Facts, information and articles about The Sand Creek Massacre, an event of Westward Expansion from the Wild West

The Sand Creek Massacre Facts


November 1864


Colorado Territory (Kiowa County, Colorado)


United States: John M. Chivington
Cheyenne, Arapaho Indians: Black Kettle

Soldiers Engaged

United States: 700
Indians: 60 – 200


United States: 24 killed, 52 wounded
Indians: 70 – 163 killed


United States Army massacres Native Americans.

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The Sand Creek Massacre summary: On November 29, 1864, seven hundred members of the Colorado Territory militia embarked on an attack of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian villages. The militia was led by U.S. Army Col. John Chivington, a Methodist preacher, as well as a freemason. After a night of heavy drinking by the soldiers, Chivington ordered the massacre of the Indians. Over two-thirds of the slaughtered and maimed were women and children. This atrocity has been known as the Sand Creek Massacre ever since.

For years, the United States had been engaged in conflict with several Indian tribes over territory. The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 had given the Indians extensive territory, but the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1858 and other factors had persuaded the U.S. to renegotiate the terms of the treaty. In 1861, the Treaty of Fort Wise was signed by Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs. The treaty took from the Indians much of the land given to them by the earlier treaty, reducing the size of their reservation land to about 1/13th of the original amount.

Although the peace seeking chiefs signed the treaty to ensure the safety of their people, not all of the tribes were happy with the decision. In particular, a group of Indians known as the Dog Soldiers, made up of Cheyenne and Lakota, were vehemently opposed to having white settlers on what the Indians still referred to as their land.

In 1864, a group of Civil War soldiers under commander Colonel John Chivington, with the blessing of Colorado governor John Evans, began to attack several Cheyanne camps in Colorado. Another attack on Cheyanne camps occurred in Kansas by forces under the command of Lieutenant George S. Eayre. The Cheyanne retaliated for the attack, furthering the aggression of the U.S. forces.

In an attempt to maintain peace, two chiefs, Black Kettle and White Antelope, tried to establish a truce. They were advised to camp near Fort Lyon in Colorado and fly an American flag over their camp to establish themselves as friendly. On November 29th, 1864, while the majority of the males were out hunting, Colonel Chivington and his 700 troops attacked the Indian campsite near Fort Lyon. More than a hundred Indians were killed, despite the American flag flying overhead and the raising of a white flag after the attack began. Most of the Indians killed were women and children, and many of their bodies were mutilated. Despite eye witness accounts from survivors and some soldiers, Chivington and his men were not charged for the heinous attack.


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Sand Creek Massacre

COLONEL JOHN M. CHIVINGTON drew up on the ridge at dawn on November 29, 1864. It was cold that day. He studied the situation below him, deciding how best to deploy his 750 Colorado Volunteers and four 12-pound howitzers. He saw 100 lodges (tepees) of Southern Cheyennes and 30 lodges of their Arapaho allies stretching for a mile along the bend of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle was the most prominent and influential leader in that village.

The colonel’s decisions and actions that day would make him a hero. But only briefly. The hero’s mantle was soon swept away and replaced by the devil’s horns. Chivington became an American villain–reviled and denounced primarily because of testimony given in hearings before a Senate committee in the second session of the 39th Congress in March 1865. Not much attention, however, has been given to possible ulterior motives of people giving those eyewitness accounts of what happened that day.

Most of those who write about the action at Big Sandy Creek (usually called Sand Creek) state unequivocally that Chivington’s bloodthirsty, frustrated 100-day volunteers attacked Black Kettle’s peace-loving Cheyennes and their Arapaho friends without warning (see article in December 1993 Wild West). We usually read that they then just ran amok and wiped out the village in a wild frenzy of undisciplined bloodletting. Did they, however, really massacre, torture, scalp and horribly mutilate the bodies of their victims, as many as two-thirds of them defenseless women and children?

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Was Sand Creek simply another terrible episode in the long, tragic tale of the white man’s conquering of the Indian? Perhaps it was, but there are disturbing questions about the Senate committee hearings. Almost every reference to that action tells the same deplorable story. Yet, in later years, the people of Colorado welcomed Colonel Chivington, were proud to have him live among them and honored him by giving a town his name–and all of this was not just because the former Methodist minister had been a Civil War hero.

Soon after the shelling of Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861, John Chivington offered his services to William Gilpin, governor of Colorado Territory. Gilpin offered to make him a chaplain, but Chivington is supposed to have said: ‘I feel compelled to strike a blow in person for the destruction of human slavery….’ So the governor appointed him major of a volunteer regiment.

Some months later, the ‘Fighting Parson’ was appointed colonel and put in charge of the newly created Military District of Colorado. He watched the tensions escalate between the white settlers and the Indians. The Indians had discovered these white people were no longer just passing through on the way to the Far West as the Forty-Niners had done. These intruders were farmers and cattle raisers and were appropriating traditional hunting grounds, tearing up the land with plows, and putting cattle on grasslands needed by the buffalo.

The Cheyennes and the Arapahos tentatively seemed to accept the situation, perhaps believing it was only temporary. Black Kettle actually went to Denver on a friendly visit and was well-received. He apparently believed the whites would soon move farther west. Black Kettle did say, however, that he hoped none of them would say or do anything to stir up his people and that he hoped the whites would not stay too long because, after all, it was Indian land.

The stage was set for tragedy. The Cheyennes were becoming more destitute and restive. They continued their time-honored avocation of war against the Utes and the Pawnees. They frightened the white settlers as they passed by on their way to raid the Utes. But they frightened them even more on their return as they yelled and whooped and brandished Ute scalps. Small bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors robbed homes and stole cattle, provisions and horses.

