In 1851, a delegation of Native American tribes from the Great Plains met with representatives of the U.S. government and established a peace treaty. The treaty didn’t require the tribes to give up their lands. Over the next decade, however, the Great Plains filled with miners searching for gold. Migration from the east coast of the United States brought more settlers to the Great Plains and to places further west like Colorado and California. The American government began “maneuvering for a land cession.”
The United States government was, once again, put in an embarrassing position. It claimed to be a defender of law and order, but in order to ensure its expansion westward, it now had to go back on its word and violate its treaty with the Plains Indians.
Native Americans met with the U.S. government. This time, the government offered the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes a treaty whereby they’d retain land and hunting rights, but would agree to reside in a small territory near the Arkansas River. The Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives agreed. However, only a minority of Cheyenne chiefs were present to sign it, a fact that later called the agreement into question.
Technically speaking, the treaties the U.S. made here were never legally binding. But of course, this didn’t really matter to the people would later enforce the treaty to relocate Native Americans.
In the early years of the Civil War, Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting parties tried to steer clear of Confederate and Union troops. In May 1864, however, a group of Cheyennes encountered a group of Union soldiers, and the Cheyenne leader Lean Bear greeted the soldiers while wearing a medal Abraham Lincoln had given him. The soldiers opened fire on Lean Bear, killing him. Lean Bear’s second-in-command Black Kettle commanded his troops not to fire on the soldiers in order to avoid a war. However, some Cheyennes did fire on the soldiers.
As Brown depicts this horrific incident, Lean Bear was gunned down in cold blood. The scene is especially tragic, considering that Lean Bear was wearing a medal from Abraham Lincoln (the commander of the very troops who killed him) and the medal symbolized Lean Bear’s cooperation with the U.S. government.
Confused by the American troops’ actions, Black Kettle consulted with a man named William Bent. Bent was a white man, but he’d lived with the Cheyennes for years, and was married to a Cheyenne woman. Bent advised Black Kettle to prevent his young men from raiding white settlements in revenge.
Some white settlers chose to live among the Native Americans peacefully. Even though the late 19th century was marked by near-constant violence between white soldiers and Native Americans, there’s a lengthy tradition of whites and Native Americans coexisting in peace.
In June 1864, the Colorado governor, John Evans, issued a statement explaining that “some Cheyennes” had gone to war with white people, but he failed to mention the murder of Lean Bear. Following the statement, Black Kettle and other chiefs tried to control their people and prevent retaliation. William Bent’s son George Bent sent a letter to a government agent, offering to exchange white prisoners for Cheyennes. Black Kettle also sent a copy of this letter to the American forces at Fort Lyon, led by Edward Wynkoop.
Evans’s official statement misrepresented the facts to make it seem that the Cheyennes had attacked the military without grounds, even though they had good reason to be furious. Notice, however, that the Cheyennes were trying their best to preserve order, both because they knew they’d lose whatever war they fought and because they had coexisted peacefully with white Americans for many years.
Wynkoop read Black Kettle’s letter and learned about the white prisoners on Cheyenne land. He decided to ride to Cheyenne land and rescue the prisoners. With only 127 soldiers, Wynkoop marched out to the Cheyenne settlement in Smoky Hill. There, Wynkoop negotiated with Black Kettle. Black Kettle told Wynkoop, “The bad men on both sides brought about this trouble.” He also promised to release four white prisoners, all children—the remaining prisoners were being kept farther north.
Following Lean Bear’s murder, there was a short period of détente between the Cheyennes and the white settlers, during which both sides seemed to be making an effort to preserve the peace.
The next step was for Black Kettle and Edward Wynkoop to travel to Denver to make peace with Governor Evans. In Denver, Evans accused Black Kettle of allying with the Sioux tribe against the U.S.—an accusation Black Kettle vehemently denied. Evans also claimed that the American soldiers had killed Lean Bear to retaliate for the theft of some horses—again, Black Kettle denied this. The meeting ended with the chiefs “confused as to whether they had made peace or not.”
In the end, the peace talks between the white settlers and the Cheyennes failed, because neither side wanted to take responsibility for the original violent incident. Both sides wanted to portray themselves as retaliating to the other side’s immoral actions (even though, per Brown, it’s pretty clear that the Cheyennes were in the right, and Lean Bear was murdered in cold blood).
In November, Major Scott J. Anthony was sent in to replace Edward Wynkoop, who’d angered Governor Evans by dealing with the Cheyenne tribe. Evans ordered Anthony to demand that the Arapahos abandon their land. While Anthony did so, he also told Black Kettle that the Cheyennes were welcome to reside at Sand Creek, under the protection of Fort Lyon. Some of the Arapaho tribe went to join the Cheyenne at Sand Creek, while others traveled south.
