Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Justice Denied by Tom Rizzo

A SHADOW OF EVIL fell across a peaceful Indian village in southeastern Colorado on a cold November morning in 1864. At dawn, 700 members of the Colorado militia, under the command of Army Col. John Chivington, swept through a place called Sand Creek, committing wholesale slaughter.

The Sand Creek Massacre, November 29, 1864, claimed the lives of an estimated 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians , many of them scalped, disemboweled, and mutilated--women and children among the victims.

Some troops even displayed bloodied Indian body parts as trophies on their weapons, hats, and other gear and also exhibited them in public at a theater in Denver.

After nearly a century-and-a-half, the search for justice continues. 

Public outcry was intense and bitter, and still echoes across the pages of history.

After the horrific attack became public knowledge, the US government not only acknowledged it as a senseless tragedy, it promised survivors
and relatives of victims reparations of land and cash in the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas. The promise, however, went unfulfilled.

This past December, descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre gathered in Anadarko, Oklahoma, which calls itself "Indian Capital of the Nation," to hear a progress report.

A legal team for the Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Trust said recent discussions with officials at the Interior Department could pave the way for a federal lawsuit. About 15,000 descendants have been identified.

The Sand Creek Massacre stands as pure atrocity, spearheaded by a once-respected military leader.

The sheer brutality, and inhumane behavior, revoked the hero status Chivington had attained two years earlier.

In 1862, he won praise for his actions at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, in the New Mexico Territory, against a Confederate supply train. Chivington’s soldiers forced the Confederates to withdraw into Arizona, and then Texas.

The massacre ignited a firestorm of controversy and outrage.

Two of Chivington’s own officers – Captain Silas Soule, and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, commanders of companies D and K – had refused to follow the colonel’s orders and ordered their troops to hold fire.

Furthermore, on the previous day, Black Kettle, the local chief, had received assurances from the US Army that his people would be protected at Sand Creek; the government promised the territory to the Cheyenne in an 1851 treaty. But it was an empty promise, like so many others.

Chivington took pride in his victorious raid, even to the point of total disregard for reality.

Chivington, a passionate abolitionist and former Methodist minister, filed three official reports
justifying the bloodthirsty attack.

In one of the communiques, he boasted of attacking a "Cheyenne village  of 130 lodges, from 900 to 1,000 warriors strong, killing several chiefs,"  and "between 400 and 500 other Indians."

The reports were blatant hogwash. Most of the men had left the village to hunt buffalo before the attack occurred.

In one of his reports, Chivington included a passage condemning the conduct of Captain Soule: "he saying that he thanked God he killed no Indians, and like expressions, proving him more in sympathy with the Indians than the whites."

"Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians."
-Col. John Milton Chivington, U.S. Army

Officially, the sheer brutality of the early morning raid went unpunished.

Chivington’s actions triggered several investigations.

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded 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 US authority.

The committee recommended that immediate action be taken to remove from office "those who have thus disgraced the government" and punish them for "these brutal and cowardly acts."
The recommendation was ignored, and no one was charged, despite the damning evidence.
Under pressure, Chivington resigned from the Colorado Militia.

The Sand Creek Massacre ended Chivington's dreams of a political career.

After the war, Chivington failed as a freight hauler in Nebraska, and lived for a while in California before returning his native Ohio to farm.

In 1883, while serving as editor of a local newspaper, he campaigned for a seat in the Ohio Legislature, but withdrew from the race when his opponents focused attention on the butcher of Sand Creek.

He returned to Denver to work as a deputy sheriff, and died from cancer in 1894.

Political culpability for this tragedy fell to Governor John Evans of the Territory of Colorado

Evans considered Indians a barrier to the establishment of white communities throughout the territory. He wanted to limit their presence so he could encourage additional settlement throughout the territory.

At the same time, he concluded, Indians represented an obstacle to the routing of the transcontinental railroad through Colorado, one of the defining elements of the state's economy.

Evans' investment in railroads early in his career as a physician not only brought him wealth, it resulted in political influence. Although his friendship with President Lincoln won him the appointment as Territorial Governor, he lost it because of the savagery at Sand Creek.

The Sand Creek Massacre ignited a torch of resentment--an eternal flame of justice denied.


  1. Tom, I'm back on the computer for a short bit while the storms are in a lull, and I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your post. This was a terrible time in our history, for sure, and Chivington was a walking Satan. Thanks so much for a great post!

  2. Hi Cheryl--So glad to see you typing. Can't imagine what you all are going through. Be safe. Thanks for the nice comment.

