Brace yourself to read, if you are able, edited portions of Captain Silas Soule’s eye-witness account of the Sand Creek Massacre, which took place on November 29, 1864, as related by letter to Major Edward Wynkoop. Warning: The language is graphic and extremely disturbing.
“[John Chivington and members of his Third Colorado Cavalry] declared their intention to massacre the friendly Indians camped on Sand Creek. As soon as I knew of their movement I was indignant and told them that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch.
“Chiv and all hands swore they would hang me before they moved camp, but I stuck it out, and all the officers at the Post, except Anthony backed me. I told him I would not take part in their intended murder. We arrived at Black Kettles and Left Hand’s Camp at daylight. [Some] were ordered to in advance to cut off their herd. He made a circle to the rear and formed a line 200 yards from the village, and opened fire.
“Anthony then rushed up with [others] to within one hundred yards and commenced firing. I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would. For by this time hundreds of women and children were coming toward us and getting on their knees for mercy. Anthony shouted, ‘kill the sons of bitches.’
“I heard an officer say that any one who sympathized with the Indians, ought to be killed and now was a good time to do it. The Battery then came up in our rear, and opened on them. I took my Company across the Creek, and by this time the whole of the 3rd and the Batteries were firing into them and you can form some idea of the slaughter.
“When the Indians found there was no hope for them they went for the Creek and got under the banks and some of the bucks [men] got their Bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could. By this time there was no organization among our troops, they were a perfect mob—every man on his own hook. My Co. was the only one that kept their formation, and we did not fire a shot.
“The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain.
“One squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing—when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself.
“One Old Squaw hung herself in the lodge—there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians hold one of another’s hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and both were shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped.
“White Antelope, War Bonnet and a number of others had Ears and Privates cut off. Squaws snatches were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth, which they do not deny. It was almost impossible to save any of them.”
Background of Silas Soule
Soule was the son of an Abolitionist who moved his family to Kansas to fight slavery. Soule’s family actively freed slaves as part of the Underground Railroad, and Soule took part in various armed conflicts over slavery. (See the Denver Library’s biography page.)
Soule moved East (where he befriended Walt Whitman), then moved to the Colorado territory to join his brother in quartz mining. When the Civil War broke out, Soule enlisted. Ironically, Soule fought beside Chivington at the Battle of Glorietta Pass, after which Chivington promoted Soule.
Soule and Wynkoop (among others) met with Native American leaders in an attempt to preserve the peace. Chivington and territorial governor John Evans attended one of these meetings, giving the Native Americans present the belief that they would be safe if they laid down arms. Neither Chivington nor Evans were remotely serious about guaranteeing safety. Chivington later led the campaign to brutally murder the people of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes, mostly women, children, and the elderly, who had camped at Sand Creek.
Soule wrote letters to his mother as well as to Wynkoop about the massacre. Soule also offered important testimony during the government’s investigations of the atrocity. Soule’s letter to Wynkoop, preserved via a copy, turned up again in 2000.
Soule married on April 1, 1865. On April 23, two men, later found to have served under Chivington, assassinated Soule in a Denver alley. Wynkoop escorted Soule’s bride out of state for her safety. Soule is buried in a plain grave at Riverside Cemetery, near the oil refinery.
Preserving the facts about Sand Creek
Previously I wrote about the closure of the Native American exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and History (see also the Hey Denver podcast episode about this). Thankfully other institutions continue to offer important exhibits about Native American life. The Denver Art Museum features Indigenous Arts of North America, while History Colorado features (among other things) an exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre.
I found History Colorado’s exhibit to be informative and traumatic, and I encourage others to go (just be careful about bringing younger children and people with trauma in their past). Among the many items presented are Soule’s letter to Wynkoop and commentaries about Soule.
PBS has out an hour-long documentary about the Sand Creek Massacre that provides details about the atrocity and historical context about events leading up to it and its aftermath, including the resiliency of the descendants of the survivors. The film discusses the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was supposed to have guaranteed large landholdings to various tribes but which quickly was violated; the rush West by European settlers in search of gold and farmland; and the pervasive bigotry against Native Americans within white settlements, including Denver.
Evans was not just a racist who betrayed Native Americans to slaughter; he also founded various hospitals as well as the University of Denver and Northwestern University. Both of those universities have issued lengthy reports on the role of Evans in the Sand Creek Massacre.
The University of Denver concludes, “John Evans’s pattern of neglect of his treaty-negotiating duties, his leadership failures, and his reckless decision-making in 1864 combine to clearly demonstrate a significant level of culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre. . . . Evans’s actions and influence, more than those of any other political official in Colorado Territory, created the conditions in which the massacre was highly likely. Evans abrogated his duties as superintendent, fanned the flames of war when he could have dampened them, cultivated an unusually interdependent relationship with the military, and rejected clear opportunities to engage in peaceful negotiations with the Native peoples under his jurisdiction. Furthermore, he successfully lobbied the War Department for the deployment of a federalized regiment, consisting largely of undertrained, undisciplined volunteer soldiers who executed the worst of the atrocities during the massacre.”
In 2014, 150 years after the atrocity, then-governor John Hickenlooper apologized as agent for the Sand Creek Massacre. In 2021, Governor Jared Polis officially rescinded John Evans’s 1864 proclamation encouraging white Coloradans to “kill and destroy . . . hostile Indians.”
Today the National Park Service maintains the place of the massacre as a historic site.
Lessons for today
Here is a question that bothers me and that I think should bother you too. “What would I have done had I been there?”
If you’d been born a white person in the slave-holding South, would you have been a racist who publicly endorsed slavery, or would you have joined the Abolitionists? Would you have joined the riot in Denver’s Chinatown in 1880 or tried to stop it? Joined the Colorado KKK in the 1920s or spoken out against it? Supported the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s or, like Governor Ralph Carr, opposed it?
Would you have signed up to serve under Chivington and gone along with the atrocities at Sand Creek? Cheered Chivington at the subsequent Denver parade at which his men displayed mutilated body parts of their victims, or condemned those actions?
If I could talk to Soule, I’d have some questions for him. Why did he not take the threat against the people at Sand Creek more seriously and try to warn them of the danger? Why did he not try harder to stop Chivington before he rode out? To stop Chivington’s men once the violence started?
Still, Soule actively resisted Chivington’s plans, did not participate in them, and later worked to expose the atrocities, knowing this put him at great personal risk. In the end, Soule lost his life for doing what was right. Whatever Soule’s faults, his courage puts him among Colorado’s great heroes.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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