Chivington, Colorado: The air is restless here, always stirring, rustling the stalks of dried buffalo grass and sage, whistling endlessly through miles of rusted barbed wire.
For many years, this was a dead place. Cheyenne and Arapaho stayed away.
But each November for over a decade now, Laird Cometsevah has driven here with his wife, coming 400 miles from their home in Oklahoma. He prays for the people, his relatives, whose bones lie in this ground, alongside U.S. Cavalry bullets. He smokes tobacco, as tradition says, and leaves offerings of dried meat, corn and chokecherries. He walks along the rolling plains of southeastern Colorado, on the banks of the Big Sandy, and he hears the children crying.
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.
--Rocky Mountain News, December 17, 1864
It's just after lunchtime in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, where it's 89 degrees in early May. Farmers wearing sleeveless T-shirts lean against the wall of the Trading Post convenience store, sipping Slurpees and watching semis rumble by. The Black Kettle Museum stands open for business, waiting for business, waiting. A waitress at the B & H restaurant slumps in a back booth, crunching ice cubes with her mouth open, watching a whirlwind sweep across a parking lot.
In a corrugated-tin building beside a metal shop--the only place in town big enough to hold a meeting of twenty people--Laird Cometsevah sits with his wife, Colleen. They've been here all morning, listening to a man from the U.S. Park Service talk about creating a memorial to those who died November 27, 1868, at Washita River, just a mile away.
At dawn that day, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry into the peaceful camp of Chief Black Kettle and killed anywhere from 35 to 200 men, women and children, including Black Kettle, a prominent Cheyenne leader who'd been seeking a truce with the whites. The attack catapulted Custer to national fame and escalated tensions between Plains Indians and white settlers.
Park Service officials say they want the memorial to present all sides of the attack. They want to stay true to historical fact. They want to present a balanced interpretation. And so they have invited representatives from the Cheyenne tribe, the local chamber of commerce, congressional offices, historical societies and other groups, who discuss in exhausting detail every point of contention. They carefully weigh each phrase. And then, in a long, tedious process, they try to forge statements that will remain fair and accurate and stand for years to come.
Hours tick by.
A parks employee stuffs a glazed donut into a Styrofoam cup.
A geologist yawns.
Laird and Colleen listen intently. They woke at 5 a.m. and drove 57 miles from their home in Clinton to get here. They don't usually attend government meetings; they usually aren't invited. But this meeting is different, and they're curious. They take the opportunity seriously.
Laird is a Cheyenne chief; Colleen is a genealogist and historian. Together they help scholars compile accurate accounts of the Cheyenne's past and work to preserve tribal records. They have come to offer a perspective of the so-called Indian Wars not found in most textbooks: that of the Indian survivors.
At 67, Laird is an imposing figure: over six feet tall, somber, with dark glasses shading his eyes and a low, raspy, Oklahoma twang to his voice. Colleen is more outgoing, quick to smile, on this day wearing pink. They both like to laugh. They travel everywhere together.
When the meeting began, Laird introduced himself by his Cheyenne name, Whistling Eagle. He said his great-grandfather, Cometsevah, had survived the attack at Washita, as well as an attack at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. These are all related, he said. Even Little Big Horn. It all starts at Sand Creek.
Few dispute the basics.
At dawn on November 29, 1864, almost 800 soldiers from Colorado's 1st and 3rd cavalries led by Colonel John Chivington attacked the peaceful camp of Black Kettle on the Big Sandy and killed some 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children. Ten soldiers also died.
From there, accounts diverge.
Some historians say Sand Creek must be viewed within the context of its time. Not to condone. Not to defend. But to understand. And at the time, white settlers in Colorado were on the edge of hysteria.
Two years earlier, some 700 pioneers had been killed during the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota. Afterward, rumors swirled that Indian tribes were uniting for war. Stagecoaches were raided; mail carriers refused to travel across the Plains. Newspapers raged: "Indian vs. White Man," "More Indian Outrages," "The Indians Are Coming!"
In June 1864, a family named Hungate was killed by four Arapaho on their ranch 25 miles southeast of Denver. The mutilated bodies, including those of two children, were brought back to the five-year-old town and placed on public display.
The impact was immediate.
"Nowadays we find it hard to believe there was a real possibility that all whites in Denver could be wiped out by Indians," says historian Tom Noel. "But when people saw those girls carved up, it certainly enhanced that possibility in their minds."
