On this dayNov 29, 1864

U.S. Forces Kill Hundreds of Native Americans in Sand Creek Massacre

Image | Joanna B. Pinneo

On November 29, 1864, American troops murdered more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people who were living peacefully along Sand Creek in eastern Colorado. Days before the massacre, white officials had assured chiefs of the village that their community would not be harmed.

At dawn on November 29, hundreds of United States soldiers led by Colonel John Chivington surrounded the village. Residents responded by waving white flags and pleading for mercy; one of the chiefs even raised the American flag in an attempt to demonstrate that he, too, was American. Ignoring these symbols of surrender and peace, the white troops opened fire with carbines and cannons, slaughtering more than 150 Native American people. Most of the victims of the massacre were women, children, and the elderly and infirm. After the massacre, the troops burned the village, mutilated the bodies of the deceased, and removed body parts to keep as trophies. Some scalps of the dead became props in plays that the troops later performed to celebrate, as one soldier boasted, “almost an annihilation of the entire tribe.”

To justify their slaughter, white officials perpetuated a narrative that described Native people as less than human and dangerous and claimed that the soldiers who committed the massacre had acted in self-defense. This false account was disputed by other American soldiers who witnessed the massacre and felt compelled to tell the truth. “Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees begging for mercy,” described U.S. Captain Silas Soule in an 1865 letter to Congress, “[only to be shot] and have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.”

Historian Ari Kelman describes Sand Creek as “a bloody and mostly forgotten link” between the Civil War and the genocide of Native peoples. Leading up to the Civil War, there was mounting tension about westward expansion and whether white settlers in the new territories would enslave African Americans. To proponents of enslavement, the very existence of free non-white people threatened racial hierarchy. In addition, many Native people resisted white encroachment and were seen as obstacles to westward expansion. The massacre at Sand Creek was one example of the U.S. effort to reproduce white supremacy in the expanding American territory.

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