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The Sand Creek Massacre Previous Next
Digital History ID 3500


Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, the lone American Indian in Congress, called it "one of the most disgraceful moments in American history." About 700 U.S. army volunteers stormed through an Indian encampment near Big Sandy Creek in Colorado, slaughtering scores of women and children. This episode became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

In the Spring of 1864, a wing of the Cheyenne tribe unleashed attacks on white settlers, which prompted John M. Chivington, a Methodist minister who had become Colorado's military commander and was eager to become a member of Congress, to call for volunteer Indian fighters for 100-day enlistments. On November 29, 1864, the colonel and his volunteers rode into the Arapaho-Cheyenne reservation, where Indians led by the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle had set up a camp weeks earlier. A white flag and an American flag flew above Black Kettle's tepee.

After unleashing cannon fire into the village, the volunteers swept the Creek bed, killing every Indian they could find, often hunting down fleeing children. "Kill them big and small," Chivington reportedly said, "nits become lice" (nits are the eggs of lice). After six hours, about 150 Indians, a quarter of the camp's population, lay dead. The soldiers took three prisoners, all children. A dozen soldiers were killed, some apparently by friendly fire in the frenzy.

Eyewitness accounts are chilling. Lt. Joseph Cranmer described "a squaw ripped open and a child taken from her. Little children shot while begging for their lives." Capt. Silas Soule, who was assassinated after testifying at a congressional inquiry, said, "it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized." A joint congressional committee concluded that Chivington "deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre, which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were victims of his cruelty."

In response to the massacre, President Lincoln replaced Colorado's territorial governor. A Congressional inquiry condemned the battle as a massacre. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were promised reparations in an 1865 treaty, but none were paid.

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