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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 126

[ 28 ] August 12, 2017 |

This is the grave of John Chivington.

One of the most reprehensible loathsome Americans to ever live and yet a man representative of 19th century America, Chivington was born in 1821 in Lebanon, Ohio. He became a Methodist circuit rider in 1844, working in Illinois. He became a strong abolitionist and went to Kansas in 1853, at first missionizing the Wyandots and then becoming active in the Bleeding Kansas era after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was outspoken enough that his friends strongly urged him to leave Kansas as self-protection. He went to Nebraska for awhile.

So far, you are saying, sounds like a pretty good guy! Well, in 1859 gold was discovered in Colorado. This led to the second great gold rush in American history, after California. Chivington followed the masses west in 1860. He tried to start some churches in the mining camps but became more involved in the militia of what had become Colorado Territory. Chivington joined the 1st Colorado Volunteers as a major at the start of the Civil War and won victories in small western battles at Apache Canyon and Glorieta Pass that doomed the Confederate effort to take the western gold fields.

Chivington was also incredibly ambitious and he hated Native Americans. By 1864, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were in big trouble. Their hunting grounds of the Front Range overwhelmed by white settlers, the bison were in rapid decline and so was their independence. The Cheyennes especially were divided between the Dog Soldiers who wanted total war against the whites and compromising leaders such as Black Kettle who wished to keep their people alive. The Dog Soldiers and the whites engaged in raids on each other during 1864 while Black Kettle sued for peace. He was guaranteed that for his people so long as they stayed in southeastern Colorado. They camped along Sand Creek, about 140 miles east of what is today Pueblo. This was far off country from the gold fields. They weren’t bothering anyone. But that was not enough for Chivington.

We think of the U.S. Army as the villains of the genocidal wars against Native Americans. But the real villains were the everyday white settlers of the West. They wanted a war of extermination against Indians. Colorado’s territorial governor, John Evans, didn’t like the peace terms given to Black Kettle and neither did Chivington. Stoking anti-Native sentiment was good politics in Denver and the mining camps. Chivington wanted to build on this for his own political career. When the War Department gave Evans permission to create the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, the stated reason was to protect the mining camps but Evans and Chivington were lying. Chivington was named commanding officer. And he marched his troops to Sand Creek.

By late November 1864, most of Black Kettle’s warriors were out hunting. There were about 60 adult aged men in the camp and several hundred older men, women, and children. 675 men under Chivington’s command wanted nothing but genocide. On the morning of November 29, they attacked. Black Kettle and the camping Cheyenne and Arapaho had no idea why this was happening. They were doing everything they agreed to do in the earlier peace agreement. They ran up an American flag and a white flag immediately. Chivington did not care. The Colorado forces lost about 15 dead, mostly due to soldiers shooting each other. The number of Cheyenne and Arapaho who died remains unclear, probably 150-200. The Colorado troops went to raping and mutilating people before killing them. Said Robert Bent, who witnessed the attack:

I saw one squaw lying on the bank, whose leg had been broken. A soldier came up to her with a drawn sabre. She raised her arm to protect herself; he struck, breaking her arm. She rolled over, and raised her other arm; he struck, breaking that, and then left her with out killing her. I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.

Stan Hoig:

Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles-the last for a tobacco pouch …

Major Anthony:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind, following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling in the sand. I saw one man get off his horse at a distance of about seventy-five yards and draw up his rifle and fire. He missed the child. Another man came up and said, ‘let me try the son of a b-. I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down, and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up, and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.

