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Sand Creek


On November 29, 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre took place, one of if not the worst and most disturbing massacre of Native Americans in the history of the United States. The Colorado militia, under the command of Col. John Chivington, an ardent abolitionist, attacked a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado, killing around 200. We have discussed this event before here in conjunction with Ari Kelman’s book. Ned Blackhawk, one of the leading historians of Native America, notes the connections between the Civil War and the final crushing of indigenous peoples on the Plains.

Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible: The paltry Union Army of 1858, before its wartime expansion, could not have attacked, let alone removed, the fortified Navajo communities in the Four Corners, while Southern secession gave a powerful impetus to expand American territory westward. Territorial leaders like Evans were given more resources and power to negotiate with, and fight against, powerful Western tribes like the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota and Comanche. The violence of this time was fueled partly by the lust for power by civilian and military leaders desperate to obtain glory and wartime recognition.

Expansion continued after the war, powered by a revived American economy but also by a new spirit of national purpose, a sense that America, having suffered in the war, now had the right to conquer more peoples and territories.

The United States has yet to fully recognize the violent destruction wrought against indigenous peoples by the Civil War and the Union Army. Connor and Evans have cities, monuments and plaques in their honor, as well as two universities and even Colorado’s Mount Evans, home to the highest paved road in North America.

We have also talked about this recently in terms of Andrew Graybill’s new book on the Marias Massacre in 1870. The miitiarization and industrialization that the Civil War wrought were very easily turned against Native Americans. That doesn’t mean that without these things somehow the bison are not exterminated and Native resistance crushed eventually, but it wouldn’t have happened so rapidly and with such brutal force at that time. Moreover, it’s really important to think of the devastating conquering of indigenous people in the West as part and parcel of the larger Civil War. The brilliant tactics we rightly laud William Tecumseh Sherman for when used against slaveholders we can equally say were horrifying when used against Native Americans, in no small part because when racism was added to them, the murder of women and children was openly practiced by the military in the West when it was not in the South.

….See also this excellent piece on a man who discovered his ancestor was directly involved in the atrocities at Sand Creek.

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  • DrDick

    It is also the case that a large portion of the post Civil War immigrants were Southerners, fleeing the devastated economy and new social and political environment.

    • jamesepowell

      I’ve never read or heard this before. Do you have a source?

  • divadab

    Ya these events occurred at the same time as the “Utah War”, when US troops invaded and occupied Utah territory and forced the submission of its Mormon population. There was no killing war, but here are a couple of attested statements made by US army leaders occupying Utah:
    “At the end of June 1858, the Army troops under General Johnston entered the Salt Lake Valley unhindered. Riding through the still empty streets of Salt Lake City on June 26, an embittered Johnston was heard to say that he would have given “his plantation for a chance to bombard the city for fifteen minutes.”[54] Lt. Col. Charles Ferguson Smith stated that he “did not care a damm who heard him; he would like to see every dammed Mormon hung by the neck.””

    Hardly surprising an army comprised of such unrepentant killers would massacre any “enemies” in their path.

    • Linnaeus

      There was no killing war

      True for the most part, but the Utah militia didn’t just talk about killing.

      • divadab

        Ya Mountain Meadows was a black chapter – motivated by fear of invasion by the US and rumors that one of the party was responsible for the assassination of a Mormon church official. DOesn;t excuse it, of course, just puts the atrocity in context. Remember Mormons had fled oppression and massacre (and an extermination order by the Governor of Missouri) in four States to their Utah refuge, which was so bleak they figured no one else would want it.

        But besides skirmishes and geurilla actions by the Mormons against the invading US troops, no actual military battles or casualties took place in the Utah war.

        Strange history, these United States have – Mormons are now the most reliable and consistent Republicans in the nation. If you can;t beat ’em, join ’em!

        • Linnaeus

          Oh, I know that the Mormons had faced repression everywhere else they’d lived – just offering that the Utah war was, ahem, multifaceted. Doesn’t mean, of course, it would have been right for the Army to hang everyone.

          But you could go back even a few years earlier to the Yakima War and see what the US Army was capable of.

        • Ahuitzotl

          If you can;t beat ‘em, join ‘em –

          and destroy from within!

  • mud man

    But the War on Slavery was totally worth it because it totally solved all the problems of race relations in America.

    • Hogan

      Who are you supposed to be parodying here?

      • DrDick


      • mud man

        Do you guys follow this blog?

        • Hogan

          Oh, that’s your “totally solved all the problems of race relations in America” citation?

          I have a ball. Perhaps you’d like to bounce it.

          • I’m a bit curious that he is citing one of my posts in opposition to another of my posts to make some sort of weird point about this blog.

        • joe from Lowell

          Yes, we do.

          That’s why we’re making fun of you for the ” totally solved all the problems of race relations in America” line.

    • Cheerful

      What possible point do you think you are making?

    • tsam


    • ColBatGuano

      Needed moar hangingz for treason.

  • West of the Cascades

    Great post, and incredibly important to call attention to and commemorate this anniversary. Here is another interesting take on the repercussions of the Sand Creek massacre — http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/john-evans-study/study-committee-report.pdf — John Evans, who was Colorado’s governor in late 1864, was also one of the founders and long-time financial supporters of Northwestern University (and the University of Denver).

    The (long-read) Report of the John Evans Study Committee (four NU professors, four non-NU professors) concludes that, although there is no evidence that Evans ordered or knew in advance that Chivington intended to massacre the Cheyenne and Arapaho camped at Sand Creek, Evans’s actions (and particularly his failure to act on behalf of Indians in his dual role as superintendent of Indian affairs in the territory) created the conditions that allowed the massacre to take place. It also lambastes Evans for never subsequently criticizing what happened (calling it a “deep moral failure”), and finds that, although he didn’t profit directly from the massacre, he (and, through his donations, Northwestern University) did profit from the genocide (a word the Report doesn’t use, but which I think is appropriate) of the Plains Indians because it cleared them from lands in which he later made a fortune as a railroad magnate.

    • Denverite

      The DU committee looking at this was far harsher on Evans re: his culpability for the massacre.


      (Says the person currently sitting about 3/4 of a mile from Evans Avenue, who can see Mt. Evans from his back door.)

      Anyone been to the Sand Creek monument in Kiowa Count? Trying to decide if it’s worth the couple hours each way.

      • West of the Cascades

        Thank you for posting this. The conclusion – listing those departures from the Northwestern Report and the opinion that Evans was much more culpable – is compelling.

        I haven’t been to the Sand Creek monument but I’ve been to Little Bighorn, Big Hole, and Wounded Knee, and they were some of the most moving and memorable visits I’ve made to any historic sites in my life. I’m planning a visit to Colorado next summer mainly to visit Sand Creek. I think it would be fully worth the time spent to drive there from Denver.

      • I was there all the way back in 1996 and found it very powerful. There is a lot more infrastructure there today so I don’t know if the effect is the same.

      • Denverite

        Thanks for the recs, guys. Maybe I’ll try to do a trip with just my daughter and time it with when they do the territorial history stuff in school. She should know that there’s more to it than Zebulon Pike.

        • rea

          Zebulon Pike, the man who burned Toronto

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