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.
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.
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.
The massacre was one of the few American military campaigns repudiated and condemned by Congress. In the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas, Chivington's attack was called a "gross and wanton" outrage. By the time the treaty was signed, Chivington had resigned his commission and stood outside military authority; although two congressional committees censured him, he went unpunished. Territorial governor John Evans, however, was forced from office, largely because of his role in the bloodbath.
Losing the location of the Sand Creek massacre, Halaas says, "is like losing Gettysburg."
So in 1994, the historical society hired a professional search team from Fort Lewis College to verify the location of the attack. Three years later, after working closely with the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, the crew scoured 900 acres near the marker and farther north. Their discoveries: a .54 caliber bullet, a Civil War-era picket pin, a girth-ring from a saddle, an ax, a piece of trade silver and a brass arrowhead. The relics might have come from the massacre, but given the popularity of the creek as a campground before and after the attack, the team was reluctant to reach a definitive verdict.
Cheyenne and Arapaho delegates who accompanied the search team gathered their own data. The Cheyenne believed they had found landmarks mentioned in oral traditions, including a fresh-water spring and groves of cottonwood and willow. They held religious ceremonies near the stone monument and said they felt the presence of their ancestors. The Arapaho, however, walked the same land and came to a different conclusion. These delegates stood near the monument and decided the area didn't feel quite right, echoing an Arapaho spiritual leader who'd offered the same opinion thirty years before. The landscape didn't match descriptions in their oral histories; there were few places to hide. The massacre could have occurred elsewhere, they suggested, perhaps a spot twenty miles south where the terrain, fresh-water supply and vegetation would have made a better campground.
In the West, it is not as uncommon to lose the site of a battle, or in this case a massacre, as you might think. As they stand on a ridge overlooking the Big Sandy with their shovels, survey equipment and sunburns, archaeologists Doug Scott and Bill Lees explain why.
Scott is a Nebraska-based forensic archaeologist who has worked at Little Big Horn; Lees is an Oklahoma archaeologist who's been involved with such projects as the Washita massacre site in Oklahoma. For one thing, they say, these attacks often occurred in isolated areas miles and miles from the nearest towns, areas rarely visited. And after the railroads arrived, the trails that once provided the only access to the locations eventually disappeared.
The vast grasslands around the Big Sandy were particularly slow to be settled. Although the area had been surveyed in the late 1870s, most of its homesteading claims weren't filed until a decade later, almost 25 years after the massacre. Even then, the land was populated largely by ranchers and cowboys who were more likely to pass along information through stories and anecdotes rather than offer precise geographical coordinates.
Many of the early official maps of the area, including those made of the Colorado Territory between 1865 and 1875, didn't even note the massacre site. Neither did General Land Office surveys from 1872 to 1880, nor U.S. Geological Survey maps from 1890 and 1891. And while the military kept records, many of the battlefield sketches were not drawn to scale and were very general by today's standards. If Chivington had a map, it's never been found.
Eyewitness accounts are often vague, confusing and contradictory. After Sand Creek, for example, there was ample testimony concerning the attack, but few specifics on the location, which was described as anywhere from 25 to 40 miles north of Fort Lyon along the "Big Bend of Sandy Creek," the "Big South Bend" and "the South Bend of the Big Sandy." There could have been a reason for the confusion: Most of Chivington's men were 100-day volunteers who had enlisted several months before the attack. They had little training in soldiering, much less map-making, and might not have traveled the prairie before. They also marched at night, at a double-time pace and navigating just by the North Star.
After the massacre, few of the soldiers returned to the Big Sandy. Those who did came back decades later, like the 1908 group of veterans, who approached from a different direction (southeast from Kit Carson instead of northeast from Fort Lyon) and during a different time of year (summer instead of fall).
Fewer still of the surviving tribe members returned. To the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the massacre site was a place of death. To pay their respects, they visited the area, just on the eastern edge of the reservation, for a few years, but they were soon forced out of Colorado altogether. And while tribal oral histories kept the story of Sand Creek alive, historians and archaeologists only recently began paying attention to them.