When Chivington and his men returned to Denver, they were greeted with a parade. Seen as conquering heroes, with the body parts of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including fetuses and both male and female genitalia, hanging from their horses and decorating their hats, young women ran up and kissed the soldiers. But the revelry did not last long. Some were truly disgusted with what Chivington had done. Silas Soule had refused to obey Chivington’s command. His troops watched instead of fought. Chivington considered him a coward. Soule was a hero, at least in comparison to the other whites in Colorado. He publicized Chivington’s actions. This led to multiple investigations. After Soule testified, one of Chivington’s fans shot him in the face, killing him. The negative publicity Sand Creek caused as it became national news did not lead to legal action against Chivington. He had resigned from the military and was not subject to its courts because of the post-Civil War general amnesty that was not intended for actions in Colorado but nonetheless applied. No civilian charges were fired. In fact, no one suffered legal consequences for this most grotesque act of genocide. But it did make Chivington persona non grata in Colorado politics. Chivingotn became permanently associated with a mass slaughter so over the top that even in the era of the Civil War and largely genocidal campaigns, that he was perceived as a monster. An Army judge called him, “a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation.” The panel of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War declared:

As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless [sic] condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.

His purposes having blown up in his face, Chivington decided to become a freight hauler. He wasn’t any good at that. In 1868, his son died. In 1871, he married his son’s widow. Yep, you read that right. Even his former supporters were disgusted by this. He moved around, borrowed money from his daughter-in-law/wife’s relatives, didn’t pay them back, tried to run for state legislature in Ohio, lived in California for awhile, attempted to get money from the federal government for Indian depredations he claimed he suffered (this was a man who truly had no shame), and eventually moved backed to Denver, where he briefly became deputy sheriff before dying in 1894.

The fact that Chivington was an abolitionist who committed genocidal acts should not surprise us at all. This was not a contradiction, particularly in the West. Given that most abolitionists hated slavery more for how it threatened white male democracy than its impact on African-Americans and the general belief that the United States was destined by God for white conquest and domination, such a position was entirely consistent. Chivington was a horrifying person, but he was also all too typical of his time. The initial reception he received in Denver and the genocidal cynicism behind the whole action demonstrates just how popular the wanton murder of Native Americans was on the ground in these territories. Ultimately, Chivington isn’t a monster. He’s an all too typical American who just went a little farther than most of his colleagues were willing to go. In that, he helped create the white supremacist state that has never not oppressed Native Americans from its founding to the present.

As for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the oppression of their freedom continued. Black Kettle survived Sand Creek but was killed in the Washita Massacre of 1868 in a similarly unjust action in western Oklahoma, this time led by George Armstong Custer.

John Chivington is buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado.

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  • rwelty

    _A Misplaced Massacre_ by Ari Kelman is an excellent recent work on the Sand Creek Massacre. highly recommended.

  • King Goat

    Another great entry in a great series. Only question, why diminish Soule’s heroism with the qualifier ‘at least in comparison to the other whites in Colorado?’ Seems like he did a pretty unqualifiedly heroic then in standing against the ingrained culture and incentives of the time to not only refuse to go along with the massacre but to them report the issue and testifyi against his former fellows, paying for it with his life.

  • Thom

    The Sand Creek Massacre is to the wars against and displacement of Native Americans as the Congo Free State is to colonialism–so awful that even other colonialists felt compelled to condemn it. An unfortunate side effect, however, is to render less abusive colonialism/displacement of natives as normal and legitimate.

    Also thanks for this accompaniment to breakfast.

  • CP

    The fact that Chivington was an abolitionist who committed genocidal
    acts should not surprise us at all. This was not a contradiction,
    particularly in the West. Given that most abolitionists hated slavery
    more for how it threatened white male democracy than its impact on
    African-Americans and the general belief that the United States was
    destined by God for white conquest and domination, such a position was
    entirely consistent. Chivington was a horrifying person, but he was also
    all too typical of his time. The initial reception he received in
    Denver and the genocidal cynicism behind the whole action demonstrates
    just how popular the wanton murder of Native Americans was on the ground
    in these territories. Ultimately, Chivington isn’t a monster. He’s an
    all too typical American who just went a little farther than most of his
    colleagues were willing to go. In that, he helped create the white
    supremacist state that has never not oppressed Native Americans from its
    founding to the present.