In August, territorial governor John Evans won authorization for a 100-day volunteer regiment, the Colorado 3rd Cavalry, which fell under the jurisdiction of Chivington. He was a six-foot-four-inch-tall Methodist preacher who'd gained hero status by fighting back Texas Confederates in northern New Mexico during the 1862 battle of Glorieta Pass. Chivington's new orders: Punish hostile Cheyenne and Arapaho.
That fall, while focusing most of his attention on pushing for Colorado statehood and his own political career, Chivington recruited soldiers, conducted occasional (and uneventful) patrols along the Platte River and bristled at the nickname given to his regiment, "the bloodless thirdsters."
Evans had given Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs who sought peace--including Black Kettle--an ultimatum: Surrender or risk attack. In September, representatives from both sides gathered for a summit at Denver's Camp Weld; Chivington was present. When Black Kettle asked how he could protect his people, he was told to report to Fort Lyon southeast of Denver and turn himself him. Which he did. Black Kettle and his people accepted U.S. protection and were fed and allowed to camp outside Fort Lyon for several weeks. When supplies ran low, he was told to relocate about forty miles away at Sand Creek, also known as the Big Sandy, where buffalo had been sighted. Wait there, officers said, until instructions come.
Instructions never came.
In November, as public pressure mounted and the 100-day deadline for his volunteers loomed, Chivington and his troops marched in secret to Fort Lyon. Where were the Cheyenne? he asked.
Sand Creek, officers at the fort replied. But Black Kettle was under protection of the U.S. flag, they said; hostile Cheyenne, including the Dog Soldiers, were camped fifty miles away from Sand Creek at Smoky Hill. Attacking Sand Creek would be wrong, the officers told Chivington.
It would be murder.
"Damn any man who is in sympathy with an Indian," Chivington responded, and he prepared his troops.
"Put on your 1864 hat," says Duane Smith, a historian from Durango. "What would your feelings be toward the Cheyenne and Arapaho? There was a lot of misunderstanding, racism and bigotry on both sides. It's like Desert Storm or the Ayatollah Khomeini when people said, 'Bomb them to the Stone Age!' It's no different with Sand Creek. People who had the power did exactly what they wanted."
At 8 p.m. on November 28, Chivington began marching toward Sand Creek with some 600 volunteers from the 3rd Cavalry, 125 seasoned 1st Cavalry troops from Fort Lyon and four twelve-pound mountain howitzers. At first light he addressed his troops: "I don't tell you to kill all ages and sexes, but look back on the plains of the Platte, where your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters have been slain."
The bloodless third was about to change its nickname.
For six hours, Chivington's men showered the village with bullets, chasing fleeing Cheyenne and Arapaho up and down Sand Creek, butchering men, women and children, cutting away body parts as trophies.
"You have to remember that most of these were not trained troops but volunteers," says Mike Koury, a military historian whose Old Army Press published the Chivington defense, I Stand by Sand Creek. "These men enlisted in a moment of passion. Everyone had seen the Hungates or knew someone who had. This is a lot different than someone from back East who had never been threatened by Indians or did not have a personal stake. These people knew someone who had been killed or had their horses stolen. These people were angry. They were scared. It was personal. And they vented on the Indians. They might have been the wrong Indians, but they were close enough. They would do."
Chivington sent battlefield dispatches claiming 500 Indian deaths, including those of five chiefs, and 500 animals captured. He also reported finding "a white man's scalp, not three days old" in a Sand Creek lodge.
When they returned to Denver, Chivington and his "bloody third" were greeted as heroes. Their trophies hung in a theater. The Rocky Mountain News reported: "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send East."
In January 1865, Chivington was mustered out of the Army and his 100-day regiment disbanded.
"You never condone killing women and children," Koury says. "But to his last dying day, Chivington said he stood by Sand Creek. If you had to ride a stagecoach through the Plains or had a family that did, you might be awful glad he did what he did. When he died, he had the largest funeral in Denver until Buffalo Bill. Nothing is as black and white as it appears."
That became clear within months of Sand Creek, when another version of the battle began to emerge. Eyewitness accounts of the attack reached Washington, D.C., where a joint congressional committee was holding an inquest on Civil War atrocities. At the committee's urging, the U.S. government condemned Sand Creek as a "gross and wanton" massacre and in a treaty promised to repay survivors for their losses. Later that year, Governor Evans was removed from office. Chivington, now a civilian, went unpunished.
What Laird Cometsevah heard, he heard from his father, who heard it from his mother, who camped at Sand Creek when she was five or six years old. Old enough to remember the soldiers coming.
The story was told as Laird and his family sat outside under a thatch of willows, making a fire, cooking supper, boiling coffee. It had been passed down through the family, by elders telling children, children growing up and telling their children.
