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date: 02 December 2021

The Sand Creek Massacrefree

The Sand Creek Massacrefree

  • Elliott WestElliott WestUniversity of Arkansas


At dawn on November 29, 1864, a combined force of volunteer cavalry and regular army troops attacked a village of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples on Sand Creek, or Big Sandy, a tributary of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. Those in the village had surrendered at nearby Fort Lyon weeks earlier and were waiting for instructions about future negotiations with the federal government. In the eight-hour massacre that followed at least one hundred fifty Indians were killed, the great majority of them women and children. Although the massacre occurred through the failures of Colorado’s territorial governor, John Evans, and the ambitions of its military commander, Colonel John Chivington, it reflected more broadly the stresses generated by the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858, the declining position of plains Indian peoples, and the disruptions of the Civil War. Those stresses had led to raiding by elements among the Indians most resistant to intrusions by White newcomers and to assaults by military, including ones against Native leaders seeking peaceful accommodation. The massacre was followed by extensive reprisals by Southern Cheyennes and allies among the western Sioux (Lakotas). Subsequent investigations by both the military and Congress documented the atrocities committed there, and one recommended prosecution of some of its principals. No legal action was taken, and within a few years Cheyennes and Arapahoes had been removed from Colorado.


  • Native American History

Plains Peoples

In the mid-19th century the Colorado plains were home to about three thousand Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne peoples. The Arapahoes were concentrated between the North and South Platte Rivers but ranged onto the plains to the east. The Southern Cheyennes were on the plains between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers, especially along the Arkansas. They had split from the Northern Cheyennes, who lived along the North Platte and Powder Rivers in Wyoming and Montana, and moved south to take advantage of the bison robe trade through the trading entrepot of William Bent on the Arkansas. The tribes were divided among bands of between one and two hundred persons. The Southern Cheyennes included the Hairy Ropes, who were the first to move southward, and the Southern Eaters and Scabbies. The bands recognized their kinship to each other and to the northern bands, and their relations were fluid, with shifting memberships and intermarriage among them. They would gather periodically for hunting, making war and spiritual observances. Each band had a leader recognized for generosity, diplomacy, and level-headedness, but apart from persuasion, leaders had virtually no authority to compel anyone’s actions.1

The Southern Cheyennes and Arapahoes were allies of the western Sioux, or Lakotas, who dominated the northern plains in the Dakotas and eastern Montana. All had been bitter rivals of the Comanches, Kiowas, and Plains Apaches who ruled south of the Arkansas River, but in 1840 the two coalitions made peace. All continued to raid and war against tribes to the east, the Pawnees, Pottawatomies, and others.

In the late 1850s the tribes were in a contradictory point in their history. On the one hand, they enjoyed an unprecedented power and affluence. The Cheyennes and Arapahoes were two of several tribes that had migrated onto the plains in the 18th century after acquiring horses from Spanish settlements in the Southwest. On horseback they were able to range wider and faster, wage war more successfully, and hunt more effectively the millions of bison and, by that, to engage in the lucrative trade in bison robes that had drawn the Cheyenne bands to settle near Bent’s Fort along the Santa Fe trail near the present town of La Junta.2

On the other hand, the bands were also feeling pressures that threatened their newfound advantages. Their robe trade was so vigorous that the bison population was beginning to drop substantially by the middle of the decade. Life on the plains required them to live during the winter months in relatively rare enclaves along streams that afforded them some protection from storms, water and forage for horses, and timber for firewood. Occupation year after year was wearing on these vital places. Those pressures were heightened greatly by the overland traffic of White immigrants and mercantile interests along the Platte and Arkansas Rivers which took an increasing toll on the timber and forage along the rivers, especially on the Platte after the surge of migration with the California gold rush. Even worse was the transmission of diseases, especially cholera that took a tragic toll in 1849 and 1852. Losses in the latter year, called by the Southern Cheyennes the “year the big cramps take place,” were heavy, reducing their population by perhaps more than a third.3 Finally, in the latter 1840s and the 1850s the central plains were struck by several deep droughts. The dry stretches withered the grasses, leaving horses weakened during the seasons of the hunt and perhaps also further reducing the herds of bison.4

The federal government meanwhile had established two agencies to oversee Indian relations on the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. It had also placed three military posts in the region: Fort Kearny along the Platte in Nebraska; Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming; and Fort Atkinson in far western Kansas. Their purpose was to protect traffic along the routes, and to that end agents under the Department of the Interior also met with plains tribes at two councils, at Fort Laramie in 1851 and at Fort Atkinson the next year. By the resulting treaties the Lakotas, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Crows, Comanches, and Kiowas committed to allow the military posts, to not interfere with overland traffic, and to keep peace among themselves. The treaty recognized tribal lands, for the Cheyennes and Arapahoes essentially the country south of the Platte and north of the Arkansas. The government in return pledged annual payments in goods to the tribal signatories. As with many treaties, however, these were undermined by mutual misunderstandings over the terms and over the realities of power and authority on both sides.