Winter brought a lull in Indian activity. The Cheyenne and Arapaho war ponies were winter-lean, and besides, it was no fun to play war games in the cold weather. Old-time settlers said the peace during the winter was typical. The Indians always made peace in the winter–to get government blankets and food.

Winter and peace did leave together. The Cheyennes were hungry, and they stole cattle on several occasions. Troops were dispatched to punish the guilty. Still, the attacks on white settlers and travelers increased in 1863, and the situation in eastern Colorado continued to worsen in the spring of 1864.

Colonel Chivington was under the direct orders of Maj. Gen. Samuel Ryan Curtis, who believed the Indian agents ‘babied’ the Indians and made them difficult to deal with on a ‘realistic’ basis. Like most Denver citizens, Chivington was appalled when, on June 11, 1864, the mutilated bodies of Nathan Hungate, a rancher, and his wife and two children were brought into town and put on public display. The people were horrified, outraged and near panic. Trade on the supply trails was disrupted by raids. Food and various necessities were running short in Denver and other Colorado mining towns. More horror stories spread rapidly through the area.

Governor John Evans and most settlers believed there was a general Indian uprising. Hoping to break up what he thought was a united Indian front, the governor sent messages to the tribes to report to certain forts where they would be provided with food and protected from troops looking for hostile Indians.

In early July, Kiowa Chief Satanta was rebuffed when he wanted to visit Fort Larned in Kansas, so he put an arrow into the arm of a sentry and his braves ran off the fort’s whole herd of horses. When several Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs carrying a white flag approached Fort Larned to discuss the problem, the angry soldiers fired a cannon at them. All Indians looked alike to the white men in the fort.

Rage swept through the Cheyenne-Arapaho villages. A meeting was held with the Northern Cheyenne, and some of the Sioux. The summer of warfare began. The Indians raided the Platte River wagon trains. Many white settlers were killed–estimates run as high as 200. Ranches were burned out. Few captives survived.

Absolute terror gripped the Colorado settlements. In mid-August, Governor Evans let Secretary of War Edwin Stanton know that ‘large bodies of Indians are undoubtedly near to Denver, and we are in danger of destruction both from attacks of Indians and starvation.’ Action had to be taken. In late September, Colonel Chivington received a message from General Curtis: ‘I shall require the bad Indians delivered up, restoration of stock; also hostages to secure. I want no peace until the Indians suffer more….I fear the agent of the Indian Department will be ready to make presents too soon….No peace must be made without my direction.’

At the same time, on September 28, Chivington and Governor Evans met with Black Kettle, White Antelope and several other chiefs at Camp Weld, near Denver. What was said and who promised what is still a matter of controversy. Someone at the meeting wrote down some of the dialogue in which Black Kettle admitted he had chosen not to come to talk with Evans when he was asked to come in June, but now he wanted the governor to understand ‘that we have made peace.’ Black Kettle acknowledged he had sent an earlier message that he wanted nothing to do with him or ‘the Great Father in Washington.’

The chief also admitted that 13 bands of Sioux, some Arapahos, Kiowas and Comanches, and some of his own Southern Cheyennes were still on the warpath. Evans told Black Kettle that he no longer had the power to negotiate a peace. It was now up to the military.

Chivington then rose and addressed Black Kettle and the other Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs at the meeting: ‘I am not a big war chief but all the soldiers in this country are at my command. My rule of fighting white men or Indians is fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority.’ He added that the Indians could go to Fort Lyon ‘when they are ready to do that.’ It had to be a complete surrender.

In October, Chief Left Hand brought about 40 Arapahos and surrendered some of the loot from the summer warfare. Black Kettle and his band of about 400 did not appear. General Curtis appointed Major Scott Anthony commander of Fort Lyon on November 2 because the major would not be’soft’ on the Indians like his predecessor, Major Edward Wanshear Wynkoop. About this time, Arapaho Chief Little Raven arrived at Fort Lyon with 650 of his people. After a week, Anthony decided he could not feed that many, and sent them off to hunt buffalo.

Black Kettle and War Bonnet came to Anthony in early November and told him they wanted peace. The major could not negotiate peace so he sent them to Sand Creek, about 35 miles northeast of Fort Lyon. He told them if he received orders to negotiate he would notify them. Anthony did not, however, ask for permission to negotiate. He told Curtis he knew where the Cheyennes and Arapahos were camped and would attack if he had enough troops.

Black Kettle no doubt suspected that Anthony would strike if he got the necessary manpower, but the chief apparently assumed that peace conditions would exist while he waited for negotiations to take place. Left Hand arrived with some Arapaho lodges, so about 650 or 700 Indians were living along the bend of Sand Creek by the middle of November.

General Curtis sent a terse message to Chivington that read in part: ‘Pursue everywhere and chastise the Cheyennes and Arapaho; pay no attention to district lines. No presents must be made and no peace concluded without my consent.’ The colonel had his orders, and he also knew that the men of the 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment had enlisted late in August for just 100 days. Their enlistments would soon be over, and they were tired of camp life and angered by the jeers of ‘Bloodless Third.’ The time to act was now, if he wanted to stop the expected uprising of the united tribes.

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Along with his orders from Curtis, Chivington also had a message from Indian Agent Samuel E. Colley saying he had been unable to do anything with the Indians for the last six months. ‘In my opinion they should be punished for their hostile acts,’ Colley said. The Cheyennes and the Arapahos could not continue to play their game of war in summer and peace in winter.

On November 24, 1864, Chivington marched his men out of their rendezvous 50 miles southeast of Denver. He had the entire 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, three companies of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry and the four howitzers. An early storm made the march very difficult. The men were inadequately clad and badly mounted. They had to force their way through deep snow and endure bitter cold as they followed along the Arkansas River toward Fort Lyon (near present-day Lamar; it was replaced in 1867 by a new Fort Lyon, near Las Animas). Each night they crawled into icy bedding at 10 o’clock, and reveille sounded at 4 a.m.

