Monday, March 07, 2016

Colorado Day Trip: Sand Creek Experience, part 1

The Sand Creek Experience

I have always had a deep fascination with “The Old West”. As a history geek, I read about it all through my childhood. As a young man, I participated with a gunslinger group doing cowboy cinematic style shootouts across Oklahoma. I still enjoy reading and discovering new places in the Old West. One aspect of the Old West experience that I have found most interesting, and powerful, is the Plains Indian Wars.

During the Civil War, western expansion encountered the people and tribes of Plains. These included the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Souix, and many other cultures. They traveled from what would be the Dakotas and Montana in the North to Texas and Oklahoma in the South. As more people moved from the East into the Plains, they began to settle on lands that the tribes who traveled across those lands used for hunting and seasonal habitations. This led to conflict that was sometimes violent.

Territorial and elected governors, expressing concern over “protecting settlers”, asked for Federal troops to be sent to their regions. In many cases, these soldiers were stationed in camps or forts around the undeveloped areas that accounted for much of the frontier. In many cases, troops were not able to be on hand when settlers were accosted or attacked. When reports came out, there were few details about who was involved or how many. This resulted in parties of soldiers being sent out in retaliation. According to reports submitted by soldiers, there was some reclamation of property or reclaiming of persons taken in raids.

Tensions increased among the different “sides” that had a voice in the affairs of the region. Settlers and communities desired increased patrols to feel at peace. Tribes desired access to lands that they had long used to survive. Politicians desired to keep their constituents pacified. Tribal leaders were torn between those desiring to make and keep peace with the new “neighbors” and those who desired keeping what they had by force. In many cases, the tension that was growing led to increased violence.

There are many places that are marked by violence in the war that continued throughout the second half of the 19th Century. I have personally visited 3 of those places. The most famous, the Little Bighorn battle in Montana has gained notoriety as Custer's Last Stand. The Battle of the Washita, right outside Cheyenne, Oklahoma, was George Custer's first “successful” campaign against an Indian encampment. And Sand Creek in Southeastern Colorado. All three sites have deepened my interest in the campaigns between the indigenous people of the Plains and western expansionist settlers. 

The most recent, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, has a dual point of interest for me. The history of the United Methodist Church intersects with the Plains War in a very real way at Sand Creek. The territorial governor of Colorado, John Evans, was a lay leader in hist Methodist Episcopal Church congregation. The commander of a group of Colorado volunteer troops, Colonel John Chivington, was a former Methodist Episcopal Church ordained clergy. Evans and Chivington were in agreement on an effort to exterminate certain Indian groups. Evans gave Chivington authority to use troops to kill any Indian groups who were not “under protection”.

The brief history of the Sand Creek Massacre involved Evans meeting with chiefs who lived in Eastern Colorado and giving them a verbal assurance of protection if they stayed within a protective envelope around established military forts or camps. When those chiefs returned to the fort near their camps, they were given temporary shelter, but were told by the commander to return to a camping site near the fort, but outside of the envelope. Chivington took his troops into Southeastern Colorado looking for a fight. When he arrived at the fort, he obtained command of the regular troops assigned to the fort. It was clear to the soldiers at the fort that Chivington was seeking out the same tribes represented at the meeting with Evans. He was determined to attack their encampment.

After commandeering the fort's complement of soldiers and artillery, Chivington leads the troop to the encampment. He uses the relatively untrained volunteers to separate the horses from the tribe, to prevent their easy escape. He sends regular, experienced soldiers through the camp to put the people to running. He assigned the artillery to shell the only escape route they had. As the women and children ran toward the only escape, the men attempted to delay the soldiers. The untrained volunteers broke from scattering the horses to concentrate on the fleeing women and children. In the 8 hours that followed, between 150 and 200 Indians were killed, two thirds of whom were women and children.

The early reports submitted by Chivington described a battle with few casualties among women and children. But unofficial letters between resistant officers to an officer who was not involved led to a military tribunal and two congressional hearings over the events. The result of all three proceedings was that this was not a military campaign. This was a massacre that should have never happened. 

Tomorrow I will offer some contemporary reflection on the visit.