The weekend before the primary election, the United Methodist Church held its Annual Rocky Mountain Conference at the Pueblo convention center. Colorado Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, host of the event, scheduled a field trip for interested delegates to visit the Sand Creek Massacre site near Eads. Since she arrived in Colorado five years ago Stanovsky has become familiar with the crucial role played by Methodist leaders in organizing the slaughter of mostly women, children and elders among the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes camped along Sand Creek under the protection of regular Army troops stationed at Fort Lyons. Despite flying the American flag over their winter encampment, Col. John Chivington, a Methodist pastor and the hero of the battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico where Colorado volunteers halted the advance of Confederate troops intent on seizing Colorado’s silver and gold mines, marched 700 troops from Denver for the express purpose of rampaging through these camps. This tragic chapter in the state’s history has been memorialized as a National Park Historic site due to the efforts of former Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Cheyenne nation.
Never having visited the site, my wife and I decided to attend this act of atonement.
Sand Creek is 190 miles from Denver, nearly as remote today as it must have been in the winter of 1864. Aside from a few wind farms and an oil field fracked near Eads, there is little evidence of human activity other than occasional scattered ranch buildings visible from the road once you leave I-70 at Limon. The several hundred Native Americans wintering at Sand Creek could not possibly have represented a threat to the burgeoning communities along the Front Range. The only reason for Territorial Governor John Evans to approve this deployment was to enable the systematic slaughter of the Indians peaceably encamped at Sand Creek. Evans was a lay Methodist leader. Historians have concluded that Evans and Chivington believed the threat of further depredations by warrior bands presented an obstacle to the swift approval of Colorado’s statehood. Although silver and gold were only discovered in 1858, Colorado was producing these metals in significant quantities so that the Union could mint coins.
A stone memorializes the site of the Sand Creek battle ground.
Chiefs White Antelope, Lone Bear, Yellow Wolf, Big Man, Bear Man, Left Hand, Spotted Crow and War Bonnet were killed and the bodies of the 270 who died following a dawn raid were mutilated for souvenirs. Lt. Silas Soule of the volunteers, who would be assassinated later in Denver for his testimony, refused to participate in the attack and joined with Captain Edward Wynkoop, the commandant at Fort Lyons, in filing a report with the War Department that contradicted the claims of “bravery” by Chivington. The report from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War in the 38th Congress summarizes these atrocities as follows:
“Not content with killing women and children, the soldiers indulged in acts of barbarity of the most revolting character. It is hoped that the authority of the government will never again be disgraced by (such) acts…”
One of the Park Rangers observed that it is important to achieve diversity among those we elect. “Without a Cheyenne Senator it is doubtful the Sand Creek site would have been preserved,” he explained. Another ranger, Eric Sanio originally from the Western Slope, indicated the site usually averages just 10 or 15 visitors a day in summer, three thousand during a year. On this day, bus after bus unloaded Methodists. They arrived by the hundreds. Reginald Killsnight from the Cheyenne reservation in Montana was there to greet them and answer questions. A young man, he has visited Sand Creek many times. It remains a sacred ground for him and other tribal members. Its preservation reminds us that the conquest of the west was not all a tale of glory. The monument may say “Sand Creek Battle Ground,” but the story is one of massacre.
Arriving in Trinidad that evening, we had put 400 miles on our car — just a reminder of how large a state we live in. We decided to visit the Ludlow Massacre site before returning home. While it was the 150th Anniversary for Sand Creek, Ludlow is observing its century mark this year. National labor unions have placed a monument at the site where 11 women and children were suffocated to death when the Colorado National Guard torched the tent city housing the striking miners. The tent city existed because Colorado Fuel & Iron had evicted strikers from their company housing. It was not the intent of the Guard, or the Pinkertons working with them, to kill anyone, although one soldier acknowledged that, “We killed two strikers, but there was no massacre.” It seems safe to assume that the arsonists were unaware of the “cellars” beneath many of the tents. Nonetheless, almost everyone frowns on killing women and children.
Labor leaders were quick to jump on the deaths and have held annual pilgrimages to Ludlow ever since. Partly public relations and partly propaganda, Ludlow has served to remind Americans that worker rights were won at a price. Like that vacation? Like a forty hour workweek? Like your health care? Thank a union member! In late June there were only a few grasshoppers and a couple from Kentucky coal country sharing the site beneath a sweltering sun. If you throw in the Meeker Massacre, Colorado may take first place for historical slaughters. Of course Nathan Meeker, who founded a Christian farming colony in Weld County funded by Horace Greeley, may have been asking for it when he attempted the same trick with the White River Utes. Appointed as Indian agent he was determined to make them both farmers and Disciples of Christ. They didn’t take well to either suggestion and opted to kill him instead, while kidnapping his wife and daughter. This proved a bad choice, as they lost their 15 million acre reservation and were shipped to Utah.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and political history buff. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.