Glory, Shame, and Remembrance at Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
At dawn on November 29, 1864, Colorado Territory Volunteers under the command of John M. Chivington (the “Hero of Glorietta Pass”) attacked an Indian encampment at Sand Creekabout 80 miles southeast of Denver. The outcome of the ensuing action was very one-sided, leaving several hundred Indian casualties and comparatively few injured and dead militiamen.
The action at Sand Creek was sold to the public as a hotly contested battle that yielded a glorious victory over bloodthirsty savages. In his December 7 field report of the Sand Creek affair, George Stroup, commander of the Third Colorado Volunteers, bragged that “….the historian will search in vain for braver deeds than were commited [sic] on that field of battle.” The region’s leading newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, editorialized that: “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.”
Later, rumors flew, an official inquiry was convened, and the truth came out. Sand Creek was not a “battle.” It was a slaughter. Chivington had led his militia unto Indian reservation land and ordered an attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho (led by Chief Black Kettle) who were ostensibly “under U.S. protection” and flying a U.S. flag. The white flag that the Indians broke out when the shooting started was simply ignored. The militiamen swept through the village, indiscriminately murdering noncombatants and warriors alike. The few warriors in the encampment offered little meaningful resistance. It turned out that most of the militia who were injured or killed at Sand Creek had been accidentally shot by their fellow militiamen, some of whom were drunk.
Though never made to stand trial for his criminal acts, Chivington was forced to resign from the Colorado militia and stay out of politics (including Colorado’s campaign for statehood). Historians have generally portrayed Chivington as a genocidal nutcase abetted by a rabble who shared his belief that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Official records certainly leave no doubt that Chivington and his men behaved very badly during and after the Sand Creek action, which has been variously dubbed the Battle of Sand Creek, the Chivington Massacre, and the Massacre of Cheyenne Indians. Witnesses testified that infants, children, women, old men, and other defenseless noncombatants were not killed by accident, but were instead murdered in a cold-blooded and brutal manner.
Estimates of the Indian casualties at Sand Creek vary, but there is general agreement that at least 150 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed. Indians who personally witnessed the carnage insist that this estimate is far too low. For example, Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird Cometsevah claimed that over 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho children, women, elders, and physically- or mentally handicapped people were murdered at Sand Creek.
After the massacre, the militiamen scalped and sexually mutilated many of the bodies. They then paraded before cheering crowds in Denver and displayed scalps, dead fetuses, female genitalia, and other grizzly trophies there and in the saloons where the adjourned to celebrate.
Like other shameful acts committed in the name of the American public, such as the federal government’s internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, the slaughter of peaceful Indians on the Sand Creek reservation is not the sort of thing that people of the modern era want to be reminded of. The understandable indignation of Native Americans notwithstanding, more than a century elapsed before there was any serious attempt to memorialize the Sand Creek massacre and come to terms with what happened there. Now that a mature and introspective America is dealing with its past in a more honest manner, this sorry episode can be openly acknowledged as an important part of America’s story. The proof of this lies in the fact that Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was authorized on November 7, 2000, to "recognize the national significance of the massacre in American history, and its ongoing significance to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the descendants of the massacre victims."
The fairly large park (12,500 acres within the authorized boundaries) was established on April 27, 2007, officially dedicated the next day, and opened to the public on June 1, 2007. You can visit it yourself if you like, but do bear in mind that this park is isolated, offers little to see and do, and is closed during the winter months. Accessing the site, which is situated in Kiowa County near the intersection of County Road 54 and County Road "W", requires negotiating about eight miles of dirt/sand roads that are poorly suited for use by motorcycles and large vehicles. No camping is allowed in the park, and visitors are cautioned that they should bring water and appropriate outdoor clothing.
Though site development plans are moving along, only a few basic park facilities and services have thus far been provided. A short (0.8 mile) trail with several interpretive panels leads from the public parking area to the site's monument marker. During the summer a few teepees were set up on the site near the creek.
Ranger-led programs are offered without charge during the site's hours of operation (9 a.m. – 4 p.m.). If you want to visit the park during the off-season (December 1 to April 1), you’ll need to make a special appointment.
With the passage of time, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site will assume more of the characteristics of a fully developed cultural/historical park. Towards this end, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is working on various projects in partnership with the State of Colorado; Kiowa County; representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes from Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming; private citizens; the Conservation Fund, and other NGOs. See the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site website and the park’s Fall 2007 General Management Plan Newsletter for additional relevant details about site and programs development.
Traveler trivia, no extra charge: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is our 391st national park, and therefore the youngest park in the entire National Park System.
Post Script, “Winners Get to Write the History” category: The above-mentioned George Stroup moved to Idaho, where his Indian Wars military service helped him prosper in business and politics. He eventually became one of Idaho’s most honored citizens. Today you can visit Washington, DC, and view a statue of Stroup in the National Statuary Hall, which is a room just south of the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol. There is no mention of Sand Creek.