When Chivington’s command arrived at Fort Lyon on the afternoon of November 28, Anthony did not mention the visit of Black Kettle and War Bonnet. The major just said he knew where the hostiles were camped–about 1,000 of them at Sand Creek and about 2,000 more farther north in the Smoky Hill River region. Because Chivington wanted to get to Sand Creek by dawn, he and his volunteers, accompanied by Anthony and some other men from the fort, departed at about 8 p.m. and hurried through the night.

When the first light on the 29th slipped in from the east, the troops were on the ridge, about a mile from the village. Chivington said he did not plan to attack without notice. He intended to surround the camp and then immobilize the warriors by capturing the 500 to 600 horses grazing in two herds near the lodges. If there was going to be a fight, he did not want those great horse soldiers to be mounted. On horseback they were even more fearsome warriors than on foot.

Several of his junior officers had been with Major Wynkoop the day he had negotiated with Black Kettle back in September. They insisted these Cheyennes and Arapahos were peaceful and that the Indians believed a peace existed because Wynkoop had promised them protection. These officers said it would be murder to attack the camp because Wynkoop had pledged his word of honor that there would be no attack.

Although it is difficult to know who could have recorded the colonel’s exact words, he is reported to have answered, at least in part: ‘The Cheyenne nation has been waging bloody war against the whites all spring, summer and fall, and Black Kettle is their principal chief. They have been guilty of arson, murder, rape and fiendish torture, not even sparing women and little children. I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians who kill and torture women and children. Damn any man who is in sympathy with them.’ Even if those were not his exact words, they certainly expressed his well-known feelings.

From up on the low bluff, Chivington deployed some troops to capture the Indian ponies. The howitzers, loaded with canister, were aimed at the village. Some of the Indian horses broke from the herd and raced toward the village. A few early rising women were outside and shouted the alarm. Warriors, women and children ran out of their lodges. What happened after that is not certain. The rest of the battle, or massacre, is shrouded in controversy.

Probably the Coloradoans’ initial charge was repulsed by a line of approximately 100 warriors. Chief White Antelope is said to have been shot down in the first volley. A second charge, frontal and on both flanks, drove the Indians back along the creek, where they took up the fight from pits hastily dug into the sandy banks. The hostilities lasted until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Chivington then assembled his troops in one area of the village. Arapahos and Cheyennes were escaping in the direction of Smoky Hill, some on horses, most on foot. Chivington’s men stayed on the alert that night because they thought warriors might come down from Smoky Hill to seek revenge. In the first report sent to General Curtis, Chivington called it ‘one of the most bloody Indian battles ever fought on these plains.’ He said his men had killed 500 Indians, including Black Kettle. In reality, there were probably fewer fatalities than that, and Black Kettle was not one of them (the chief would die at the Battle of the Washita four years later).

When Chivington and the now ‘Bloody Third’ returned to Denver in late December, they were greeted as heroes–glorious heroes. The 3rd Colorado was soon mustered out; Colonel Chivington’s commission ended on January 6, 1865. By then, however, there were also some people who wanted an investigation of Chivington’s actions on November 29, 1864. The ‘heroes’ of Sand Creek were being charged with not only having perpetrated a massacre of women and children but also having horribly mutilated the bodies of their victims.

Actually, there were three official investigations. The Army conducted one and decided a court-martial was not called for. General Curtis said that the Army was so full of ‘personal and political strife…it is almost impossible to get an honest, impartial determination of facts.’

Congress held two hearings. A great deal of testimony was recorded by people who were actually there. The House Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded that Chivington had ‘deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the varied & savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty.’ But the problem is that so much of the testimony is contradictory. Some witnesses stated absolutely that Black Kettle was flying a U.S. flag on a flagpole in front of his lodge and that he had a white flag right below it. Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, who had no love for Chivington, testified that he saw no such flag. Others also denied the flag story, and, in truth, it would have been very unusual for an Indian to have had a flagpole with a U.S. flag flying from it.

There is not even approximate agreement on how many Indians were killed at Sand Creek. In his second report to General Curtis (sent December 16, 1864), Colonel Chivington said,’Between 500 and 600 Indians were left dead upon the field.’ A Captain Booth ‘counted’ 69 dead, and Corporal Amos Miksch noted 123 dead. Others offered such figures as 148, 150, 200, 300, 400 and 450. The Cheyennes carried off their wounded and many of their dead, so no one was really able to say how many were killed that day.

Nor was anyone ever able to positively say how many of the dead were women and children. The eyewitness accounts, again, vary amazingly. John Simpson Smith–a trader and an interpreter who hated the colonel, but whose testimony is frequently quoted as though he were unbiased–said half the dead were men. Ed Guerrier, a half-Cheyenne, said two-thirds were women and children. Corporal Miksch said only about ‘twenty-five were full-grown men.’ Major Jacob Downing testified, ‘I counted about twelve or fifteen women and a few children.’ Lieutenant Cramer said two-thirds were women and children, but Stephen Decatur, acting battalion adjutant at Sand Creek, claimed only a few were. Colonel Chivington testified, ‘I saw but one woman who had been killed; I saw no dead children.’

It is just as impossible to determine how many Indian bodies were mutilated. Robert Bent, a half-blood, gave gruesome testimony about mutilated Indians. So did John Smith. On the other hand, Captain L. Wilson spoke of picking up a child off the field and giving it to one of the women. Major Downing testified, ‘I saw no soldier scalping anybody, but saw one or two bodies that had been scalped.’

