Sand Creek Massacre

Role of a Historian – Sand Creek Massacre

A picture taken at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. This picture, taken by the author in early November, is taken from an area just beyond the visitor parking lot at the visitor center. The line of trees in the distance is Big Sandy River bed. The trail, roughly a 4 mile out and back, takes visitors over the ground in which Chivington attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on November 29, 1864.

It is a given that ALL nations experience dark and difficult times. In modern history, German nationalists allowed Adolf Hitler to rise to power. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet, after grasping control of the government through a violent uprising, used the Estadio Nacional as a holding block, torture chamber, and execution arena for thousands of Chilean nationalists. In every nations past, dark and tortuous times lurk right behind a fixation of progressive and heroic narratives. In the United States, we, as a country, are no different. I bring this idea to attention for the simple matter of discussing the role of a historian. When the historian is faced with confronting these dark events and, by extension, talking about them to audiences, we must ask: what is the role of a historian? This question has been posed, I am sure, across numerous classrooms but carries, in its nature, no firm consensus nor ultimate answer. 

From an outsider’s perspective – those who do not participate in active methodology – the answer may seem simple. A historian is the keeper of events, the storyteller, and a scientist of dates. In this view, a historian is nothing more than an individual regurgitating dates, people, and events. However, a historian is something much larger. They participate in painstaking research to connect multiple sources to make a point about cultures within a nation. They analyze the works of those who came before looking to create profound historiographies of movements and changes in historical acceptance. But what does this all mean? Does a practicing historian just argue to challenge interpretations? Do historians speak about the past to illuminate societal ills of the present? Or, is it a historian’s duty, their professional obligation to heal a nation from the terrors in our past? 

Answers to these questions are hard to find. The question becomes more arduous when faced with events as the Sand Creek Massacre. On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington and approximately 700 federal soldiers attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. The leaders of these tribes had recently agreed to terms of peace with a federal garrison at Fort Lyon and were unprepared for any sort of violence.

Interpretive sign at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Photo taken by author.

As the sun rose that cold November day, federal soldiers surrounded the village on three sides with only one purpose in mind. Shooting started as one wing of Chivington’s army cut off the Plains Indians from their horses stationed beyond the Big Sandy River bed. Chaos among the Indians soon broke out. Women and children fled while a small body of warriors attempted to defend their village. In the middle of the chaos, Black Kettle (a Cheyenne Chief) attempted to stop the violence. He raised a United States flag near his hut and below the US flag, Black Kettle raised a white flag. Both symbols declared Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians as peaceful but soldiers ignored these symbols of peace and continued their brutal murder of a peaceful people. In some instances, soldiers chased down escaping Indians far beyond the village ensuring total annihilation.

As the attack continued, Indian warriors became overwhelmed by the swiftness of Chivington’s plan and the number superiority held by Chivington’s force. At approximately 3 PM, Chivington’s attack ended. As the sound of battle faded and as the smoke drifted from Big Sandy River, white federal soldiers searched for trinkets and treasure. They collected clothing, hides, rings, and other jewelry but soon these federal soldiers looked for other prizes.

In multiple accounts given to three separate Congressional committees in the aftermath of Sand Creek, eye witnesses told of white soldiers mutilating Indian bodies. Soldiers, mainly from the 3rdColorado, spread throughout the village and collected scalps, ears, toes, and fingers. In the most heinous of actions, soldiers collected the genitalia of men and women. Nearby Colonel Chivington did not stop the inhuman actions of his soldiers, instead, he allowed his hatred to stand as a message to other Plains Indians that extermination awaited any outbreak of hostility or any threat posed to white settlers. On November 30, Chivington ordered the village burned and his federal force headed back to Fort Lyon before moving towards Denver. In Denver citizens greeted the soldiers as war heroes.

If a historian’s role is to heal, where does one even begin the process in studying such events as Sand Creek? Further, with today’s political right screaming “cancel culture” at any in-depth analysis that reveal flaws within America’s past, how can historians wish to gain an objective and open minded audience ready to listen, acknowledge, and grow? To a degree, this is the role of a historian; teach, educate, and allow student growth through factual research. However, it has become excruciatingly difficult to hold conversations with those entrenched in their “cancel culture” tribalism.  We must overcome such entrenched mentalities for a citizen class to grow and understand. A historian’s role, therefore, is not to bring upon a notion of absolute healing but bring upon a pathway to discourse, understanding, and growth. Through our research – and yes, there must be faith in historians as experts in their given field – historians can offer paths of healing through a better understanding of our jagged past. 

In the case of Sand Creek, the actions taken towards Plains Indians by Chivington and his soldiers, especially in relation to Sand Creek, emanated from white racism. We must accept that as a reality. Leading up to November 29, Chivington filled letters to Colorado’s governor, military comrades, and newspapers about the need to not only punish Indians for their actions against white settlers, but to exterminate these people from the plains. Some military officers agreed with this sentiment. An officer replaced before Sand Creek, came into his new assignment on the plains thinking it unacceptable to capture Indian prisoners. An order from this officer directed his soldiers to not take prisoners. This mentality is carried forward in the immediate aftermath of Chivington’s attack. The Sand Creek Massacre is a dark spot in the history of the United States. To fully heal, we must understand this event in its entirety. Only through such lessons can we ensure that the memory of those Cheyenne and Arapaho are never forgotten and make certain similar events never occur again. Historians can only promote such lessons. It is up to the individual to promote generational growth and societal change.