The Sand Creek Massacre, a blatant and unjustified attack on civilian targets, was the worst such incident conducted against American Indians during the nineteenth century. One of the heroes of the 1862 Civil War battle of Glorietta Pass, Colonel John M. Chivington considered himself maligned as the local Denver press labeled him “Bloodless Chivington,” a reference to his inactivity since the famous New Mexican battle. Only increasing tensions in Colorado, Indians had raided numerous settlements throughout the summer of 1864.
Humiliated by the press and angry at Indians at large, Chivington, a former Methodist minister, led a small but well-armed and determined force into eastern Colorado searching for Indian encampments. Even more significant, an attack might further Chivington’s political ambitions once Colorado became a state.
Chivington searched the Great Plains in vain for two months. In extreme eastern Colorado, along the Sand Creek, Chivington and his men ran across Black Kettle’s village of nearly five hundred Northern Cheyenne Indians in late November 1864. Although Black Kettle’s band had had conflicts with American settlers in the past, it was currently flying the American flag under the protection of Major Edward W. Wynkoop of Fort Lyon. That fort had also supplied the band with goods and provisions for the winter.
Though the village flew an American and a white surrender flag, Chivington and his forces struck at dawn on November 29, 1864. Within a few hours, the Colorado forces had killed and mutilated nearly 200 of the formerly 500 member tribe. Most of those killed and cut apart were women and children. Taking scalps from women (near the vagina) and children, Chivington and his men returned to Denver and proudly displayed their “trophies” to great applause of the Denver citizenry and the local press.
The massacre polarized the Indians on the Great Plains. It became apparent to them that they might become the next victims of unrestrained brutality. Their distrust of Americans increased significantly and they retaliated across the Plains. Most eastern Americans were horrified by the events in eastern Colorado, and Congress held several hearings investigating Chivington and the massacre. None found him guilty.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the massacre. While as Americans, we should celebrate that which we do well, we should also admit and repent of our crimes. This is one of our greatest sins.