Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Journey to the site of a little-known American tragedy in southeastern Colorado, now memorialized as a national historic site.

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by Joe Berk
The entrance to the historic site.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado is relatively unknown, a bit out of the way, and one of our more recently designated national historic sites. The story behind it is simultaneously controversial, fascinating, sad and shameful. I had never heard of the Sand Creek Massacre until I rode across Colorado. About 150 miles southeast of Denver, after riding through the small town of Kit Carson, a small sign pointed the way. Sometimes these unknown places make for the best kinds of discoveries, and this was one.

The genesis of this story is a familiar one in our history: Gold and silver in California’s Rocky Mountains pulled the population west, the 1858 Pike’s Peak Gold Rush intensified the rush into Colorado, treaties were signed and broken, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were pushed out of their historic lands, the Army’s attention was on the Civil War, and the Colorado Plains Wars of 1863-1865 resulted. With the above as a backdrop, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans tapped John Chivington (a Methodist minister seeking the greater glory of military command) with raising a local militia. Evans (and Chivington’s military superiors) made it clear there was no sympathy for the Native Americans. Conflicts over land, greed, our predilection for disregarding inconvenient treaties, and an undisciplined and inexperienced militia led by a glory-hungry commander created a situation ripe for disaster, and that’s what happened.

In the winter of 1864, a large group of Arapaho and Cheyenne (some say there were as many as 650) camped along Sand Creek believing they were at peace with the U.S. After a night of heavy drinking, on November 29th, 1864, Chivington and his Third Colorado Volunteers advanced. The Native Americans came forward under a white flag to greet their visitors, and then the depravity began. Over the next two days the soldiers killed 13 Cheyenne chiefs, one Arapaho chief, and hundreds more Native Americans (two-thirds of whom were women, children, and the elderly). The Cheyenne and Arapaho tried to hide and then they fled, but the massacre continued. Mutilations ensued, with Chivington’s militia keeping body parts as souvenirs. Chivington’s casualties were substantially less than 50 killed with perhaps another 50 wounded (many of those probably from friendly fire). It was unquestionably one of the darkest moments in our history.

Chivington reported a great victory, and for more than a century, that was the story accepted by most white settlers and their descendants. The truth, though, was outlined by another cavalry officer (a Captain Soule, who refused to allow his troops to participate in the massacre). There were both Army and congressional investigations, but Chivington had already left the military and he escaped punishment. A movement began more than a century later to recognize the atrocity and its location with national historic site status. This was not an easy thing to accomplish, as considerable uncertainty surrounded both the location and the facts of the massacre. To this day, the event is still mired in controversy, although any unbiased review leads to the conclusion that what occurred was, in fact, a massacre. For a while, a local rancher charged admission to view the Sand Creek Massacre site believing it had occurred on his property, but the lack of physical evidence at this presumed location showed it had not. Sand Creek’s winding stream path had changed over the last century, and it wasn’t until a cold case detective from New Mexico, an archeological team, review of a map from that era, and metal detection equipment came together that the actual massacre site was discovered several miles away. During this time, descendants of the original victims and other Native Americans (including Colorado’s U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a motorcyclist I met at one of the Laughlin River Runs) pushed for National Historic Site designation. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was officially designated on April 27, 2007. Sand Creek was the My Lai massacre of its time, and it is the only site in the U.S. National Park Service with the word “massacre” in its name. — Joe Berk

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