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The Country's Most Revealing Memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre Used to Celebrate the Killings

M.Torres /

Last weekend, members of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre in southeast Colorado, where hundreds of Indians were brutally murdered. But in Denver, a statue stood largely unnoticed in front of the Colorado state capitol. It, too, tells the story of the Sand Creek massacre—and also of the way modern Americans' perception of the Indian wars has changed dramatically over the last 150 years.

My wife likes to tour state capitals, and we visited Colorado’s capitol building in Denver in 2006. “That looks like a civil war soldier,” she said, as we gazed up at the imposing statue that stands before the steps leading up to the entrance. I insisted it must be a miner—Colorado hadn’t been a state during the Civil War, and I could never remember any civil war battles being fought in the Rocky Mountains—but upon closer inspection, my wife turned out to be right. It was a Civil War cavalryman, dismounted, with rifle in hand.  

The plaque at the base of the statue recounted how Colorado’s First and Third Cavalry during the Civil War had staged a “surprise attack” against “Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek,” in which “soldiers killed more than 150 of the village’s inhabitants. Most of the victims were elderly men, women, and children.” Why, we wondered, have a statue commemorating the soldiers who perpetrated the massacre?

I noticed four rusty holes just above the statue’s base where it looked like a plaque had been removed.  The woman in charge of tours said she had never noticed the holes, but Mark, a college sophomore working at the Capitol for the summer, pulled me aside. He explained that the original plaque, which celebrated the victory at the “Battle of Sand Creek,” had been removed in response to Indian protests and replaced by the current plaque. That created a glaring contradiction between the plaque’s message and the heroic image of virtuous soldiery projected by the statue. That contradiction lies at the heart of Americans’ changing reaction to the Indian wars.

From the War of 1812 until the Spanish-American intervention war in 1898, America is often portrayed as minding its own business—as having virtually no foreign policy. But that picture is highly misleading. During the 19th century, America’s foreign policy was focused on expansion westward. The United States fought a war against Mexico in 1846 and almost constant wars against the Indians. The Indian wars were intended to kill off or drive out the Indians from lands the American settlers coveted. The Sand Creek massacre was part of a war waged against the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux in the West.

In the mid-nineteenth century, lured by rumors of gold and silver, settlers and speculators had flocked to the Colorado territory. They occupied lands that the Cheyenne and Arapaho had used for hunting, and began pressuring the Indian tribes to move into reservations in the arid eastern part of the state. The Indians fought back, robbing stage coaches and stealing cattle, and sometimes murdering settlers, but in the first years of the Civil War, there were no major battles between U.S. forces and the Indians. In November 1864, however, after a group of renegade Cheyenne, dubbed the “Dog Soldiers,” were accused of stealing cattle, territorial governor John Evans called in Colonel John Chivington, a former Methodist pastor, to mobilize his Third Cavalry against what the Rocky Mountain News called “the red devils.”

Chivington did not attack the camp of the Dog Soldiers, who considered themselves outside tribal law, but the camp of Black Kettle, who had been assured protection by the U.S. military, and who had raised an American flag over his camp. With most of the Cheyenne braves out hunting, and with a white flag raise alongside the American as the cavalry assault began, Chivington’s men encountered little resistance. According to an army interpreter who was present, “the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” Afterwards, Chivington’s men paraded through Denver displaying over 100 Cheyenne scalps.

When rumors began circulating that a massacre had taken place, Chivington tried to suppress them by arresting six soldiers who had refused to participate in the slaughter, but he couldn’t quiet the criticisms. Three congressional committees condemned the killings. An army judge pronounced Sand Creek "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation." Chivington resigned his commission, and Evans was removed as governor.

But the story didn’t end there. The Cheyenne, enraged by the slaughter at Sand Creek, would join the Apache and Sioux in waging war over the next 25 years against the settlers. As the fighting raged, Americans portrayed it as a struggle of good against evil and civilization against savagery. And that meant denying the infamy of Sand Creek. Theodore Roosevelt, the historian of the Indian wars and the apostle of national greatness, would write in 1886 that Sand Creek was “in spite of certain most objectionable details ... on the whole as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.” In Colorado, Chivington had towns and streets named after him, and in 1909, Coloradans erected their own tribute to Sand Creek—the civil war statue in front of the Capitol.  

When I was growing up after World War II, little boys invariably played cowboys and Indians. The cowboys were the good guys and the Indians were always the bad. Westerns were part of what C. Wright Mills called “the great American Celebration.” From the Spanish-American War through the 1950s, Americans tended to view our conflicts abroad through the prism of the Indian wars. The Filipinos, whom Theodore Roosevelt battled, the Germans of World Wars I and II, and the Japanese, were savages—like the Indians—and we were the God-given representatives of higher civilization.

The celebration of the Indian wars ended with the rise of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, which threw into question America’s noble intentions. In 1968, the American Indian Movement began its own civil rights struggle. By 1970, Hollywood was producing Westerns like Little Big Man that cast the struggle between frontier whites and Indians in a less favorable light. And Dee Brown’s counter-history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, became a best seller in 1970.

Even after post-Vietnam revisionism, some Coloradans would continue to celebrate Chivington. In 1985, Lt. Col. William R. Dunn published I Stand By Sand Creek: A Defense of Colonel John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry. “It is true that the fingers were cut off some Indian dead to obtain a ring—but where did those rings come from in the first place? Yes, off a dead white man’s or woman’s finger,” Dunn wrote. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Colorado legislature would finally order the original plaque, but not the statue itself, removed. Four years later, the new plaque would be installed. And in 2007, the National Park Service would create a historic site at the location of the massacre, which is where last weekend’s ceremonies took place.

Few Americans today, outside the West, concern themselves with this history. But the framework of thought it spawned—pitting civilization against savagery—continues to haunt American thinking. It figured prominently in the justification of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in explaining American intervention today. Perhaps, in some cases, like that of the organization Islamic State, it makes a certain amount of sense; but as can be seen in story of the Sand Creek massacre and of the Indian Wars, it can obscure the real, and sometimes unseemly, basis of our actions.