This article first appeared in slightly different form in the Broomfield Enterprise September 18, 2007.
A couple years ago I went on a “tree tour” of Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. As we strolled around the pleasant grounds our guide named the various trees and explained their biology. At one point, as we gazed up at a beautiful white oak, a large memorial marker right in front of me caught my eye. I realized with a jolt it was the grave of Col. John Chivington. The woman next to me saw it in the same moment, and we exchanged looks.
“I guess he had to be buried somewhere,” she said.
Back in 1851, the first Fort Laramie Treaty assigned the front range region and Colorado plains to the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. The area around Boulder and Denver was primarily populated by the Arapaho. One of their leaders, the famous Arapaho Chief Left Hand, also known as Niwot, was an extraordinary man who learned English and strove to understand the “spider people,” as the Arapaho referred to Europeans, a reference to the latter’s penchant for building networks of roads and fences.
In 1861, several chiefs signed the Treaty of Fort Wise, in which they ceded most of the Fort Laramie territories. Some tribe members were angry about this treaty and raided a number of white settlements. One group of about 800 moved to an army-designated encampment on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. This group comprised the bands who were seeking peace, including Left Hand’s band, along with Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, who had signed the Fort Wise treaty.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington and 800 troops attacked the camp. Between 150 and 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne were killed, primarily elderly, women and children. Most of the men were out hunting during the attack and many others escaped.
Though Chivington still has his supporters and apologists, most historians agree, as did a subsequent government inquiry, Sand Creek was an unprovoked slaughter of a peaceful settlement that was flying an American flag.
One company commander present at the massacre, Capt. Silas Soule, refused to participate. He ordered his men not to attack and later testified against Chivington. In an extremely graphic and disturbing letter to his commander, Maj. Edward Wynkoop, Soule later wrote that women and children were on the ground begging for mercy, and that Chivington’s men killed and mutilated them.
Soon after testifying, Soule was murdered on Lawrence Street in Denver. Nevertheless, as a result of eyewitness accounts from Soule and others, Chivington the hero became Chivington the butcher of Sand Creek.
The site of the Sand Creek Massacre was designated a National Historic Site and opened to the public on June 1, 2007.
To learn more see, Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek (Available the week of June 21, 2010)