By the second half of the 1850s, then, the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and their allies to the north and south, even as they were flexing a power none had known before, were facing disruptive changes, partly of their own making but especially brought on as the nation to the east pushed in increasing volume through their lands. Tribal resentment predictably grew, especially after clashes with the US military along and north of the Platte after 1855. Each tribe began to divide into two broad groups: one advocating resistance to the growing White presence and the other calling for some peaceful accommodation that would satisfy all sides. The situation was primed for conflict, both within the tribes and between the tribes and the government.

Gold Rush

In the summer of 1858 a party of prospectors led by William Green Russell discovered gold on Cherry Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River on the site of what would soon become the city of Denver.5 The nation was in the middle of one of the worst depressions of the century, and the news of this strike, scarcely five hundred easily traveled miles west of towns along the Missouri River, triggered a rush of an estimated 100,000 persons to Colorado’s Front Range, sixty miles north of Pikes Peak. As often with western gold strikes, this one proved far less lucrative than rumors would have it, and thousands of “go-backers” returned eastward, but new discoveries farther into the mountains brought new surges of goldseekers. By 1860 Denver was well established and farms and ranches were appearing to supply it.

For millennia Indigenous peoples had used this country, at the base of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, for their villages, especially during the winter. Besides the same gifts of the plains rivers during the cold time, the mountains rising to the west provided additional protection from the storms that made the open plains all but uninhabitable. Now the Cheyennes and Arapahoes saw Denver and other towns sprouting and taking command of their vital winter camping grounds. The toll of expansion on the river valleys leading there—the loss of trees and pasture and the general fouling of the environment—was considerable before 1858. Now, with the new gust of goldseekers, the results were devastating.

As White settlements ripened, ranches and farms began to appear on the plains east of Denver to feed a growing market up against and in the mountains. Like the Indians (and, for that matter, like bison and other game), these new settlers relied on rivers and their tributaries, and their appropriation of the water and the grasses along them put further pressure on the Cheyennes and Arapahoes and their essential herds of horses. New gold strikes farther into the mountains assured that stresses on the tribes would only grow, and those stresses assured that tensions would as well.

Complicating the situation was the onset of the Civil War thirty-three months after Russell’s discovery.6 Most obviously it complicated relations with a central government that had its primary interests, to say the least, concentrated elsewhere. The war also spawned rumors of Confederate plots (often involving discontented Indians) to seize Colorado’s gold fields. More generally the war heightened the tensions during a time of rapid and unpredictable change.

By then those tensions were winding ever tighter. As early as December 1858, William Bent, agent to bands along the Arkansas River, had warned that Indians there were “very uneasy and restless” as they saw their prime hunting grounds being overrun. The following October he was more urgent. The invasion of goldseekers was leaving the Cheyennes and Arapahoes “compressed into a small circle of territory, destitute of food.” If this continued, he warned, “a desperate war of starvation and extinction . . . is inevitable.”7 The stresses set a considerable burden on officials of the federal government whose job it was to keep the peace and reconcile the basic ways of life brought into fundamental contention. The two men given that responsibility would largely determine the course of events leading the massacre.

Two Johns: Evans and Chivington

Colorado became a territory in March 1861, weeks before the beginning of the Civil War. Its first governor, William Gilpin, served only a year before he was replaced by John Evans, who arrived in May 1862. As a territorial governor served also as ex officio superintendent of Indian affairs, it would fall to Evans to deal with the rising tensions between the Native peoples of Colorado and the growing population of White newcomers.

Nothing in Evans’s life thus far equipped him to meet this challenge.8 Born in 1814 in Ohio, he received a medical degree at twenty-four, and after serving as superintendent of an Indiana hospital for the insane he moved with his wife to Chicago in 1848, where he entered private practice while teaching at a medical college. As Chicago grew explosively into what would be the leading city of the Midwest, Evans increasingly turned his interests toward civic affairs and especially investments in real estate and railroads. By the time gold was discovered in Colorado he was a man of considerable means. He also was a devout Methodist and played an increasingly prominent role in church affairs. In 1850, only two years after his move to Chicago, he and several others resolved to establish a “University in the North West” resting on Methodist principles. He played a key role in the founding of Northwestern University five years later, drafting its original charter, arranging a mortgage for its land, and making the first payment. In recognition of his contributions, the university’s trustees named the new town where it was located Evanston.

Evans, a fervent abolitionist, also had become involved in the new Republican Party and was an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln. In return the new president first offered Evans the governorship of Washington Territory, and when he declined—it was too far away—Lincoln offered Colorado. By then Evans had shifted his business ambitions westward. With others he founded and promoted a new town in Nebraska he felt sure would blossom as a connector to the Pacific. That scheme failed, but his ambitions remained. Colorado, with its gold mines and burgeoning population, was an obvious choice for their focus.

It was just as obvious that Evans was unprepared to meet one part of his new responsibilities. Nothing in his interests, experience, knowledge, and set of skills suggested the slightest ability to navigate a way to peaceful relations between Indians and the government and White inhabitants of his new home. There is nothing to indicate that he had made any significant effort to learn about the tribes in Colorado, their numbers and locations, their society and cultures, and their rapidly deteriorating situation. As governor his responsibility was to protect the citizens of the territory and further their interests, and as ex officio superintendent of Indian affairs he was charged with seeing to the interests of Colorado’s Indigenous peoples and maintaining peaceful relations with them. Balancing the two responsibilities would have been a formidable task for anyone, but Evans was essentially flying blind.

