by Robert A. Waters
During the so-called Civil War, Federal troops weren’t content to commit atrocities only against Southern civilians. In 1864, they turned their attention to an entirely peaceful group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians camping near Sand Creek, Colorado.
A journalist at USHistory.org describes the scene: “Sand Creek was a village of approximately 800 Cheyenne Indians in southeast Colorado. Black Kettle, the local chief, had approached a United States Army fort seeking protection for his people. On November 28, 1864, he was assured that his people would not be disturbed at Sand Creek, for the territory had been promised to the Cheyennes (sic) by an 1851 treaty. The next day would reveal that promise as a bald-faced lie.
Union Col. John Chivington
As the American flag waved futilely above the encampment, government troops began blasting away with cannons and rifles. During the chaos, the Indians also raised a white flag, which was ignored.
Few Indians fought back. Many attempted to flee, but the Union troops had surrounded and killed their horses. Other Indians ran down to the creek and buried themselves in the sand. Chivington’s troops, however, dug them out like moles, killing and scalping them.
One soldier, John S. Smith, testified before a Congressional committee about the dreadful scene: “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 ...”
Another eye-witness, Stan Hoig, also testified: “Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles – the last for a tobacco pouch.”
Black Kettle, who escaped the massacre, said: “Although wrongs have been done me, I live in hopes. I have not got two hearts ... I once thought that I was the only man that persevered to be the friend of the white man, but since they have come and cleaned out our lodges, horses, and everything else, it is hard for me to believe white men anymore.”
Still, he made another truce with the U. S. government. This time it cost him his life. In part, because of the massacre at Sand Creek, groups of renegade Cheyenne had begun attacking settlers. Using this as an excuse, none other than two famous Union Civil War generals, Phillip Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer, conspired to once again murder innocent Indians. On November 27, 1868, Custer attacked yet another peaceful encampment along the Washita River in Oklahoma Territory, killing about 100 Cheyenne. As usual, most were women and children. This time Black Kettle wasn’t so lucky—as he and his wife fled across the Washita, Federal troops shot them in the back, killing them.
While Custer met his fate at the Little Big Horn, Chivington lived a long and sordid life.
Because he resigned from the Army, he was never court-martialed. However, the facts presented about Sand Creek at several state and congressional hearings ruined his reputation.
In 1865, he traveled to Nebraska after his son, who owned a freighting business, drowned. Unable to keep his hands off Sarah, his dead son’s wife, he seduced and married her. After gaining control of his son’s business, he abandoned Sarah, prompting her to sue him. An editorialist in the Rocky Mountain News wrote: “What [Chivington] will do next to outrage the moral sense and feelings of his day and generation remains to be seen; but be sure it will be something . . .”
The journalist was right. Accusations of murder, assault, wife-beating, forgery, and extortion were a few of the legal scrapes that kept his name in the news. At one point, he fled to Canada to avoid charges against him. Chivington was elected sheriff of Arapahoe County, Colorado, but quickly found himself on the wrong side of the law once more. Then, while working at the coroner’s office, he stole $800 from a corpse. After admitting the theft, Chivington escaped jail by agreeing to repay the family.
Soon his home burned down, and it was widely assumed that he’d done it to collect on insurance.
An unrepentant John Chivington, Abolitionist, soldier, mass murderer, and all-around scoundrel, died in 1894.
Comanche Chief Black Kettle