How to make history out of fiction

A few weeks ago I watched a PBS program called “Tears in the Sand,” which tells the story of the Sand Creek massacre and other events in the history of the Cheyenne people. In an otherwise informative and moving program, I noticed some unfamiliar “quotes” from the letters of Silas Soule, a young cavalry officer who had been involved in earlier efforts to make peace with the nations, was present at Sand Creek and quickly became a whistle-blower about what really happened that day.

A significant collection of letters written by Silas Soule exists in the care of Byron Strom of Iowa, who is Soule’s great, great nephew. Byron kindly allowed me to quote extensively from these letters in my book, “Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek,” which is why I knew the material well enough that alarms began going off as I watched the program.

I found the transcript of the film online and double-checked the Silas Soule letter “quotes” against the real Silas Soule letters that Byron Strom transcribed from the originals and sent to me for use in my book. I confirmed my suspicions. Portions of the quotes were from real letters but significant bits were pure invention. There wasn’t particularly any egregious misinformation in the “enhanced quotes;” nevertheless, they were not real quotes.

Here is a link to the transcript of the program:

http://www.rmpbs.org/content/index.cfm/fuseaction/showContent/contentID/195/navID/184.htm

In the following quotes from the transcript, only small portions exist in the actual Silas Soule letters:

[Narrator] Standing atop a cliff, Captain Silas Soule holds back his men. Never in his young life has he had to stand so firm, feel so hopeless. Never has this young officer felt the choking sear of human fear so accutely [sic] or looked shame so squarely in the eye.

[Silas Soule] “It wasn’t an army. It was a mob. I flat refused to order in my men or open fire.”

—–

[Narrator] In Denver City, another young man, Silas Soule, carries with him the memories of Sand Creek.

[Silas Soule] Dear Mother. Last November was a raid by Hundred Daysers under Col Chivington to kill Cheyennes at Sandy Creek. It was murder pure and simple. It was a horrible scene and I would not let my Company fire. All my years out here, the constant grinding down by death; how much is lost, never to be retrieved[sic]?

—-

[Narrator] Amid all the atrocities created by both cultures stood a few men of great vision; Silas Soule was one such man:

[Silas Soule] The Cheyennes don’t get their lands, or food, or justice. What they got was slaughtered.”

—–

I later emailed Byron Strom and asked if he had seen the program and showed him some of the questionable quotes. His answer was pretty shocking. He said that the “quotes” came from a book by Bruce Cutler called “The Massacre at Sand Creek: Narrative Voices (American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series).” Referred to as a novel in its review by Publishers Weekly, this book is also dubbed a “poetic version of the tragedy.” In other words, it is fact-based but it is fiction.

Interestingly, Byron said he first saw the misquotes in the work of Gregory Michno, the Rush Limbaugh of Colorado history, whose views on the Sand Creek massacre run contrary to those of most historians and experts on Sand Creek. In Michno’s universe, peace chiefs such as Black Kettle were actually trying to make trouble and the white men who negotiated with the tribes and later advocated for them – men such as Ned Wynkoop, Sam Tappan, and Silas Soule – were actually the real villains of this horrific event. In his book, “Battle of Sand Creek: The Military Perspective,” Michno is a Chivington apologist and works hard to make Wynkoop, Soule and the others look like incompetents and immoral characters.

In “Battle of Sand Creek: The Military Perspective,” Michno uses several quotes from Cutler as real Soule quotes. For example, on page 267, he quotes from a supposed letter that Soule wrote on April 15, 1865 to his mother after his wedding, which took place April 1, 1865. In fact, the last letter Soule wrote to his mother was in January of 1865, in which he told her about the women and children who had been scalped at Sand Creek. This supposed letter that Michno quotes can be traced directly back to Cutler’s novel (which can be found online on google books).

A shorter and shockingly acerbic version of Michno’s views can be found online on historynet.com in his article “Sand Creek Massacre: The Real Villains,” Published Online: June 12, 2006. (http://www.historynet.com/sand-creek-massacre-the-real-villains.htm). In this article, Michno again uses the Cutler quotes as real quotes from real Silas Soule letters. For example, the article includes the following statement:

In a letter to his sister, he [Soule] wrote: ‘The Cheyennes also know a trick or two. Some of them steal a girl…out of Kansas, trade her from lodge to lodge, then come up with her at our parley on the Smoky Hill last month. A gift they say. They want to seal a peace `forever.’ Of course they’d killed the father, [and] the mother hanged herself.’

This quote is pure invention, right out of Bruce Cutler’s novel. Yet Michno quotes it as fact.

The Tears in the Sand documentary, despite misquoting Soule’s letters, did not change the essence of who Soule was. However, in the case of Michno, his article and his book are full of un-footnoted and poorly-researched accusations against Soule and others who decried what happened at Sand Creek. It seems to me, if you’re going to such lengths to trash a man’s reputation, you’d better get your facts straight.

2 thoughts on “How to make history out of fiction

  1. Unfortunately, Michno’s book is not only full of Cutler quotes, he also misreaded and read into several other sources. He relates a story supposedly about Silas freeing prisoners under duress while Provost Marshal, quoting from Leulla Shaw’s book, however the story in the book actually is a Lt. Sully, not Cpt. Soule. He also attempted to claim Silas lied about not firing by misreading his testimony where Silas states that Anthony gave the command to fire and “some firing” occurred, not that he fired. It is a shame, because there is some good things in his book, but Michno’s pathological desire to slander Silas Soule taints his believablity.

    • Tom — These examples do seem to point at some sort of weird vendetta — one that’s apparently more important to the guy than a desire for good scholarship and historical accuracy.

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