Critically important to understanding the Sand Creek massacre was the federal government’s iron determination to keep open the lines of movement across the interior West to California with its gold fields and the port of San Francisco, a need made all the more important with the start of the war. An especially vulnerable stretch of the overland road ran through Nebraska and Wyoming just north of Colorado Territory. In August 1862, just three months after Evans’s arrival, the Dakota or Santee Sioux in Minnesota, angered over unkept promises and unusually corrupt agents, rose up and killed more than five hundred settlers.9 This predictably heightened fears of a far wider uprising planned across the plains that would threaten Colorado and the vital connection to the Pacific Coast. Evans embraced and spread those rumors.

The war also drew away much of the military in Colorado to fight in the east, and most of those who remained were stationed well away from Denver, at Fort Lyon. Located on the Arkansas River near present Las Animas in southeastern Colorado, renamed from Fort Wise to honor Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general killed in the war, the post was in an area of traditional Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting and camping grounds. Not far down river, the Arkansas was joined by one of the streams long used as a winter camp, Big Sandy or Sand Creek. To protect Denver in the absence of regular troops, Evans’s predecessor, William Gilpin, had authorized the First Colorado Volunteer Regiment. It was commanded by John Slough, appointed colonel, and Samuel Tappan, part of a prominent New England abolitionist family, named lieutenant colonel. Just below them in rank was Major John Chivington.10

Chivington, also originally from Ohio, was a Methodist minister who turned down an offer to serve as chaplain in favor of a commission “to strike a blow in person” for the cause of abolition.11 When a Confederate command moved from Texas into New Mexico and up the Rio Grande in an attempt to invade Colorado, he played a key role in turning them back. At Glorieta Pass, east of Santa Fe, the First Colorado fought the southern troops to a draw, but during the battle Chivington led some troops around the Confederate force and captured and destroyed virtually all of their supplies and horses. With nothing to support themselves, the command under General Henry Sibley retreated. When Slough resigned, Chivington was elevated to lead the regiment.12

Back in Denver Chivington sought but failed to win promotion to brigadier general but he remained fiercely ambitious and harbored hopes of being called into action in the East. Evans had supported his efforts, and the men developed a friendly relationship. The two Johns would share the challenge of dealing with the worsening relationship with the tribes on the plains.

To the Brink

As their difficulties deepened, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes increasingly divided between chiefs who resisted accommodations with the new White regime and those, typically the ones who had engaged most vigorously in trade, who resisted confrontation and advocated a course toward peaceful co-existence. Among the Cheyennes, leading peace chiefs included Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Lean Bear. The last of these was one of many western Native leaders who would be invited to the national capital in an effort to impress them. In March 1863, President Lincoln presented him with a peace medal. Arapahoe peace chiefs included Left Hand and Little Raven.13 The faction that called for resistance increasingly pulled away from points of contact with Whites into country along the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers between the Platte and Arkansas. One of the Cheyenne warrior societies, the Dog Soldiers, gradually emerged as a separate band dominated by those opposing accommodation and increasingly hostile toward the White presence.

An early government effort at calming relations illustrated how that division complicated matters. After attacks on emigrant traffic along the Arkansas, a council in February 1861 produced the Treaty of Fort Wise. It created a reservation for the Cheyennes and Arapahoes on the Arkansas bordering on the tributary of Sand Creek. The two tribes ostensibly surrendered all the lands outside that reservation, more than 90 percent of which had been recognized as theirs under the Fort Laramie Treaty ten years earlier. In return the government promised protection and annual payments in goods meant to speed their conversion to new lives as farmers. The treaty, however, as would be the case with so many others, was badly flawed. It was attended by leaders of some bands, almost entirely peace chiefs, but not others, who refused to recognize it, and even those there said that they did not understand the terms, in particular the surrender of lands. It did not address at all Arapaho lands between the South and North Platte Rivers.

During the year and a half after his arrival Evans made genuine, if untutored, efforts to modify the treaty or negotiate new arrangements with leaders of both tribes. None bore fruit, and he was especially frustrated when no chiefs appeared at a council he had called in the summer of 1863 in hopes of fashioning a compromise. He also counseled moderation in dealing with clashes that came with growing frequency, but the mood among White Coloradans was more hostile and fearful of a general uprising like that in Minnesota, and the military, with Chivington in the lead, was showing a growing hostility toward any resistance.

