The Eastern Colorado plains are the original homeland of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, Kiowa, Sioux, Jicarilla Apache, and Ute tribes (source). But by the mid-1800s they were being systemically dispossessed from their homelands. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie established that the Cheyenne and Arapaho would retain some of their native lands in exchange for safe passage of settlers through this territory on the Oregon Trail. However, in 1861 a new treaty was negotiated – the Treaty of Fort Wise – that substantially reduced this land. Things continued to deteriorate from this point on, with tensions rising between the Cheyenne and Arapaho and the government of the newly-established Colorado Territory, who largely ignored the tribes’ desire for peaceful negotiations and coexistence.
On November 29, 1864, the 1st and 3rd regiment cavalries under the command of Colonel John Chivington approached a Cheyenne and Arapaho village near Big Sandy Creek – land that was retained by the tribes under the Fort Wise treaty. Despite Chief Black Kettle raising a white flag of surrender as they approached, Chivington gave the order to fire. Armed with guns and small cannons, the US army proceeded to brutally murder more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women, children, and the elderly. Some of the chiefs were also killed. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, many of the soldiers then returned the next day and mutilated the dead bodies, taking scalps, body parts, and personal belongings with them as trophies.
Massacre is really the only accurate way to describe what happened.
Two leaders – Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer – went against Chivington’s orders and ordered their men not to engage. After the massacre, they also provided written accounts of the events at Big Sandy Creek, sparing no detail. Because they were so gruesome, the letters captured the attention of the nation and led to somewhat of a reckoning over the treatment of Native Americans. It wasn’t nearly enough, though. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were ultimately forced onto reservations, promised reparations were never provided, and nothing could ever bring back the victims or the traditional knowledge that was lost when so many elders were killed. Also, Chivington was condemned by congress but never punished for his actions.
The letters were then buried for many years but eventually unearthed in 2000 and helped spawn the creation of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. The letters are displayed in full on signs at Sand Creek. They were absolutely horrifying to read.
Today, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site preserves the land on which the massacre took place. There are informational signs and brochures containing all of this information I’ve shared today, plus many more details and accounts. Also preserved within the NHS is a small span of shortgrass prairie, which is an important habitat for birds and other animals.
This land is sacred to the Cheyenne and Arapaho and visitors are not allowed to leave the trails or walk through the site of the massacre. The half mile (0.8 km) Monument Hill Trail connects the visitor center to a monument and overlook of the site. More recently, remains and other objects stolen during the massacre have begun to be repatriated to Sand Creek; the repatriation site is also visible from the overlook.
We spent about an hour here, reading all the signs and visiting the overlook. It was a sobering place to visit but I’m really glad we did. As tempting as it can be to ignore the uncomfortable or upsetting parts of our history, it doesn’t change the reality of what happened. I live and work on the native land of the Arapaho and Cheyenne so it was especially valuable for me to learn more about them and the events that led to their removal from their homeland.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Sand Creek Massacre NHS is located off County Road W near Eads, CO; the roads are dirt but well maintained and passable by any car
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: there is a 0.5 mile (0.8 km) one-way trail from the visitor center up to the overlook (you can also drive up to the overlook) and a 3 mile (5 km) round-trip Bluffs Trail that traverses the bluff above the massacre site
- Where to stay: there’s not much around, Sand Creek is located in the middle of the Colorado plains surrounded mostly by farming, ranching, and little tiny towns; the closest hotels are in Eads, Cheyenne Wells, or Kit Carson
- Other: be prepared for exposure to the elements (wind, sun, thunderstorms) and come fully stocked with gas and food; there is water and a restroom at Sand Creek but no other amenities are available