Letter From Wild West – August 2014

By Gregory Lalire
5/29/2014 • Wild West Editorial

The Enigmatic Mind of Ned Wynkoop

Nobody disputes that in 1864 Major Edward W. (“Ned”) Wynkoop wanted to kill Indians—that is, before he had a change of heart that September, as detailed in Louis Kraft’s “Wynkoop’s Gamble to End War” (in this issue). And nobody disputes that it took a brave man, albeit an officer acting without orders, to approach the Indians and seek a foundation for peace. His efforts led to the freeing of four captives and to a meeting at Camp Weld, near Denver, between Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans and seven Indian leaders. Kraft sums up these events: “In 1864 Ned Wynkoop was anti-Indian, which was a typical view on the frontier at the time. But when presented with the chance to receive white captives and possibly end an Indian war, he jumped at the opportunity. You’ve got to realize that Wynkoop walked to his own drum from his introduction to the frontier in 1858, and nothing had changed by 1864.”

All that is fact. So is what happened (though the details remain in dispute) two months later at Sand Creek. Historians largely view the leader of that controversial engagement, Colonel John M. Chivington, as a villain—in part because he attacked what was considered a peaceful camp, but mostly because his volunteers killed women and children and committed atrocities. Wynkoop, says Kraft, demonstrated his courage again when he spoke out against the action. But historians Jeff Broome and Gregory Michno see Wynkoop in a different light.

“I do think he genuinely thought he could do things others could not in bringing peace to the frontier,” says Broome, whose 2013 book Cheyenne War we review in this issue. “But in fact the war was bigger than it appeared to Wynkoop. The Indians had indeed confederated to begin the war in 1864, just as Governor Evans had been warned, by multiple sources, for more than a year. And Indians from Black Kettle’s village did participate in violence prior to Sand Creek, as White Antelope confessed at Camp Weld.” Broome agrees with some military leaders of the time in stating, “Wynkoop, an alleged advocate for peace, in reality did more to cause war than peace.” On that score he is also in agreement with Michno, author of the 2004 book Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective and the December 2003 Wild West article “The Real Villains of Sand Creek,” in which the author rates Wynkoop as “scoundrel number one.”

Eleven years later Michno uses the word “enigma” to describe Wynkoop. “He tried to make peace to bring the fighting of 1864 to an end, but he disobeyed orders in taking the initiative,” Michno explains. “He sought to kill Indians for half of his career and became their defender for the other half. His autobiography is a prime example of cognitive dissonance reduction.” Yes, I admit it—I had to look up “cognitive dissonance.” It is an unsettled mental state experienced when an individual’s actions and beliefs are contradictory or when the individual holds two or more contradictory beliefs. For instance, I’m full of cognitive dissonance when it comes to George Custer. But back to Michno’s take on Wynkoop: “Perhaps the biggest thing he is remembered for is disobeying orders to give peace a chance. The correctness of that action can be endlessly debated, but one thing seems certain: His attempt at peacemaking led to the ‘massacre’ at Sand Creek. If he had not brought the chiefs in to Denver for a peace council, they would not have gotten the impression that the war was over, and they would not have camped near enough to Fort Lyon where Chivington could attack them. Wynkoop’s action illustrates the law of unintended consequences—no good deed shall go unpunished.”

Kraft doesn’t buy that line of reasoning. “Action was needed immediately,” he says. “In my opinion Wynkoop did not want to risk being denied the opportunity of attempting to end war. What happened afterward does not rest on his shoulders. The heinous attack upon people that thought they were under U.S. government protection happened after he had been removed from command. Wynkoop was responsible for his actions; he was not and never will be responsible for other peoples’ actions.” Fine. So now I’m full of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Ned Wynkoop.

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