On this day in 1864, peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians are massacred by a band of Colonel John Chivington’s Colorado volunteers at Sand Creek, Colorado.
The causes of the Sand Creek massacre were rooted in the long conflict for control of the Great Plains of eastern Colorado. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 guaranteed ownership of the area north of the Arkansas River to the Nebraska border to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. However, by the end of the decade, waves of Euro-American miners flooded across the region in search of gold in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, placing extreme pressure on the resources of the arid plains.By 1861, tensions between new settlers and Native Americans were rising. On February 8 of that year, a Cheyenne delegation, headed by Chief Black Kettle, along with some Arapahoe leaders, accepted a new settlement with the Federal government. The Native Americansceded most of their land but secured a 600-square mile reservation and annuity payments. The delegation reasoned that continued hostilities would jeopardize their bargaining power. In the decentralized political world of the tribes, Black Kettle and his fellow delegates represented only part of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. Many did not accept this new agreement, called the Treaty of Fort Wise.
The new reservation and Federal payments proved unable to sustain the tribes. During the Civil War, tensions again rose and sporadic violence broke out between Anglos and Native Americans. In June 1864, John Evans, governor of the territory of Colorado, attempted to isolate recalcitrant Native Americans by inviting “friendly Indians” to camp near military forts and receive provisions and protection. He also called for volunteers to fill the military void left when most of the regular army troops in Colorado were sent to other areas during the Civil War. In August 1864, Evans met with Black Kettle and several other chiefs to forge a new peace, and all parties left satisfied. Black Kettle moved his band to Fort Lyon, Colorado, where the commanding officer encouraged him to hunt near Sand Creek. In what can only be considered an act of treachery, Chivington moved his troops to the plains, and on November 29, they attacked the unsuspecting Native Americans, scattering men, women, and children and hunting them down. The casualties reflect the one-sided nature of the fight. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. The Colorado volunteers returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.
The atrocities committed by the soldiers were initially praised, but then condemned as the circumstances of the massacre emerged. Chivington resigned from the military and aborted his budding political career. Black Kettle survived and continued his peace efforts. In 1865, his followers accepted a new reservation in Indian Territory.