Another source of uncertainty is the land itself. The creek meanders like a rattlesnake through the buffalo grass. Although it is dry most of the year, the Big Sandy has a reputation for flooding after heavy rains. A few months after the attack, a Fort Lyon resident who'd visited the site said the banks had caved in and obliterated all traces of the battle. Even if that report was inaccurate, the creek could have changed course and left the evidence buried in sediment. Bluffs and ridges could have eroded; other landmarks, such as trails and groves of trees, could have disappeared as well.
There's also a chance that artifact collectors simply picked the landscape clean. Old-timers who live near Chivington, Eads and Lamar say the Big Sandy was an abundant source of arrowheads, grinding stones, beads, scrapers, lance points, stone drills, thumb scrapers and copper shells. During the "sand blows" of the Thirties, when topsoil blasted the prairie "smooth as a road" and left artifacts "glittering on the surface," families would collect artifacts there, they say.
All or any of these elements, say Scott and Lees, could explain why it's difficult to pinpoint the site of the Sand Creek massacre.
During a 1997 town hall meeting in Lamar, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell learned that William Dawson was interested in selling the land where the official monument to Sand Creek stood. "That set off bells and whistles," recalls James Doyle, the senator's spokesman. Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, didn't want to see land that's considered sacred either developed or desecrated, so he introduced a bill calling for the National Park Service to verify the massacre site and recommend ways to preserve and manage it. The measure passed Congress unanimously. In October 1998, President Bill Clinton stood beside tribal representatives in the Rose Garden and signed it into law.
At that moment, an unprecedented alliance was forged between governments--the feds, the State of Colorado and the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes--and disciplines. "This is an instance of remarkable cooperation," says Rick Frost, the project spokesman. "The people who have participated have all made sacrifices. They've been able to come together from a lot of different places and points of view." But keeping the balance hasn't been easy.
There's been friction between the tribes. Some Cheyenne delegates, relying on stories passed down from massacre survivors, believe the Arapaho never camped among Black Kettle's people during the attack. And contrary to many history books, Cheyenne lodges were not grouped together as one but spread out and organized according to clan. In light of these facts, the Cheyenne delegates say, the Arapaho would have camped elsewhere along the creek in their own clusters.
But Arapaho delegates shake their heads grimly at these suggestions. They, too, have oral records. And those records, along with most historical accounts, say that Arapaho blood soaked the ground at Big Sandy Creek.
More than historical accuracy is at stake here.
Under the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas, the government not only condemned the massacre, but promised to repay tribal chiefs and the 112 surviving families. It never has. Although Sand Creek descendants say the search is separate, some wonder if official recognition of the massacre site is a prelude to reparations or a cue to begin negotiations.
There's also the question of what to do with artifacts discovered during the search. Under state law, such relics belong to the landowner. If human remains are found--which is unlikely, given the amount of time passed and the wet, muddy conditions of the creek--they would be returned to the tribes under federal protocols. Publicly, all have agreed to follow state and federal guidelines, but privately, some tribal delegates bristled when asked to sign waivers to that effect, arguing that all Cheyenne and Arapaho artifacts should belong to the Cheyenne and Arapaho rather than the landowner.
Whoever that landowner might prove to be. For decades it was assumed to be Dawson, a cattle rancher and former municipal judge in Eads. He'd restricted access to the monument after trespassers littered his land--and then two accused him of holding them at gunpoint. (Dawson resigned his judgeship and pleaded guilty to the charges in 1997--not because he was guilty, he says, but to end the "hemorrhage of funds" to defend himself.) But while Dawson might have been cranky with curiosity-seekers, search-team members say his contributions as a steward of the monument site, authority on the massacre and keeper of archives have been invaluable.
Although the National Park Service, the Colorado Historical Society and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have until the summer of 2000 to make their determination of the actual site, more questions hang in the dry prairie air. If a public memorial is established, what kind of memorial will it be? Will there be picnic tables or a black monolith like that commemorating Vietnam vets in Washington, D.C.? And how public is public? Some tribal delegates want at least 100 acres set aside solely for tribal use--but if taxpayers foot the bill, should tourists be allowed to visit?
