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Trip Report: The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Basic Information

  • What: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
  • Where: Outside Eads, Colorado
  • Founded: April 28, 2007
  • Cost: Free
  • More Information: National Park Service website

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Narrative

2014 was the 150 year anniversary of one of the low points in Colorado history, the Sand Creek Massacre.  This massacre has been memorialized as a national historic site administered by the National Park Service.  To get to Sand Creek it requires a 3.5 hour drive through the flat Eastern Colorado prairie from Colorado Springs:

It was quite a boring drive, so thank goodness for the invention of satellite radio.  This is basically what I saw for most the way, flat fields of corn:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Or alternatively the flat fields of harvested corn:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Something else I saw a lot of on my way to Sand Creek was gain silos:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I even saw a few oil wells:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

It was pretty amazing to see just how massive these farms in Eastern Colorado are.  Some of them are so big they have their own railroads:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

What I was not expecting during my drive to Sand Creek was the long stretch of dirt road that has to be navigated to reach the site.  Sturdy cars can handle the road in dry conditions, however the day prior to my drive it had rained heavily which left the dirt road extremely muddy.  If the roads are muddy I would not recommend a two-wheel drive car to try and drive to the historic site.  Here is how my truck looked due to all the mud:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

When I returned to Colorado Springs I took my truck through an automatic car wash and it did not remove all the mud.  I had to scrape the mud off the wheel wells and undercarriage manually at home to get it cleaned.  It ended up being a lot of work.

After driving about 10 miles down the dirt road I saw this sign which showed that I was nearing my destination:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Near the entrance to the National Historic Site the road crosses over the Big Sandy Creek; the National Park Service visitor center can be seen in the background:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The creek was not really a creek, but instead a stretch of grass that grew higher than the surrounding grass due to rain water flowing into the lower lying terrain:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I soon found myself at the entrance into the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I parked my muddy truck in a large dirt parking area outside of the visitor center. After parking I walked over to the visitor center is located inside of this building where I found one park ranger on duty:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The park ranger I found to be quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about answering questions about what happened at the site.  For those that want to learn more about the massacre there are plenty of books for sale inside the visitor center as well.  Outside the visitor center there is a sign that explains why the visitor center is flying a 33-star flag:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The visitor center flies the flag because the Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle had received a 33-star flag from the US Army commander at nearby Ft. Lyon as a token of peace and was encouraged to fly it during any encounters with the US military.  Unfortunately this token of peace had no effect on stopping the massacre that occurred on November 29, 1864. Here is a picture of the 33-star flag that the National Park Service flies at the site:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Also outside of the visitor center is a number of large signs that explain the history of the massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Here is a synopsis of this history from the National Park Service website:

Robert Lindneaux portrays his concept of the Sand Creek Massacre. History Colorado #46619

At dawn on November 29, 1864, approximately 675 U.S. volunteer soldiers commanded by Colonel John M. Chivington attacked a village of about 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. Using small arms and howitzer fire, the troops drove the people out of their camp. While many managed to escape the initial onslaught, others, particularly noncombatant women, children, and the elderly fled into and up the bottom of the dry stream bed. The soldiers followed, shooting at them as they struggled through the sandy earth. At a point several hundred yards above the village, the women and children frantically excavated pits and trenches along either side of the streambed to protect themselves. Some adult men attempted to hold back the Army with whatever weapons they had managed to retrieve from the camp, and at several places along Sand Creek the soldiers shot people from opposite banks and brought forward the howitzers to assault their improvised defenses. Over the course of eight hours the troops killed around 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children, and the elderly. During the afternoon and following day, the soldiers wandered over the field committing atrocities on the dead before departing the scene on December 1 to resume campaigning.

Since the barbarism of November 29, the Sand Creek Massacre maintains its station as one of the most emotionally charged and controversial events in American history, a tragedy reflective of its time and place. The background of the Sand Creek Massacre lay in a whirlwind of events and issues registered by the ongoing Civil War in the East and West; the overreactions by whites on the frontier to the 1862-63 Dakota uprising in Minnesota and its aftermath; the status of the various bands of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians relative to each other as well as other plains tribes; the constant undercurrent of threatened Confederate incursions; and the existing state of politics in Colorado including the intrigues of individual politicians in that territory. Perhaps most important, the seeds of the Sand Creek Massacre lay in the presence of two historically discordant cultures within a geographical area that both coveted for disparate reasons, an avoidable situation that resulted in tragedy.

Something I found highly interesting was the signboards that had letters posted from Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer who witnessed the massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

These letters were found in Denver back in 2000 and really shed light on what exactly happened that day.  Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer commanded troops from Ft. Lyon that were charged with providing security for settlers as well as the Native-Americans who had voluntarily moved into reservations in the area which included the Cheyenne and Arapahoe that were encamped along Sand Creek.  Various Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs made peace with the US government in Denver and voluntarily moved out to the reservation in remote southeastern Colorado.  At the same time there were some Indians that continued to raid settlers, but none of them had anything to do with the tribes encamped at Sand Creek.  However, these raids gave Colonel John M. Chivington the excuse he needed to raise a volunteer Army to hunt down the Indians that had raided settlers.

