Colorado, November 29, 1864:
Washington, December 20, 1864 — “The affair at Fort Lyon, Colorado, in which Colonel Chivington destroyed a large Indian village, and all its inhabitants, is to be made the subject of congressional investigation. Letters received from high officials in Colorado say that the Indians were killed after surrendering, and that a large proportion of them were women and children.”
The following contains excerpts from an enquiry called by the fledgling American government into the practices of the U.S. Calvary against Cheyenne and Arapahoe Chiefs, men, women and children and others with them. During a campaign which has come to be known as the Sandy Creek Massacre.
There is also a contemporary newspaper report from 1864 regarding the brutal massacre of November 29, 1864, on peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians led by a band of Colonel John Chivington’s Colorado volunteers at Sand Creek, Colorado.
Testimonies from the Inquiry show, that at nine o’clock in the evening, a command set out from Fort Lyon for the temporary Indian village. They were told to gather and await the government’s proposal for peace during the Indian Wars.
“As daylight dawned we came in sight of the Indian camp, after a forced midnight march of forty-two miles, in eight hours, across the rough, unbroken plain. But little time was required for preparation. The forces had been divided and arranged for battle on the march, and just as the sun rose they dashed upon the enemy with yells that would put a Comanche army to blush. Although utterly surprised, the savages were not unprepared, and for a time their defence told terribly against our ranks. Their main force rallied and formed in line of battle on the bluffs beyond the creek, where they were protected by rudely constructed rifle-pits, from which they maintained a steady fire until the shells from company C’s (third regiment) howitzers began dropping among them, when they scattered and fought each for himself in genuine Indian fashion. As the battle progressed the field of carriage widened until it extended over not less than twelve miles of territory. The Indians who could escape or secreted themselves, and by three o’clock in the afternoon the carnage had ceased. It was estimated that between three and four hundred of the savages got away with their lives. Of the balance there were neither wounded nor prisoners. Their strength at the beginning of the action was estimated at nine hundred.
Their village consisted of 130 Cheyenne and with Arapahoe lodges. These, with their contents, were totally destroyed. Among there effects were large supplies of flour, sugar, coffee, tea, &c. Women’s and children’s clothing were found; also books and many other articles which must have been taken from captured trains or houses. One white man’s scalp was found which had evidently been taken but a few days before. The Chiefs fought with unparalleled bravery, falling in front of their men. One of them charged alone against a force of two or three hundred, and fell pierced with balls far in advance of his braves.
Our attack was made by five battalions. The first regiment, Colonel Chivington, part of companies C,D,E,G, H and K, numbering altogether about two hundred and fifty men, was divided into two battalions; the first under command of Major Anthony, and the second under Lieutenant Wilson, until the latter was disabled, when the command devolved upon Lieutenant Dunn. The three battalions of the third, Colonel Shoup, were led by Lieutenant Colonel Bowen, Major Sayr, and Captain Cree. The action was begun by the battalion of Lieutenant Wilson, who occupied the right, and by a quick and bold movement cut off the enemy from their herd of stock. From this circumstance we gained our great advantage. A few Indians secured horses, but the great majority of them had to fight or fly on foot.
Among those killed were all the Cheyenne chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Robe, Left Hand, Knock Knee, One Eye, and another, name unknown. Not a single prominent man of the tribe remains, and the tribe itself is almost annihilated … It has been reported that the chief Left Hand, of that tribe, was killed, but Colonel Chivington is of the opinion that he was not. Among the stock captured were a number of government horses and mules.
The Indian camp was well supplied with defensive works. For half a mile along the creek there was an almost continuous chain of rifle-pits, and another similar line of works crowned the adjacent bluff. Pits had been dug at all the salient points for miles. After the battle twenty-tree dead Indians were taken from one of these pits and 27 from another.
“In no single battle in North America, we believe, have so many Indians been slain,” says one report.
Mr. John S. Smith.
The Inquiry of United States Indian interpreter and special Indian agent
“The issue of yesterday’s News, containing the following dispatch, created considerable of a sensation in this city, particularly among the “Thirdsters” (third regiment) as this and others who participated in the recent campaign and the battle on Sand creek.
That “surrendering” must have been the happy thought of an exceedingly vivid imagination, for we can hear of nothing of the kind from any of those who were engaged in the battle. On the contrary, the savages fought like devils to the end, and one of our pickets was killed and scalped by them the next day after the battle, and a number of others were fired upon. In one instance a party of the vidette pickets were compelled to beat a hasty retreat to save their lives, full twenty-four hours after the battle closed. This does not look much like the Indians had surrendered.”
Question. How many Indians were there there?
Answer. There were 100 families of Cheyennes, and some six or eight lodges of Arapahoes.
Question. How many persons in all, should you say?
Answer. About 500 we estimate them at five to a lodge.
Question. 500 men, women and children?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question: Do you know the reason for that attack on the Indians?
Answer: I do not know any exact reason. I have heard a great many reasons given. I have heard that that whole Indian war had been brought on for selfish purposes. Colonel Chivington was running for Congress in Colorado, and there were other things of that kind; and last spring a year ago he was looking for an order to go to the front, and I understand he had this Indian war in view to retain himself and his troops in that country, to carry out his electioneering purposes.
Question: Had there been, to your knowledge, any hostile act or demonstration on the part of these Indians or any of them?
Answer: Not in this band. But the northern band, the band known by the name of Dog soldiers of Cheyennes, had committed many depredations on the Platte.
Question: Do you know whether or not Colonel Chivington knew the friendly character of these Indians before he made the attack upon them?