Then comes the most delicate question of all: How will the attack be explained? As a battle or as a massacre?
Last year state lawmakers voted to strike "battle" after the words "Sand Creek" on a Civil War monument outside the Capitol. They changed their minds this spring, but only after historians and others lobbied to have the monument remain intact, as a commentary on its time. Another marker will be added nearby, explaining Sand Creek in all its complexities.
Before any questions can be answered, the massacre site must be found. Eight months into the project, with $230,000 committed for this year, researchers are very close.
They have scoured a six-foot-high pile of historical documents from places as diverse as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to the Big Timbers Museum in Lamar. They've analyzed aerial photographs from the Thirties through the Seventies, interviewed old-timers and studied soil samples.
Here's what they've determined so far: Black Kettle's village and the massacre site are within a mile to a mile and a half of the stone monument.
Searchers have found evidence of the shallow lakes where soldiers said they watered their horses, traces of the old Smoky Hill trail crossing the Big Sandy near the village, a fresh-water spring mentioned in Cheyenne oral records, creek banks that fit the descriptions of the sandpits, and bends in the Big Sandy generally conforming to eyewitness accounts.
Among the key resources were a map and journal created by Lieutenant Samuel Bonsall, who led a ten-man detachment from Fort Lyon to Cheyenne Wells in June 1868, four years after the attack. Bonsall's map, the earliest researchers have found, not only specifies the location of the massacre, but cites exact distances from landmarks such as the "Three Forks" trail six miles north and the intersection of Sand and Rush creeks eleven miles south. Historians checked Bonsall's coordinates and found them accurate. In Bonsall's journal, he noted that his party, which included General William Tecumseh Sherman, had gathered a wagonload of artifacts at those coordinates, including arrows, spears, scalps, cooking utensils, knives and "Indian baby skulls," which were then hauled back to Washington.
Researchers also relied on maps and correspondence by George Bent, son of powerful merchant William Bent, who built the fabled fort in southeastern Colorado. The half-Cheyenne George, educated in St. Louis and a veteran of the Confederate Army, was camped with Black Kettle's people when the soldiers attacked. Although severely wounded in the hip, he survived and later gave historians detailed descriptions of the location of the Cheyenne lodges, the movements of Chivington's troops and the massacre itself.
Working off these materials, the searchers studied an area of land on the northern bank of the creek, about a half-mile to a mile from the marker on the Dawson property, and found artifacts ranging from tin cans to ornaments. Although those might have been left by travelers who camped beside the creek before or after the attack, searchers have found other relics suggesting otherwise, including cannonball fragments, hundreds of bullets, and musket balls.
This evidence, combined with archival data, suggests that the bulk of Black Kettle's village was indeed on Dawson's land.
Artifacts have also been found farther north on land owned by the Bowen family. Chuck Bowen, who works his father's ranch and deals antiques on the side, grew up three miles from the Big Sandy. As a boy, he rode barebacked and shirtless over the scrubby terrain, pretending he was Indian. When he was twelve, he made a war bonnet of turkey feathers, beads and a coyote tail that today hangs on his living-room wall. He and his future wife, Sheri, went on dates along the Big Sandy. They camped there with their kids.
Over the past year, Chuck and Sheri have read every book on Sand Creek, researched land records, matched historical descriptions to the landscape and walked the grasslands with a metal detector. Their discoveries: nearly a hundred bullets, musket balls, shell casings, arrowheads, a harmonica, charcoal pits and even a "C"-shaped cannonball fragment.
"One day," says Chuck, "I just thought to myself, 'This could be Black Kettle's village.'"
Although evidence suggests otherwise--during two days on the Bowens' land, the search team found mostly rusty nails, barbed wire and assorted bullets--the Bowens remain optimistic. "We don't know what we've found," Chuck says. "But we feel something happened here."
While most team members are reluctant to venture an opinion until more research is gathered and all of the artifacts are studied, many believe the Bowen land could be one of the places where Cheyenne and Arapaho who'd fled up the creek perhaps two miles were pinned down by soldiers in the sandpits. "A lot of it continues to be theory," project spokesman Frost says. "But things are stacking up well."