The way Laird's father told it, there was a lot of turmoil and disagreement between Indian and non-Indians. After gold was discovered in 1858, cattle drives had come across the Indian lands, the men stealing horses, causing trouble. The Indians tried to keep them away. They tried to protect what belonged to them.
Black Kettle went to Denver to try to speak of peace for his people. He was led to believe that Fort Lyon troops would protect them if they stayed on a reservation along Sand Creek. So they set up camp there.
Black Kettle's camp had many elderly people, children and widows. He tried to take care of them. That was his duty as a Cheyenne chief. The young men, they probably were at Smoky Hill with the Dog Soldiers, who lived apart from other Cheyenne, banned after a killing among themselves.
At the time, Colonel Chivington was tied in with Governor Evans, who had wanted to invite non-Indians into the area since gold was discovered. Gold didn't amount to anything for the Cheyenne. Anyway, Governor Evans formed this militia with Chivington.
Early one morning--they always said it was morning--some young people were herding horses when they saw images coming from the south. It was early, with the sun just coming up, and they couldn't see too well. It was cold. Very thin snowflakes were falling.
The young people thought what they saw were buffalo. Then they realized it was U.S. troops. Quite a few of them. Chivington's troops, coming toward the camp. So these young people ran back and told the village.
The troops got closer.
Black Kettle came out of his lodge holding a long pole with the American flag and a white flag underneath. He stood in front of his teepee and told his people, "Don't run. Don't run. Don't be afraid. Come around me. The soldiers won't hurt you. As long as we have this flag, they won't bother us."
Chivington's troops divided in three groups. One headed off the herd of horses on the south side of Sand Creek; another group of troops dismounted and went upstream toward the camp; the third group of mounted troops came from the northeast.
Chivington's men started shooting. They ignored the flag, the truce of peace, whatever you want to call it. The troops walked through the camp, shooting, killing, they even walked over their own flag.
Chief White Antelope came out of his teepee. When he saw the soldiers weren't going to stop shooting, he started singing his death song. They shot him down as he stood singing.
Laird's great-grand-father, Cometsevah, lost two of his six children when the shooting started--his oldest boy and his oldest daughter. He also lost his younger sister, who was twelve or fourteen years old. She died at the beginning, too.
Cometsevah ran toward the commotion and tried to fight. That's one of the laws of a Cheyenne chief. When your people are attacked, you go forward and stand your ground until your people can run away. While Cometsevah fought with the other men, the women, old people and children moved upstream, maybe two miles.
Colleen's great-grandfather's brother ran to the camp from the horse herd; his mother and father were already gone. He picked up his war things--his war bonnet, his shield and the gun that his father had given him. As he ran up Sand Creek, soldiers shot at him the whole way. All the feathers were shot off his war bonnet, but he didn't get a scratch.
Black Kettle and his wife left the flag standing and went up the creek after the rest of the camp. Halfway there, Black Kettle's wife was shot down. When he looked at her, she looked like she was dead, so he ran.
The troops were shooting at them from three directions. The women dug into the sand, making pits to hide from the gunfire. That's how they survived.
Cometsevah caught up with them sometime later.
By the time the shooting stopped, Laird's father said, the sun was straight up in the sky.
Cometsevah and the other men went back toward the camp, where they could see smoke. The troops had burned their lodges. Cometsevah walked through the camp, looking for the bodies of his missing children and sister, whose Indian name was Tallow Woman. He couldn't find them. He didn't know what the soldiers had done with them. Maybe cut them up. But he knew they were dead.
These troops, they mutilated people. Bodies had arms gone, legs gone, fingers cut off. Heads were missing. A lot of the women were cut open. Even Chief White Antelope had his ears cut off. Things of that nature.
When Cometsevah got to his lodges, he saw nothing but ashes. All his belongings, his winter supplies, were gone.
He looked all around.
Everywhere he saw dead Cheyenne. Elderly people. Women. Children. Babies.
He looked back at the ashes and saw his peace pipe. Just the bowl remained. The stem had burned. That pipe was all he had.
Cometsevah went back to tell his wife and the others what had happened. He looked at where the Cheyenne people had died. And he said, "The sand was red with blood."
All Cometsevah could do was sing his chief songs. He couldn't do anything else.
So he sang.
Anyway. That's what Laird's father told him, as his father's mother had told him.
The words "Sand Creek" appear on a marker outside the Colorado State Capitol, erected in 1909 and commemorating Civil War battles. This spring, legislators called for Sand Creek to be erased from the list. Was it a battle or a massacre? The debate still rages.
