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Ogden Page

Page history last edited by mrogden@umich.edu 9 years, 7 months ago

Colorado War: The Inevitable Battle at Sand Creek 

By Matthew Ogden



     During the Colorado War (1863-1865), there were many important conflicts between the United States Army and Native American tribes in the Colorado Territory. One of the most controversial battles, arguably in all of the American Indian wars, happened in 1864 at Sand Creek Village, Colorado Territory. The Sand Creek Massacre, also known as the Battle of Sand Creek or the Chivington Massacre, was carried out by one of Colorado’s Calvary militia groups led by Colonel John M. Chivington. Over one hundred innocent Native American lives were lost in the battle, the majority being women and children. It has been called one of the most brutal attacks against Native Americans in United States history and is considered a keen representation of the view towards Native Americans in this time period.



     This Wiki page aims to focus on the Sand Creek Massacre and the events surrounding this disastrous battle, which was part of the Colorado War in the three years spanning from 1863 to 1865. By examining the Colorado War, I argue that the Battle at Sand Creek was inevitable because the United States Government appointed tyrannical leaders, like Colonel Chivington, in order to enforce the ultimate goal of Manifest Destiny. 


Colorado War:


     The Colorado War was a combination of Indian Wars between the Colorado militias and the Native American tribes that were left to defend their lands in Colorado. In this time period (1863-1865), and after multiple treaties, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were the significant tribes still left in the area. There was still the presence of Sioux, Apache, and Kiowa Indians in the area, but numbers were not so much a threat to the United States Army and Colorado Regiments. The main purpose of this war was to take the land from the Native Americans and to push them away to less desirable land. The Native Americans posed a specific threat and prevented the United States Government from their God-given right of Manifest Destiny, so eliminating them became inevitable. 


     The key battle highlighted in this war was in November of 1864, the Battle of Sand Creek. It is also known as the Sand Creek Massacre, where the Colorado Third Regiment, led by Colonel James M. Chivington, marched from Denver to the southeastern part of the Colorado Territory and killed innocent Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. It was a turning point in the war and controversy unfolded, but no charges were brought upon the Colonel or his troops.




Treaty of Fort Wise:




     In 1851, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians subscribed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which acknowledged their occupation of the land lying between the Platte River on the north, and the Arkansas River on the south, running from the area of the Smoky Hill River west to the Rocky Mountains (Green & Scott, 6). However, this treaty only held up for just over ten years. A new treaty was written and signed on February 18th, 1861, which was called the Treaty of Fort Wise. The Treaty of Fort Wise was a document that surrendered most of the land that previously was given to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in the Treaty of Fort Laramie. This new Treaty gave the two Indian tribes lands in the southeastern part of Colorado Territory, which tracked along the northern portion of the Arkansas River in the plains (Green &Scott, 7). There was also a portion included in the document where the government would grant annuities to the two Indian tribes so that they could learn how to till the soil in the area. Indian affairs were happy with this Treaty and believed that it was in the best interest of their people (Roberts, 96).


     Most of the original land given to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians was gone. They were continually pushed away into lands that were undesirable in the view of the United States Government. The Native Americans once had lands from Sand Creek to the Rocky Mountains, up through Wyoming, across a vast portion of western Nebraska, down to west-central Kansas, rounding out in southeastern Colorado. This Treaty of Fort Wise now gave them merely a fraction of this land in southeastern Colorado Territory. The Treaty took just as much of the land given to them, reducing the size of their reservation land to about one thirteenth of the original amount (Meyers). The United States Army continued these acts in order to do away with the Native Americans who were in their way of expanding the West. 


     Tensions between the Native American tribes and the United States Army grew rapidly after the Treaty of Fort Wise. In 1864, multiple raids were carried out by the Native Americans in response to killings of their own people by the Colorado militias. The fighting continued all year in large part because of Colonel Chivington’s orders to “kill Cheyennes [sic] wherever and whenever found,” (Green & Scott, 9) but, there were complaints within the Army ranks that the Colorado men did “not know one tribe from another and . . . will kill anything in the shape of an Indian.” (Green & Scott, 11). The Colorado militia Regiments were killing anyone who looked Native American, no matter their affiliation, so this forced the Indian tribes to retaliate at will against these murders. Over time, the Native American tribes were concerned for the sake of their people, as well as their existence, that they sought out for peace with the Colorado militias. After a few meetings between the two parties involved, Black Kettle—the leader of the Southern Cheyenne living along Sand Creek—believed that peace had been reached. Yet, General Samuel Curtis remarked, “I want no peace until the Indians suffer more . . . [and only upon] my directions,” which Colonel Chivington commonly endorsed (Green & Scott, 14-15). 




Colonel John M. Chivington




     John M. Chivington arrived in Denver in May of 1860 (Roberts, 119). He was a Freemason and Methodist Preacher who worked his way into the Colorado Regiment when war broke out. Chivington quickly proved himself to be a forceful leader, but he also found it virtually impossible to submit himself to military protocol and chain of command (Roberts, 120). He led Colorado’s First Regiment to battles where Chivington claimed to prevail and quickly gained respect and recognition from the troops, government, and army. In 1862, Chivington earned the title of Colonel and was arguably one of the strongest leaders in Colorado at the time, leading into the Sand Creek Massacre.


     Colonel Chivington was the man responsible for the planning and carrying out the attack on the Sand Creek Village. Nobody knew of his plans and it was important that he carry on with the expedition in an atmosphere of utmost secrecy (Roberts, 446). Not even Governor John Evans, General Curtis, nor the press knew of intentions of the Third Colorado Calvary led by Colonel Chivington. The troops in Colonel Chivington’s command were only told about where they were heading a few weeks into November of 1864. It was not until the night before the attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, November 28th, 1864, that the troops were informed of the plans to execute the Native Americans in Sand Creek (Roberts, 447).




