Waging peace, 150 years after the Sand Creek Massacre

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]N this 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, an effort is underway to scrub Colorado maps of the name Chivington. Longmont did so in 2004, replacing Chivington Drive with the cheerier name of Sunrise.

But there’s still a Chivington in Colorado. Located near the massacre site 180 miles southeast of Denver, it consists of a handful of buildings, most of them losing steadily to the winds, the sun, and gravity itself. Even the post office was abandoned in the 1980s. The road sign looks sturdy enough, but a petition launched at change.org by Victoria S. LeftHand of St. Louis would assign a new, undetermined name.

John Chivington, the namesake, lingers as a one of Colorado’s most perplexing, heartburn-inducing individuals. Arriving in the Colorado gold camps as a Methodist preacher, the stocky, 250-pound Chivington was an ardent abolitionist, believing fervently in the wrongness of human slavery. In New Mexico, at the Battle of La Glorietta Pass in 1862, he became a hero as leader of the Colorado militia that scuttled Texan Confederates who intended to gain control of the Rocky Mountain gold camps.

[pullquote]The last two Novembers, I’ve traveled to Sand Creek to feel the cold bite of dawn, to pinch the soil where the blood ran, to whiff the acrid scent of burning sage offered by the Cheyenne who return each year to remember.[/pullquote]

Conflicts with tribes of the Great Plains presented a more nuanced challenge. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe, new to the region themselves as of about 1820, led nomadic lives revolving around movement of bison herds and bloody skirmishes with other tribes, the Utes and the Pawnees. In contrast, they amiably accepted fur traders in places like Bent’s Fort and Fort Lupton and, for a time, did so with the gold-seekers.

It’s hard to pin down who flung the first stone. Perhaps conflict was inevitable as up to 100,000 people crisscrossed the Great Plains. A Sioux massacre of settlers in Minnesota heightened tensions. In Denver, ruffians raped Indian women. The U.S. Army set out to punish wrong-doers. Cheyenne and Arapahoe responded with revenge. By 1864, there was enough fear that settlers in Boulder had dug trenches. Display of the mutilated bodies of the Hungate family, massacred 40 miles east of Denver by a band of young Arapahoe men, put frontier camps even more on edge.

Fear abounded. So did hunger. Wagons hauling supplies were less secure, while Indians found their nomadic hunting constricted.

Chivington may have hoped that another major military victory would send him to Congress. What the historical record more clearly documents is that he had no patience for efforts to secure a peaceful outcome. As the top military commander in Colorado, he wanted to teach the Cheyenne and Arapahoe a lesson before the 100-day enlistments of many of his soldiers expired. For this he chose an easy target, what one of his subordinates later called the “only peaceful Indians in the country.”

After an all-night, 40-mile march from Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River, the 700 cavalrymen attacked the lodges of Arapahoe and Cheyenne at dawn on Nov. 29, 1864. By one estimate, 150 Indians, including women and children, died that day. They had assembled at Sand Creek believing they had been assured safety through the winter.

The Chivington Building near the Sand Creek Massacre site
The Chivington Building near the Sand Creek Massacre site

Several people had led them to believe in a peaceful outcome. One was Edward “Ned” Wynkoop, who is remembered by Wynkoop Street in Denver’s LoDo district. He was the first sheriff for Denver, a bit of a rowdy himself when young, but by 1864 an Army commander at Fort Lyon. While he harbored deep prejudice against the natives of the plains as “childlike,” circumstance and courage had allowed him to glimpse their humanity.

Wynkoop led several of the Indians to Denver to talk with Chivington and territorial Gov. John Evans in September 1864. He had pledged safe harbor in southeast Colorado through the winter. Deemed entirely too conciliatory with the Indians by his military superior, he was reassigned to a post in Kansas.

John Evans is remembered across the Colorado landscape, with a mountain, a town, and an avenue in Denver, for starters. If his life was one of many good deeds, his leadership in the events leading up to Sand Creek was questionable. He saw punishment, not peace, as the only possible outcome, and was guided by fear, not understanding, tacitly allowing the injustice of Sand Creek to occur. Later, after the evidence was presented to Congress, he was replaced as governor.

Perhaps more damning, in September, the University of Denver – which Evans founded – released a scathing report that finds he created the conditions that led to the Sand Creek Massacre.

In Colorado Springs, we have a street and school, Irving Howbert Elementary, named for an early settler—and a Sand Creek soldier who steadfastly defended the attack as justified. In Trinidad we have Sopris Road, named after E.B. Sopris, also an unapologetic participant in the killing.

From southeast Colorado, we have Prowers County, named after local rancher John Wesley Prowers, who Chivington arrested as a precaution. He feared Prowers would alert the Indians to the militia’s impending attack. They were probably right. His father-in-law, Long Bear, was a Cheyenne who was killed in the massacre.

Near the massacre site east of Eads, we have White Antelope Road, for a Cheyenne chief killed at Sand Creek. He had been to Washington D.C. the year before to meet with Abraham Lincoln. Another victim was Left Hand, whose name lingers in the creek that trickles from the foothills near Boulder. He was also called Niwot.

