The Sand Creek Massacre Is a Textbook Lesson in What Happens When History Is Rewritten

Living history: The site of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Living history: The site of the Sand Creek Massacre.
National Parks Service

References to the Sand Creek Massacre are everywhere these days, including page 55 of the new AP United States History course, one of the most controversial -- if unread -- documents in Colorado and the focus of the proposed curriculum review committee that a few members of the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education would like to start. They'll be discussing that proposal, as well as the temerity of the students who've walked out in protest, at tomorrow night's meeting. Not on their agenda: the dangers of rewriting history.

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"As the nation expanded and its population grew, regional tensions, especially over slavery, led to a civil war -- the course and aftermath of which transformed American Society," advises the start to Period 5: 1844-1877. The chapter includes this not exactly radical subset of study: "As the territorial boundaries of the United States expanded and the migrant population increased, U.S. government interaction and conflict with Hispanics and American Indians increased, altering these groups' cultures and ways of life and raising questions about their status and legal rights."

Should teachers want to go deeper into the issue, the curriculum framework suggests a few areas to study -- including the Sand Creek Massacre.

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That was the slaughter of at least 150 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, most of them elderly men, women and children living in peaceful camps along Sand Creek, by Colonel John Chivington and 700 volunteer troops -- previously known as the "Bloodless Third" -- on November 29, 1864. The actions of Chivington and his men were so egregious that they became the focus of three congressional inquiries. In 1865, in the fifth year of a very bloody civil war, the feds determined that Sand Creek was indeed a massacre. Territorial governor John Evans was branded a liar after he testified before Congress about his involvement; President Andrew Johnson demanded his resignation -- and got it.

On September 22, the day that the road up Mount Evans closed for the season, I drove along Evans Avenue to the University of Denver, where the Native American Law Students Association had invited Albert Gilbert, the John Evans professor with the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, to discuss "Sand Creek Massacre: Colorado's History of Settler Violence" and talk about the "long process of healing as we approach the 150th anniversary of the massacre."

DU is also marking its 150th anniversary this year, and part of that process involves coming to grips with the legacy of Evans, who'd founded the Colorado Seminary -- which would later turn into DU -- with Methodist minister Chivington in 1864. Even if he did not give the direct order for the massacre to Chivington, Evans created the climate that made it possible, Gilbert said.

DU has a report on Evans's role in the Sand Creek Massacre coming out this month; Gilbert is among the professors who's been working on it. Northwestern University, which had been founded by Evans more than a decade earlier, appointed its own commission to look into Evans; that committee issued its lengthy report in June. Gilbert and others suggest that the DU report will not go nearly as easy on Evans -- but then, the Sand Creek Massacre did not happen in Illinois. "Unlike other Indian agents and territorial governors, Evans did not recognize any rights of indigenous people to be on the land," Gilbert said. "In a place where he is lionized, we really need a whole change of atmosphere on this campus and in this state."

Stressing that he was not speaking for DU or the commission, Gilbert described Evans's legacy to an audience that included not just students but also a prosecutor from the United Nations War Crimes Commission, who said that under modern criminal law, Evans would be considered culpable. Also in the crowd was Joe Hutchison, interim academic director of arts and culture and global affairs at DU's University College, who was just named Colorado's eighth poet laureate. Among Hutchison's recent works is "A Marked Man," a lengthy poem about Silas Soule, the captain who refused to participate in the massacre and who wrote a letter describing the very graphic horrors of what he'd seen to a former commander, Major Edward Wynkoop. Soule went on to testify before Congress, too; a few months later, when he was serving as the provost marshal of Denver, Soule was assassinated. Copies of his letter to Wynkoop were handed out at Gilbert's talk.

Continue for more on the Sand Creek Massacre.  

Silas Soule.
Silas Soule.

That letter had been lost until 2000, when it was found with some other documents in an old trunk in Evergreen. Then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell got a copy just in time to read it on the floor of the Senate, which was considering a proposal to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. The bill passed, and another copy of the letter is now posted at the site dedicated in 2007.

Two days after Gilbert's talk, the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission, which was appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper in March, was at that site, discussing the collision course of events before the 150th anniversary. There's a petition on change.org calling for the town of Chivington, a once-bustling burg near the site that today is a ghost town, to be renamed -- a proposal that did not sit well with the commission. "Once you start correcting the past, where do you stop?" asked former state historian David Halaas, now a consultant for the Cheyenne and another member of the DU commission studying Evans.

The National Park Service has been working on a general site-management plan for Sand Creek, which it oversees, for years; the final draft was just sent to headquarters in Washington, D.C. It should be released for public review this month, too. And there will be much more discussion in D.C. on October 9, when the National Museum of the American Indian and the NPS host an all-day symposium on the Sand Creek Massacre, which will include three panels of scholars as well as the debut of a film, The Sand Creek Massacre and the Civil War.

"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux.
"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux.
© Colorado historical society

And finally, on November 29, descendants of the massacre's survivors will make the trek to Sand Creek, where they will honor their ancestors and start the Healing Run, which follows the path that Chivington's troops took as they headed to Denver with trophies stripped from the bodies of the dead. As they leave the site the next morning, there will be a moment of silence at churches across Colorado.

But you cannot remember the past if you stay silent. You cannot understand the past if a history curriculum becomes a political plaything. You cannot learn from the mistakes of the past if you are not allowed to learn.

Send tips to patricia.calhoun@westword.com.


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