The crisis escalated rapidly in the spring of 1864. In April four soldiers were killed in a confrontation with Dog Soldiers. When Chivington ordered a general chastisement of Cheyennes, troops destroyed three villages and in May, when Lieutenant George Eayres led a command to the large trading camp of the peace chiefs Black Kettle and Lean Bear, the latter was shot and killed when he rode out to meet them wearing the peace medal given him by Lincoln the year before. Cheyennes retaliated by killing two settlers. Peace chiefs and agents tried to calm the situation, but the military was not responsive. Chivington replied that he had no authority to make peace and was “then on the war path.” When the alarmed public, fired by the Denver press, pressured Evans for yet more aggressive actions, the governor wrote to General Samuel Curtis, commanding federal troops in Missouri, for military support for a wider assault on the Cheyennes, claiming that without it there would be “death and destruction to Colorado.”14

On June 12, the situation was further enflamed when both parents and two young children of a family living near Denver were found viciously murdered and with official sanction their bodies were publicly displayed in the capital. While asking again for federal military support, Evans also issued a proclamation on June 27 ordering all “friendly” bands to report to designated military posts where they would remain in safety as aggressors were pursued “until they are all effectively subdued.” For several reasons the proclamation had little effect. By now many Natives had little faith in the assurances and at some of the posts the army, acting under previous orders, did not admit those who appeared and even fired on some. The proclamation also came during the prime time of the summer hunt that would provide for the coming winter. Meanwhile to the east, in Nebraska and Kansas, resistant elements among the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa struck at settlers and at the routes along the Platte and Arkansas as never before. More than fifty Whites were killed, and women and children were taken captive. With his plan to separate “friendly” from “hostile” Indians a failure and fearing a general conflict across the central plains, Evans issued another proclamation on August 11. “The conflict is upon us,” he announced. He authorized all citizens to pursue and kill “hostile” Natives while being sure to spare any who had responded to his earlier order. He offered to pay for any militias formed, and any who took part would be allowed to keep anything they seized.15

This second proclamation had as little success as the first—no militias were formed and few if any citizens ventured out—but it further fanned popular feelings and fears. Higher military authorities, Curtis in Missouri and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, had received multiple appeals from Evans, but caught up in wider concerns of the Civil War, they had responded tepidly or not at all. Curtis had sent troops briefly into Nebraska and western Kansas after the flare-up in raiding there, but with little effect. Now, the day after Evans’s call on his citizenry to take up arms against “hostiles,” Stanton agreed to a persistent request from the governor to raise a volunteer unit for defense of Denver and its environs. The Third Colorado Cavalry was authorized with Chivington in command. It was to serve for a hundred days, until late November.

Military leaders’ concern went beyond the protection of Coloradans. Attacks on the Platte and Arkansas roads threatened what Washington considered so vital, the overland links to the Southwest and to California and Oregon. In January 1863, concerns over the overland road through Utah, real or perceived, had brought a ferocious assault by Colonel Patrick Connor and a command of California volunteers on a Shoshone village at Bear River in southern Idaho.16 In a battle that turned into a massacre, several hundred Shoshones were killed, the heaviest toll of any episode of western Indian wars. Now the conflict east of the Rockies seemed again to threaten the overland connection to the Pacific.

In the waning days of summer, the situation seemed to have reached a critical pitch. The deepening difficulties of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and the increasingly hostile stance of the regular military in the territory, had brought about sporadic but bloody conflict from western Kansas to near Denver and the mining towns in the mountains. John Evans had not only failed to bring the situation under control, but after his early efforts at reconciliation, his rhetoric had also inflamed popular feelings and heightened anxieties. John Chivington, now over a temporary military command, openly pledged to bring the fight to the Indians, who the federal government considered a threat both to the new territory and to its control of essential connections across the continent.

Just then, the crisis seemed to calm. Raiding stopped. Traffic on both overland roads ran unthreatened. And just then a series of events began that would culminate in the massacre. Ironically, they began with an overture for peace.

The Massacre

During the summer, Black Kettle and other peace chiefs among the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahoes had lobbied for an end to the raiding on the plains, and on September 6 one of the peace advocates, One Eye, approached Fort Lyon with a letter from Black Kettle proposing a meeting to discuss an end to hostilities. The commander, Major Edward Wynkoop, was suspicious but was convinced to meet by an offer to return captives taken in recent raids. At the meeting on September 10, when four children were turned over, Wynkoop was convinced of Black Kettle’s sincerity. Without consulting with his military superiors or with Governor Evans, he promised the chiefs safe passage to Denver to discuss terms for peace.

Wynkoop’s promise was awkward for both Evans and Chivington. Both had been jockeying for advancement during the months of turmoil. They had supported an unsuccessful campaign for statehood—voters rejected it in a referendum three days after Wynkoop’s meeting with the chiefs—and had hoped for political office had it been approved. Both had based their appeals to the public on the grounds of the Indian crisis, and the prospect of peace, in particular through an overture from the Indians, would undercut their arguments and threatened to make Evans seem embarrassingly alarmist. He would tell Wynkoop that the council would make it appear to his superiors in Washington that he “had misrepresented matters” in calling for the volunteer regiment, which “had been raised to kill Indians, and they must kill Indians.”17 Chivington’s hopes for military advancement were dimming quickly. His officer’s commission was due to expire soon, although he would remain in charge until replaced, and the clock was ticking on the 100-day authorization of the Third Colorado Cavalry. He needed a victory in the field, and a council for peace made the prospects for one all the more remote.

