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Sand Creek National Historic Site: Lost but not forgotten

Article and photos by Liz Jurkowski

I had always known that the Sand Creek Massacre was a devastating part of Colorado’s history, but did not fully understand the events that occurred on November 29, 1864 until I took the time to visit, learn and reflect at the Sand Creek National Historic Site in Kiowa County.

The Colorado Territory, in the midst of the Civil War, found itself in a tough situation. A treaty signed at Fort Laramie in 1851 guaranteed the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indian tribes 44 million acres from the North Platte River to the Arkansas River, so long as they allowed for the building of roads and free travel by non-natives through the land.

However, with the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859, eager settlers soon pushed into the native lands. The Fort Wise treaty of 1861 drastically decreased the tribal lands to less than four million acres. This reduction of native hunting and living lands, along with the influx of settlers, created the inevitable conflict for land, resources, and ultimately survival.

The Sand Creek National Historic Site was created in 2007 after an exhaustive study to determine the exact location of the 1864 attack. Along the dry creek bed of Sand Creek, at dawn on a late fall day, nearly 800 volunteer troops from the Colorado 1st and 3rd Regiments attacked the peaceful encampment of more than 600 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho natives.

Under the leadership of Colonel Chivington, more than two hundred (mainly women, children, and elderly) natives were killed by small arms fire and howitzer attack. Many escaped the initial surprise attack and fled up and into the creek bed, some digging sand pits to hide in as the soldiers chased and shot. At the end of an eight hour onslaught, more than two hundred natives and 18 soldiers were killed. Even after the battle, terrible atrocities occurred on the battlefield, permanently placing a scar on Chivington’s decisions and orders.

To their moral credit, nearly one hundred U.S. volunteers did disobey the orders to attack the mainly unarmed natives due to moral resistance.

While the memorial and site are sparse, and the battlefield and creek bed hardly show the destruction and broken promises the massacre brought about, the Sand Creek National Historic Site is a valuable destination for all.

As the National Park Service website about the site states, it “. . .was established in 2007 to preserve and protect the cultural landscape of the massacre, enhance public understanding, and minimize similar incidents in the future.” It is not a happy place to visit, but I left there with a better understanding of a mistake in our state’s past, and an optimism that today’s Coloradans are more open-minded and aware.

The memorial stone at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
marks a scar in Colorado’s history.

Looking at the landscape, it is difficult to see evidence of the horrific attack. Although not an upbeat location, kids, too, can gain an understanding of the event.

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