On the banks of Sand Creek, Laird Cometsevah picks his way through a grassy meadow toward a fallen cottonwood. Its trunk has been hollowed by time and bleached white by the sun. He studies it awhile, then thumps it with his walking stick.
"When the soldiers attacked, women hid their babies inside hollow trees like this," he says in a deep, raspy voice. "My wife's family did this. One of her relatives hid their little daughter in one of these hollow logs. There was an opening in the side, and this little girl saw everything that took place. She saw the soldiers killing Cheyenne people and then come back and kill the wounded and cut off their arms and cut open women and things of that nature. This little girl witnessed that and was old enough to remember. Her mother came back and got her. I think it was three days later. This little girl was in this hollow log all that time."
The Cheyenne elder turns quiet and plants his walking stick in the soft ground. He tugs his baseball cap, kicks a dusty boot.
"When you see the slugs and the cannonball fragments, these types of weapons they are finding, you develop a feeling," he says. "When Cheyenne were told to relocate to Sand Creek, they were told to turn in their weapons. But they couldn't hunt, so they asked for their weapons back. They were only given bows and arrows, I think. For the U.S. government troops to attack this village with what at that time were their most high-powered weapons, it gives you a sad feeling. Genocide. I always felt their purpose was genocide. Black Kettle was led to believe his people would be protected at Sand Creek. But they were attacked. Massacred. On their own reservation."
Cometsevah, who lives in Oklahoma, is president of a Sand Creek descendants' group. His great-grandfather and grandmother survived the massacre. So did his wife's relatives. For the past twenty years, they have visited the gray stone monument to pray and make offerings of dried meat, corn and chokecherries. Sometimes they hear horses and children crying.
As far as Cometsevah is concerned, the massacre site has never been lost. The main Cheyenne camp lies below the marker, he says, on Dawson's property. "It's not the Cheyenne who are looking for Sand Creek," he says. "The Cheyenne have always known where it is. It has always stayed in the Cheyenne mind. Sand Creek was always there."
In June 1978, the Cheyenne tribe's highest spiritual leader, the Arrow Keeper, visited the land and blessed it, declaring it Cheyenne earth. "Spiritually and religiously, he claimed that spot for the Cheyenne," Cometsevah says. "I'm going to do everything I can to fulfill that ceremony. It's sacred to us. If we don't protect that site for our children and our grandchildren, it might be lost."
A few hundred yards from that meadow, Gail Ridgely picks through a hole where a corroded strand of barbed wire was found. Ridgely, who lives in Wyoming, is Northern Arapaho. His great-grandfather also survived the massacre. Like Cometsevah, Ridgely can't walk this ground lightly.
"The other day, I touched some of the articles that were found, and I thought that whoever used them probably died," he says. "You think that maybe one of those bullets went through someone's body. Then the sadness came. An overwhelming feeling. Our ancestor's blood is still here. They have not been properly buried."
While the Cheyenne are certain of the massacre site, the Arapaho are keeping an open mind. They've visited the search areas, studied the landscape, held tribal ceremonies and matched the terrain to oral records. From what they've learned, the bloodshed could have happened at many places along the Big Sandy. Their ancestors were told to "scatter" when soldiers attacked, and they could have scattered any number of places. For now, the Cheyenne will withhold judgment as they wait for the rest of the evidence to come in.
No matter where the actual site is determined to be, though, Ridgely wants the land protected. He wants the world to learn what happened to men, women and children "martyred just because of who they were and where they were.
"Indian people need to be heard," he says. "We're here to change the way people think. We've got a voice now. At the time, we were not listened to, but we're here to change historical perspective. It's sad to be here, but I have a good feeling to know that something is happening."
Still, as he drives some thirty miles south of the Big Sandy through Lamar and sees high-school booster banners cheering "Go Savages!" Ridgely wonders how much people really understand. But he is hopeful...and patient.
After 134 years, the land still has its secrets. But the truth will come out.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.