Colorado, Colorado Destinations, US National Parks

Heartbreaking history on the Colorado plains – Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

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.

Parking area, visitor center, and picnic area

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.

Beginning of the Monument Hill Trail
End of the Monument Hill Trail
Monument and overlook
Looking out toward Sand Creek and the site of the village and massacre
Beginning of the Bluffs Trail that departs 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

25 thoughts on “Heartbreaking history on the Colorado plains – Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site”

  1. I thought of Sand Creek when I read your post about Montana’s Big Hole Battlefield and then searched for and found your post. We, too, have visited this site and have mourned for those who had to live through this horror or die in it. It’s an atrocity we must never forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sobering indeed. It is heartbreaking to read about these atrocities. As you may know, here in Canada we recently learned about the discovery of hundreds of graves of Indigenous children who died during the devastating residential school era.
    Education about settler impacts is so important. Thank you for sharing the history of this site.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is such a horrible way to treat a fellow human. There is more than enough room for us all to live together.

    We are dealing with the same issue in Canada. The Residential Schools are being excavated, and we are finding hundreds of buried First Nations children. It’s absolutely horrible what they did to those kids and the families of our native Americans. We have been dealing with the repurcussions of those horrible decisions for decades. It will be a long time before any of this heals.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Definitely a more somber post than your usual hikes, but oh-so-necessary and informative. I have passed through that land on drives east, and now I will give it more thought. I applaud your efforts to educate here since heaven knows we did not learn a lot of this stuff in school!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I certainly never learned most of this, at least not in any kind of detail that I remember. Educating myself on actual history (not the half-assed version we learned in school) is something I’ve been working on these last couple years.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I had the same thought. HOW can humans do this kind of thing to one another? I can only hope that one day we reach a place where this kind of tragedy no longer happens.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. It definitely wasn’t an easy place to visit or to write about. I actually started writing this post right after we left since I was already in the right frame of mind to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “…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.” – A powerful truth. Thanks for sharing your visit with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A timely post, Diana, and your statement, “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,” is right on point. I was not familiar with the Sand Creek Massacre, but it replicates what happened when the US Cavalry tried to reign in the people who first occupied the Western lands.

    The Big Hole Battlefield on the border of Idaho and Montana is another gruesome site where the cavalry battled the Nez Perce tribe and was a spot on the Nez Perce Trail which took the tribe to Canada – so they would not be massacred and pioneers on the Oregon Trail could pass through and fulfill the supposedly preordained “Manifest Destiny.”

    Now one can only hope that through education, we and succeeding generations can learn from the mistakes of the past and live in harmony.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. I haven’t been to Big Hole but I’d like to visit it as well. I’ve been making an effort recently to learn more about US history because I’ve realized how much I never learned. Fortunately we have national historic sites to bring attention to these tragic but important pieces of our past.


  7. This is something that US history textbooks have definitely glossed over, let alone IGNORED, for the sake of commemorating the victories we’ve had (e.g. Revolutionary War, WWII, etc.). Rarely do we discuss the horrible treatment done to minorities, ranging from Native Americans to African Americans to Japanese Americans, and so forth. Visiting sites like Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is all the more important to learn what we didn’t learn in school, to bring forth not just our triumphs, but also our tragedies in what has made the nation it is today. Thank you for sharing this, Diana.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely. One thing I’ve realized in the last year is how drastically uneducated I am when it comes to US history, not only because I had terrible teachers who focused on memorizing names and dates, but also because as you said… we as a nation just ignore all these things that paint us in a negative light. I’ve been making an effort this last year to educate myself on the actual history of this land, which is part of the reason I wanted to visit Sand Creek.

      Liked by 2 people

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