    Yep. It’s one of the sad facts of the era that the same people who put down one particular strain of white supremacism that came out of the South would themselves go on to practice another equally virulent strain of it in the West. Oftentimes, literally the same people, as is the case here.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    “Seen as conquering heroes, with the body parts of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including fetuses and both male and female genitalia, hanging from their horses and decorating their hats, young women ran up and kissed the soldiers.” Jesus wept.

    Every time some Republican gasbag wants to prattle on about our traditional values and the “culture of life”, I think of stuff like this and want to puke.

    • Origami Isopod

      Well, “traditional values” isn’t entirely inaccurate: the bible does mention necklaces of foreskins obtained from those one has slaughtered.

  • keta

    Let’s see what the 1864 Rocky Mountain News had to say about the Battle of Sandy Creek:

    Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results. We are not prepared to write its history, which can only be done by some one who accompanied the expedition, but we have gathered from those who participated in it and from others who were in that part of the country, some facts which will doubtless interest many of our readers.

    Whether viewed as a march or as a battle, the exploit has few, if any, parallels. A march of 260 miles in but a fraction more than five days, with deep snow, scanty forage, and no road, is a remarkable feat, whilst the utter surprise of a large Indian village is unprecendented. In no single battle in North America, we believe, have so many Indians been slain.
    It is said that a short time before the command reached the scene of battle of an old squaw partially alarmed the village by reporting that a great herd of buffalo were coming. She heard the rumbling of the artillery and tramp of the moving squadrons, but her people doubted. In a little time the doubt was dispelled, but not by buffaloes.
    A thousand incidents of individual daring and the passing events of the day might be told, but space forbids. We leave the task for eye-witnesses to chronicle. All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.

    At the same link there’s sworn testimony about the battle from Chivington:

    From the best and most reliable information I could obtain, there were in the Indian camp, at the time of the attack, about eleven (11) or twelve (12) hundred Indians: of these about seven hundred were warriors, and the remainder were women and children. I am not aware that there were any old men among them. There was an unusual number of males among them, for the reason that the war chiefs of both nations were assembled there evidently for some special purpose.

    From the best information I could obtain, I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed; I cannot state positively the number killed, nor can I state positively the number of women and children killed. Officers who passed over the field, by my orders, after the battle, for the purpose of ascertaining the number of Indians killed, report that they saw but few women or children dead, no more than would certainly fall in an attack upon a camp in which they were. I myself passed over some portions of the field after the fight, and I saw but one woman who had been killed, and one who had hanged herself; I saw no dead children. From all I could learn, I arrived at the conclusion that but few women or children had been slain. I am of the opinion that when the attack was made on the Indian camp the greater number of squaws and children made their escape, while the warriors remained to fight my troops.

    Make America Great Again.

    • MacCheerful

      the ability to effortlessly lie is one of the great weapons of evil people like this. They are never forced to confront their crimes if they never admit them and no one in a position of power can contradict them. I read the above and it’s like a version of a Trump speech.

    • Origami Isopod

      Not quite the same situation but I am put in mind of the wingnuts who shat their pants over A People’s History of the United States precisely because Zinn detailed what Columbus and his men did to natives of the Western Hemisphere — details taken from Columbus’s own writing.

  • martinmc

    The tombstone doesn’t look like it’s from 1894. Is there a Chivington fan club that installed that stone in the 20th century? Or do I just not know tombstones from the 1890’s?

    • Erik Loomis

      There are plenty of tombstones with that look from the era, even as the era is more famous for its grandiose monuments, but I can’t say with any specificity what the story is behind the tombstone itself.

      • rrhersh

        The real question is the absence of any sign of piss in the snow on that grave. I take it you took the photograph first?

    • N__B

      I’ve seen similar late-1800s stones. They get modern looking in the 1880s. Also, granite doesn’t show much weathering when compared to the limestone and sandstone stones used earlier.

  • Denverite

    White people in Colorado SUCK.

    • King Goat

      What a stupid thing to say. Colorado is 70% non-Hispanic white, the state went for HRC. That’s quite a lot ‘sucky’ white people that voted for her.

