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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 126

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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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