Trying to determine who lied to the investigating committees is no easy task. Most likely, there was some scalping and mutilating of bodies. Both whites and Indians practiced that kind of warfare in that area and in that era. Many of the Colorado Volunteers believed the only way to fight Indians was the way Indians fought. The Cheyennes believed that if the body was mutilated, the person would have to go through his afterlife that way–a horrible fate. Therefore, many Colorado Volunteers believed that if they could put the fear of mutilation into the Cheyennes, then the Indians would be reluctant to risk war. And after Sand Creek, although the Indians conducted ferocious war in Kansas and Nebraska and twice raided Julesburg in northeast Colorado, they did not raid the settlements of the Denver area.

As to whether Black Kettle’s people were really at peace that November, there is some question. The chief had admitted at an earlier conference with Governor Evans that some of his warriors were not complying with his peace efforts. Also, some of them were up at the Smoky Hill camp, which was a center for anti-peace Cheyennes and Arapahos. That there were not as many warriors in Black Kettle’s village as the Colorado Volunteers expected might have been because more of them were up at Smoky Hill.

In the congressional hearings, Dr. Caleb Birdsall, assistant surgeon with the volunteers, testified that later in the day of the fighting, ‘a soldier came to the opening of a lodge and called my attention to five or six scalps….My impression was that one or two of them were not more than ten days off the head.’ Another doctor said he saw a great many white scalps–some freshly taken, one of them five to eight days before. War parties had certainly raided since the peace talks.

Was Sand Creek a battle or a massacre? The answer will never be agreed upon by all those who study it, but one piece of uncontested evidence should be given more attention than it has received. The fighting lasted from dawn until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. There was also sporadic fighting the next day (November 30), with two soldiers and perhaps a dozen Indians being killed. In the two days of fighting, Chivington’s force suffered 54 casualties–14 troopers killed and 40 wounded. There is also some evidence that several Indian women joined the men in fighting from the pits in the sandy bank. There was very real fighting. The valley was not a shooting gallery.

It should also be pointed out that John Chivington did not command disciplined troops on that November day. The Colorado Volunteers were not well-trained, and for the most part they were boisterous, vengeful, independent men from the wild mining settlements. There is no proof that the colonel in any way encouraged atrocities.

Finally, it should be pointed out that Chivington had political enemies. He was being proposed as the first congressman in Washington when Colorado was admitted as a state. He had rivals for that honor, and there was also a group of Colorado Territory officeholders who did not want the territory to become a state. They would lose their appointments to office if statehood was granted, so they wanted to discredit Chivington and all others who were working for statehood.

Then, too, some who testified were Indian traders, who were angry because the fight at Sand Creek had driven away the Cheyennes and the Arapahos. The honest traders were angry, but the most vindictive–the ones who offered the most damning testimony–were the ones like D.D. Colley (son of Indian agent Samuel Colley), who were infamous for cheating the government and defrauding the Indians. How valuable is their testimony?

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Twenty years after Sand Creek, the Colorado pioneers were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the settling of Colorado and invited Chivington to attend. He was a hero again, and when he said, ‘I stand by Sand Creek,’ there was great applause. Coloradoans asked him to come back and live among them, which he did. He died of cancer in Denver in October 1894.

Battle or massacre? Chivington guilty or Chivington innocent? Whatever the answers to those questions, there can be little doubt that Sand Creek occurred because of white incursions, government mismanagement, broken treaties and the fact that there were not only ‘bad’ white men but also ‘bad’ Indians.

This article was written by J. Jay Myers and originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!

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Sand Creek Massacre: The Real Villains

In late November 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington arrived at Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory, with the 3rd Colorado Cavalry. Major Scott Anthony joined him there with six companies of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, and at dawn on the 29th, about 700 soldiers attacked Black Kettle’s village of 500 Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek, 35 miles northeast of the fort. Some 120 Indians were killed, while the soldiers took about 70 casualties.

The fight has most commonly been called the Sand Creek Massacre or Chivington’s Massacre. It is depicted as an epic struggle between good and evil. Interpretation of almost every historical event will change over time, but the portrayal of Sand Creek has remained remarkably static. It had bad reviews from the beginning. The historical villains are Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans and Colonel Chivington and his 3rd Colorado Volunteers. Further examination, however, finds that the white hats and black hats were more often shades of gray, and that the hat colors of some of the characters should be completely reversed. The depiction of Sand Creek as a massacre stems from the machinations of a half-dozen people, three of whom were not even there. These six are the real villains of the affair.

Scoundrel number one is Major Edward W. Wynkoop, who had traveled a winding road before joining the Colorado Volunteers. Born in Philadelphia in 1836, ‘Ned,’ as he liked to be called, reached Leavenworth, Kan., in 1858. He was soon appointed sheriff in Arapahoe County in what would become Colorado. In 1859 in Denver, he took a second job in a saloon/brothel to supplement his income. Wynkoop was described as ‘intelligent, tough, cunning, perhaps a mite too wild.’ The Denver Inter-Ocean called him `a bad man from Kansas,’ who wore buckskin breeches and carried a Bowie-knife and revolver in his belt.’

In April 1861, Ned Wynkoop lost the election for city marshal, but the Civil War gave him new employment. As a captain in the 1st Colorado on March 26, 1862, Ned Wynkoop bravely rode in the Battle of Apache Canyon, part of the three-day fight known as Glorieta Pass, New Mexico Territory, and won Major Chivington’s admiration, plus a promotion to major. Wynkoop’s expedition to subdue the Utes in 1863 was lackluster, and he spent much of the year in camp near Denver.

In 1864 Wynkoop took over command at Fort Lyon. Boredom at the post caused many men and officers to go to Denver for excitement, and Chivington, now a colonel and in charge of the Military District of Colorado, cautioned Wynkoop about his conduct. Major General Samuel Curtis wrote Chivington a letter regarding Wynkoop’s penchant for sending scouting parties far out of his district, of which Curtis disapproved. Chivington tried to cover for Wynkoop’s behavior, but the major’s indiscretions kept drawing unwanted attention to him and his colonel. That July Curtis created the District of the Upper Arkansas, which severed Fort Lyon from Chivington’s jurisdiction and placed it under Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt. This change caused Wynkoop future trouble.

