Part 1 of
Three - The Record – Events leading up
to November 29, 1864.
(By Jeff C. Campbell
There are literally millions of words in the
written record about the Sand Creek Massacre from the time, documenting
participants, that is, soldiers’, Indians’ and citizens’ testimony,
reminiscences, oral histories, diaries, letters and interviews.
Additionally there have been millions of words written about Sand Creek
by investigative historians, novelists, poets and so-called historians
who promote one political agenda or another in one hundred thousand
words or less. It is a daunting task here to provide a glimpse of the
record in a thousand words or less.
As 1864 began there was little contemplation of an
Indian menace on the plains, although the killings of hundreds of whites
by Indians in Minnesota two years before still lingered in the memories
of the citizens of Colorado Territory. A little known fact is that at
this time Colonel John Chivington, commanding the military District of
Colorado was slated to be replaced by Brigadier General Thomas Ewing
Jr., but by early April Chivington returned to Denver from Ft.
Leavenworth with his command intact, but over the next few months it
would be reduced. Governor John Evans of the territory had
unsuccessfully attempted to hold treaty talks with the Cheyennes and
Arapahoes in September 1863 and later took heed of words from informants
that something was brewing for the spring of 1864. During the winter
some Cheyennes had accepted the invitation of northern tribes to wage
war on the Crow nation and prepared to send warriors north from the
Platte River country.
Many historians hold that the beginnings of the
Indian war on the Platte and Arkansas of 1864 was due to two actions.
The first was a fight at Fremont’s Orchard where a young lieutenant and
his men from the 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers were
engaged with a group of Cheyennes heading north. Soldiers and warriors
were killed. The Cheyennes told that they were misunderstood in their
intentions and the soldiers claimed the warriors refused to be
disarmed. The second resulted from the reported theft of over 100 head
of livestock and two punitive expeditions headed by a young artillery
lieutenant which culminated in the destruction of two camps and a
prolonged fight near Ash Creek in what is now Kansas. The Cheyennes
lost a venerable chief who was reportedly wearing his “presidential
peace medal” and the soldiers had to conduct a running retreat across
the plains into Ft. Larned. Reports from a dozen sources indicate the
engagement was a fiasco and reprimands followed.
Chivington sent his District Inspector Major
Downing to take charge of the soldiers of the 1st Regiment
stationed along the South Platte River route. Compounding events of
Fremont’s Orchard and the expeditions into the Republican River country
Downing and Colorado cavalry proceeded north from the Platte and engaged
in an attack on a Cheyenne camp in Cedar Canyon or Cedar Bluffs. From
this moment on Cheyennes, including their Dog Soldiers, as well as other
allies commenced raids along the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. A few
attacks were blamed on the Cheyennes but were actually conducted by
whites in disguise or simply bandits seeking gold and loot bound to or
out of Montana and at least one raid was conducted by Pawnees.
By the summer of 1864 paranoia ran rampant in
Denver and environs fueled by the newspapers and rumors. The fears of
the population of the territory were played upon by all sides since the
territory was gearing up for an election in favor of or against
statehood. Evans and Chivington were considering their political
futures tied to the Union party. By September statehood prospects were
dashed and Chivington lost his bid to become a U. S. Representative.
Coincidentally, a few days after Chivington left
Denver in June for an inspection of posts on the Arkansas River, reports
came into Denver of a massacre of a white ranching family, the Hungates.
It is still unclear who actually killed the family, although Arapahoes
later reportedly claimed renegade tribal members were responsible and
some theorists believe that the killings were staged to incite
Coloradoans against the Indians. Regardless, the citizens were thrown
into a panic and some even rushed the armory at Camp Weld. The Hungates
were displayed in town during a Coroner’s inquest and the fervor rose.
Likewise Cheyennes and Arapahoes professing peace at this time were in
much anxiety as well since they did not understand where the next attack
would come from like in April and May. To say the plains of Colorado
and the overland routes along the Platte and Arkansas were in fear would
be an understatement.