Sand Creek Massacre:





     In the months leading up to the Sand Creek Massacre, there were many that believed that Colonel Chivington’s Reputation in the Colorado Cavalry suffered. In August of 1864, the city of Denver was under martial law, and Colonel Chivington was inactive in the war, he was politicking, and he had an imperious behavior that turned people away (Roberts, 381). His arrogance started to get the best of him and the doubt among everyone that knew him started to sink in. Most of his peers, commanding officers, and other commanders started to question their trust in Chivington.


     Colonel Chivington was a volunteer officer, and his commission as such was due to expire on September 23, 1864 (Roberts, 384). He was nearing the end of his command when he was given an extension to his command due in large part because of a campaign that delayed any change in power throughout the Colorado Regiments for the time being. Resolve in ongoing conflicts needed to be resolved before the loss of commanders transpired. This being the case, Colonel Chivington found new life in his power and rejuvenated his self-image back to the way he was when he was first appointed the Colonel ranking. 


     His first order of duty was to protect a mail route from Salt Lake City through to Nebraska, which they were having trouble doing so due to attacks from the Cheyenne Indians. There was a small incident where Chivington was part of a slaying of ten Cheyenne in early October, 1864, and it caught the attention of many in the area. The act was treated as a victory, and was celebrated in Denver and through the press. It caught the attention of a one General Connor—a General in Nebraska known for being a decorated Indian fighter—who Chivington admired and idolized (Roberts, 389). General Connor was described as a “fierce, red-bearded Irishman,” (Roberts, 389) and was known for having a reputation of the best Indian fighter in the West. 


     Arguably, Chivington was inspired by General Connor to perform an attack on Indians in the near future. General Connor made it known to Governor Evans of Colorado that he planned a winter campaign against the hostiles, in which the Governor replied saying, “glad you are coming . . . . Bring all the force you can, then pursue, kill and destroy them” (Roberts, 392). Evans and Connor met in mid-November and developed conversation on the campaign against the Indians, but Evans soon left for Washington in order to promote the idea and inquire about receiving troops for the campaign. Colonel Chivington had kept his plans under wraps while this was going on, and neither Evans nor Connor knew of Chivington’s intentions. On November 20th, just days after Evans departed to Washington, Chivington left Denver with the Third Regiment. 


     While Chivington led his Third Regiment on a secret mission to southeastern Colorado Territory, reports came in that the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians sought peace and believed that they were perfectly safe at Sand Creek; however, they still felt as though they were prisoners in the Sand Creek Village because they were being watched over by the Colorado Regiments, they could not leave their reservation, and if they left their lands, there would be consequences (Roberts, 406).


     As the Third Regiment traveled closer to Sand Creek, stopping at every army post along the way, rumors circulated that there were Indians in the area, reassuring Chivington that he was certain that there were going to be Indians at Sand Creek. The last stop was at Fort Lyon, the closest fort to Sand Creek (Roberts, 419).


     Chivington gained 125 more men at Fort Lyon, and rode into the night of November 28th, 1864, the night before the attack. The Third Regiment camped out below where the Cheyenne Indians were and waited until dawn to carry out the surprise attack.


     On the morning of November 29th, 1864, Colonel Chivington led an attack on the Sand Creek Village; The Cheyenne Indians were totally surprised (Roberts, 421). Chaos ensued. Some of the Indian Chiefs tried to halt the battle, but did not succeed. Men, woman, and children were shot down and killed. Over a hundred Indians died and many bodies were mutilated, where the “soldiers cut off ears and fingers . . . . slashed open the body of a pregnant woman and cut the unborn child from the womb . . . . cut off ears for pocket pieces . . . . cut out the privates of women and stretched them over their saddle bows or attached them to their hats” (Roberts, 434). The unthinkable happened during the battle. Most of the dead were scalped in order to provide “trophies” (Roberts, 433) for the soldiers. The first report from Chivington conveyed the following:


“In the last ten days my command has marched three hundred miles—one hundred of which the snow was two feet deep. After a march of forty miles last night, I, at daylight this morning, attacked a Cheyenne village of one hundred and thirty lodges, from nine hundred to one thousand warriors strong. We killed chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Little Robe, and between four and five hundred other Indians; captured between four and five hundred ponies and mules. Our loss is nine killed and thirty-either wounded. All did nobly. I think I will catch some more of them about eighty miles on Smoky Hill. We found a white man’s scalp, not more than three day old, in a lodge.” (Roberts, 436-437).






Black Kettle





Governor John Evans





     In conclusion, the events leading up to the Sand Creek Massacre were important in the way the United States continuously pushed the Native Americans aside in order to achieve Manifest Destiny. There was constant tension between the United States and the Native Americans to the point that eliminating the Cheyenne and Arapaho was a goal for the United States. The Native Americans were no longer welcome to live in these lands as the United States pushed westward. It is clear that the Native Americans were no longer welcome in these lands through many treaties which always favored the United States. Tyrannical leaders in the Colorado militias, like Colonel Chivington, abused their power by forcing their troops to slaughter Native Americans, causing underlying hatred between the groups. The relationship between the Native Americans and the United States Army that developed led to more conflict throughout this nation's history. 





Green, Jerome A., and Douglass D. Scott. "Finding Sand Creek."  University of Oklahoma Press. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.


McDermott, John D. "Circle of Fire." Stackpole Books, Web. 10 Dec. 2014


Meyers, J.J. "Sand Creek Massacre." History Net Where History Comes Alive World US History Online RSS. Wild West, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.


Roberts, Gary L. Sand Creek: Tragedy and Symbol. Diss. U of Oklahoma, 1984. Print.




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