Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Sand Creek Massacre

Happy November, HHH fans! This year has flown by, and I’m shocked we’re nearly to December.

So—I’ve been waiting a while to write this post. On November 29, just four days from now, history will mark the 154thanniversary of the event my upcoming novel, Sand Creek Serenade, centers on—the Sand Creek Massacre.

What was the Sand Creek Massacre? Well, it was a dreadful episode on the American frontier. But to truly understand what happened and why, we need to back up a bunch of years. The trouble starts long before 1864.

The Sand Creek Massacre--a depiction drawn by Howling Wolf

I’m sure you all know how the California Gold Rush brought white settlers pouring across the western frontier in 1848 and later. In 1851, a treaty was signed between the United States and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, giving a large area of land (including portions of present-day Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas) to these two tribes. However, in 1858, gold was discovered in Colorado—and with a new influx of settlers coming to dig treasure out of the Rocky Mountains, the United States felt they must act.

Seeing that the land once given to the Cheyenne and Arapaho had new and lucrative purpose, a different treaty was proposed in 1861. In it, the Indians were asked to give up much of the land they’d received a decade earlier. A group of peaceful chiefs led by Black Kettle of the Cheyenne and Left Hand of the Arapaho agreed to the terms, despite the treaty cutting their land down to 1/13 the previous size. The agreement angered the tribes, which hadn’t been consulted. Most rejected it, choosing instead to live and hunt on the lands given them in the previous treaty. But as wave after wave of settlers came, passing right through their lands, tension smoldered on both sides.

As the Civil War broke out in our country, many men joined the army, ready to do their part for the cause. However, once the Union forces in Colorado repelled an attempt at a Confederate take-over at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (in New Mexico), the war was pretty much over in that area of the country. Oh, it still raged elsewhere, but the most action those soldiers saw was standing guard at various remote outposts to be sure no more Confederate soldiers attempted another infiltration. So, with many bodies and little real work, the focus shifted to guarding the home front from Indian attacks, since the settlers had made complaints that the Indians were stealing livestock.

The Army began attacking various Cheyenne camps in the Spring of 1864. No word was given to the Cheyenne that they were under attack—the army would just show up and begin shooting. In mid-May of the same year, Lt. Eayre took troops into Kansas and found the Cheyenne at their summer hunting grounds. While Chiefs Lean Bear and Star rode out to talk peace with the army, they were gunned down.

Things were spiraling out of control, and it looked as if a war with the Indians couldn’t be avoided. However, something unusual happened. Major Ned Wynkoop—the commander of Fort Lyon, located in southeastern Colorado—got word that several Cheyenne wished to talk of peace. Not only that, but they were willing to give up several white captives in order to grease the wheels of the peace talks. Wynkoop, who had been just as avid for war with the Indians as those above him, suddenly saw things differently. He worked with Black Kettle to elicit the release of several white captives—including a couple of women and several young children. In working so closely with the chief of the Southern Cheyenne band, he realized that there was a great opportunity for peace. In September 1864, he and several of his trusted officers at Fort Lyon left their post to take a contingent of Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs to Denver to meet with Colonel John Chivington and the territorial governor, John Evans.

Major Ned Wynkoop (kneeling--front row left) and the contingent of Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs
he took to Denver for peace talks in September 1864.

Under Wynkoop’s leadership, peace talks between the territorial government, the Army, and the Indians took place, and Black Kettle and Left Hand were told to return home, to fly both a white flag of surrender and an American flag over the chief’s tent, and await peace. The chiefs followed their orders to the letter. And Major Wynkoop returned to Fort Lyon victorious.

Or so he thought.

What he didn’t know was that his unexpected maneuver to bring the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs to Denver for peace talks was not met kindly by those above him. Chivington and Evans had no intentions of peace. For weeks, they allowed the Cheyenne and Arapaho bands to camp—first beside Fort Lyon, and later on the banks of Sand Creek—all while expecting the Army to arrive with news of a new treaty. Meanwhile, charges were leveled against Major Wynkoop and his officers for leaving their post without permission. Major Scott Anthony was sent to the fort to remove Wynkoop from his position and begin an investigation into his actions. It wasn’t long before Wynkoop was sent to a fort in Kansas while the investigation continued.

On November 28, 1864, just days after Wynkoop’s removal, Colonel Chivington rode to the fort with 550 of his men from Denver. They arrived at Fort Lyon that morning, and by dusk, those 550 men, plus the 150 or so soldiers already stationed at Fort Lyon marched out to travel to Sand Creek and the waiting Cheyenne. Throughout the bitterly cold night, many soldiers passed whiskey around in an attempt to keep warm. By the time they reached the Cheyenne encampment before dawn, many of the soldiers were drunk. Chivington’s men from Denver had a desire for blood and vengeance, while the Fort Lyon soldiers adamantly disapproved of what was about to come. However, they were forced to participate, or they would face disciplinary actions.

Colonel John Chivington
Moments before dawn, the order was given. Fire! Seven hundred guns emptied into the sleeping Cheyenne camp—a camp that housed mostly women, children, and the elderly. The fighting-aged men had gone to Smoky Hill to hunt buffalo for their winter stores. So as dawn broke on November 29, the Indian camp was awakened to an attack of monumental proportions. The Cheyenne and Arapaho people burst from their tents in various states of dress and were forced to run for their lives. Many died in the first moments. Those who were fortunate enough to make it to the sand dunes along the creek did their best to hide. But the army had brought several cannons with them, and the cannons were fired into the dunes. 

Eye-witness accounts say that the drunken soldiers used young toddlers who’d been separated from their families for target practice and others cut the unborn babies from expectant mothers’ wombs. The bodies of the dead Indians were mutilated—fingers and ears cut off to get to the rings/earrings they wore, as well as for trophies. 

Somewhere between 60 and 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho died that day, while only 52 soldiers suffered injuries. Many of the wounded were forced to hide until dark—in frigid temperatures while wearing either little-to-no clothing or wet clothing, since they waded through Sand Creek in their attempts to reach safety. Those who did survive traveled through the night in below-freezing temperatures on foot to Smoky Hill, a day’s travel away, to reach the men who had gone to hunt. Only then did they begin to get the medical help they desperately needed.

Colonel Chivington and his men returned to Fort Lyon and attempted to spin the massacre as vindication for the various attacks the Indians had committed against the settlers and Army. Chivington and his 550 men returned to Denver and paraded themselves through the streets as mighty victors. However, it didn’t take long before the truth began to leak out and the population of Colorado Territory and beyond grew horrified and angry at the atrocities committed against the defenseless camp.

Starting in January, I’ll tell you more about the individuals involved in this terrible event—who they were, where they came from, and where they ended up afterward, so please look for my future posts on the topic.

It’s Your Turn: Have you heard of the Sand Creek Massacre? Where did you learn about it—from school as a child or later in life?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

The Mail-Order Brides Collection

What kind of woman would answer an advertisement and marry a stranger?

Escape into the history of the American West along with nine couples whose relationships begin with advertisements for mail-order brides. Placing their dreams for new beginnings in the hands of a stranger, will each bride be disappointed, or will some find true love?

The Brigand and the Bride by Jennifer Uhlarik
(2018 Selah Award Winner—Western Category)
1876, Arizona
Jolie Hilliard weds a stranger to flee her outlaw family but discovers her groom is an escaped prisoner. Will she ever find happiness on the right side of the law?


  1. No I've not heard of this. It's appalling!

  2. It truly is appalling, Connie. Such a sad episode in America's history.