The government of the United States didn’t appreciate Wynkoop, seemingly because he genuinely wanted to promote peace and equality between whites and Native Americans. Wynkoop’s successor, Anthony, took a harder line against the Native Americans, and mandated that they relocate immediately.
On November 26, Major Anthony allowed white traders to do business with the Cheyennes stationed near Sand Creek. His reason was simple: he wanted to keep the Cheyennes “quiet until such time as I receive reinforcements.” The next day, Anthony received his reinforcements and prepared for a massacre. Some of his lieutenants argued that an attack would violate the treaty. On November 28, however, an American army of many hundreds attacked the Cheyenne at Sand Creek. The soldiers murdered dozens of women and children, even after they’d surrendered. Soldiers scalped and mutilated the corpses of Cheyennes. However, some Cheyennes managed to flee.
As Brown shows, Anthony was biding his time until further troops arrived. This suggests that Anthony wanted the military to wipe out the Cheyenne population in the region, clearing the way for further white settlers. Sure enough, the military eventually killed hundreds of Cheyennes, many of them just a few years old. Brown is careful to note that some Cheyennes escaped the massacre, emphasizing that there were eyewitnesses to the U.S. military’s savage violence.
Among the people fleeing the massacre was George Bent, the half Cheyenne, half white son of William Bent. George reunited with his brother Charlie Bent on William Bent’s ranch. The brothers agreed to reject white civilization, and abandoned the ranch forever.
The massacre was so horrific that it convinced the Bent siblings to reject white culture altogether. The incident also foreshadows the way that the military’s violence polarized Native American society and gave a voice to the chiefs who were least willing to negotiate with white America.
At Sand Creek, the U.S. army murdered every Cheyenne and Arapaho chief who’d been trying to hold out for peace with the United States. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes now concluded that their best option was war.
This is an important passage because it suggests that much of the Native American violence that followed Sand Creek was, at its core, retaliatory. Whether or not it was ethically justified, it marked the Native Americans’ response to the threat of annihilation—they felt they had to kill or be killed.
In January 1865, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux warriors raided supply routes, cutting off much of Denver’s food supply. However, Black Kettle refused to participate in the raids. He led four hundred followers southward while the majority of Cheyennes went north to fight the U.S. army.
Notice that a majority of Cheyennes turned to violence to resist the U.S., showing how much of an impression the Sand Creek Massacre left.
The majority of Cheyennes reached the Powder River country, where the Northern Cheyennes lived. In the spring of 1865, the newly united Cheyenne tribe sent scouts to spy on U.S soldiers in preparation for more fighting. On July 24, the Cheyenne attacked the Platte Bridge Station, a military base and stockade, killing several white soldiers.
The Sand Creek Massacre also united the factions of the Cheyenne tribe—the tribal leaders correctly recognized that their only chance of prevailing was to work together against the common enemy, the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, Black Kettle and a small group of Southern Cheyennes marched south to rejoin the Arapaho tribe. In the summer of 1865, a delegation of U.S. government officials met with Black Kettle in order to create a new treaty. William Bent helped Black Kettle and representatives from the Arapaho tribe negotiate with the government. The government’s representatives included Kit Carson. The government wanted the Native Americans to abandon their old treaty and surrender their rights to buffalo country in Colorado in order to make way for railroads and new settlers.
Throughout this entire chapter, the U.S. government’s motives are financial: it’s trying to clear the way for railroads and settlements on Cheyenne territory (even if it does so in barbaric ways, such as slaughtering hundreds of Cheyennes). One might think that the value of the land would incentivize the U.S. government to attempt to lavishly compensate the Native Americans to ensure their peaceful removal, but the government seemed to prefer force.
During negotiations, government representatives told Black Kettle that gold had been discovered on Cheyenne lands. White settlers would come to the land and treat the Cheyennes cruelly. Black Kettle was reluctant to leave his ancestral lands, but he agreed to live south of the Arkansas River in order to ensure peace. In this way, the Native Americans abandoned their claims to Colorado. “And that of course,” Brown concludes, “was the real meaning of the massacre at Sand Creek.”
Brown ends the chapter by connecting the atrocious violence of Sand Creek with the government’s desire to clear the Cheyennes off their land. As Brown sees it, the government’s only goal was to gain more territory, and therefore it authorized the military to remove the Cheyennes by any means necessary.