Silas Soule's letter tells the true story of Sand Creek...but like the massacre, it was misplaced
With all its fancy production -- a soundtrack with barking dogs, gunfire, screams; misty quotes appearing and disappearing, mysterious red, white and blue lights illuminating artifacts -- the single-most stunning item in Collsion: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today at History Colorado is a single-page letter from Captain Silas Soule.
The letter, along with a second letter from Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, is encased in plastic and kept in a pocket near the end of the exhibit. It would be easy to overlook. But then, it was almost lost -- twice.
It was no secret that Soule, who'd been at Fort Lyon when Colonel John Chivington rode in with his "Bloodless Third" troops in late November 1864, determined to attack the peaceful native Americans camped at Sand Creek, refused to participate in the killings. He testified against Chivington when Congress looked into the massacre of 150 mostly women, children and elderly men; Soule was assassinated a few months later, on the streets of Denver in April 1865.
But the letter he'd written shortly after the massacre to General Edward Wynkoop, who'd been transferred from Fort Lyon shortly before Chivington appeared, vanished. In 2000, when Congress was again considering Sand Creek -- this time to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site -- it suddenly appeared again. David Halaas, then the state historian, was going through a trunk of papers found in an attic in Evergreen and realized that the stash included long-lost letters about the massacre from Soule and Cramer. Just weeks after that discovery, then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell read Soule's words to Congress, moving lawmakers to tears. The site was dedicated in April 2007.
The words are from an eyewitness to history, to one of the saddest days in Colorado's history. But a decade after the letters were found, as History Colorado decided to dedicate one of its inaugural exhibits to Sand Creek, the museum chose to feature another letter from Soule -- one to his mother that did not discuss the massacre. It was only after the Northern Cheyenne objected to numerous omissions and errors in the proposed exhibit that the letter was added.
As I write in my current column, "Collision Course," the Northern Cheyenne are still so concerned about Collision that they have requested it be closed until History Colorado consults with the tribe; that hasn't happened. But interest in Sand Creek is high -- so high that two lectures at History Colorado featuring Ari Kelman, a University of California Davis professor who wrote A Misplaced Massacre, a book that follows the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, have sold out; a third has been added at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.
History Colorado should make copies of Soule's letter, and hand them to the hundreds of people who attend each lecture. And then it should make sure to leave all the extra copies at Collision, so that visitors can take home this reminder of one of Colorado's saddest days...and the sad injustices and oversights that continue. And here's what they would read in Soule's letter to General Wynkoop:
Two days after you left here with the 3rd Reg't. With a Battalion of the 1st arrived here, having moved so secretly that we were not aware of their approach of until they Pickets around the Post, allowing no one to pass out! They arrested Capt. Bent and John Vogle and placed guards around their houses. They then declared their intention to massacre the friendly Indians camped on Sand Creek. Major Anthony gave all information, an eagerly joined in with Chivington and Co. and ordered Lieut. Cramer with his whole Co. to join the command. As soon as I knew of their movement I was indignant as you would have been were you here and went to Cannon's room, where a number of officers of the 1st and 3rd were congregated and told them that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch. Capt. Y. J. Johnson and Lt. Harding went to camp and reported to Chiv. Downing and the whole outfit what I had said, and you can bet hell was to pay in camp.
Chiv and all hands swore they would hang me before they moved camp, but I stuck it out, and all the officers at the Post, except Anthony backed me. I was then ordered with my whole comany to Major A- with 20 days rations. I told him I would not take part in their intended murder, but if they were going after the Sioux, Kiowas or any fighting Indians, I would go as far as any of them.
We arrived at Black Kettle's and Left Hand's camp at daylight. Lieut. Wilson with Co.s "C", "E" & "G" were ordered to in advance to cut off their herd. He made a circle to the rear and formed a line 200 yds. From the village, and opened fire. Poor Old John Smith and Louderbeck ran out with white flags but they paid no attention to them, and they ran back to their tents. I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming toward us and getting on their knees for mercy. Anthony shouted, "kill the sons of bitches" Smith and Louderbeck came to our command although I am confident there were 200 shots fired at them, for I heard an officer say that Old Smith and any one who sympathized with the Indians, ought to be killed and now was a good time to do it.
When the Indians found there was no hope for them they went for the Creek and got under the banks and some of the bucks got their bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could.The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing - when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself. One Old Squaw hung herself in the lodge - there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians hold one of anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and both were shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did.
And you would think it impossible for us to not tell the whole story today.
From our archives: Read Michael Paglia's "The new History Colorado Center is an architectural triumph."