Nevertheless, given Wynkoop’s assurance to Black Kettle and the others, Evans and Chivington had little choice but to host the council. It was held at Camp Weld, not far outside Denver.18 Three Cheyenne and four Arapaho chiefs were there as well as Evans, Chivington, Wynkoop, two other officers, Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, an Indian agent, and as translator a longtime trader who had married into the southern Cheyennes, John Simpson Smith. Black Kettle reiterated his desire for peace and said that others, including more hostile elements, would follow his lead. He agreed that Cheyennes had taken part in raiding, but he laid most of it on Comanches, Kiowas, and Lakotas and denied allegations of an alliance with Lakotas for a widespread war. Evans pressed him and the others on why they had not responded to his call to come in to military posts the previous June and accused them of wanting peace now only to avoid being attacked in their winter camps. They had refused his offer in the summer, their traditional time for fighting, he charged, but the season was turning and “my time is just coming.”19

Evans’s most significant action at the conference was to not take action. As ex officio superintendent of Indian affairs he would have been expected to pursue overtures of peace, but now he said that a state of war existed with Indians who had not come in when he called them to, so all authority in dealing with the bands was in the hands of the military, meaning General Samuel Curtis, whose command included Colorado, and more immediately John Chivington. He effectively abdicated responsibility in favor of a man who had made his public reputation through implacable hostility to Indians. Chivington spoke only toward the end of the council. In war his approach was to fight his enemies, White or Indian, until they laid down their arms, he told the chiefs. When Black Kettle was ready to do that, he said, he should take his followers to Fort Lyon.20 He did not explicitly say that they would be safe there, but such was the clear implication taken away by the translator Smith as well as Wynkoop and the other two officers.

Black Kettle and about four hundred Cheyennes and Arapahoes reported to Fort Lyon which was now under the command of Major Scott Anthony. Unable to feed them at the fort, Anthony told Black Kettle to take them to a traditional wintering spot on Sand Creek. Evans and other officials, however, were ambivalent on whether the Indians at Sand Creek were in fact protected. Evans reiterated that matters were out of his hands, that at the Camp Weld council he “had not offer[ed] anything whatever,” and that the plains remained in a state of war. Other bands, notably the Dog Soldiers, in fact remained hostile, or at least unreconciled. They camped in the area between the Platte and Arkansas, usually along the Smoky Hill River, to the north of Fort Lyon and Sand Creek. Both the commissioner of Indian affairs and the secretary of the interior agreed that the US military was fully in charge of the situation.

Nonetheless, relations between Fort Lyon and Black Kettle’s camp were peaceful with no sense of threat from Anthony. There were frequent visits to the camp, including by the post sutler and John Simpson Smith, the translator at Camp Weld, and the Arkansas valley in the area of Fort Lyon remained free of any Indian raiding throughout the fall.

At this point two developments outside Colorado set in motion events that would lead to the massacre. First, Ben Holladay, owner of the Overland Stage Company, wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stanton that the situation along the Platte River road continued to threaten the passage of mail and the connection to the far West. To restore it he asked Stanton to order a winter campaign against the bands threatening the road, specifically recommending Patrick Connor, who had crushed the Shoshonis at Bear River and secured the overland road through the Great Basin, be sent to Colorado to do the same east of the Rockies. Soon afterwards Connor was ordered to Colorado to protect the overland route “without regard to departmental lines.” At the time when Chivington was hoping to notch up a victory, that is, Connor, a darling of the military after Bear River, was authorized to step in and take on the work of chastising Indians on the Colorado plains.

Second, Confederate General Sterling Price in late September launched a cavalry raid from Arkansas into Missouri—the largest such raid of the entire war—in a bid to take control of the border state. Ranging across much of Missouri and into eastern Kansas, lasting until Price retreated into Indian territory at the end of October, the campaign understandably dominated the attention of Samuel Curtis during those crucial weeks after the Camp Weld council and left Chivington to act with little oversight from his superior. His telegram to Curtis, asking whether Connor would have command in his district, went unanswered. By the time Curtis was in a position to pay more attention to Colorado, Chivington had begun his plans for a campaign, not against the hostile Dog Soldiers encamped to the east in the area of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers, but to the Arkansas valley to the south and the Indians camped near Fort Lyon.

Events moved rapidly toward disaster. On getting his orders to go to Colorado, Connor had wired Chivington to coordinate an assault (“Can we get a fight out of the Indians this winter?”) and asked for a commitment of troops and horses.21 When Connor arrived in the capital on November 14, Evans and Denverites greeted him warmly as a potential savior, but not so Chivington. He was cool in a personal meeting and refused to provide support, saying he had his own plans. Those plans were already proceeding. On the day Connor arrived, Chivington ordered volunteers with the Third Cavalry to march toward Fort Lyon. On November 16 Evans left by stage on a planned visit to Washington, DC, and a frustrated Connor soon headed back to Utah, assuming that a campaign would wait until later in the winter or in spring. On November 24 as Chivington was on the Arkansas heading for Fort Lyon he wired Curtis that Indians had killed four men during attacks on two wagon trains in the area—a claim no one else made and for which no evidence has been found.

Chivington had brought a battalion of the First Colorado Cavalry from Denver and on the Arkansas he joined the 100-day volunteers of the Third Cavalry. As he led this command downstream to Fort Lyon, he posted guards with ranchers John Prowers and William Bent, both with close relatives among the southern Cheyennes, to ensure that they would not alert those at Sand Creek. He arrived at Fort Lyon on November 28 and told a surprised Major Anthony and the staff of officers of his plan to march on the Sand Creek encampment. He met considerable opposition. Just how he described his plans is uncertain, but it is clear that he said his eventual target was the more hostile camps to the north on the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers, and Anthony later would claim that Chivington planned to surround Black Kettle’s village, partly to protect it and partly to punish any raiders who were there before advancing northward. Whatever the exchanges, it was agreed that on that evening Chivington’s men and troops from Fort Lyon, also part of the First Cavalry, would strike out for Sand Creek.