Throughout the spring and summer Governor Evans
petitioned the military for more troops to protect Colorado. As
Commander-in-Chief of the territorial militia he called for local
companies to be mustered. In August the U. S. Army authorised a
temporary one- hundred-days regiment of cavalry which would be mustered
as the 3rd Regiment. Also in June he issued a proclamation
as the ex-officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the
territory for all peaceful Indians to come into posts for their own
Seeing the proclamation, after many councils Black
Kettle and other chiefs sent a letter into the Indian Agent at Ft. Lyon
on the Arkansas to entertain peace talks and turn over some captives.
Major Ed. Wynkoop commanding Ft. Lyon took the initiative and proceeded
with an expedition which met with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes and
recovered some of the white captives. As a consequence several Cheyenne
and Arapahoe representatives joined Wynkoop in a journey to Denver to
speak with Evans, Indian Affairs representative for the territory. This
trip climaxed with the Camp Weld Council held in late September. The
Chiefs were welcomed by the general public and officials in Denver, but
left with no promises of peace, only that they should come into the
posts and await the decisions of the military chief, Major General
Samuel R. Curtis.
Evans and Chivington were left in a quandry as to
what to do with the 3rd Regiment which had specifically been
mustered under the banner of the U. S. Army and Evans’ representations
that they were needed to fight hostiles and protect the territory. Some
of the restless hundred days men were becoming rowdy around Denver so in
October most of seven companies were moved to Camp Elbert in Bijou Basin
north of present day Peyton, CO. 1st Regiment troops
enlistments were expiring and 3rd Regiment troops filled in
where they could along the Front Range and down the Platte. By late
October orders show that a campaign was being planned against “hostile”
Cheyennes and Arapahoes on the Republican River. In their short
existence the 3rd Regiment was ill-equipped, ill-fed and many
received horses and weapons within two weeks of the Sand Creek Massacre.
By mid-October the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs had
returned to Ft. Lyon then went north to their camps and moved their
bands south toward the fort. Most of the Cheyennes remained camped on
Sand Creek where they were found in late November, but Little Raven and
about 650 Arapahoes moved into camp just downriver from the fort by
about October 20. After his return to the fort Major Wynkoop sent an
officer to Department headquarters to deliver his report of Camp Weld
and sue for peace with the Indians who had come into the protection of
Fort Lyon. Wynkoop and the Indians awaited word from Curtis.
At some point in the first few days of November a
decision was made in Denver by officers in the military to move troops
of the 1st and 3rd Regiments to a rendezvous just
east of what is now Pueblo, CO on the Arkansas River. Several hundred
men with over 100 wagons began converging on that area by the 18th.
At about the same time Arapahoes under Little Raven moved downriver
about 60 miles from Ft. Lyon at the urging of the new post commander
Major Scott J. Anthony and the prospects of finding more game to feed
the tribe. The peaceful Arapaho Chief, Left Hand with his band of about
forty or fifty returned to the Sand Creek village site and set up camp
near One Eye (Lone Bear, Ochinee) the Cheyenne Chief.
Chivington and his staff arrived on the Arkansas
from Denver on the 23rd of November and took charge of the
“First Indian Expedition” of about 750 to 800 troops, a dozen scouts,
civilian teamsters and 115 wagons. Over the next five days this
expedition marched under strict security down the Arkansas to Fort
Lyon. This caravan of troops and wagons took the garrison at the fort
by surprise during the morning of November 28th. That
evening at about eight o’clock, about 675 cavalry and artillery troops
from the 1st and 3rd Regiments marched north under
a moonless and clear night toward their destiny and the destinies of the
Cheyennes and Arapahoes camped there on Sand Creek. During the late
evening several young Cheyennes saw a light on the prairie and reported
it to War Bonnet, who was concerned that this was not a good sign.
[For a bibliography of the record see the Sand
Creek Massacre NHS, National Park Service Office or Educational
Specialist Craig Moore in Eads, Colorado.]