Sand Creek Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The unprovoked slaughter of Cheyenne women and children by Colorado militia regulars presaged the subjugation of Great Plains Indians over the next three decades.

Summary of Event

On August 17, 1862, in the midst of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the beleaguered Santee Sioux in Minnesota Minnesota;Sioux began an uprising against the continuing encroachment of white settlers that later became known as the Great Sioux War. This bloody fighting touched off general warfare through the length and breadth of the Great Plains and frightened gold seekers in the new mining Mining;in Colorado[Colorado] settlements of Colorado. Governor John Evans of the new Colorado Territory tried to get Cheyennes and Arapahos Arapahos to give up their hunting ranges for reservations. However, the Indians did not want to leave. In the meantime, the devastation Buffalo;slaughter of of the buffalo herds by white settlers was reducing the tribes’ hunting ranges, and regular army troops were moving into the region to support the Union as a new influx of settlers swept across the plains, seeking fortune and avoiding Civil War service. Sand Creek Massacre (1864) Cheyennes;Sand Creek Massacre Native American wars;Sioux Colorado;Sand Creek Massacre Black Kettle Chivington, John Milton Evans, John [kw]Sand Creek Massacre (Nov. 29, 1864) [kw]Creek Massacre, Sand (Nov. 29, 1864) [kw]Massacre, Sand Creek (Nov. 29, 1864) Sand Creek Massacre (1864) Cheyennes;Sand Creek Massacre Native American wars;Sioux Colorado;Sand Creek Massacre Black Kettle Chivington, John Milton Evans, John [g]United States;Nov. 29, 1864: Sand Creek Massacre[3760] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 29, 1864: Sand Creek Massacre[3760] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 29, 1864: Sand Creek Massacre[3760] [c]Terrorism and political assassination;Nov. 29, 1864: Sand Creek Massacre[3760] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Nov. 29, 1864: Sand Creek Massacre[3760]

Sporadic raids by Indian bands made travelers along the California and Santa Fe Trails Santa Fe Trail nervous. White migration and the settlers’ practice of devastating buffalo herds merely for the animals tallow and hides alarmed the Indian societies, which were hampered further by intertribal warfare, a diminishing food supply, and the scourge of smallpox. Smallpox;and Native Americans[Native Americans] On November 10, 1863, Robert North North, Robert , an illiterate white man of dubious credibility who had lived with the Arapahos, gave a statement to Governor John Evans saying that the Comanches, Apaches, Kiowas, Northern Arapahos, Sioux, and all Cheyennes had pledged to one another to go to war with the settlers in the spring of 1864.

On December 14, 1863, Evans wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton Stanton, Edwin M.;and Native Americans[Native Americans] asking for military aid and authority to call out the territorial militia. The situation remained relatively quiet in the early spring. Cheyennes and Arapahos Arapahos;wars of were fighting the Utes Utes;wars of , the Arapahos were feuding with the Kiowas, and the Sioux bided their time. By April, Colonel John Milton Chivington’s Chivington, John Milton command had begun an aggressive military campaign against Indian societies in general and against Cheyennes in particular. This campaign provoked a war that lasted well into 1865 and cost the federal government thirty million dollars.

The military commander of Colorado Territory, Chivington had had a minor success against Confederate forces in New Mexico in 1862. He was a former Methodist minister who had been dubbed the Fighting Parson. Zealous and unscrupulous, he harbored political ambitions. Encouraged by Governor Evans, Chivington used scattered incidents to declare that the Cheyennes were at war, and he sent out soldiers to “burn villages and kill Cheyennes wherever and whenever found.” Ominously, he declared that he believed in killing American Indians “little and big.”

The tribes struck back. By the summer of 1864, fighting and atrocities on both sides plagued western Kansas and eastern Colorado. In June, Evans, trying to separate peaceful tribes from warlike bands, urged friendly Kiowas and Comanches to report to Fort Larned on the Arkansas River in Kansas and southern Cheyennes and Arapahos to report to Fort Lyon, 250 miles up the same stream in southeastern Colorado. He ordered the friendly tribes to submit to military authority. A skirmish at Fort Larned rendered this strategy useless, however, and by August, Evans issued a proclamation that could be read as a call for the virtually indiscriminate killing of Indians. The Indians retaliated by closing the road to Denver, which stopped the mail and caused prices of staples to skyrocket. White settlers then mobilized for war.

The Cheyenne chief Black Kettle urgently wanted peace. Accordingly, he and other Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders met with Evans and Chivington at Camp Weld near Denver on September 28, 1864. The talks were confusing, because Evans tried to distinguish between surrendering to the military authorities and securing peace by treaty. The tribal leaders did not understand, and they received no clear promise of peace. Clearly, the settlers were spoiling for a fight. In fact, Chivington had recruited men for his Third Colorado Volunteer Regiment from among mining Mining;in Colorado[Colorado] camp toughs and bums with a promise that they would kill Indians. The stage was set for a pointless tragedy.