"Today we obviously condemn it," says Tom Noel. "But we have different values, different sentiments and a different worldview than people did 133 years ago. If you go back and see the Hungate massacre, that makes it a little easier to understand why the great majority sided with Chivington and rationalized or pardoned his activities. Even with nightmares like Hitler, there are reasons and contexts explaining what happened. Historically, it's important to look at all sides."
"I firmly believe there were hostiles in that camp," Mike Koury says. "Logic tells you women and children could not have held off 700 well-armed troops for six hours. There were a hell of a lot of warriors there. They put up a darn good fight."
"Should we apologize for Sand Creek?" asks Duane Smith. "That's absolutely ridiculous. Why should we? I know I sound like a bigot, but there were a lot more women and children killed in Minnesota. Are the Sioux apologizing? If my grandmother had been killed at Sand Creek, I'd certainly be horrified. But an awful lot of people justified it to the day they died.
"This was part of a civil war that had been going on since 1622," Smith continues. "Two American armies were fighting for their homeland. That is not unusual in world history. We're making it into something it's not. Are we ever going to reverse it? No. So why dwell on that history? Learn from it. Let it go."
David Halaas, chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society, could not disagree more. He has worked with Laird and Colleen Cometsevah--the Historical Society produced a videotape on Sand Creek four years ago in which both Cometsevahs told their families' stories--and learned from them that Sand Creek was a turning point for the Cheyenne. After the massacre, they never looked at white leaders the same way. There is a direct line between Sand Creek and the Battle of Little Big Horn. (It leads through the Washita River Camp, which is why Halaas, like the Cometsevahs, attended the Park Service meeting in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, earlier this month.)
"Sand Creek is a watershed," he contends. "For the Plains people, it was a lesson. It showed that the U.S. had declared war on their way of life. It proved to the Cheyenne that the U.S. could not be trusted. After it, everything changed. Sand Creek was the catalyst for twelve years of intermittent war. It was an act of genocide on all Indian people. Chivington wasn't out to kill only hostiles. He was out to kill Cheyenne. The closest and easiest was the peaceful camp at Sand Creek. It was condemned and repudiated by the government in the strongest language you can use."
Chivington was driven by self-interest, adds Andy Masich, vice president of the Colorado Historical Society. He wanted to further his political ambitions. He wanted a grand exit from his military career. He deliberately deceived the public by inflating casualties.
"He fanned the flames of hatred," Masich says. "It was he who created a sense of hysteria among his men by telling them to remember the Platte. It was he who said, 'Take no prisoners.' It was a personal agenda. There may have been a man or two at Sand Creek who participated in a raid, but that doesn't mean every man, woman and child was fair game. Those things don't make it right."
"A massacre is a massacre," Halaas adds. "It was much more than an outpouring of emotion by a bunch of thugs. Sand Creek was protected by the U.S. flag. You can't ignore that."
As for being "men of their times," Captain Silas Soule was a man of his time, too, Masich points out. And he refused to kill. "It looked too hard for me to see little children on their knees begging for their lives," Soule wrote, "to have their brains beaten out like dogs." But Soule himself was later killed in Denver by a Chivington supporter.
"The government, most people in the country and nearly all Army officers in the West believed it was an unwarranted massacre, even during the horrors of the Civil War," Masich says. "It is not a case of the Cheyenne saying frivolously that people should not forget. The government was wrong. It said it was wrong. It said--in a treaty--it would repay survivors. And that hasn't happened. Is that frivolous to bring up? No. That's justice."
"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...
--Article Six, Treaty of the Little Arkansas, 1865
Laird keeps his great-grandfather's pipe with his most important things. It's made of dark-red stone and has Cometsevah's personal markings. Laird sometimes holds it in his big, callused hands, examining the smooth contours, the place where a hole was worn through.
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He thinks about his great-grandfather often, and about all those people running along the creek. Today when he walks through his town, he sees his ancestors in the old people warming themselves in the sun, in the children romping.
Old people and babies.
Laird and his wife carry the stories inside them. They pass along what they know, do what they can to keep history alive, wait for the U.S. government to fulfill its promise. The survivors of Sand Creek never got the reparations they were told they'd receive. Making Sand Creek a historic site would be a start.
Historians, politicians and scientists will argue for years to come about the morning of November 29, 1864. They will discuss where it took place, how it should be explained and what it means today. The survivors and their families already know.
"As long as there are Cheyenne living," Laird says. "There will be Sand Creek.