Why the Sand Creek Massacre needs to be remembered


This past weekend marked the 150th anniversaries of two bloody events in US history: The Battle of Franklin, a Union victory over Confederate forces at Franklin, Tenn., in the waning months of the Civil War; and the Sand Creek Massacre, in which US cavalry forces attacked an Indian camp of mostly women, children and old men more than 1,000 miles away in the Colorado Territory.

Both were routs, although only in the first were the odds anywhere near being even.

At Franklin, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of the Tennessee was annihilated by Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Army of Ohio, while at Sand Creek a force of 700 Union cavalrymen destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe in an unprovoked attack that claimed as many as 200 lives.

The anniversary of the former, which effectively destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force, was noted by history aficionados, particularly Civil War buffs, and through media accounts, while the latter, among the most brutal of many assaults on Native Americans by US forces during the War Between the States, went relatively unnoticed outside Colorado.

My first brush with the Sand Creek Massacre, albeit tenuous, came earlier this year, when I visited a historic graveyard in the West Coast town where I attended high school, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Evergreen Cemetery features the final resting place for dozens of Civil War veterans, including Lanader Prindle, who served in the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment.

Living in the South for the past 15 years, and away from California for nearly all of the past 30 years, I had little knowledge of units that served in the west during the War Between the States. In addition, the 3rd Colorado piqued my interest because it came from a territory, as Colorado was still a dozen years away from statehood.

It was after a bit of research that I learned that the 3rd Colorado, along with the 1st Colorado Cavalry and a company of the 1st New Mexico Cavalry Regiment, took part in the Sand Creek Massacre, another aspect of US history I knew little about.

The stage was set for the Sand Creek Massacre when Black Kettle, a chief of the Southern Cheyenne, led his band to Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, according to provisions of a peace parlay held in Denver in September 1864.

Colorado’s leaders, including Col. John Chivington, a former Methodist pastor, and Colorado territorial governor John Evans, had adopted a hard-line against Indians, whom white settlers accused of stealing livestock.

Chivington made no qualms about his view toward Native Americans: “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. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Without any declaration of war, in spring 1864 soldiers started attacking and destroying Cheyenne camps, the largest of which included about 70 lodges, taking out one of every 10 homes in the entire Cheyenne nation, according to author Stan Hoig’s 1977 book, The Sand Creek Massacre.

Service card for Leander Prindle, Co. D, 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment.

Service card for Leander Prindle, Co. D, 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment.

In May 1864, a force under Lieutenant George S. Eayre crossed into Kansas and encountered Cheyenne in their summer buffalo-hunting camp near the Smoky Hill River. Cheyenne chiefs approached the soldiers to signal their peaceful intent but were shot down by Eayre’s troops. This began a war of retaliation by the Cheyenne in Kansas.

As conflict between Indians and whites in Colorado intensified, many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including bands under Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope, recognized they were outnumbered and sought peace.

According to the provisions of a peace parlay held in Denver in September 1864, Black Kettle was advised to have his band camp near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado and was told his people would be regarded as friendly.

In late November, Black Kettle’s band was joined by some Arapahoe, and the group camped along a bend in the Big Sandy Creek, northwest of Fort Lyon. The Indians had been assured of protection by the commander of the fort, and they dispatched most of their warriors to hunt buffalo, leaving the women, children and older men in the camp.

To show that he was friendly to US forces, Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge, as the Fort Lyon commander had advised him.

Chivington, however, wasn’t in the mood to bury the hatchet, at least not figuratively.

With men from the 1st and 3rd Colorado and the 1st New Mexico, he went first to Fort Lyon, then set out for the Indian encampment. On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, after a night of drinking, the troops were ordered to attack.

While officers of two companies, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, refused to obey Chivington’s order and told their men to hold fire, other soldiers wasted no time attacking. Ignoring Black Kettle’s American flag and a white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced their assault, Chivington’s troopers massacred many of the camp’s inhabitants.

Indians who weren’t killed in their camp fled, but some were run down by cavalry troopers.

Chivington and his men brutalized the living and the dead.

Once the back-and-forth action ended, 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, according to the testimony taken during 1865 US Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

“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,” Hoig wrote in The Sand Hill Massacre. “Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles – the last for a tobacco pouch … “

The exact number of Native Americans killed at Sand Creek has never been authoritatively determined. Historian Alan Brinkley wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children. George Bent, the son of a white trader and a Cheyenne mother who was in the village when the attack came and was wounded by the soldiers, wrote in 1889 that 137 people were killed: 28 men and 109 women and children.

Some 24 soldiers were killed and another 52 wounded.

After news of the massacre spread, Evans and Chivington were forced to resign their positions, but neither was called to account for their actions.

Soule, who had refused to allow his men to attack the Indians at Sand Creek, publicly exposed Chivington’s actions. For that, he was murdered the following year.

As for Lanader Prindle, the trooper whose grave I found in the Evergreen Cemetery along California’s Monterey Bay coast, he served in Co. D of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, the company commanded by Soule, so he likely didn’t participate in the massacre. Born in New York around 1804, Prindle lived until 1893 before dying in Santa Cruz.

Not surprisingly, the government refused to compensate the victims or their families in any way.

Ned Blackhawk, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, writes that Sand Creek was just a part of concerted campaign to remove the Cheyenne from their once vast land holdings across the Great Plains.

“A territory that had hardly any white communities in 1850 had, by 1870, lost many Indians, who were pushed violently off the Great Plains by white settlers and the federal government,” Blackhawk stated in the New York Times.

It’s unfortunate that Sand Creek has largely slipped from the nation’s consciousness.

“In terms of sheer horror, few events matched Sand Creek,” Blackhawk wrote. “Pregnant women were murdered and scalped, genitalia were paraded as trophies, and scores of wanton acts of violence characterize the accounts of the few Army officers who dared to report them.”

Sadly, the Sand Creek Massacre was one of just a series of violent assaults against Native Americans, attacks that continued through the last decade of the 19th century. Many Americans are unaware of the actions perpetuated by the US government against Indians. For Native Americans, the impact of those actions continue to impact their lives today.

If, as it has been said, the US still hasn’t fully come to terms with the legacy of the Civil War, then we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the impact of the US government’s effort to wipe Indians from their ancestral lands.

(Top: Depiction of Sand Creek Massacre by Howling Wolf. Source: Wikipedia.)

4 thoughts on “Why the Sand Creek Massacre needs to be remembered

  1. My father gave me chapter and verse on the Native American genocide when I was still quite small….I never saw cowboy and indian games in the same light after that…and explained some of the lasting consequences for the Native Americans but the names of particular atrocities have retired into the back ground.

    • I get the romance of the west, but I don’t understand how the part about the Indians being driven off their land and pretty much exterminated or herded onto miserable reservations has been whitewashed so effectively.

    • My mother made sure I was aware of what had happened to the Indians. Of course, as a boy born 20 years after World War II we always had Nazis to fight in our backyard games, so I was of a generation that was in some ways past cowboys and Indians.

  2. Cowboys and indians still going strong in my time….and my mother remembers a playground ‘gathering sides’ game – or brawl – among the boys which started with the ringleaders marching round the playground singing
    Are you ready for the fight?
    We are the Romans.
    Are you ready for the fight?
    We are the Roman soldiers..

    I’d love to know the origin of that one…

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