On September 17, 1851, officials of the US government met with Indian tribal leaders at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Among the Indian tribes present were the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan and Sioux. Federal officials and Indian leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the US government recognized the traditional boundaries of each Indian tribe and declared that to be Indian Territory to which they had no official claim. The treaty also allowed for the establishment of roads and forts to be built in Indian Territory in exchange for promises of $50,000 a year. The tribal leaders guaranteed safe passage for settlers passing through their territory in exchange for them not encroaching upon Indian land.
In 1858, gold was discovered in the Platte River area, creating a gold rush into the Colorado wilderness. Nearly 100,000 people flocked to Colorado, many seeking gold and others seeking to get rich off those who did find gold. Thousands of settlers began staking claims and building cabins and homes on Indian land, usually without permission from the Indians or the government.
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On February 28, 1861, outgoing President James Buchanan signed a bill passed by Congress that established the Colorado Territory. The move was made in response to the gold rush that suddenly brought the territory to the attention of the federal government.
On September 10, 1861, ten local tribal chiefs from among the Cheyenne and Arapaho, met with federal officials and signed the Treaty of Fort Wise. This new treaty narrowed the Indian land claimed by the ten local tribes only to a triangular reservation lying between the Arkansas River and Sand Creek. The local tribes also agreed to abandon their hunting way of life and take up agriculture.
However, many of the white settlers and miners misunderstood the terms of the new treaty. They believed that it included all the Cheyenne and Arapaho, but it didn’t. It only covered those ten specific local tribes. The settlers and miners expected all of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to give up their hunting of buffalo and other game, and they expected all the Indians to move onto the reservation, but that didn’t happen, causing increased problems between the settlers and Indians. Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans believed the new treaty would resolve the issues and became very frustrated when it didn’t.
Since before the two treaties were signed, there were numerous incidents between Indians and whites and those incidents didn’t decrease after the treaties were signed. The influx of the whites brought new diseases such as smallpox which decimated many Indians. The whites also hunted buffalo and caused a sharp decrease in herd numbers that affected both whites and Indians.
On May 16, 1864, federal soldiers murdered Cheyenne Chief Lean Bear and another Cheyenne, Star. As the soldiers approached Lean Bear’s encampment, a group of Cheyenne rode out to meet them. Lean Bear and Star then rode out alone to meet the soldiers. Lean Bear held out a peace medal and document he received from President Abraham Lincoln. The commander of the federal troops failed to take notice of the peace medal and document and ordered his men to shoot the two Indians as they approached. After Chief Lean Bear was shot off his horse, the soldiers continued to shoot him multiple times as he lay on the ground. This murder ignited the growing hostilities.
On June 11, 1864, the bodies of a white family, the Hungates, were found at their ranch about 30 miles southeast of Denver. The bodies were brought back to Denver and put on public display with the claim that an Arapaho raiding party had brutally murdered them. The parents were stabbed and scalped and the four-year-old daughter and infant child had almost been beheaded. There was no proof that the Arapaho were responsible, but they were blamed for the deaths. Even Gov. Evans pointed to the murder of the Hungate family as evidence for the war he launched against the Indians.
On June 27, 1864, Gov. Evans issued a proclamation warning friendly Indians not to associate with those causing all the trouble. He ordered the friendly Indians to go to safe places like Fort Lyons and identify themselves as friendly. One group of ‘friendly’ Indians camped at a location on Sand Creek.
On August 10, 1864, Gov. Evans sends a telegram to William P. Dole, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington DC, warning him of a pending Indian uprising. The telegram read in part:
“It will be the largest Indian war this country ever had, extending from Texas to the British lines, involving nearly all the wild tribes of the Plains. Please bring all the force of your department to bear in favor of speedy re-enforcement of our troops, and get me authority to raise a regiment of 100-days’ mounted men.”
On August 11, 1864, Gov. Evans issues a proclamation urging all Colorado citizens to pursue and kill all ‘hostile Indians’ and calls them enemies of the country.
On August 13, 1864, Commissioner of Indian Affairs responds to Gov. Evans telegram by sending funds to begin recruiting and training men to fight the Indians. Evans gets Colonel John Chivington to begin assembling a force to fight the Indians.
On September 4, 1864, Cheyenne Chief Ochinee, (One Eye), his wife and another Indian named Eagle Head, delivers a letter to Major Edward Wynkoop, indicating he wants to talk peace.
On September 28, 1864, Gov. Evans, Chivington meet with Black Kettle, White Antelope and Neva at Camp Weld. Chivington dismisses the peace efforts and the chiefs are escorted back to Fort Lyon and then encourage to bring their people closer to Camp Weld.
On this day, November 29, 1864, the First and Third Colorado Cavalry, consisting of 700 troops, attack the encampment of ‘friendly Indians’ at Sand Creek. The camp has around 600-1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children. Most of the warriors were out hunting, so the camp was filled mostly with the women, children and elderly. In the early hours of the morning, the troops, many of whom were drunk, rode into the camp and began shooting any Indian they saw. Numbers range from 150 to nearly 200 Indians, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the troops. Soldiers were reported to have dismounted and mutilated the bodies of many of the dead Indians, cutting off body parts as trophies and souvenirs.
The massacre at Sand Creek led to decades of war between many tribes among the Plain Indians and whites. Although seldom taught or heard of, it was one of the worst war atrocities in the history of the United States.
Sources for the above includes: Sand Creek Massacre; Sand Creek Massacre; 40a. The Massacre at Sand Creek; The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More; Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre; Colorado militia massacre Cheyenne at Sand Creek; What Led to the Sand Creek Massacre? Check Out This Timeline; Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851;