Answer. It is my opinion that he did.
Question. Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?
Question. Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?
Answer. Yes, sir; I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.
Question. By whom were they mutilated?
Answer: By the United States troops.
Question: Were the warriors and women and children all huddled together when they were attacked?
Answer: They started and left the village altogether, in a body, trying to escape.
Testimony of Colonel J. M. Chivington
On the 29th day of November, 1864, the troops under my command attacked a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at a place known as Big Bend of Sandy, about forty miles north of Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory. There were in my command at that time about (500) five hundred men of the 3rd regiment Colorado cavalry, under the immediate command of Colonel George L. Shoup, of said 3rd regiment, and about (250) two hundred and fifty men of the 1st Colorado cavalry; Major Scott J. Anthony commanded one battalion of said 1st regiment, and Lieutenant Luther Wilson commanded another battalion of said 1st regiment. The 3rd regiment was armed with rifled muskets, and Star’s and Sharp’s carbines. A few of the men of that regiment had revolvers. The men of the 1st regiment were armed with Star’s and Sharp’s carbines and revolvers. The men of the 3rd regiment were poorly equipped; the supply of blankets, boots, hats, and caps was deficient. The men of the 1st regiment were well equipped; all these troops were mounted. I had four 12-pound mountain howitzers, manned by detachments from cavalry companies; they did not belong to any battery company.
Question: How many of them were old men, how many of them were women, and how many of them were children?
Answer: From the best and most reliable information I could obtain, there were in the Indian camp, at the time of the attack, about eleven (11) or twelve (12) hundred Indians: of these about seven hundred were warriors, and the remainder were women and children. I am not aware that there were any old men among them. There was an unusual number of males among them, for the reason that the war chiefs of both nations were assembled there evidently for some special purpose.
Question: What number did you lose in killed, what number in wounded, and what number in missing?
Answer. There were seven men killed, forty-seven wounded, and one was missing.
Question: What number of Indians were killed; and what number of the killed were women, and what number were children?
Answer: From the best information I could obtain, I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed; I cannot state positively the number killed, nor can I state positively the number of women and children killed. Officers who passed over the field, by my orders, after the battle, for the purpose of ascertaining the number of Indians killed, report that they saw but few women or children dead, no more than would certainly fall in an attack upon a camp in which they were. I myself passed over some portions of the field after the fight, and I saw but one woman who had been killed, and one who had hanged herself; I saw no dead children. From all I could learn, I arrived at the conclusion that but few women or children had been slain. I am of the opinion that when the attack was made on the Indian camp the greater number of squaws and children made their escape, while the warriors remained to fight my troops.
Question: Had you any, and if so, what reason, to believe that Black Kettle and the Indians with him, at the time of your attack, were at peace with the whites, and desired to remain at peace with them?
Answer. I had no reason to believe that Black Kettle and the Indians with him were in good faith at peace with the whites. The day before the attack Major Scott J. Anthony, lst Colorado cavalry, then in command at Fort Lyon, told me that these Indians were hostile; that he had ordered his sentinels to fire on them if they attempted to come into the post, and that the sentinels had fired on them; that he was apprehensive of an attack from these Indians, and had taken every precaution to prevent a surprise…
Question. What number of Indians were killed; and what number of the killed were women, and what number were children?
Answer. From the best information I could obtain, I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed; I cannot state positively the number killed, nor can I state positively the number of women and children killed. Officers who passed over the field, by my orders, after the battle, for the purpose of ascertaining the number of Indians killed, report that they saw but few women or children dead, no more than would certainly fall in an attack upon a camp in which they were. I myself passed over some portions of the field after the fight, and I saw but one woman who had been killed, and one who had hanged herself; I saw no dead children. From all I could learn, I arrived at the conclusion that but few women or children had been slain. I am of the opinion that when the attack was made on the Indian camp the greater number of squaws and children made their escape, while the warriors remained to fight my troops.”
But an unknown journalist with first hand knowledge as a witness and covered the inquiry did not agree and we offer his account for the record.
The newspaper report from 1865 is entitled: “Barbarous Massacre of Indians” makes some very damning statements.
“The head chief ran forward with a small white flag, but a general massacre was immediately commenced,” he wrote. “Men women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered. From the sucking bade to the old warrior, all who were overtaken were deliberately murdered. Not content with killing women and children, who were incapable of offering any resistance, the soldiers indulged in acts of barbarity of the most revolting character, such, it is to be hoped, as never before disgraced the acts of men claiming to be civilized. … For more than two hours the work of murder and barbarity was continued until more than 100 dead bodies, three-fourths of them women and children, lay on the plain as evidence of the fiendish malignity and cruelty of the officers who had sedulously and carefully plotted the massacre and of the soldiers who had also faithfully acted out the spirit of the officers.”
Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported the scene of these “soldiers” returning from the massacre:
“The ‘Bloody Thirsters’ made an imposing procession as they marched into the city (Denver). Denver citizens acclaimed the heroes of Sandy Creek and 100 scalps were displayed to enthusiastic patrons of a local theatre. Not displayed, and never produced, was a single white scalp said to have been found at the Cheyenne Camp.”
The findings of the inquiry stated, “This extraordinary act seems to be absolutely without palliation. The Indians had not only been friendly themselves, but had done all that lay in their power to restrain the lawlessness and violence of their tribes. The language of the Commissioners towards Colonel Chivington is most severe. The accused him of “having deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre.”
The inquiry recommended the immediate removal of all the officers who took part in the butchery, and who “disgraced the Government by whom they are employed.”