Closing the Frontier

40a. The Massacre at Sand Creek

Colonel John M. Chivington
Library of Congress
Colonel John M. Chivington attacked an unsuspecting village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians camped on Sand Creek. An eyewitness testified: "...I think I saw altogether some seventy dead bodies lying there; the greater portion women and children. There may have been thirty warriors, old and young; the rest were women and small children of different ages and sizes."

The struggle would be violent. Despite numerous treaties, the demand for native lands simply grew and grew to the point at which rational compromise collapsed. Local volunteer militias formed in the West to ensure its safe settlement and development. The Native Americans were growing increasingly intolerant of being pushed on to less desirable territory.

The brutality that followed was as gruesome as any conflict in United States history. Accelerated by the Sand Creek Massacre, the two sides slipped down a downward spiral of vicious battle from the end of the Civil War until the 1890s.


Sand Creek was a village of approximately 800 Cheyenne Indians in southeast Colorado. Black Kettle, the local chief, had approached a United States Army fort seeking protection for his people. On November 28, 1864, he was assured that his people would not be disturbed at Sand Creek, for the territory had been promised to the Cheyennes by an 1851 treaty. The next day would reveal that promise as a baldfaced lie.

On the morning of November 29, a group called the Colorado Volunteers surrounded Sand Creek. In hope of defusing the situation, Black Kettle raised an American flag as a sign of friendship. The Volunteers' commander, Colonel John Chivington, ignored the gesture. "Kill and scalp all, big and little," he told his troops. With that, the regiment descended upon the village, killing about 400 people, most of whom were women and children.

Black Kettle
Chief Black Kettle

The brutality was extreme. Chivington's troops committed mass scalpings and disembowelments. Some Cheyennes were shot while trying to escape, while others were shot pleading for mercy. Reports indicated that the troops even emptied their rifles on distant infants for sport. Later, Chivington displayed his scalp collection to the public as a badge of pride.


When word spread to other Indian communities, it was agreed that the whites must be met by force. Most instrumental in the retaliation were Sioux troops under the leadership of Red Cloud. In 1866, Sioux warriors ambushed the command of William J. Fetterman, whose troops were trying to complete the construction of the Bozeman Trail in Montana. Of Fetterman's 81 soldiers and settlers, there was not a single survivor. The bodies were grotesquely mutilated.

Faced with a stalemate, Red Cloud and the United States agreed to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which brought a temporary end to the hostilities. Large tracts of land were reaffirmed as Sioux and Cheyenne Territory by the United States Government. Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived.

On the Web
Black Kettle
The West, the PBS website companion to its documentary, has a great number of resources regarding the Sand Creek Massacre and the events leading up to it. This biography of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle contains inline links to outstanding photographs, timelines, documents and more.
Custer's Report on the Battle of Washita
The day after the bloody battle on the Washita River, General Custer reported to his commander, General Sherman on the battle. It's worth reading at least twice, once with today's knowledge and values and again as a pioneer or soldier of 130 yars ago.
Fort Laramie Treaty
Here, from the Yale Law School Avalon Project, is the full text of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which officially brought the Red Cloud Wars to an end and established the Great Sioux Nation.
Sand Creek Papers
The Tutt Library of Colorado College provides a unique opportunity to "see" actual documents related to the Sand Creek Massacre. Click on thumbnail images on this index page to see high-quality images of items in the library's collection. Read the letter Black Kettle wrote negotiating for peace. Discover a new perspective in the circular "Chivington Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians" which denounces Gov. Evans and compares the massacre to the sack of Lawrence, Kansas.
Washita, Genocide on the Great Plains
Author James Horsley is writing a book on the Battle of Washita, raising such questions as why it is termed a "battle" while the fighting at Sand Creek is called a "massacre." His work-in-progress is online at the First Nations website, and he invites comments and input from readers. There's even a form to make it easy!
Mahpíya-Lúta Red Cloud
Red Cloud was an Oglala Sioux chief best known for his undaunted courage while leading his people in several important victories over the forces of the United States.

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