Close to seven hundred soldiers, with a supply train and two howitzers, marched throughout the clear, frigid night and approached the village at dawn. After Chivington instructed his officers, some in the command rode to cut off the camp from its horses while others attacked directly. The camp was in chaos. Some men went for their weapons while some pled for calm, believing that there had to be some other explanation for the soldiers’ arrival. One was Black Kettle, who raised an American flag above his lodge. Then the firing began both from the howitzers and the cavalry’s rifles. The peace chief White Antelope, standing and waving his arms for the soldiers to stop, was among the first to die. Others, including One Eye, who had carried the call for a council to Fort Lyon, soon followed. Warriors did their best to protect the women, children, and elderly they told to flee up Sand Creek, away from the assault.

Upstream the Indians dug pits in the sand along the creekside and huddled there as the men put up a futile resistance. Troops fired into the pits with rifles and howitzers until its shells were exhausted. Women who came out to surrender were shot down. Back in the camp and along the retreat the slaughter continued, detailed in later accounts—a dead pregnant woman cut open and her child taken from her womb and scalped, a toddler shot in a contest among three soldiers. Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, who had been at the Camp Weld council, led two companies. They ordered their men not to fire. The two officers later wrote Wynkoop of what they saw. Two men, chased down, embraced as they were shot and killed. A soldier chopped the arm off a woman as she raised it in defense and then held the other as he beat out her brains. Another mother, knowing what was coming, slit the throats of her two children before killing herself. A woman and her child were killed when, taken to Chivington as prisoners, he ordered: “Take no prisoners.”22

As the killings ebbed, the mutilations began. Fingers were cut off for their rings. Many bodies were scalped, often multiple times, and both men and women had their genitals cut out. In all the massacre continued for more than eight hours. As dark approached survivors began to make their way toward the Dog Soldier camps on the Smoky Hill to the north. Because of Chivington’s exaggerated claims and uncertainty over the number of escaping wounded who died later, estimates of the number killed vary considerably. At least 150 died, although the number was more likely to be around 230, the majority of them women and children. Black Kettle and his wounded wife survived and fled but several other chiefs died, including two who had been at Camp Weld as well as the Arapaho Left Hand, who had worked for accommodation since the first days of the gold rush.

Chivington had said that he would head next for the Dog Soldier camps, but instead he turned father down the Arkansas in search of peaceful Arapahoes. “He has whipped the only peaceable Indians in the country (which I wanted him to do if he would go further),” an outraged Anthony wrote, but despite ideal conditions for travel he had turned instead toward more easy prey. When he found no Arapahoes, Chivington boarded a stage for Denver to announce his victory against 1,000 warriors. His men arrived days later and were hailed in the streets as conquering heroes.

The Aftermath

When the freezing survivors reached the Dog Soldiers on the Smoky Hill, one of them remembered, “the whole camp was in an uproar of crying and weeping.”23 Soon the grief turned into fury. White authorities had banked on the Indians’ immobility during the winter, but now they struck out almost immediately at stores, ranches, and traffic along the Platte valley, rare assaults in the cold time that were a measure of their rage. Cheyennes and Lakotas joined in raiding that continued through January. Warriors attacked the town of Julesburg on the South Platte in early January and a month later returned and burned it to the ground. Perhaps fifty soldiers and civilians died during the attacks and several thousand dollars in property was destroyed. Evans had predicted violent assaults by the Indians unless they were chastised. The massacre resulted in just such assaults, as well as the disruption of the transcontinental connection, although it was nothing like the plains-wide apocalypse of Evans’s warnings.

In Denver the initial celebration with returning volunteers flaunting their trophies—“Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt,” the local paper quipped—quieted as details arrived of what had happened.24 After a blistering report by Wynkoop, the military ordered an investigation that ran from February through May 1865. While testimony from the volunteers in the Third Cavalry often supported Chivington, that of army regulars detailed the atrocities. Soule, who had led in condemning the massacre, was murdered in a Denver alley during the investigation. Both Chivington and Anthony had by then left the service, so the military could do nothing to reprimand them, but the proceedings were damning. Evans denied having any part in planning the attack at Sand Creek but he steadfastly defended it. Twenty years later he said its benefits were “very great, for it ridded the plains of the Indians” and “relieved us very much of the roaming tribes.”25

Two congressional committees, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and the Special Joint Committee on the Condition of the Indian Tribes, investigated the episode in spring of 1865. The hearings were held in the national capital, although members of the latter visited the site, where they found skulls of infants with holes from gunshots. The Committee on the Conduct of the War recommended the arrest of Chivington and Anthony. Chivington had disgraced his uniform and “deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre.” Evans also had testified, and the committee declared that in its four years of investigations of the war’s conduct, it had never heard such “prevarication and shuffling.”26 No arrests were made, but under pressure from Washington, Evans resigned as governor on August 1, 1865.

