe were all killed, as were the headmen of some of the Cheyenne military societies. Among the chiefs killed were mature men, most of those who had advocated peace with white settlers and the U.S. government.  The net effect of the murders and ensuing weakening of the peace faction exacerbated the social and political rift developing. The traditional council chiefs, mature men who sought consensus and looked to the future of their people, and their followers on the one hand, were opposed by the younger and more militaristic Dog Soldiers on the other.  The Dog Soldiers viewed the massacre as confirmation that they were right and that it justified their militant position.

The events at Sand Creek dealt a fatal blow to the traditional Cheyenne clan system and the authority of its Council of Chiefs. It had already been weakened by the numerous deaths due to the 1849 cholera epidemic, which killed perhaps half the Southern Cheyenne population, especially the Masikota and Oktoguna bands. It was further weakened by the emergence of the separate Dog Soldiers band.  Sand Creek was the final blow.

After Sand Creek, Black Kettle continued to want and advocate for peace, but few others did.  Many joined the Dog Soldiers and the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho joined forced and declared war on the whites.

Initially, the Sand Creek engagement was reported as a victory against a brave opponent. Within weeks, however, witnesses and survivors raised a controversy about possible massacre. Several investigations were conducted – two by the military, and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Statements taken by Major Edward W. Wynkoop and his adjutant substantiated the later accounts of survivors. These statements were filed with his reports and can be found in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, copies of which were submitted as evidence in the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War and in separate hearings conducted by the military in Denver. Lieutenant James D. Cannon describes the mutilation of human genitalia by the soldiers, “men, women, and children’s privates cut out. I heard one man say that he had cut a woman’s private parts out and had them for exhibition on a stick. I heard of one instance of a child, a few months old, being thrown into the feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish; I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over their saddle-bows, and some of them over their hats”.

During these investigations, numerous witnesses came forward with damning testimony, almost all of which was corroborated by other witnesses. One witness, Captain Silas Soule, who had ordered the men under his command not to fire their weapons, was himself murdered in Denver just weeks after offering his testimony.

The investigative panel declared:

“As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless [sic] condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.

Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deed he and the men under his command had performed.

In conclusion, your committee are of the opinion that for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.”

While it is somewhat vindicating to see this in print, in essence, nothing ever happened to punish Chivington.  He was never held accountable.  Despite the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Wars’ recommendation, no charges were brought against those who committed the massacre. The closest thing to a punishment Chivington suffered was the effective end of his political aspirations.

I would like to tell you that somehow there was a happy ending in some way, but there wasn’t.  Justice was never served.  Not only that, but the genocidal killing wasn’t over.

In response to the continued raids and massacres, General Philip Sheridan devised a plan of punitive reprisals. He planned to attack Cheyenne winter encampments, destroying both supplies and livestock, and killing any people who resisted. At dawn on the morning of November 27, 1868, George Armstrong Custer led troops to attack Chief Black Kettle and his village. They were camped along the Washita River. Custer’s troops killed more than 100 Native Americans, mostly Southern Cheyenne. While trying to cross the Washita River, Black Kettle and his wife were shot in the back and killed.

The Sand Creek Massacre site, on Big Sandy Creek in Kiowa County, is now preserved by the National Park Service. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was dedicated on April 28, 2007, almost 142 years after the massacre.

The Sand Creek Massacre Trail in Wyoming follows the paths of the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne in the years after the massacre. It traces them to their wintering on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Riverton in central Wyoming, where the Arapaho remain today. In recent years, Arapaho youth have taken to running the length of the trail as endurance tests to bring healing to their nation. Alexa Roberts, superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, has said that the trail represents a living portion of the history of the two tribes.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site web page holds lots more information.






About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “My Shame is as Big as the Earth” – Massacre at Sand Creek

  1. Pingback: Memory and Justice « Desperado Philosophy

  2. leannatkin says:

    Your site is AMAZING and your posts so well researched and written that I am asking if it might be okay to mention you and your page on the Facebook page I administer called, “Wyoming Genealogy Research”? I would love to use your name, credentials and website address to let others know you are here and the AMAZING work you do! Thank you! LeAnn Knifer Atkin

  3. Reblogged this on Arapaho Legends & Traditions and commented:
    As we near the anniversary if this horrific event, my heart grows heavy and I feel the pain of the mothers who lost their children and their own lives to monsters in our government’s uniforms. Words fail me. May we never forget.

  4. neshnabe says:

    I remember at this time – I will NEVER forget nor will I ever forgive …. Rest Eazy All My Relations …..

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