Introduction by Bill Yenne

Westholme Publishing (Pen & Sword Books Ltd). 247 pages. £14.99.  ISBN 978-1-59416-237-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

On the morning of November 29th, 1864, a seven hundred- strong unit of the United States Army attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian village at Sand Creek in Colorado. The attack was unprovoked and the Indians were under the impression that they were camping at Sand Creek on the advice of the army, and that consequently their safety was guaranteed. This particular band had not been involved in any hostilities with the army or settlers, and their chief, Black Kettle, was known to be an advocate of peaceful relations with whites. During the attack a large number of Indians, mostly women and children, were killed, and many bodies were mutilated by the soldiers. The mutilations didn’t only extend to scalping, but also included dismemberment, with body parts later displayed in saloons in Denver.

Those are some of the basic facts about the Sand Creek Massacre. Apologists for the actions of the army often preferred to refer to it as the Battle of Sand Creek, but if it was a battle it was a particularly one-sided one. The actual number of Indian dead was never properly established, but estimates put it at between one hundred and one hundred and sixty. And as noted earlier, most were women and children. The army seems to have suffered 49 casualties, ten of them dead, with possibly four of the wounded eventually dying. The Indians had not instigated the action, but some of them had naturally fought back once they became aware that their families were being slaughtered.

Attacks on Indian villages and the killing of women and children were not uncommon, but the nature of this particular incident attracted a great deal of attention and people were prepared to make their feelings about it known. Despite the fact that the Civil War was at its height it was decided to establish a Court of Enquiry to look into the events at Sand Creek.

It’s perhaps necessary to say something about the background to the massacre. It’s correct to accept that there had been depredations by Indians in Colorado, and that some members of the Cheyenne tribe had been involved. Black Kettle’s band was often described as Southern Cheyenne, and there were others, referred to as Northern Cheyenne, who were more likely to attack outlying homesteads and small wagon trains. But I’m possibly simplifying matters too much, and I’m not sure that there were clearcut divisions between different branches of the Cheyenne. Bill Yenne mentions the Dog Soldiers, a militant group of Cheyenne, who had links to similar groups among the Sioux. The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers were not necessarily all located within the Northern Cheyenne, though they may not have been notable among the Southern Cheyenne.

It’s doubtful if many settlers distinguished too much between different branches of the Cheyenne. Or between Arapaho, Kiowa, and others.  When evidence of atrocities committed by Indians came to light they were all blamed. Yenne, in his introduction, mentions an incident where a rancher’s wife, her two small children, and a ranch hand were killed by a band of Arapahos. Their bodies were taken to Denver where, Yenne says, “the sight of the deceased and the nature of their mutilations created a groundswell of shock and outrage.” In another incident it was said that Indians had killed ten men and cut off their heads. It’s not hard to imagine that stories about what had happened would grow with the telling. And some unscrupulous people, including politicians, were not averse to using such stories to build up a case for eliminating Indians generally.

There were other factors, too, that affected attitudes towards Indians. The raids and general harassment of the wagons that brought goods to the region meant that supplies of flour, and other necessities, were often limited and prices rose steeply. Mail was disrupted and the stagecoaches, essential in areas where there were no other forms of transport, couldn’t operate regularly. There were those who thought that the Indians, and they weren’t all that particular about which ones, needed to be taught a lesson they wouldn’t easily forget. This was a time when many people were of the opinion that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and “nits make lice,” which suggested that killing children along with their parents would solve future problems.

Among those holding opinions of that kind was Colonel John M. Chivington, a one-time Methodist minister who, when the Civil War broke out, decided to join the Union Army in a combat role. He was commissioned as a major and assigned to the 1st Colorado Volunteers. Chivington gained some fame when, at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, he was responsible for forcing a Confederate army to withdraw from the territory. Chivington clearly had ambitions to establish a position in Colorado politics, and saw that decisive action against the Indians would improve his standing with local people. It was suggested by one witness at the Court of Enquiry that this was his reason for deciding to attack the Cheyenne even though he was aware that Black Kettle’s band was friendly.

The troops that Chivington commanded were not regulars. The Union Army was too busy fighting the Confederates in the east of the country. Volunteer regiments were therefore raised, often comprised of “one-hundred day men,” the term describing the length of their enlistment. With this in mind it’s not hard to imagine that any training they received must have been basic at best. And that discipline was probably not of the kind that could keep men in check. That is certainly the impression suggested by witness accounts of what happened when the order to attack the village was given. Most of the officers, in any case, were probably of the same opinion as Chivington when it came to dealing with Indians, so were hardly likely to stop their men killing women and children and mutilating their bodies.