After submitting themselves to military authorities at Fort Lyon in early November, Black Kettle’s band of approximately six hundred Indians were sent to make camp to hunt buffalo in the broad, barren valley of Sand Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, Colorado;Indian reservations about forty miles north of Fort Lyon. The younger Indian men drifted north to listen to the war drums at a council on the Smoky Hill River, so Black Kettle’s group consisted mostly of old men, women, and children. They were mostly Cheyennes, with a few dozen Arapahos, who believed they were safe.

Contemporary illustration of Indian prisoners being marched from their homes by Custer’s troops.

(Library of Congress)

Chivington’s views were unequivocal. He would take no prisoners and “damn any man that was in sympathy with the Indians.” After a bitter night march over rolling prairie, Chivington deployed approximately seven hundred men and four howitzers around Black Kettle’s village at daybreak on November 29, 1864. In addition to his Third Colorado Volunteer Regiment, Chivington had 175 soldiers of the First Colorado Cavalry and a small contingent of New Mexico infantry.

Mounted troops and foot soldiers swept across the dry creekbed into the Cheyenne camp. Black Kettle ran up a U.S. flag and a white surrender flag over his tipi at the center of the camp, but his signals were ignored. Panic ensued as the Indians were butchered where they stood. One of the first killed was White Antelope White Antelope , a seventy-five-year-old man. The Arapaho chief Left Hand fell quickly. Small groups of American Indians fought from sand pits, but most fled in panic. Black Kettle miraculously escaped. Atrocities followed the slaughter. Eyewitness testimony later recalled

They [the Indians] were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.

A Lieutenant Richmond of the notorious Third Colorado shot and scalped three women and five children as they screamed for mercy. Estimates of the number of Indian dead ranged from 150 to 500 people. Three-quarters of those killed were women and children. Chivington’s report said of his troops, “All did nobly.”

Chivington returned to Denver in triumph, with his men brandishing the scalps of one hundred murdered Indians. Their triumph would, however, be short-lived. A letter from Indian agent S. G. Colley printed in the Missouri Intelligencer on January 6, 1865, mentioned the atrocities and stirred public opinion in the states. General Halleck, the army chief of staff, ordered Chivington investigated, and the district commander, General Curtis, attempted to have him court-martialed. Instead, Chivington was simply mustered out of the service.

Following the Sand Creek Massacre, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Arapahos and Sioux ravaged the South Platte River Valley. They killed approximately fifty whites, burned stage stations, destroyed telegraph Telegraph;and Native Americans[Native Americans] lines, and twice sacked the town of Julesburg in northeast Colorado.

On March 3, 1865, with the Civil War drawing to a close, a joint resolution of Congress created a joint committee to study the “Indian problem.” A shifty and temporary treaty in October, 1865, made peace on the plains but inexplicably contradicted itself and forbade some tribes any legal home. On January 26, 1867, the final report of the joint committee released testimony about the Sand Creek Massacre and traced many American Indian wars to “lawless white men always to be found upon the frontier Frontier, American;and Native Americans[Native Americans] or boundary lines between savage and civilized life.”


The American Indian wars lasted until the closing of the frontier during the 1890’s. The constant pressure of whites moving westward across North America had produced constant conflict with Native Americans. Special circumstances surrounding the Civil War, the Colorado gold rush, and the decline of the buffalo herds led to the tragedy of Sand Creek. The pent-up forces of expansion released in the aftermath of these events ensured that the Sand Creek Massacre would not be an isolated tragedy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Jerome A., and Douglas D. Scott. Finding Sand Creek: History, Archeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Archaelogical guide to the Sand Creek Massacre site, illustrated with maps and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grinnell, George Bird. The Fighting Cheyennes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915. Drawing heavily on primary documentation and such venerable authorities as Hubert Howe Bancroft, this detailed account of the Sand Creek events evokes Cheyenne sympathies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatch, Thom. Black Kettle: The Cheyenne Chief Who Sought Peace but Found War. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Sympathetic biography of Black Kettle, who continued to search for a peaceful settlement with whites, even after the Sand Creek Massacre, until he himself was killed by George A. Custer’s troops in the Washita Creek Massacre in 1868.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoig, Stan. The Peace Chiefs of the Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. This short work paints the Cheyennes, in general, and Black Kettle in particular, as men of peace. Includes many interesting photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Indian Heritage of America. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Examines the clash of cultures in words and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavender, David. The Great West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Suggests that Black Kettle may have been more interested in handouts than in peace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M., and Wilcomb B. Washburn. The Indian Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Puts the Sand Creek Massacre in the context of the times.

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