While at Fort Lyon, Wynkoop got acquainted with Sand Creek villains two and three: John S. Smith and Indian agent Samuel G. Colley. Smith had been known and distrusted by the Indians for 25 years; they called him ‘Lying John.’ With Sam Colley and Sam’s son Dexter, he had been cheating the Indians for years. Ex-agent William Bent was onto them. They withheld government goods, meant as annuities for the Indians, until the Indians traded something of value for them. Bent figured the Colleys made nearly $30,000 in three years swindling the Cheyennes and Arapahos. John Smith acted as the Indian trader and was considered a partner in the business. Bent said that some Cheyennes told him they had no confidence in Colley, knowing the agent was swindling them out of goods. All the time he was raking in money, Sam Colley continued to paint a pessimistic picture in a letter to Governor Evans. ‘The Indians are very troublesome,’ he said. ‘I have made application to Major Wynkoop for troops….It looks at present as though we shall have to fight them all.’

In early September 1864, a few Indians brought in a note from hostile tribes that indicated their desire for peace talks, and Wynkoop was determined to pay them a visit. He was well aware that he was now under the command of General Blunt, for in August 1864, Blunt ordered Wynkoop to ‘confine your operations to the defense of your post and give such protection to the road and mail coaches as you can afford.’ Both Blunt and Curtis had issued orders that the Indians were to be punished, not treated with. Wynkoop knew expeditions were currently in the field looking to fight the Indians. He had been chastised before for going outside district lines, for not asking permission for his actions and for not keeping his own superiors informed of his movements.

Wynkoop took 125 men of the 1st Colorado to the Smoky Hill River without informing Blunt or Curtis. John Smith accompanied them. Sam Colley stayed behind to send the news to Evans and Chivington. The Indians threatened Wynkoop’s expedition with annihilation, and some of his men demanded that Wynkoop return immediately to the fort. It was a close scrape, but they did return with four of seven white captives the Indians had, plus some chiefs, including Black Kettle and White Antelope. Then they went to Denver for a peace conference. The problem was that neither Evans nor Chivington wanted a peace conference while prosecuting a war.

The day after the council, Evans told Colley in a letter that he had not made any peace with the Indians, as it might embarrass the military operations against them–which apparently Wynkoop did not understand. ‘You will be particular to impress upon these chiefs,’ Evans wrote, ‘the fact that my talk with them was for the purpose of ascertaining their views, and not to offer them anything whatever. ‘ Evans did not want the agent to furnish the Indians with any means to continue the war, but he was afraid that Colley would not listen. The Indians returned from Denver realizing that they could not make any peace treaty. Wynkoop, nevertheless, told them that they should bring their people closer to the fort.

At Fort Lyon was another Sand Creek villain, Captain Silas S. Soule, who had a more polished exterior than Wynkoop, but who was crafty under the veneer. A poetry-quoting friend of Walt Whitman’s, Soule was self-righteous and uncompromising. He lived by his favorite phrase: ‘You may have the argument, but by God, I know I am right!’ While still in his teens in Kansas, he had become a jayhawker. He was attracted to the cause of John Brown and the Free-Soilers, and on one occasion went into a jail and broke free a man accused of stealing slaves. When insurrection-minded John Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and thrown in jail, Soule tried but failed to break him out. Soule has been historically pictured as a man of principle, honesty and sobriety, but he proved several times that he would resort to trickery, lies and lawbreaking to achieve his ends.

While stationed at Fort Lyon, Silas Soule was not easily taken in by friendly Indians, at least not before the Sand Creek fight altered his judgment. In a letter to his sister, he wrote: ‘The Cheyennes also know a trick or two. Some of them steal a girl…out of Kansas, trade her from lodge to lodge, then come up with her at our parley on the Smoky Hill last month. A gift they say. They want to seal a peace `forever.’ Of course they’d killed the father, [and] the mother hanged herself.’ Soule was also disenchanted with Indian agent Colley and his wife. Mrs. Colley was proprietor at the sutler’s store at Fort Lyon and assisted in selling the Indians their annuities. Soule said: ‘The Indian agent’s wife sells pies she makes with Cheyenne flour allowance. Mrs. Colly [sic] got more rations on her hands than the U.S. Cavalry and Northern tribes combined.’

Wynkoop and Colley got orders not to feed or give supplies to the Indians, but Colley disregarded Governor Evans, preferring to communicate directly with William P. Dole, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, whom he addressed as ‘Dear Cousin.’ While the authorities in charge were still looking for a military solution to the war, their subordinates were sending out contrary messages. Wynkoop, perhaps feeling sanguine about what he thought he had accomplished, was soon to find out that his superiors were not happy with him.

When Wynkoop’s letter about his September excursions reached headquarters, Major Anthony was ordered to replace Wynkoop and send him to Fort Riley, in Kansas. Curtis condemned Wynkoop’s actions with ‘disapproval and censure,’ and was certain they could only have arisen from either a lack of knowledge ‘requisite to make a good and efficient officer, or an intentional disobedience of orders and almost criminal mismanagement of the affairs of his command.’

Anthony’s orders stated, ‘Major E. W. Wynkoop has laid himself liable to arrest and dismissal for absence without leave, and the Officer [Soule] who went with him liable for being absent without proper authority.’ All orders from the District of Upper Arkansas should have been followed. Supplies were to be kept under strict control. There was too much laxity at Fort Lyon, but it would be dismissed as ‘more to ignorance than intentional insult,’ at least up to September. Since then it was intolerable when officers and men left their posts’seeking and assisting to make treaties between a hostile force, and parties that had no authority to make peace.’

