Outrage and the old west – the Sand Creek Massacre

The long lens of history provides us the opportunity to challenge the decisions made by the pioneers of the old west. The treatment of the Native American Tribes is a great example of Monday morning quarterbacking.

The massacre of the Cheyenne’s at Sand Creek is a case in point. What could possible have induced the Colorado Third Regiment to ride down on these “peaceful Indians”?

In May of 1863 Territorial Governor Evans received word that the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes were holding a big secret conference with the Sioux for the purpose of uniting and driving the white man out of the territory. This council was held near  today’s Pawnee Buttes. Later that spring at a location about 55 miles below Ft. Lyon on the Arkansas River, a “big medicine dance” was held with all of the leading chiefs and warriors representing all of the Southern tribes. Included were the Comanche, Apaches, Kiowas, Northern Arapahos, Pawnee and all of the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes.  Their plan was to all go to war in the spring so they all would have time to stock up on ammunition. In addition, all of the main chiefs pledged to “shake hands and be friendly to the whites until they were ready to strike”.

Keep in mind the Civil War was being fought and Colorado sent more men per capita than any other “state”. (Colorado was granted statehood in 1876) Because Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado were territories no accurate census data is available for the time. The high figure is 34,277 however, this includes the populations of Kansas City, Dodge City, Wichita, Omaha and other “eastern” cities that were not directly involved in the Indian wars. The most likely figure for the white population in the territory of Colorado is 3,700 civilians. The “forts” in the region were usually not what Hollywood and television have portrayed. Most were fortified trading posts started in the 1830’s supporting beaver and buffalo hunters in the fur trade.

Well over 25 battles were fought and recorded by the Cavelry. The department of the Army records indicate the loss of 18 officers, 1182 enlisted, and 539 civilians. The civilian losses were probably higher due to the fact that only the ones found by the Army were recorded.

In 1863 and 64, fifteen wagon trains were attacked and plundered. The supplies onboard those trains were necessary for the survival of the civilian population. Most ranches in the territory were attacked for their cattle, horses, and most importantly fodder. Hay was the gasoline of the era, the denial of which would force the white man out of the territory.

It is important to note that the Indians would massacre all the white men, women, and children. Only a few women and children were taken hostage to be used as slaves or sold at the slave markets in the south. The Indians mutilated the corpses breaking bones, scalping, among other depradations. With an Indian population approaching 20,000 the whites were outnumbered at least 4 to 1. The Indians were far better armed than Holllywood would have us think, most were armed with rifles and pistols in addition to their bows.

The number of Indian casualties varies widely. The Cheyenne camp of from 900 – 1000 warriors, 130 lodges. Indian losses from the battle vary widely. Official reports are almost certainly exaggerated with figures from 400 – 500 Indians killed. However, eye-witnesses report Indians losses were from 70 – 100 killed. The Colorado Third Regiment suffered 39 troopers killed and two wounded.

The Cheyenne warriors, alerted by their scouts, escaped in small bands in every direction leaving the old and inferm with the women and children in camp. Two white women were captives, one of which was killed reportedly by chief Black Kettle’s wife during the battle.

The Indians gave no quarter, neither did the whites.

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