For the last two Novembers, I have traveled to Sand Creek, to feel the cold bite of dawn, to pinch the soil where this blood ran, to whiff the acrid scent of burning sage offered by the Cheyenne who return each year to remember. Last year, at the fairgrounds pavilion in Eads, I ate turkey provided all of us by local residents.

Chief Little Robe, whose Souther Cheyenne family was killed at Sand Creek.
Chief Little Robe, whose Southern Cheyenne family was killed at Sand Creek.

Sand Creek poses so many questions. Could American settlement occurred without these and the other grisly killings? What does it tell us about our wars today, our fears and hatreds? When revenge and punishment are the only answers, what does that gain us?

And how do you explain how individuals reacted differently? Chivington was an ardent abolitionist, and so was his one-time chief aide, Silas Soule, who in the run-up to the Civil War had conspired to free John Brown before his hanging at Harper’s Ferry. But Soule objected strenuously against the impending attack of Sand Creek as unjustified, while Chivington called for blood to flow, be that of women and children.

Jeff C. Campbell, an independent historical investigator who lives near Sand Creek, says the difference was that Soule and Wynkoop, who had also tried looked for avenues to peace, had spent time with the Indians. Doing so was an epiphany, seeing them as people. “They understood them as human beings,” he says.

Silas Soule died soon after Sand Creek. After testifying against Chivington, he was killed one night in April 1865 in Denver, possibly as retribution for his testimony. In 2012, a plaque was erected on the building at the corner 15th and Arapahoe to designate the location of his death. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along the South Platte River.

Black Kettle was another would-be agent of peace. He had imperfectly tried to lead the Cheyenne whom he influenced to figure out a way to accommodate themselves to the vast changes underway on the Great Plains. At Sand Creek, as the cavalry prepared to attack, he had ran from his lodge and hoisted an American flag while assuring his followers that they would not be harmed. Somehow he survived Sand Creek and rescued his wife, who had been shot several times, but also survived. Together, they died almost four years to the day later at an encampment along the Washita River in Oklahoma. Leading the attack was Gen. George Custer.

My own small proposal to effect healing involves remembering Silas Soule and Black Kettle. With our highway names, we remember Gerald Ford through Vail, Ronald Reagan through Colorado Springs, and the 10th Mountain Division from Minturn to Leadville.

Might Colorado do something similar, but recognizing the agents of peace, putting the names of Black Kettle and Silas Soule on U.S. 287.

That highway passes near the massacre site and through Eads, continuing to Denver as Colfax Avenue. At Federal Boulevard it strikes north into Wyoming. Once in Wyoming, a portion of 287 is called the Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Trail on its way to the Wind River Reservation.

Waging peace is such a difficult process. That’s the most vivid lesson that emerges from the atrocities and injustice of Sand Creek.

[Massacre site photos by Allen Best; Chief Little Robe courtesy The National Park Service. ]


  1. There is something about the use of the word, “punishment”, in your article that reminds me of today’s Mohammedan fanatics, who chop heads off Western men who seek to render aid in time of warfare and chaos. Perhaps one might just call racism and bigotry what they are; and describe Chivington as what, at heart, he and his cohorts, actually were.

    American history is full to bursting with incidences of WASP Clergy and their notions about people of different skin colors, along with much testimony as to what actions they took to ensure that these notions pervaded the American culture for Centuries, even up to today. Indeed, it was from a very honored member of this group that I “learned” that “one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity” was, “N-word don’t have souls.” And, his opinions of Indians were exactly the same.

    History is the record of the way things WERE. And, until and unless we recognize that simple fact, humanity cannot, and will not, strive to achieve difference, and greater understanding and appreciation of the worth of all others. The “new” notions, of teaching history only to glorify the prejudices of those who believe it best to stick with “how history ought to have been”, is a program for failure throughout.

    Leave the names, and the records, of the infamous in place.

  2. It’s good to see our state finally wrestling with the lingering effects of the tragedy at Sand Creek. Allen does a fine job of laying out the story without bias. And his proposal is modest. I had even higher hopes that a governor who made a fortune using Wynkoop’s name would honor Silas Soule who was assassinated shortly after testfying against Chivington in Denver. But it’s why past time we as a state stop glorifying racist men who slaughtered women and children and honor true Colorado heroes like Soule and Black Kettle.

  3. I’m not sure if these postings are still active but here are my thoughts: the changing of names on streets, buildings, schools may be a noble undertaking and I will leave that up to the residents of those areas to decide. But on the renaming of the “town” of Chivington I say leave that spot as is with no upkeep of buildings and no changes to further its existence, except of course the public roads. Let the prairie reclaim that place as its already doing. That is truly cleansing in my eyes. Slowly it will happen and 1 day no one will remember it was there. To change it at all will keep it alive and a distraction to the reality that occurred farther to the East at Big Sandy Creek. Just saying! All My Relations Mitakuye Oyasin

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