Wynkoop waited in anticipation of the orders that he was certain would bring instructions for concluding a peace treaty. Instead, the westbound stage brought Major Anthony with orders for Wynkoop’s removal. Anthony set about clearing the Indians away from the fort, while Wynkoop boarded the eastbound stage. One wonders if the major really knew why he had been removed from command. In his March 1865 testimony to the Doolittle Commission and in his autobiography, Wynkoop said that he left Fort Lyon because he received orders to go to Fort Riley to take command of that post. Either he was mentally unbalanced or he was evolving into the biggest liar on the Plains.

After the November fight at Sand Creek, the dead and wounded soldiers had hardly been carted back to Fort Lyon before signs of trouble appeared. Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, a compadre of Ned Wynkoop’s and Silas Soule’s and another of the Sand Creek scoundrels, spoke to 3rd Colorado Captain Theodore Cree. Speaking about Chivington, Cramer said he thought he and his friends ‘could make a massacre out of the Sand Creek and crush him.’ Cree asked Cramer what Chivington had done to make him hate him so much. Cramer answered that he didn’t know of anything specific, but that ‘they had got their play in on Chivington and they were going to play it.’ Angered by Cramer’s irrational attitude, Cree broke off the conversation. Back at Fort Lyon on December 14, Cramer wrote to Wynkoop, ‘For God’s sake, Major, keep Chivington from being a Bri’g Genl.’

More trouble was brewing. Captain Presley Talbot, badly wounded at Sand Creek, was given a room at Fort Lyon next to agent Colley’s office. There, John Smith showed him papers he and Colley had drawn up against the government, claiming they were owed ‘for 105 buffalo robes, two white ponies, and a wagon-load of goods.’ The two of them told him they had other demands, and Smith said they ‘would realize $25,000 out of it, and damn Colonel Chivington.’ The government bill they had, Talbot said, was sworn to by David Louderback of the 1st Colorado, who would go to Washington, D.C., and ‘he had friends who would help him get it.’

Smith boasted to Talbot that the Eastern papers would be filled with letters from Fort Lyon that blamed Chivington for the death of Smith’s half-blood son Jack, who had been killed by a soldier after the battle, and ‘that he would be avenged by using every effort with the department possible.’ Smith complained that it was hard for a father to endure such a loss. Perhaps $25,000 would soften the sorrow.

Private Asbury Bird of Company D, 1st Colorado, became aware of part of the deal while talking to Sam Colley’s son. Dexter Colley told Bird that they had sent $2,000 worth of Indian goods to sell in Denver, and they expected the money to arrive any day. Bird heard John Smith admit that the goods had not cost them anything, for they were government annuities and he would just trade them to the Indians, ‘and if he lost them he would not be out anything.’

Some hated Chivington, some felt betrayed, some sought to cloak their cowardice, and some saw a way to make money from the situation. Letters were soon on their way to certain high officials, and from then on the episode exploded with deceit, obfuscation and recrimination. As early as December 7, word from a member of the 1st Colorado was taken to Judge Stephen S. Harding in Denver, a political foe of Governor Evans and Chivington, of a horrible massacre along Sand Creek. Harding wrote to John Wright, a personal enemy of Evans. Wright was a friend of the Colleys’ and of Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher’s. Harding’s letter was largely false and highly sensationalist–perfect for the newspapers.

One of the worst post-battle decisions the military made was after General Curtis’ interview with Wynkoop. Once Curtis’ anger had cooled, the general sent Wynkoop back to Fort Riley. General Blunt had been replaced as commander of the District of the Upper Arkansas, and the new commander, not realizing the depth of Wynkoop’s involvement in the matter, ordered him back to Fort Lyon to take command and investigate the Sand Creek affair. The man who had done the most to cause the disaster was off the hook and allowed to pick the scapegoat. He chose Chivington, who resigned his military commission on January 4, 1865.

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War met in Washington in March 1865. The title of the committee’s report became ‘Massacre of Cheyenne Indians,’ and it was quickly evident that ‘massacre’ would be the principal theme even before the testimony began. The committee heard live witnesses and took depositions that had little bearing on the subject. Some of the depositions were written under the direction of Major Wynkoop. Testifying were Jesse Leavenworth, Sam Robbins, Sam Colley, Dexter Colley and A.C. Hunt; none had been at the battle, and they could contribute only valueless hearsay evidence. Leading questions contained words or phrases such as massacre, mutilation or friendly Indians, as if they were established facts and not the very issues to be determined. No one from the 3rd Colorado was called to testify.

The most damaging indictment came from Wynkoop’s unsworn affidavit written after his reassignment to duty at Fort Lyon, a document that was not entitled to any consideration, since it was based entirely on hearsay and was only a vituperative tirade. Wynkoop gave incorrect information about the letter he received from the Indians and passed on secondhand stories regarding mutilations of the dead as if they were facts known to him. He accused Chivington of ‘all the time inciting his troops to these diabolical outrages,’ when he did nothing of the sort. He claimed Chivington knew the Indians were friendly, and yet ‘this inhuman monster committed his unprecedented atrocity.’ Wynkoop said that all the officers at Fort Lyon were in unanimous agreement with him, and that since ‘the horrible murder by Colonel Chivington,’ the country was desolated and all but ruined.

Wynkoop’s statements were a travesty, but the true damage and insult came when they were accepted as gospel. The committee fell for it whole hog, choosing the testimony it wanted to hear as truth, and condemning the testimony that did not fit with its preconceived notions as false. The summary of the proceedings concluded that the soldiers were barbarians, while the Indians ‘in every way conducted themselves properly and peaceably.’ Chivington and Anthony were on a ‘mission of murder and barbarity,’ and the colonel ‘deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage.’ Further, Evans and Anthony were prevaricators and should be removed from office and punished ‘as their crimes deserve.’ Senator ‘Honest’ Ben Wade signed the report, and a year later admitted that he had never even attended the hearings, nor did he understand the full import of the committee report.