      But don’t worry, the more of them that encounter people on the left saying such stupid things the less will be doing so, and maybe you’ll be more right.

  • Joe Paulson

    Ultimately, Chivington isn’t a monster.

    Yes. I prefer to respect the humanity of these people. Limited as that label may be.

    • Erik Loomis

      The problem with calling racists monsters is that it separates them from the general population. And in this case, the general population of Colorado did not oppose this action.

      • Joe Paulson

        Your analysis shows that the public was ultimately opposed to him and even the ability to directly carry the actions out takes things to another level even to the degree the public generally looks on (rarely directly watching; lynching is a case where there was a wide direct involvement; but the public here didn’t go out killing pregnant women themselves). I get the point though.

        But, I myself don’t like the word “monster” in a broader sense too. It tends to remove humanity from the individual as is the case to some degree with other terms used to dehumanize certain people deemed vile.

      • Origami Isopod

        I’m conflicted, because I see the word in this usage as metaphorical. To me, it doesn’t mean the person is inhuman, but rather that they chose to deny their own common humanity with others. OTOH I realize not everyone views the word that way and it’s probably more helpful to stress that these attitudes are society-wide and not aberrant.

  • West_of_the_Cascades

    John Evans, Colorado’s governor, was one of the founders and the chair of the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University (in Evanston, Illinois) for over 40 years. Northwestern, until about three years ago, didn’t acknowledge his role in the Sand Creek Massacre. The school then commissioned eight scholars to look into Evans’s role in the massacre, and whether he profited from it (and thus that the University profited from the massacre) and published a harrowing and fascinating study — calling Evans’s actions a “moral failure” and finding that he helped create the situation that led to the massacre, but does not appear to have been involved in planning it. The finding that he did not profit from it seems a little more stretched, since the study acknowledges that Evans did profit generally from the subjugation and elimination of the Tribes in the West. The study is at http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/equity-and-inclusion/study-committee-report.pdf, with a synopsis at http://www.northwestern.edu/magazine/fall2014/campuslife/john-evans-and-the-sand-creek-massacre.html.

    Of the places I have not visited in the United States that I want to visit, the Sand Creek NHS is high on the list. A visit to Wounded Knee and the cemetery there about a decade ago is one of my most powerful memories and one that has helped me be more attentive to the struggles of native Americans since and help where I can. Sand Creek sounds like another place to reflect on exactly what our country and the people in it really stand for, and whether and how we can ever break out of the cycle of oppressing the least powerful among us. And a stop in Denver on the way home to piss on Chivington’s grave might be in order.

    • Denverite

      The other school that he founded also commissioned a study and it was a little less generous to Evans.

      https://portfolio.du.edu/evcomm

      • West_of_the_Cascades

        Thank you for posting that — I hadn’t seen that subsequent report by Denver University, and the contrast between Evans’s actions/inactions and the neighboring governors in Utah and Nevada is pretty damning.

  • Mart

    Why are the Nazis so concerned about the elimination of white American history? Think it would be a feature not a bug.

  • Origami Isopod

    But the real villains were the everyday white settlers of the West.

    Whom we valorize, of course, as in the Little House books — which not coincidentally were written by a libertarian evangelist.

    The fact that Chivington was an abolitionist who committed genocidal acts should not surprise us at all.

    Well, consider Sherman. A hero in the Civil War; a mass murderer out West.

  • Hogan

    Fucking Masons. Why is it always fucking Masons?

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Well, for all of the support given to Lt. Calley by the 28% Who Hold America Hostage, at least he didn’t get a parade thrown for him.

    At least not yet.

    • firefall

      I’d give 1:4 odds of him getting a statue in the next 4 years

  • one of the blue

    Ironically enough, given the biographical arc detailed by Eric, if Chivington had died in action at Glorieta Pass (an underrated US win if ever there was one), he’d be considered by people like us both a minor hero and a good guy.

    Also in the early ’70’s the makers the movie Soldier Blue about the massacre felt compelled to fictionalize Chivington’s name (they called him Iverson).