The following October in the Treaty of the Little Arkansas the government repudiated the “gross and wanton outrages” at Sand Creek and awarded grants of land to some relatives of the victims and to chiefs of some Cheyenne bands, including Black Kettle. The treaty was superseded by another two years later and the land was never given.

Under congressional authorization in 2000 the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was dedicated in 2007 in Kiowa County, Colorado, near the town of Eads. In December 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre Governor John Hickenlooper formally apologized on behalf of the state for the “atrocity.”

Discussion of the Literature

Probably because it was so widely reported and was formally condemned by the federal government, the Sand Creek massacre has received more recognition than other such incidents, like that at Bear River, that had even higher losses. Every serious work on the plains Indian wars and on the Civil War in the West includes some coverage of it. An early dissertation in 1984 remains the most complete and authoritative work on the massacre and on how the presentation of its story had evolved at that point.27 An even earlier published work, in 1961, was devoted wholly to the massacre, and a few of others have followed.28 All are straightforward in their presentation of the events and, while most lean in their sympathies toward the Native victims, their narratives are mainly from the White perspective. At least one work, however, has defended the actions of John Chivington and the army.29 Works on the primary tribes involved, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, have covered the massacre, its background and aftermath from their point of view. Both primary White players in the story, Chivington and John Evans, have drawn biographers, as has Edward “Ned” Wynkoop.30 George Bent, intimately involved in the life of the Southern Cheyennes and in events around the massacre, left a memoir of his life, including much on the tragedy, and he, too, is the subject of an excellent biography.31 Two fascinating collections record Cheyenne oral traditions of the mid-19th century, including the massacre and events around them.32

Historians have also pulled back to consider the massacre within broader contexts. The Colorado gold rush was a case study in the evolution of Native plains societies, from their earliest presence through the coming of horse cultures, the impact of the fur trade and White commercial interests, and the environmental consequences of all of them. In that historical setting the massacre is an especially appalling result of the transition from Native to White power and control.33 An especially revealing insight into the event involves what a question that most would assume has long been answered: where, exactly, did the massacre take place? As part of the federal establishment of an historical site commemorating it, archeologists explored the area and researchers interviewed tribal leaders and descendants of the victims. The published results tell of how the location of the massacre was finally determined and, equally significant, provide a range of testimony from the Native perspective greater than anything in print before it.34 The search for the site and the gathering of testimony in turn led to the publication of an award-winning work that uses the years of work toward establishing the National Historical Site to probe the nature of historical memory itself and to suggest the many ways by which we might read a common past.35

On the 150th anniversary of the massacre two universities associated with John Evans, Northwestern University and the University of Denver, conducted studies of the Sand Creek massacre to evaluate Evans’s role in it. Their published reports came to similar conclusions about the massacre itself but slightly different ones on Evans and his part in it.36 The United Methodist Church also conducted an investigation that resulted in an account, by the author of the definitive dissertation, that is best overall published history of this American tragedy.37

Primary Sources

On the massacre itself, essential sources are the reports of the three investigations, one by the military and two by congressional committees.38 All are also accessible digitally. Key parts have also been collected and published.39 For the larger context of developments on the Colorado plains, especially from the perspective of tribal peoples, students can consult a variety of sources, starting with annual reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and agents of the Arkansas and Platte agencies. These, too, are available online. Less accessible but highly informative is the correspondence of the agents which has detailed information on the condition of the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahoes, as well as Kiowas and Comanches, and their grievances. The official records of the Union and Confederate armies, published as the War of the Rebellion and available digitally, contain extensive and valuable materials on military actions, perspectives, and policies toward Native peoples of the plains and the region.40

Besides these sources from the federal government, the archives of History Colorado, formerly the Colorado State Historical Society, contain several collections bearing on the massacre, its origins, and aftermath. Among them are the papers of Scott Anthony, commander of Fort Lyon and a participant in the massacre, as well as the Fort Lyon papers. The Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library, an outstanding archive in the field, also has several useful collections on the Colorado gold rush and on Native history. Among the latter are the George Bent papers. Bent, mixed-blood son of William Bent and Owl Woman, was present in the camp during the massacre, played a crucial role in events preceding it, and took part in the raiding reprisals afterwards. The special collections of the University of Colorado, Boulder, have the Bent–Hyde papers, which contain yet more material from Bent. His memories and perspective are indispensable to understanding this period. Both the Colorado State Archives and History Colorado have papers of Governor John Evans. Much of them have been digitized and are available online.

Finally, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which began publication soon after the founding of Denver, contains not only accounts of events but, equally useful, insights into popular attitudes of the time.

Links to Digital Materials

The Chivington Massacre: Committee on the Condition of the Indian Tribes, Appendix, 26–98.

Massacre of Cheyenne Indians: Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Sand Creek Massacre, Lone Wolf website includes an extensive bibliography and multiple links to a variety of materials, including most primary sources touching on the massacre and its context.

Sand Creek National Historic Site.

Further Reading

  • Coel, Margaret. Chief Left Hand, Southern Arapaho. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
  • Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016.
  • Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1923.
  • Grinnell, George Bird. The Fighting Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
  • Lavender, David. Bent’s Fort. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.
  • Stands in Timber, John. Cheyenne Memories. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.
  • West, Elliott. The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
  • West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.