Evans was upset about the committee’s portrayal of him as a liar. He complained that it was ‘partial,’ ‘erroneous’ and did him ‘great injustice.’ He soberly reviewed the events, cited the numerous errors the committee made, and insisted that the committee itself was ‘culpably negligent’ for not examining the actual facts that would have exonerated him. It was wrong to conclude ‘that I had prevaricated,’ he said, ‘because my statement did not agree with the falsehoods they had embraced.’

Concurrent with the above investigation, a joint special committee under Senator James Doolittle made its ‘Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes.’ Again testimony was taken, but Sam Colley changed his story, stating that the Indians at Sand Creek were friendly and had not been depredating. He told about the chiefs being shot down in front of their tepees, the American flag flying, and the horrible scalping and mutilations, although he had not seen a bit of it. He also made a statement that apologists seem so prone to make, inadvertently exposing the reality of the situation. The villagers ‘were butchered in brutal manner,’ he said, ‘and scalped and mutilated as bad as an Indian ever did to a white man.’

Silas Soule testified in Denver. He wrote a letter to Walt Whitman and said, ‘I flat refused to order in my men or open fire.’ In his testimony on February 16, however, there were too many potential witnesses who could counter this line, plus, if he admitted to disobeying orders in battle, he would be liable to court-martial himself. Soule balked. Losing his bravado, he meekly stated that at Sand Creek, Anthony ordered him to fire and he did so. He moved up the creek ‘for the purpose of killing Indians,’ but because troops were firing on both sides of him he felt ‘it was unsafe’ and scurried away. The now humble captain made no claims that lofty principles kept him from firing.

One problem for persons telling lies is that they may not remember what they have said. On February 16, Soule testified that women and children at Sand Creek were scalped and mutilated while escaping. He couldn’t have known, however, for he was guarding the baggage and left before the fight ended. On the 20th, when asked if he saw any soldiers scalping or mutilating Indians, he answered, ‘I think not.’

Lieutenant Cramer came to the stand, and he too changed his story. Like Soule, he had been bragging that he would not fire during the battle. He wrote to Wynkoop, ‘I got so mad I swore I would not burn powder, and I did not.’ Realizing the implications of such an admission in a military tribunal, Cramer also showed the white feather and said that his battalion was firing at the Indians, including White Antelope. Cramer said he started and stopped firing’several times during the fight.’ The tribunal was not inclined to take these men to task for their baldfaced mendacity.

On March 20, the tribunal moved to Fort Lyon. The first witness was Ned Wynkoop, who showed the same color as Soule and Cramer. He told a few lies about Anthony, saying that Anthony issued goods and food to the Indians in ‘greater quantity than ever I had issued,’ when in truth Anthony had only given food to the Arapahos for about 10 days while they were considered prisoners. What is notable in his face-to-face hearing in contrast with his written affidavit is the lack of venomous accusations. John Chivington was in the same room with Wynkoop, and all the name-calling miraculously ceased. Wynkoop even admitted that at the September council, Chivington told the Indians that he was the war chief ‘and his business was to kill Indians, and not to make peace with them.’ Wynkoop could bluster and blame, but when in the presence of a man of greater size, stamina and character who could easily call his bluff, he folded up like a losing poker hand.

Two months later, Soule was shot down on the streets of Denver while on duty as provost marshal. The assailant, Charles W. Squiers, fled to New Mexico Territory, where he was arrested by Lieutenant James D. Cannon of the New Mexico Volunteers, who had also been at Sand Creek. He returned Squiers to Denver for court-martial. The Black Hawk Mining Journal asserted that Soule was killed so that he wouldn’t testify, but retracted when it learned he had already done so. The paper later stated that there were no grounds to believe that the death was ‘instituted by high and responsible parties.’

Lieutenant Cannon was found dead in his room at the Tremont House on July 14, three days after he brought Squiers to Denver. The incident provided fuel for more rumors that he had been killed by the same people supposedly responsible for Soule’s death. There was a less mysterious answer, however. The Rocky Mountain News reported that Cannon had been gambling and drinking heavily, plus he was a morphine user. The combination of alcohol and morphine did him in.

A decade later, Ned Wynkoop would, as usual, blame everything on John Chivington. The fiend, he said, had Soule ‘murdered at night in the streets of Denver by an assassin whom he had hired for that purpose.’ Wynkoop even took credit for bringing Squiers in. ‘I had the pleasure some time afterward of arresting the murderer of Caption Soule,’ he wrote, ‘and sending him in irons to Denver….’ Unfortunately, ‘through the machinations of Col. Chivington and his satellites he escaped….Cannon was found dead in his bed the next morning having been poisoned through the agency of the same demons who had murdered S. Soule.’ Time had not tempered Wynkoop’s dishonesty.

Another military blunder was made by appointing Lt. Col. Samuel Tappan head of the military tribunal. Tappan, another of the Sand Creek villains, was Chivington’s avowed enemy. They hated each other. The court met the day after Soule was killed and agreed to adjourn for one day ‘in respect to the memory of the deceased’ who had been ‘assassinated.’ Using the word ‘assassinated’ implied that Tappan suspected Chivington had a hand in Soule’s death. The inference is borne out in Tappan’s diary, where he recorded, ‘The barbarism of Sand Creek has culminated in the assassination of Capt. Soule.’ He also wrote, ‘The origins of this dreadful deed may yet be found in the editorial columns of the press and the public speeches of Col Chivington.’ Tappan poured out his feelings in his diary. No one should be allowed to defend Sand Creek, he said, no one should ‘palm off on posterity a bloody massacre as a battle, the blackest perfidy as military strategy, assassination…and the disgusting mutilation of the dead as victory.’

