The Sand Creek Massacre is the only massacre of the many committed by the United States Army against Native Americans that the Army itself has recognized since 1865. In Colorado, “Union” soldiers in blue did not mainly fight the Confederacy (they did at the battle of Glorieta Pass in what is now New Mexico). Instead, the four “battles” listed on the 1909 Civil War Monument at the Colorado State Capitol were cold-blooded massacres of Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children. Every one was a “surprise attack.”
The War against the Southern secession abolished the genocide of slavery. The War in the West from Minnesota to Utah carried out genocide against Native Americans.
In February 1864, wearing a medallion given to him in Washington, D.C., Lean Bear rode peacefully to talk with Lieutenant George S. Eayre at Smoky Hill River. Under orders from Colorado John Chivington, the Colorado First murdered Lean Bear, the soldiers riding over the body.
That May at Cedar Canyon, Major Jacob Downing — also under orders from Chivington — massacred 25 men, women and children.
Before Sand Creek, Major Ned Wynkoop had met Black Kettle and learned of the honor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders, whom he brought to make peace with Governor John Evans and Chivington. They were settled near Fort Lyon, then under the command of Wynkoop, and had sent out hunting parties of younger men for food for the winter.
Evans as well as Chivington sought to “exterminate” Native Americans. Evans replaced Wynkoop. Chivington took troops and surrounded Fort Lyon to prevent officers from alerting the camp. But eight officers, led by Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, courageously refused to participate in the massacre. Soule and Cramer commanded their soldiers not to shoot.
The drunken Third Regiment and part of the First under Chivington and Downing slaughtered nearly 200 men, women and children on November 29, 1864. They cut a fetus out of a mother’s womb, abandoned a toddler by himself to die, cut the genitals off women and men and made pouches of them. Denver was then a small community of 5,000, and its political leadership was roaringly genocidal.
During subsequent Congressional investigations, Downing swore in an affidavit: “I saw no solder scalping anybody but saw one or two bodies which had evidently been scalped.” After his death, his widow presented the scalp as a gift to the Colorado Museum.
In 1865, Silas Soule became a policeman in Denver. Soule was ambushed and murdered by an Evans-Chivington enthusiast who was arrested. Under Governor Evans, his cell door was left open and he “escaped.”
The Civil War Monument highlights the names of Evans and Chivington and these “battles.” It does list Silas Soule as one of many casualties of the war.
To celebrate these figures is the equivalent of celebrating Derek Chauvin, looking out at a camera, putting his knee into the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
This is not some narrow political matter. After reading the University of Denver report on Evans and the Sand Creek Massacre, Governor John Hickenlooper apologized, in the name of the people of Colorado and the four living governors, to the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants at the Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run on December 3, 2014. In 2018, to recognize this criminal history and in partnership with the descendants, DU raised the flags of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations beside the American and Colorado flags.
In response to public pressure, Governor Jared Polis has rightly called for investigations into the police murders of Elijah McClain and De’Von Bailey. His office, unfortunately, issued a statement about the tearing down of the statue that is ignorant of the history.
The time has run out for racist devaluation of the lives of innocents…
Is “our” history one that honors the real history of this country — including the indigenous people whose lands were stolen, as Governor Hicklenlooper’s apology suggested — or is it the misrepresented history of racist butcheries denounced even by the U.S. Army?
Do we want statues that make every indigenous person who sees them, particularly young people, shudder and feel devalued? That makes any person who knows the history — I speak for myself — cringe?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Germany has no statues of Hitler or Himmler. Teachers there often teach the actual history of genocide, but we can do far more in listening to the missing voices — driven from Colorado to Wind River and Oklahoma — of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
We can have a real public discussion, as Denver City Council has promised, of what we want to honor…
Westword occasionally publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can also comment on this piece.