This quiet tributary in eastern Colorado was meant to be a place of peace. Instead, it marks one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.

It’s dawn, November 29, 1864.

The sun is barely peekabooing over the mountainous horizon in southern Colorado Territory, sparkling across the chilly waters of Big Sandy Creek.

In a tiny, tucked-away pocket of riverbed flatland, bands of Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne are camped. In total, more than 400 American Indians are quietly preparing for the day.

Around the river bend, Col. John Milton Chivington, of the U.S. Volunteers, is briefing nearly 1,000 heavily armed men for battle. (Most are still drunk from anticipatory revelry the night before.) They’ve marched nearly 50 midnight miles, and they’re ready to fight.

What comes next will forever be remembered as one of the most infamous and deadly incidents in all of the American Indian Wars.

Time of War

The American Indian Wars bridge more than 200 years of conflicts between Native Americans and New World settlers, spanning across the entirety of the United States, from the Powhatan Indian Attack in 1622, when Powhatan Indians retaliate against the encroaching Virginia colonists, to the end of the Apache Wars in 1886, after Geronimo surrenders in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon.

But until the mid-1800s, most of these conflicts occur in the East and South. The West is a no man’s land, filled with harsh mountainous landscapes and cold nights. There is little need for white settlers to venture westward, leaving the vast plains to the American Indians who have called them home for centuries.

Then comes the California gold rush in 1849.

It is a time of rapid growth and expansion. Hundreds of thousands of white settlers trek westward, dreaming of land, gold, and prosperity. Mining and farming communities spring up.

And the effects on American Indians are considerable.

Pristine hunting grounds are destroyed. Game becomes scarce. Waters are polluted. Smallpox, influenza, and measles spread in large numbers. Fatality rates skyrocket to more than 75 percent.

In the years following the gold rush, tensions between Native Americans and white settlers in the West escalate. Deadly skirmishes become increasingly commonplace.

As the bloody Civil War begins in the East and South, the West becomes filled with its own unique brand of war. The vacuum left by departing U.S. Army troops, who are dispatched to fight the Confederacy, is filled by U.S. Volunteers, state militias, and renegade roughnecks. This proxy army takes its charge to protect the remaining settlers to heart, ultimately exacting its own brand of vengeance on the American Indians who dare to stand their ground, believing even at the end that they have a chance at peace.

Place of Peace

Violent battles ensue for months. But bloodshed can only last so long. After years of being outmanned, Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne tribes are resigned to negotiate peace with federal authorities.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 first defines Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho territory as the lands between the Rocky Mountains and western Kansas, including present-day Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado.

Conflicts still arise, but the treaty stands for nearly a decade. Still, by 1861 the westward expansion is marching on. America’s rapid population growth in the West has federal authorities keen to redefine Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho territories once again.

And with few options, the chiefs of both tribes agree to sign the Treaty of Fort Wise, ceding most of the lands designated to them in the Fort Laramie treaty. Their new territory is less than a tenth of the size of their previous reserves.

In exchange for giving up the bulk of their native land, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho are promised peaceful asylum in a designated safe zone — near a tributary of the Arkansas River called Big Sandy Creek.

But Col. John Milton Chivington doesn’t believe in peace treaties.

Chivington’s Attack

The Methodist preacher turned Civil War hero is still raw after spending years fighting Confederate flag-waving soldiers and treaty-waving Indians. He’s tasted blood, and now he’s on the warpath. With hundreds of unsuspecting American Indians just around the corner, he’s found his perfect opportunity.

He stands to address his men, knowing full well that the Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne pose no threat.

“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he says. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”

And then, for emphasis: “Kill and scalp all, big and little.”

He does just that. It’s a violent affair from the start.

As the chaos begins, the American Indians raise American and white flags — symbols of peace. But Chivington ignores the plea, instead raising his arm for attack.

Cannon and rifle fire rain down upon the village. Indians scatter. The hysterical militiamen charge, chasing down men, women, and children, killing them cruelly and without mercy.

The unrelenting attack lasts most of the day. The militia uses more than 1 ton of ammunition.

But once the shooting ends, the bloodshed doesn’t cease. Chivington wants victory, not prisoners. So, as the smoke clears, his militia slaughters the wounded. They scalp the dead, mutilating women, children, and infants. They ransack the village, taking supplies and livestock. Whatever is left, they destroy and burn.

In all, Chivington’s men scalp, rape, and murder hundreds of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Meanwhile, the militia loses fewer than 10 men, mostly due to friendly fire and sloppiness.

According to Congressional testimony in 1865 by John S. Smith, an American interpreter present at the time of the attack, the carnage was ghastly.

“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 ... . With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors ... .
By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops.”

The Aftermath

Just weeks later, an editorial in the Rocky Mountain News notes, “In no single battle in North America, we believe, have so many Indians been slain.” But to this day, the exact number of slain Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho is still unknown. At the time, Chivington claims as many as 600 were killed. Historians will say the number is likely closer to 160, mostly women and children.

In the weeks immediately following the massacre, Chivington is praised for his “heroic victory” at Sand Creek. He’s even honored with a parade throughout the streets of Denver. The colonel publicly displays his battle trophies in theaters and saloons.

But the merriment doesn’t last long. Soon, rumors of what really happened begin to circulate. Several investigations are conducted, including two by the military and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The latter panel concludes, “the truth is that [Chivington] surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deeds he and the men under his command had performed.”

Despite the decision, no charges are brought against Chivington and his men. Chivington resigns from the service in 1865, and public humiliation ends his dreams of becoming a politician. Instead, he lives out his life working as a freight hauler, editor, and deputy sheriff until his death in 1894.

From the November/December 2014 issue.