  3. Excellent post, Tom. A case of man''s inhumanity to man and an insight into an atrocity.


  4. Keith, definitely a blend of inhumanity and atrocity. What's sad is he got away with it.

  5. Thanks, Tom. I grew up here in Oklahoma, and "back in the day" there were no stormchasers and no Doppler radar to track the tornadoes with, etc. So now, it feels like we have come light years in being able to prepare for them when they hit. The good news is, the death toll has been revised downward. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers. This storm is rolling into some of our neighboring states to the east and north.

  6. Thanks, Keith. I was thinking last night of what I'd hate to lose the most, when I was watching all the devastation on tv, and of my material possessions, I thought I'd hate to lose my books and pictures. But then, no matter what, as long as our families, friends, and animals are unscathed, the rest doesn't really matter.

  7. What's really sad is that Chivington's sentiments about Indians weren't all that uncommon. Philip "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" Sheridan was another army officer with an attitude problem. (His extended to former Confederates during Reconstruction, as well.) This country's history includes some awfully shameful episodes, doesn't it?

    Tom, do you think the Sand Creek descendants really will sue?

  8. If you read the discussion between Helen Hunt Jackson, author of "Century of Dishonor" and William Byers former editor of the Rocky Mountain News, you will see how the event was viewed in Colorado. Irving Howbert, who also took part in the event wrote about it also and he did not come across very honorably either. (As a student of Jackson I have been studying her efforts on the governments broken treaties) Doris

  9. Great question, Kathleen. WIth 15,000 descendants, it would seem an unwieldy case, but I guess it could proceed as a "class action." In the long run, however, I wonder about actual reparations. How much? How would it be divided? Lots of questions.

    Chivington and Gov Evans were from Ohio and, as a former Ohioan, I hate that connection!

    Shameful is an excellent word--not only for the particular period, but also when it came to forging peace treaties, and agreements. Most promises unkept.

  10. There are some truly wicked acts in American history, and I've always thought Sand Creek ranked in the top five. And what amazes me is men like Chivington viewed the American Indians as the savages.

    Thanks for the insightful post, Tom.


  11. Thanks, Tom. It says something about the extent of the savagery at Sand Creek that it was not simply forgotten or totally swept under the rug like so many other atrocities against the Indians.

  12. Kirsten--Ironic how Chivington thought. And, I would think it would easily rank in the top five of atrocities of any kind. Is was such an overwhelming display of savagery.

  13. Ron--I hadn't known about the effort of the descendants until late last year. And you're right that the extent of the brutality has kept it in the public consciousness for so long. Thanks for the comment.

  14. Doris, that sounds VERY interesting. This incident has always just left me with such sadness, to think that people could actually think that way and shoot children and women down in cold blood as they did. I have not read Century of Dishonor, but it looks like something I would be interested in.

  15. Doris, "Century of Dishonor" represents a compelling account--expose' perhaps?-of how this country treated the Indians--and from a 19th century perspective of broken promises.

  16. Wolf Wilder, half Cheyenne, is the protagonist of my novel, A Man Called Breed. Wolf survived Sand Creek, but the massacre has much to do with the story of the novel. Thanks for the recap, Tom.

  17. One of the low points of American history, no doubt about it.

  18. Say, Tom, maybe you (or someone) should take over the role of Wolf Creek's traumatized cvalry officer Tom Dent, who testified at the Sand Creek inquiries -currently a supporting character but worthy of a starring role! ;-)

  19. Chuck, a story featuring a man who survived that massacre must be on my TBR list. Such a defining moment no doubt makes for great fiction in your capable hands.

  20. Troy--Whew, that sounds like quite a challenge.

  21. Dent, of course, is a fictionalized version of Soule...

  22. Cheryl,
    Helen (Hunt)Jackson spent the better part of her last five years attempting to bring to the public consciousness that the Indian was a person, just like everyone else. One of the final letters she wrote from her sick bed was to the President that he continue her work. That she lived in Colorado Springs where Howbert lived and Chivington had spent time added credence and courage on her part to speak out against the massacre. When she and Byers were snapping at each other in the New York Independent it was Jackson who kept to the task and facts while Byers continued his emotional support of the militia action. Century was a work of passion for Jackson, a well-known and admired poet and author of the period.

  23. And Europeans referred to Native Americans as "savages". Wasn't it the French who taught Native Americans to scalp people? What a horrific event in our history. I have so much to learn about the first Americans.
    A wonderful post, Tom.

  24. Tom,

    Nothing was learned from Sand Creek by those in power. They wanted Indians off the land and to totally disappear.

    Four years later comes Washita and Custer completes what Chivington did not. The Peace Chief, Black Kettle is killed.

    There are no words to describe the massacre, the killing of women and children, of the taking of body parts, the lies and distortion of truth.

    To this day American Indians are denied the 14th Amendment and due process of law.

    Charlie Steel