CRF Blog

The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More

by Bill Hayes

In The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More, Smithsonian magazine looks back at the 1864 massacre and reports on the opening of the national historic site.

When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.

There were many such atrocities in the American West. But the slaughter at Sand Creek stands out because of the impact it had at the time and the way it has been remembered. Or rather, lost and then rediscovered. Sand Creek was the My Lai of its day, a war crime exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government. It fueled decades of war on the Great Plains. And yet, over time, the massacre receded from white memory, to the point where even locals were unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.

That’s now changed, with the opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. “We’re the only unit in the National Park Service that has ‘massacre’ in its name,” says the site’s superintendent, Alexa Roberts. Usually, she notes, signs for national historic sites lead to a presidential birthplace or patriotic monument. “So a lot of people are startled by what they find here.”

Visitors are also surprised to learn that the massacre occurred during the Civil War, which most Americans associate with Eastern battles between blue and gray, not cavalry killing Indians on the Western plains. But the two conflicts were closely related, says Ari Kelman, a historian at Penn State University and author of A Misplaced Massacre, a Bancroft Prize-winning book about Sand Creek.

The Civil War, he observes, was rooted in westward expansion and strife over whether new territories would join the nation as free states or slave states. Slavery, however, wasn’t the only obstacle to free white settlement of the West; another was Plains Indians, many of whom staunchly resisted encroachment on their lands. [more]