Sand Creek Massacre of 1864

Trying to choose peace over conflict, the Cheyenne and Arapaho groups surrendered outside Fort Lyon, Colorado in 1864. A Colorado militia attacked them, killing hundreds.

In response to the influx of white settlers traveling west throughout the nineteenth century, Cheyennes and Arapahos in Colorado tried to find a stable location to support their people. They had previously raided white settlements to survive but soon concluded that they should attempt peaceful coexistence. These groups traveled to Denver in September 1864 to discuss these goals but were redirected to Fort Lyon, a small fort near the Big Sandy Creek River. Those in Denver told the Cheyenne and Arapahos that as long as they waved a white flag as they approached Fort Lyon, no one would harm them.

Meanwhile, the American Civil War solicited the service of many men across the country, leaving western settlements largely unprotected from Indian raids. Military leader John Chivington organized a militia unit of six hundred men to defend the state of Colorado from Native American advances for a period of one hundred days. However, the militia experienced very little action in those three months. As the deadline of one hundred days came to a close, people mocked the militia for their lack of combat.

In November 1864, with the American flag and the white flag of surrender raised, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes settled down around Fort Lyon. The militia, wanting to fight before the end of the one hundred days, saw the large mass of Indians outside Fort Lyon and waited. On Chivington’s order, a cavalry unit attacked the native settlements at dawn on November 29, 1864. He told the militia not to take prisoners, resulting in the massacre of around 150-250 Cheyenne and Arapahos. They killed men, women, and children, sparing none. The militia also scalped heads, cut off genitalia, and mutilated the bodies of those they killed. Some even tied parts of the dead Indians onto their belts as symbols of pride and victory. One account of a survivor states, “I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.” Additional witnesses mentioned many other horrific scenes from the massacre. Since this was a militia group and not an official U.S. military troop, John Chivington resigned from his position, thereby freeing him from any formal charges of his actions.

The tragic events that occurred here taint Colorado and U.S. history. A National Historic site now stands near the field, paying homage to the silenced voices of the native men, women, and children who desired peace.

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