June 24

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 24, 1864:

Colorado Governor orders Indians to Sand Creek

Colorado Governor John Evans warns that all peaceful Indians in the region must report to the Sand Creek reservation or risk being attacked, creating the conditions that will lead to the infamous Sand Creek Massacre.

Evans' offer of sanctuary was at best halfhearted. His primary goal in 1864 was to eliminate all Native American activity in eastern Colorado Territory, an accomplishment he hoped would increase his popularity and eventually win him a U.S. Senate seat. Immediately after ordering the peaceful Indians to the reservation, Evans issued a second proclamation that invited white settlers to indiscriminately "kill and destroy all...hostile Indians." At the same time, Evans began creating a temporary 100-day militia force to wage war on the Indians. He placed the new regiment under the command of Colonel John Chivington, another ambitious man who hoped to gain high political office by fighting Indians.

The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians of eastern Colorado were unaware of these duplicitous political maneuverings. Although some bands had violently resisted white settlers in years past, by the autumn of 1864 many Indians were becoming more receptive to Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's argument that they must make peace. Black Kettle had recently returned from a visit to Washington, D.C., where President Abraham Lincoln had given him a huge American flag of which Black Kettle was very proud. He had seen the vast numbers of the white people and their powerful machines. The Indians, Black Kettle argued, must make peace or be crushed.

When word of Governor Evans' June 24 offer of sanctuary reached the Indians, however, most of the Indians remained distrustful and were unwilling to give up the fight. Only Black Kettle and a few lesser chiefs took Evans up on his offer of amnesty. In truth, Evans and Chivington were reluctant to see hostilities further abate before they had won a glorious victory, but they grudgingly promised Black Kettle his people would be safe if they came to Fort Lyon in eastern Colorado. In November 1864, the Indians reported to the fort as requested. Major Edward Wynkoop, the commanding federal officer, told Black Kettle to settle his band about 40 miles away on Sand Creek, where he promised they would be safe.

Wynkoop, however, could not control John Chivington. By November, the 100-day enlistment of the soldiers in his Colorado militia was nearly up, and Chivington had seen no action. His political stock was rapidly falling, and he seems to have become almost insane in his desire to kill Indians. "I long to be wading in gore!" he is said to have proclaimed at a dinner party. In this demented state, Chivington apparently concluded that it did not matter whether he killed peaceful or hostile Indians. In his mind, Black Kettle's village on Sand Creek became a legitimate and easy target.

At daybreak on November 29, 1864, Chivington led 700 men, many of them drunk, in a savage assault on Black Kettle's peaceful village. Most of the Cheyenne warriors were away hunting. In the awful hours that followed, Chivington and his men brutally slaughtered 105 women and children and killed 28 men. The soldiers scalped and mutilated the corpses, carrying body parts back to display in Denver as trophies. Amazingly, Black Kettle and a number of other Cheyenne managed to escape.

In the following months, the nation learned of Chivington's treachery at Sand Creek, and many Americans reacted with horror and disgust. By then, Chivington and his soldiers had left the military and were beyond reach of a court-martial. Chivington's political ambitions, however, were ruined, and he spent the rest of his inconsequential life wandering the West. The scandal over Sand Creek also forced Evans to resign and dashed his hopes of holding political office. Evans did, however, go on to a successful and lucrative career building and operating Colorado railroads.

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