Some of the accounts of what took place are harrowing. One witness described seeing an Indian woman with her stomach slit open and her unborn child lying by her side. Another saw several soldiers taking shots at a small Indian boy, perhaps three years old, until one finally killed him. As mentioned earlier, scalps were taken from dead Indians and body parts cut off. The general impression given, by several white men and “half-breeds” who were in the Indian camp when the soldiers attacked, is that they were soon uncontrollable by their officers. Or that the officers did not care to try to control them. One officer does appear to have ordered his men not to fire on the Indians until the Cheyenne began to defend themselves and fired on his troops. A Captain Silas Soule who objected to what Chivington had done, and later spoke against him, was murdered in Denver.

As stated earlier, the exact number of Indian dead was never accurately established. Statements by Chivington’s officers included in the book give wildly varying figures. One claimed that three hundred Cheyenne died at Sand Creek, but the same officer also said that Black Kettle’s village had over one thousand inhabitants. More experienced observers, including several who had lived with the Cheyenne or knew them well, said that a figure of between five hundred and eight hundred was more likely. Whatever the figure for the dead and, as noted earlier, it was probably somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and sixty, it seems clear that two thirds of them were women and children.

The investigation into Sand Creek firmly placed the blame for what happened on Chivington, and as Yenne says, “he fell so far as to be enshrined in the darkest pantheon of vilification, being perhaps the one US Army officer in the Indian Wars most thoroughly despised on both sides.” His reputation followed him wherever he went and effectively stopped him making a career in politics. But if officially he was someone not to be recognised in respectable society he still had a loyal following among ordinary citizens. Henne records that in 1884, when he returned to Denver, the Rocky Mountain News reported that a speech he gave “was received with an applause from every pioneer which indicated that they, to a man, heartily approved the course of the colonel twenty years ago, in the famous affair in which many of them took part, and the man who applied the scalpel to the ulcer which bid fair to destroy the life of the new colony, in those critical times, was beyond a doubt the hero of the hour.” And when Chivington died in 1894 his funeral attracted a large crowd who still considered him a man who had done what needed to be done.

What happened to the Indians following the massacre? The Cheyenne had learnt a bitter lesson with regard to trusting white men to honour their guarantees of safety. Raids and killings of white people increased. A new war chief, Roman Nose, led attacks on soldiers and civilians, including the famous fight at Beecher’s Island in 1868 when the Cheyenne pinned down a party of soldiers and scouts and were only driven off when Roman Nose was killed and the Tenth (Coloured) Cavalry rode to the rescue.

Despite reports to the contrary, Black Kettle had escaped from Sand Creek. But a few years later his village on the Washita in Oklahoma was attacked, this time by the famed 7th Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. These were regular soldiers, not half-trained volunteers. But women and children were killed along with some men. It also appears that Indian women taken captive were later “used” by Custer and his officers. Black Kettle didn’t survive this attack, and Custer’s reputation as an Indian fighter rose, although at a cost. When the Indians rallied and started to fight back Custer ordered a hasty retreat during which a Major Elliott and seventeen men (some accounts suggest a slightly different number) were cut off and killed. It caused dissension in the ranks of officers in the regiment, and it was something that still rankled eight years later when Custer blundered on the Little Big Horn and the Sioux, together with some Cheyenne, defeated his regiment and in the process killed Custer and the two hundred or so men under his direct command, plus quite a few others who took part in the battle. I have seen the Custer debacle described as a “massacre,” though it’s hard to understand how a fight between a large group of armed soldiers and a body of Indians can be referred to as a “massacre.”

The Sand Creek Massacre is one of those events that anyone interested in the history of the Indian Wars will be familiar with. And it has been extensively written about, in one way or another. But reading the sworn testimonies of many of those who were present does add something to what we already know. The Indian voice is, of course, absent. I don’t suppose anyone bothered to try to get their version of the “battle.” There are testimonies from those sympathetic to the Indians and condemnatory of Chivington’s actions. But I would guess that they were perhaps in a minority in the community generally. Apart from Chivington’s fall from grace, nothing much seems to have happened when the investigation ended. The Cheyenne and other tribes continued to be hounded from place to place, and guarantees of land to live on, and be safe from white encroachment, continued to be worthless. It all finally ended in 1890 when the army massacred the Sioux at Wounded Knee. And that was truly a massacre. Reports indicated that the soldiers, regulars supposedly under the control of their officers, ran wild and killed many wounded Indians. The death toll again included women and children. It was said that Wounded Knee was the 7th Cavalry’s revenge on the Sioux for the regiment’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. What does seem clear is that attitudes towards Indians hadn’t changed much since 1864 when Chivington massacred the Cheyenne.

I think I should point out that the testimony by James P.Beckwourth, a noted frontiersman who acted as a scout for the army, was not given to the Congressional Enquiry, but to a separate body set up by the army to look into the facts of the Sand Creek Massacre. Beckwourth had traded with the Cheyenne and knew many of them. A colourful character, his account of what happened is worth reading in its own right.