In A Nutshell
On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington led 700 men on a raid against a peaceful Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, Colorado, slaughtering between 200 and 400 Native Americans, with at least 70 percent of them women and children. He wanted to regain his Civil War hero status as a stepping-stone to become the first Congressman from Colorado, which didn’t happen. However, Congress later condemned Chivington for his “foul and dastardly massacre.” But he had already resigned from the army, so he was spared a court-martial. Later that year, the federal government promised reparations for the “Sand Creek Massacre” but never paid them.
The Whole Bushel
Although nothing that occurred afterward was worse than the horrific slaughter of November 29, 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre eventually became as much a clash of two white men as a massacre of Native Americans by white American soldiers during the US Civil War. It all started with the hunger for glory and power by a former minister who wanted to recreate his Civil War hero status.
In 1844, 23-year-old John Chivington became a Methodist minister. With the Church sending him to establish congregations on the western frontier, he oversaw the building of churches and often enforced the law as well. In 1853, he went on a missionary expedition to the Wyandot tribe in Kansas.
His early life would make him seem like a natural hero, one who wasn’t afraid to stand up for his beliefs, even if it meant physically fighting the enemy. He was an abolitionist in Missouri before the Civil War, openly contemptuous of both slavery and the South’s desire to secede from the Union. In 1856, some members of his congregation who supported slavery threatened to tar and feather him if he didn’t stop preaching. When those men entered his church the following Sunday, Chivington boldly stepped up to the pulpit with two guns and a Bible. “I am going to preach here today,” he declared. From then on, he was known as the “Fighting Parson.”
When the Civil War finally erupted, Chivington declined a chaplain commission, opting instead to fight. As an army major in 1862, his troops surprised an enemy supply train by rappeling down the walls of a canyon in New Mexico at Glorietta Pass. The western threat from rebel forces was stopped, and Chivington became a Civil War hero, elevated to the rank of colonel.
He returned to the territory of Colorado, championing its admission to the Union as a state. With his hero status, he wanted to become Colorado’s first Congressman. But before statehood occurred, the hostility between Colorado’s white residents and the Cheyenne grew significantly. The Denver newspaper urged readers to destroy the local Native American population. Chivington jumped on the bandwagon, declaring that the only way to deal with the Cheyenne was to kill them.
He set his sights on a peaceful Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle, who had negotiated with white officials for his people to stay safely at their Sand Creek camp. With his Colorado regiment ridiculed as the “Bloodless Third” because they hadn’t seen battle, Chivington was looking for a way to regain his hero status as a stepping-stone to Congress.
On November 29, 1864, he led 700 men on a raid against the unprepared Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, slaughtering between 200 and 400 Native Americans, with at least 70 percent of them women and children. Chivington painted the battle as a brutal one against a well-manned, well-armed enemy. He emerged victorious, with him and his troops parading as heroes through Denver with the scalps of their butchered foes.
Chivington might have gotten away with the lies about his murderous rampage if it weren’t for a friend who had fought with him against the Confederate soldiers at Glorietta Pass. Captain Silas Soule was also with Chivington at Sand Creek, but he was sickened by the senseless massacre of peaceful Native Americans. Neither he nor his men participated in the indiscriminate killing. (They also did nothing to stop it.)
After it was over, Soule wrote a letter detailing what had happened to Major Edward Wynkoop: “The massacre lasted six or eight hours . . . it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. [. . .] They were all scalped, and as high as a half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped.”
Lieutenant Joseph Cramer sent Wynkoop a similar letter: “I think the Officer in command should be hung. [. . .] Bucks, woman [sic] and children, were scalped, fingers cut off to get the rings on them . . . little children shot, while begging for their lives. [. . .] I told the Col. I thought it was murder to jump them friendly Indians. He says in reply; Damn any man or men who are in sympathy with them.”
In early 1865, Congress and the US Army began their investigations. The Congressional committee condemned Chivington for his “foul and dastardly massacre.” But he had already resigned from the army, so he was spared a court-martial. Soule was murdered shortly after his testimony by people believed to be friends of Chivington. Later that year, the federal government promised reparations for the massacre but never paid them.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Carptrash
PBS: John M. Chivington
National Park Service: The Life of Silas Soule
The Arapaho Project: Letters written by those at Sand Creek
Smithsonian: The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More