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Battle Cry

While historians search for the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Laird Cometsevah listens to his ancestors.

"What happened there was an American tragedy," Halaas adds. "It's important not just to the Cheyennes, but for all Americans. It must be remembered."

Eight miles north of Chivington, the town named after the leader of the Colorado 3rd Cavalry, at the entrance to a patch of rangeland, stands a sign: "Absolutely No Trespassing." Across a dirt road providing access to that land lies a telephone pole. Beside that, attached to a fence humming with an electrical charge, sits a solar-powered battery.

Presumably, this primitive security system was put there by landowner William Dawson (who didn't return Westword's calls). The official site of the Sand Creek Massacre is on Dawson's land. Although he's allowed access to historians, Indians and others, Dawson has had trouble with certain people fascinated with that spot. Trouble like visitors trespassing at all hours of the day and leaving behind trash. Trouble like losing his patience and taking a car license plate from one visitor and demanding $25 in cash, blocking the path of another visitor and threatening to keep him there, holding a third at gunpoint.

In October, Dawson pleaded guilty to three felony charges stemming from these troubles and agreed to perform community service and resign from a municipal judgeship he'd held in the nearby town of Eads for ten years.

Later he offered to sell the land, a 1,425-acre parcel.
That's when Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell entered the picture. Campbell, who's a registered member of the Cheyenne, didn't want to see the site of the Sand Creek Massacre developed or destroyed. So this spring he held a press conference to announce a bill he'd crafted to preserve the Sand Creek Massacre site.

The bill seems almost certain of passage. There's just one problem: No one is sure exactly where the massacre occurred.

Neither U.S. Cavalry troops nor Cheyenne survivors left detailed coordinates. All historians have is a vague description: forty miles northeast of old Fort Lyon.

A 1908 newspaper reported that three Sand Creek veterans had gathered for a reunion at the battlefield. When they looked around, though, they discovered they were in the wrong place. They spent several days searching for artifacts and collecting bones that turned out to be cattle. In the end they narrowed it down to seven possible sites.

In 1923, another newspaper reporter searched for Sand Creek. She interviewed ranchers in nearby Chivington and declared the massacre site "somewhere in this vicinity."

In 1950, Leroy Hafen, then Colorado curator and chief state historian, plopped a bronze marker just east of Chivington that said: "North eight miles, east one mile, is the site of the Sand Creek 'Battle' or 'Massacre.'" Hafen did not say how he arrived at the spot. But there the marker stood.

By the early Nineties, history buffs with metal detectors had been all over the site. And in July 1993, they shared their dilemma with the Colorado Historical Society: They hadn't found anything. Although up to 800 soldiers had fired on Sand Creek for more than six hours, unloading two or three tons of lead bullets and cannonballs, the metal detectors came up empty.

"From what we've found," Halaas says, "everything is in doubt."
Sand Creek survivors could have scattered items as they fled. The Big Sandy could have shifted course. Floods could have washed away artifacts. The Dust Bowl could have covered evidence. But still--nothing?

"I was shocked," Halaas says. "Up until that time, I had no reason to question it. You'd think we'd know where the Sand Creek Massacre occurred. It's like losing Gettysburg."

Historians studied records and did more research. They pored over maps again and again. They interviewed Cheyenne, questioned ranchers. A team of researchers combed the site and concluded that what was needed was a professional, systematic search.

In 1995, the Colorado Historical Society commissioned a team of historians, archaeologists, geologists and metal-detector clubs to pinpoint the site. They fanned out over a 1,000-acre search area centered on the Dawson land. They took aerial photographs. They used ground-penetrating radar. They stood ten meters apart with metal detectors. Their discovery: one picketpin (used to tie a horse), one .54-caliber mini-ball, one .58-caliber mini-ball.

"That's relevant material, but very disappointing, considering the two to three tons of ammunition fired," Halaas says. "We can't say it's the site. We can't say it's not the site. This may indeed be it. We just don't know."

A full report is due at the Colorado Historical Society next month. In the meantime, Campbell's bill, which authorizes the Park Service to locate and buy the land for a national historic site, waits in committee.

Halaas is optimistic. If Campbell's proposal passes, a more thorough records search would begin--as well as a high-tech site survey including infra-red satellite imagery.

"I think we'll find it," he says. "I hope we'll find it. But there's no guarantee."

The United States, being desirous to express its condemnation of, and repudiate the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated against certain bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho by Col. J.M. Chivington while said Indians were at peace with the United States and under its flag, whose protection they had been promised and induced to seek, will grant three-hundred-and-twenty acres to each of the following chiefs...and will, in like manner, grant to each person made a widow or lost a parent, one-hundred-and-sixty acres...

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