Colonel John Chivington

Chivington and his volunteers only had a commission for 100 days to hunt down the hostile Indians.  With time running out and little to show he headed to Ft. Lyon where he knew there would be Indians encamped.  At Ft. Lyon he picked up the troops led by Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer to join his volunteers to attack the Indians encamped at Sand Creek.  During the attack Seoule and Cramer’s troops refused to participate and watched in horror the slaughter of mostly Indian women and children by Chivington’s men.  After the massacre Chivington traveled to Denver to promote his battlefield victory over the Indians where his troops paraded body parts and scalps in the streets and saloons of the Colorado capital.  The reason for the massacre is that Chivington likely had political aspirations that his “victory” over the Indians would hopefully launch.  However, his narrative of what happened at Sand Creek would not last after Soule and Cramer offered witness testimony to a Congressional investigation that turned what happened at Sand Creek from a “battle” to a “massacre”.  The complete letters which are quite graphic can be read on the National Park website.

Captain Silas Soule

I always knew what happened at Sand Creek was quite bad, but after reading the letters it was far worse than I had previously imagined.  The Congressional investigation may have changed the narrative of what happened at Sand Creek, but a further insult to the survivors of this massacre is that Chivington and none of his men were ever held accountable for it. To make matters worse Captain Soule was murdered in Denver a few weeks after giving his witness testimony.  He did the right thing and paid for it with his life while his murderer was never caught and the butchers of Sand Creek continued to walk around free men.

Chief Black Kettle

After learning the history of the Sand Creek Massacre I then proceeded to follow a trail from the visitor center area towards the location of the actual massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The trial is easy to follow and has a few park benches along the way for people to rest on:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

After about a half mile walk the trees that line the area that the massacre happened came into view:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Something else that came into view were the signs warning visitors of rattlesnakes which I fortunately did not see any of:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

After about a mile the trail comes to a marker that memorializes the location of the Sand Creek Massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I have no idea why the marker says “battle ground” because massacre is more appropriate description of what happened here.  Around the marker there was once again signboards explaining the history of the Sand Creek Massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

This signboard explained how Colorado’s Territorial Governor at the time John Evans viewed the Indians that called Colorado home:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I find it pretty offensive that the prominent 14-thousand foot peak outside of Denver, Mt. Evans is named after such a man that promoted the killing of Indians.  There really should be a movement to change the name of this peak.  Maybe Black Kettle Peak would be more appropriate?  This next signboard explains how peace negotiations with the military and government led to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe to move to the reservation near Ft. Lyon:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

From the monument there is a short 3/4 mile trail to further view the site of massacre:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The trail follows the bluff that overlooks the Big Sandy Creek:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

There is a small dirt road down below the bluff, but visitors are not allowed to walk down there in respect of all the people who died along this creek bed:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

As I walked along the bluff I found it easy to understand why the Indians camped here due to all the trees growing in the creek bed.  The trees and what little water was available here would have provided shade, wood for heating, and place for game to be found for hunting.  In all directions from the creek the broad featureless prairie with few resources is all the Indians had available to them:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

This next panorama photo shows the view that Chivington and his men would have had before they stormed down on the peaceful Indians encamped along the Big Sandy Creek:

Picture from Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Conclusion

It took me a couple of hours to walk what ended up being about 2.5 mile hike to view the massacre site.  The visit to Sand Creek is really an eye opening experience to see first of all how hard life would have been for the Indians exiled to southeastern Colorado.  It is hard to imagine having to scrap out an existence on such a broad featureless prairie with harsh winds, extreme temperatures, little wildlife to hunt, and few water sources.  Secondly after walking around the massacre site I had a good appreciation of how little chance the Indians had.  The bluff that Chivington’s men were on was the only high ground and it looked right down onto the Indian encampment.  Plus the Indians would not be expecting an attack since they had just recently made peace with the government.  I think famed frontiersman Kit Carson sums up what happened Sand Creek quite well:

Jis to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up thar at Sand Creek. His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? What der yer ‘spose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile red skin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ’em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I despise the man who would.

I am not sure how popular of a site Sand Creek is for schools in Colorado to visit, but students should be brought here to better understand why Native-Americans were so crushed by the massacre here.  The massacre at Sand Creek showed that no matter what they did there would be people determined to wipe them out, even in the remote prairie land of Southeastern Colorado.  To make matters worse this arid land they voluntarily went to was supposed to be defended by troops from Fort Lyon and instead a US Army colonel led a group of volunteers to go and slaughter them.  There is unfortunately nothing that can be done to change this tragic history, but at least those of us today have a chance to appreciate what happened here with the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

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