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Shifting Sands

It happened in a place where the land rises and falls like ocean swells, and what the earth didn't claim, souvenir-hunters did, until all that remained were trail fragments, faded memories and the restless winds of the prairie. And in this way, a killing ground was lost.

May 1999: Metal detectors bleep and whine as a big man in camouflage fatigue pants, a canvas hat and long hair plants a tiny yellow flag.

"Okay!"
A digger wearing a red baseball cap and carrying a narrow shovel ambles after him. He scoops out a thick clump of dirt while another digger runs a magnet over the clod until a rusted bit of metal twists free.

"Nail!" he barks.
"Nail!" someone repeats.
"Okay!"
And off they go.

Slowly, methodically, they scan the prairie, then turn around and scan it again, yard by yard, hour by hour, turning up clues along the meandering banks of Big Sandy Creek. So far they have found the following: Tin cans. Buckles. Horseshoe nails. A skillet. A Dutch oven. A butcher's knife. Spoons. Forks. A brass kettle handle. A metal scraper. Broken scissors. Ornaments. Bullets. Cannonball fragments. In two weeks, more than 300 relics.

On this clear and sunny morning, the archaeologists are confident and happy; they have the feeling that the mystery of this ground will soon be solved. The crew of twenty men and women trade jokes and insults as they make their way through the rutted meadow of buffalo grass, sage and prickly pear 200 miles southeast of Denver.

Yet there are times when reality hits hard and faces turn solemn, particularly the faces of the Cheyenne and Arapaho crew members, who have traveled here from as far as Oklahoma and Wyoming. With every lead slug plucked from the earth, they see an old man, woman or child cut down by soldiers as Chief Black Kettle waved a white flag. To them, this is more than an archaeological site. It is a graveyard.

At dawn on November 29, 1864, as many as 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho were camped along the Big Sandy, asleep in their lodges, when a six-foot-four-inch Civil War hero and Methodist preacher named Colonel John Chivington and his men attacked. The soldiers fired on them through the afternoon, unloading more than a ton of bullets and cannonballs, until the creek ran red with blood. When they left, they burned the village to the ground. An estimated 163 people died.

Until six years ago, historians, archaeologists and practically everyone else assumed that the infamous Sand Creek massacre occurred exactly where a gray stone monument said it did: on a bluff overlooking Big Sandy Creek, some ten miles north of the withering town of Chivington, on a patch of ranchland owned by William Dawson.

But then two metal-detector hobbyists contacted the Colorado Historical Society with a concern. They'd spent several days scouring the site but didn't find any artifacts indicating that there'd been a fight there. This puzzled researchers, including David Halaas, the society's chief historian and an authority on the massacre. Some 800 soldiers fired rifles that November day. Metal detectors should have found something.

Society researchers hit the archives and learned that the monument had been dedicated on August 6, 1950, by Colorado Arkansas Valley Incorporated and the Lamar and Eads chambers of commerce. It had been carved by local arrowhead hunter Paul Steward, who had collected dozens of artifacts there.

That same day, Leroy Hafen, then curator and chief Colorado historian, erected a marker of his own on the highway just outside of Chivington that read: "North eight miles, east one mile, is the site of the Sand Creek 'Battle' or 'Massacre.'" Hafen did not say how he'd arrived at the location; he did not say how Steward had, either. For more than forty years, those monuments stood unchallenged.

The more research the historians uncovered, the more puzzled they became. A 1908 Denver Post article described four veterans of the Chivington campaign who'd gathered at the Big Sandy for a reunion--and spent most of their time squabbling over the location. "Before night, every man had picked a site that pleased him," the reporter wrote. "Before the visit of the veterans, every man between Kit Carson and Chivington knew exactly where the fight took place. Now, nobody is sure. The site of the famous Indian fight is left to the prairie dog, the billy owl, the rattlesnake, the road lizard and the cottontail rabbit."

Other articles were equally disheartening. In 1923, a reporter who'd interviewed ranchers in and around Chivington proclaimed the site "somewhere in this vicinity." In 1937, Boy Scout troops tried to re-enact the attack but couldn't figure out where to do it. "No relic of the massacre can be found," the Montrose Press reported. "The site of the battle remains indefinite."

To Halaas, a rumpled man with a fondness for bolo ties and a memory like an Old West encyclopedia, such uncertainty was a travesty. The Sand Creek massacre was a pivotal moment in history, he says. After that, the Cheyenne never again trusted U.S. officials. Tribal leaders considered the massacre a declaration of war on their way of life, and it sparked twelve years of intermittent warfare that culminated in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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