Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sand Creek Massacre NHS

On a trip back from Oklahoma, I convinced the family to travel lonely two-lane backroads through the seemingly endless plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado to see a couple of NPS sites.  The first was Fort Larned NHS -- a military fort protecting Santa Fe trail commerce during a time when clashes with the Indians were becoming more common and more violent.  The second was the site of one of America's darkest days and one that most of us have never even heard of, much less studied:  Sand Creek Massacre NHS

This site is one of the NPS's newest and is still being developed.  Yet in spite of its primitiveness (little more than a few storyboards and an overlook) and remote location (you have to travel down a couple of dirt roads to get there), the story comes alive vividly even in the site's solemnity.

Overlooking the site of the massacre, which occurred just beyond the trees
In 1851, several Plains tribes signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, establishing Indian land from the North Platte River in southern Nebraska and Wyoming, south to the Arkansas River in southern Colorado and Kansas.  In 1860, however, the Indians were pressured to sign an updated treaty, downsizing their land by 85%.  Black Kettle was one of the few Chiefs that signed this new treaty, and many Cheyenne refused to acknowledge the new boundaries, hunting and living on the old lands.

Then, early on the morning of November 29, 1864, Col John Chivington left Fort Lyon on a mission of his own devising with 850 men, headed toward the nearby Cheyenne and Arapaho village at Sand Creek.  As the riders approached, Chief Black Kettle raised both an American flag and a white flag.  Black Kettle and three other Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs approached the soldiers asking for a conference.  In response, Col Chivington ordered his men to fire both rifles and cannon then charge into the village, indiscriminately killing every Indian they could see, including the village's predominantly women and children population even as they all ran from the village seeking safety.  At the end of the massacre, nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed with another 200 wounded.  Many of those that surrendered were executed, and two-thirds of those killed were women, children, or elderly.  As if that were not enough, many soldiers mutilated the bodies, carrying back body parts as trophies.

Two young officers, Capt Soule and Lt Cramer withheld their units, however, and refused to allow them to fire.  Upon return to Fort Lyon, the two wrote letters to their commander, which led to two congressional hearings and an Army inquiry over the tragedy, where they testified against Col Chivington.  Sadly, though a congressional committee condemned the attack, no one was ever tried or convicted for the massacre.  Instead just a few weeks after he testified against Col Chivington, Capt Soule was gunned down in cold blood in the streets of Denver.

The site is considered sacred ground for the Cheyenne and Arapaho to this day.  Consequently, there is an overlook toward the area of the massacre, but it is not possible to walk the ground as many enjoy doing at Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields.  Still, armed with the tragic story in your mind, the silence at the overlook is profound and moving.  Back at the Visitor Center, there is a storyboard detailing the heroics of Capt Soule and Lt Cramer.  Their letters to their commander just surfaced in 2000, directly leading to a congressional act preserving this sacred site while educating those that visit of a horrific act that never should have occurred.

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