Realizing all too well that Tappan would not call any witnesses friendly to him, Chivington appealed to Brig. Gen., Patrick E. Connor to allow a deposition by freighter Lipmann Meyer. The testimony would have been helpful to Chivington and damaging to Soule, so Tappan objected to the receipt of the affidavit. Chivington protested, but to no avail. Tappan sustained his own action and threw out Meyer’s testimony. The proceedings were a farce.

The court was charged to investigate the facts and to ensure justice to all parties. It failed miserably. Chivington and his attorney tried several times but failed to limit the illegal testimony and depositions. Tappan’s tribunal called 20 witnesses, every one of them hostile to Chivington. Chivington therefore called 16 witnesses to testify on his behalf. Throughout the course of the inquiry, 63 percent of Chivington’s objections were overruled and 93 percent of Tappan’s objections were sustained. In total, 59 people were questioned, 31 of whom had not been at the battle. Like the two congressional hearings, the court of inquiry was a travesty. The willingness of congressmen and officers to accept hearsay evidence and obvious falsehoods shows that Chivington and the volunteers were already prejudged and condemned.

The great controversy about Sand Creek was the result of a number of factors. Probably the initial and largest contributing factor to its exposure was political. The chief issue dividing Coloradans in 1864 was statehood. On the statehood side were Evans, Chivington and William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News. Opposing statehood were some of the territorial judges, the marshal and the district attorney, backed by the Black Hawk Mining Journal. Chivington and Evans had political aspirations, but the statehood proposal was voted down on September 13, 1864. Chivington did not need a great victory over the Indians to sweep him into any office; the statehood battle was already lost. The original appearance of massacre stories in the Eastern press was politically motivated. The publicity was not to help the Indians but to ruin the careers of Evans and Chivington. The humanitarian press was not as responsible for the blowup as were a handful of vindictive little men out for revenge.

Also responsible were the Indian agents and traders who realized that the battle, if represented as a massacre, would be a way to make money. The crooked traders and agents were doubly culpable. First, their cheating of the Indians caused more raiding, proved that the white man’s word meant nothing and ripened the conditions for conflict. Second, they were among those who cried foul most vociferously. They were the promoters and advertisers of the Sand Creek affair.

Sam Colley was so blatantly ‘fork-tongued’ that it is amazing someone did not challenge his post-battle statements. Colley supplied Evans with information from white traders that the Indians would go to war in the spring of 1864. He recommended that fort garrison strengths be increased. He was active in annuity swindles. He told Chivington that he had done all in his power but could not stop the Indians from raiding, and that only a sound whipping would restore peace. He told men of the 3rd Colorado that the Indians needed punishment. Colley even told Chivington where the Arapahos were camped so they could be attacked.

After Sand Creek, Colley did an about-face, criticized the Army and mourned the loss of ‘his’ goods. He complained about his losses and the bad treatment of the Indians. He wrote to his cousin Dole, to Usher and to Doolittle that the Indians were all under his protection and that the chiefs were doing all they could to keep the peace. In 1865 he testified that the Indians had been at peace and were friendly. Colley could have given Wynkoop a run for his money in the greatest liar competition. Yet Colley, like Wynkoop, Soule and Smith, provided the testimony that the authorities wanted to hear.

John Smith did not appear to be as upset about the death of his son as he did about losing property, although that property may not have been his to lose. He and Colley schemed to make Sand Creek into a massacre to collect money from damage claims, blaming the Army for attacking peaceful Indians and destroying their property in the process.

A third group responsible for the fighting at Sand Creek and its ghastly portrayal consisted of several members of the 1st Colorado. The person most responsible was Edward Wynkoop. Were it not for his continuous violation of orders, there never would have been a battle. Before he went over the edge into total denial, he realized his culpability when, in January 1865, he admitted that taking the Indians to Denver was ‘a mistake of which I have since become painfully aware.’ Even so, Wynkoop never seemed to recognize that taking the Indians to headquarters in the wrong district was not the only problem. To cover up his own mistakes, Wynkoop screamed loudest of all. He knew he was responsible for what happened, and he felt betrayed by a superior officer he believed would support him. He needed to quickly shift the blame and was wild to strike at someone–Chivington was the perfect target. Returning Wynkoop to command at Fort Lyon and having him conduct the investigation guaranteed that facts would not be found and justice would not be served.

Soule and to a lesser extent Cramer were Wynkoop’s right-hand men in the persecution of Chivington and in depicting the battle as a massacre. Although they participated little, they were among the most vocal concerning what they said they saw, and even concocted things they didn’t see. Both men made up statements that Chivington had refused to save Jack Smith. Both said they would not allow their companies to ‘burn powder’ during the battle, and both later swallowed their prior boasts during the court of inquiry and admitted that they had been firing.

Appointing Sam Tappan president of the court further ensured that the truth would not come out. This bitter enemy of Chivington’s got his revenge for what he considered he had endured at his colonel’s hands for nearly three years. Tappan’s actions in court–his admission of witnesses, depositions, hearsay evidence–and his rulings showed his public prejudice. His diary showed his private prejudice.

The congressional hearings were unfair because hearsay was admitted, statements were not checked for truth and conclusions were predetermined. Blame, if it must be placed, should be on the politicians who sought to destroy their enemies for personal aggrandizement, on the crooked agents and traders for fomenting discontent, and on Wynkoop for setting the stage for disaster. For exploding Sand Creek out of the realm of battle and into the horror of massacre, the blame falls on Wynkoop, Colley, Smith, Soule, Cramer and Tappan. Tappan did little to bring forth the truth of the episode, and the other five did their best to exaggerate, obfuscate and distort, so they could hide their mistakes, gain monetary advantage or seek revenge. They are the real villains of Sand Creek.

This article was written by Gregory F. Michno and originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of Wild West.

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