The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1: Lies and Betrayal

"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux. National Park Service

The Sand Creek Massacre has gone down in American history as one of the darkest events of the decade’s long conflict between the United States military and the Native Americans during the 19th century.

The brutality of the attack by Colonel Chivington’s men on a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho camp, which at the time of the assault consisted predominantly of women and children, led to two military investigations and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. The testimonies of those present at Sand Creek unveiled the true horrors of the massacre which occurred there.

The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was a peace agreement between the United States Government and seven Indian Nations which formally recognized the territorial rights of those Native American tribes to large swathes of land stretching across Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas.

The signatories of the Fort Laramie Treaty included chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The hope was that each tribe would remain within their territorial boundaries to prevent inter-tribal conflict as well as allowing for the safe migration of European-American immigrants along the Oregon Trail.

The discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado resulted in an influx of gold prospectors passing through Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. The inevitable competition for resources escalated tensions between the two groups so much so that it ultimately led to the signing of a new treaty at Fort Wise on February 18, 1861. Six chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, which included Black Kettle and White Antelope, and four from the Southern Arapaho tribe signed the treaty. The treaty reduced their territory to one-thirteenth the size of what it had been after the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The terms of the treaty caused outrage amongst the more militaristic elements of the Northern Cheyenne, who were known as the Dog Soldiers, a band of young warriors which also included warriors of the Lakota tribe. They refused to recognize the treaty as binding because it had not been agreed by the Council of 44, the highest authority in the Cheyenne tribal system. The Dog Soldiers believed that Black Kettle and the other chiefs who signed the treaty did not fully understand what they were signing and that they had been duped into signing by the large allocations of gifts they were due to receive in return.

Black Kettle. alchetron

Over the following years, it started to become clear to Black Kettle and the other chiefs that signing the Fort Wise treaty had been a mistake. The non-payment of government annuities, along with the increased hunting of bison for their pelts by whites, which had decimated their numbers, had made life very difficult for the natives. Accusations of marauding bands of Indians terrorizing white ranchers and stealing their cattle led to Colorado forces seeking out and destroying Cheyenne camps by 1864.