On a chilled November morning on the Colorado plains, dawn had just broken across the frosted landscape. Nearby, Sand Creek slowly snaked and trickled under the weight of the season’s ice and snow, and lodges of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes nestled near the creek’s bank, gently puffing smoke from their cooking fires while their occupants sleepily stirred awake.
Outside, perhaps silhouetted by the dawn’s rays, more than 800 troops appeared atop the ridge of Sand Creek.
Then came a shot, followed by a hail of gunfire and a pounding of military artillery. Shouts, blood-curdling screams and cries of pain and death reverberated in the heavy fall air. The bayonets and swords of the 1st and 3rd Colorado Cavalries, their blades clean and hard from the cold, plunged into warm Indian flesh in the brisk fall morning, spilling innocent blood on the virgin snow.
By the time the Sand Creek Massacre ended the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, more than 160 Cheyenne and Arapahoe lay dead, two-thirds of the dead being elderly, women and children.
At the end of the carnage two flags, an American flag and a white flag of surrender raised before the attack solemnly flapped atop Chief Black Kettle’s lodge. Nearby in the snow, Chief Black Kettle lay dead.
Last Saturday, more than 400 people gathered at the dedication ceremony for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Kiowa County, Colo., where, after 25 years of work, former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (a Northern Cheyenne) and others have succeeded in getting national recognition for the massacre site.
Finally. And, while the dedication of the Sand Creek Massacre site as a National Historic site is long overdue, the dedication of this site also represents a much-needed revision in the way Colorado and the United States government views the so-called “Indian Wars” of the late 19th century.
Following Colonel Chivington’s (the commanding officer for the Sand Creek Massacre) return to Denver to report his ‘victory’ against the ‘savages’ of the plains, this excerpt from a 1864 Rocky Mountain News editorial reflected the opinion of the majority of Colorado at the time: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.”
The editorial continues: “It was estimated that between three and four hundred of the savages got away with their lives.” The Sand Creek Massacre has only recently been considered in Colorado history as a massacre.
According to the Denver Post, a 1909 Civil War memorial displayed in the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver listed Sand Creek as a great Union victory. It wasn’t until 2002 that an additional plaque was added to correct this claim.
In contrast, John S. Smith, an eyewitness and U.S. Indian interpreter, testified before Congress to a very different scene in Sand Creek: “They were terribly mutilated, lying there in the water and sand; most of them in the bed of the creek, dead and dying, making many struggles. . With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children, two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.”
The image of the American Indian as a ‘savage warrior’ still persists in American public opinion today. Many textbooks, encyclopedias and even scholarly works still refer to the Wounded Knee Massacre of Dec. 29th, 1890, in South Dakota as a “battle” in the third outbreak of the Indian Wars, even though more than 300 Lakota Sioux lay dead, slaughtered by U.S. Army troops.
The picture at Wounded Knee was eerily similar to that of Sand Creek: Women, children, unarmed men and elderly lay dead. Eighteen Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded for the “battle” at Wounded Knee, and only recently has Wounded Knee been designated as a massacre site.
The dedication of Sand Creek as a massacre site, while tragic, marks a turning point in Colorado and indeed national historical interpretation of the white conquest of the West.
The historical biases of the past are slowly being erased, and historical humanity is finally being shown to the victims of ruthless agents of the U.S. Government that made Sand Creek run red Nov. 29th, 1864.
As Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell correctly put it: “If there were any savages that day, it was not the Indian people.” Luckily, Colorado history is starting to reflect that.
Drew Haugen is a senior International Studies major. His column appears every Monday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.