Sand Creek Fact or Fiction: How Many Indians Were Killed at Sand Creek?

Sand Creek Fact or Fiction: How Many Indians Were Killed at Sand Creek?

We are starting a blog series, fact or fiction concerning the Sand Creek event in 1864. 

In this first part we will be discussing the number of Indians killed and the discrepancies in the numbers. 

How Many Indians Were Killed at Sand Creek and How is the Number Changing? 

The official count was conducted by Captain Booth, per testimony of Major E. W. Wynkoop, who testified against Col. Chivington in a hearing following Sand Creek. 

Major E. W. Wynkoop

“I have been informed by Captain Booth, district inspector, that he visited the field and counted but sixty-nine bodies,” Wynkoop testified. (Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War 1865 pt. 1. Thirty-eighth Congress, Second Session. Congress of the United States. In the House of Representatives, January 10, 1865.) 

Bent wrote to Samuel F. Tappan twenty-five years after Sand Creek, that 137 men, women, and children were killed, (Bent to Tappan 3-15-1889). Bent wrote to historian George Hyde fifty years after Sand Creek, that 163 men, women, and children were killed, (Bent to Hyde 4-30-1913). 

This number would rapidly grow over the years and no source is attributed to a larger count. 

In the early 1990s, the location of the Sand Creek event came into question—many newspaper stories were written about Sand Creek and the search for the correct location.  

A story from the Philadelphia Inquirer July 6, 1998 stated that 163 Indians were killed, a story from the New York Times August 30, 1998 stated about 150 were killed, an Associated Press story printed in the Colorado Springs Gazette February 21, 1999 stated that from 63 to 500 were killed, a story in the Pueblo Chieftain March 15, 1999 quoted National Park Service Sand Creek project director Rick Frost, who said, “anywhere from 69 or 70 to around 200,” were killed. A Denver Post story from March 11, 1999 claimed the number of Indians killed was between 70 to 200. 

None of those newspaper stories cited a single source. Three hearings were held following Sand Creek and that is when Wynkoop testified the official count was 69. 

How can there be such a disparity of those killed? 

In just twenty-five years following Sand Creek, the count jumped from 69 to 137. Fifty years following Sand Creek, the number jumped again to 163. By the late 1990s, the number was claimed to be from 69-500. 

One possibility to the number claimed being so high is that Col. Chivington testified that 500 Indians were killed, possibly to put the settlers at ease, since Indians were out raiding, killing white women and children, and taking white captives during the summer of 1864, just months before Sand Creek. It’s unknown the exact reason Chivington overestimated the number killed, but it didn’t help his cause. 

Bent didn’t witness much of what happened at Sand Creek. 

“Women & children ran up bed of Sand Creek about 2 1/2 miles and dug pits under bank in sand…5 of us came up in rear,” (Bent to Hyde, 4-30-1913).

Since Bent ran to a rifle pit and missed much of the action at Sand Creek, he got his information while working as an Indian agent about two decades later. 

It would not be possible to go back to the site years later and get a new count. The telephone game is a good example how this number grew over the years. In this game, the person in the front of the line is given a line or sentence to repeat and is repeated from one person to the next until it reaches the last in line. What is told at the end is barely recognizable from how it started. 

It was reported in a press release from the National Park Service in Oct. 2022 concerning the expansion of the NPS site, that 230 Indians were killed at Sand Creek. The press release didn’t state how the number grew from a count of 69 in 1864 to a count of 230 in 2022. 

What we’re most interested in is truth and preserving accurate history. The official count was  provided by Wynkoop, who as previously stated, testified against Chivington. 

Since the official count of 69 was attributed to an eyewitness, we can only accept that as being correct. Bent was at Sand Creek but didn’t go back over the field to get a count. When Bent got his number of Indians killed while working as an Indian agent, it was about two decades after the event. 

The next in the series will address the issue on whether it was only women, children and some elderly in Black Kettle’s camp at Sand Creek. 

For more information about Sand Creek and discovery of the site, check out We Found the Lost Sand Creek Site. You can find more information on this website and the book can be purchased through the Buy The Book tab. If you purchase on Amazon, please consider leaving a star rating and review. 

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  1. Chuck:
    Nice effort to show the number of Indians killed is controversial. You mentioned Wynkoop, who was not at Sand Creek, testifying to 69 Indians killed. However, in the investigations, one soldier was put under oath and testified that he- Stephen Decatur – was tasked by Lt. Col. Bowen to count the dead and he “counted four hundred and fifty dead Indian warriors.” (John M. Carroll, Ed, The Sand Creek Massacre, p. 195 [top of page] and p. 385, [bottom of page]). Given that this was an order of his officer, and testified under oath, what should we do about this high number? Seems to me we can’t simply dismiss it because we do not want to believe it. But it definitely adds to what we do not know about Sand Creek, viz., the likely number of warriors killed.

    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment.
      The reason we didn’t mention this is because Chivington also testified under oath that 500 (or more) were killed.
      Wynkoop was not at Sand Creek, but per his testimony, he got his information from Captain Booth, who was also tasked to get a count.
      It does add controversy to a controversial event.

  2. We talked personally to Emily Brown (connected with Alvin A.Finley family as Stepgrandfather think) Johnson. Her grandfather or step grandfather (I have that correct in writing in my peraonal belongings) told her there were no woman and children in the battle unless they were dressed as warriors. We met her and talked with her in connection with the house she lived in that we purchased in 1988 era. Her house is the house that is now 417 N. 31ST Street. It was originally on 30th Street before the Pleasant Valley houses were built. She also told of the story of the family hiding in the fort on Pikes Peak Ave after Indains had attacked settler families. They were afraid of the pounding noises they heard all night. They thought it was Indians. Turned out someone had brought a milk cow so the kids would have milk and it had bumped against the walls of the Fort all night. Her (step?)grandfather went out to fight the Indians at Sand Creek after that. Interesting side note. We have now moved to another house which I discovered recently was leased by her Brown relatives in the Fountain area. Your research is appreciated.

  3. The only written accounts for the Cheyenne and Arapaho are from George Bent, who lived as a Cheyenne warrior in Black Kettle’s camp at Sand Creek. We cite his letters in our book and also in this blog. Thank you for your comment.

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