  • 1. Among the many works on the Cheyennes: John H. Moore, The Cheyenne Nation: A Social and Demographic History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987); Donald J. Berthrong, The Southern Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975); George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians, Their History and Ways of Life, 2 Vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972); and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960).

  • 2. On Cheyennes and the rise of horse cultures, see Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) and Elliott West, The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). On Bent’s Fort, see David Lavender, Bent’s Fort (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1954).

  • 3. Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); and Ramon Powers and James M. Leiker, “Cholera Among the Plains Indians: Perceptions, Causes, Consequences,” Western Historical Quarterly 29 (Fall 1998): 317–324.

  • 4. Merlin Paul Lawson, The Climate of the Great American Desert: Reconstruction of the Climate of the Western United States, 1800–1850 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974).

  • 5. West, Contested Plains; and Phyllis Flanders Dorset, The New Eldorado: The Story of Colorado’s Gold and Silver Rushes (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

  • 6. Alvin M. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West (New York: Knopf, 1991); Duane A. Smith, The Birth of Colorado: A Civil War Perspective (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989); and Ray C. Colton, The Civil War in the Western Territories (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959).

  • 7. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1859, 137–139.

  • 8. Harry E. Kelsey, Jr., Frontier Capitalist: The Life of John Evans (Denver: Colorado State Historical Society and Pruett Publishing, 1969).

  • 9. For a recent thorough work on the Dakota uprising, see Gary Clayton Anderson, Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

  • 10. Reginald S. Craig, The Fighting Parson: The Life of Colonel John M. Chivington (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1969).

  • 11. Gary L. Roberts, Massacre at Sand Creek: How Methodist Were Involved in an American Tragedy (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2016), 72.

  • 12. Thomas Edrington, The Battle of Glorieta Pass: A Gettysburg in the West, March 26–28, 1862 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998); and Don Alberts, The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996).

  • 13. Stan Hoig, The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980); Margaret Coel, Chief Left Hand (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990); and Thom Hatch, Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Peace Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004).

  • 14. Roberts, Massacre at Sand Creek, 208–210; Carl Smith et al., Report of the John Evans Study Committee (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2014), 64.

  • 15. The War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 41, part 1, 963–964; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, S.Rpt. 142, 38th Congress, 2nd session, 47.

  • 16. Brigham D. Madsen, The Shoshone Frontier and the Bear River Massacre (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985).

  • 17. Condition of the Indian Tribes, S.Rpt. 156, 39th Congress, 2nd session, 77.

  • 18. An account of the council is in Condition of the Indian Tribes, S.Rpt. 156, 39th Congress, 2nd session, 87–90.

  • 19. Condition of the Indian Tribes, 88.

  • 20. Condition of the Indian Tribes, 90.

  • 21. War of the Rebellion, Vol. 41, part 4, 259.

  • 22. Gary L. Roberts and David Fridtjof Haalas, “Written in Blood: The Sould-Cramer Sand Creek Massacre Letters,” Colorado Heritage (Winter 2001): 22–33.

  • 23. West, Contested Plains, 307.

  • 24. Denver Rocky Mountain News, December 22, 24, 1864.

  • 25. Interview, H. H. Bancroft with John Evans, 1884, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

  • 26. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, S.Rpt. 142, part 3, 38th Congress, 2nd session, IV–V.

  • 27. Gary Leland Roberts, “Sand Creek: Tragedy and Symbol” (PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 1984).

  • 28. Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961); Louis Kraft, Sand Creek and a Tragic End of a Lifeway (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020); Patrick Mendoza, Song of Sorrow: Massacre at Sand Creek (Denver, CO: Willow Wind, 1993); Gregory F. Michno, Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective (El Segundo: Upton and Sons, 2004); and David Svaldi, Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989).

  • 29. William R. Dunn, I Stand By Sand Creek: A Defense of Colonel John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry (Fort Collins, CO: Old Army Press, 1985).

  • 30. Kelsey, Jr., Frontier Capitalist; Craig, Fighting Parson; and Louis Kraft, Ned Wynkoop and the Lonely Road from Sand Creek (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

  • 31. George E. Hyde, Life of George Bent (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968); and David Fridtjof Haalas and Andrew E. Masich, Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent, Caught Between the Two Worlds of the Indian and the White Man (Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2004).

  • 32. Peter John Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain: A History of the Northern Cheyenne Chiefs and Warrior Societies, 1830–1879 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981); and Peter John Powell, Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

  • 33. See, for example, West, Contested Plains.

  • 34. Jerome A. Greene and Douglas D. Scott, Finding Sand Creek: History, Archeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

  • 35. Ari Kalman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

  • 36. Smith et al., Report of the John Evans Study Committee; and Richard Clemmer-Smith et al., Report of the John Evans Study Committee (Denver: University of Denver, 2014).

  • 37. Roberts, Massacre at Sand Creek.

  • 38. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” in Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1865); and Condition of the Indian Tribes, S.Rpt. 156, 39th Congress, 2nd session;

  • 39. John M. Carroll, ed., The Sand Creek Massacre: A Documentary History (New York: Amereon House, 1973).

  • 40. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 Vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880–1901).