Sand Creek: Fact or Fiction: Part 5: What Did George Bent Say About Sand Creek?

By Mike Bowen

Co-author We Found the Lost Sand Creek Site

George Bent

What many may not know about George Bent is he fought in the Civil War before coming back to Colorado and living as a Cheyenne warrior. 

He was born at Bent’s Old Fort and spent his school years in Westport, near present-day Kansas City, and St. Louis. 

After his schooling was completed, he moved back to his father’s ranch in Colorado. Once the Civil War began, he soon moved back to Missouri and enlisted as a Confederate, (Bent to Hyde 4-10-1905). Since it was a border state, he could choose to enlist as either a Confederate or Union soldier. He experienced over 15,000 casualties in the four Civil War battles he fought in: the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the Battle of Lexington, the Battle of Pea Ridge, and the Battle of Corinth. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about what George Bent wrote concerning Sand Creek. Many quotes people use are from a book,  Life of George Bent. However, George Bent didn’t write any books and that book was published 50 years after he had died. 

On the front cover of the book, it states as the title, “Life of George Bent Written From His Letters.” The book doesn’t cite any of his letters. Here is an example from page 159:

“This Sand Creek Massacre was the worst blow ever struck at any tribe in the whole plains region, and this blow fell upon friendly Indians.” No citation is given for that. The works cited at the end of the book does include the George Bent letters, William Robertson Coe Collection, Yale University Library. However, the only reference found cited to that collection was concerning Bent’s Fort on page 61. No citations were provided from that collection in the Sand Creek chapter. The reference about Bent’s Fort did not include a date for the letter. 

It seems the editor, Savoie Lottinville, took liberties with this book. It states in the index the book was written 50 years prior to being published and was found in an attic, but the manuscript wasn’t in great shape. It further states that another manuscript was found in the Denver Public Library and used for the book. The manuscript issues bring into question its authenticity. The information from the book claiming to be from Bent’s letters do not add up to what Bent actually wrote. 

The information we get from George Bent are from the letters he wrote to historians beginning over 30 years after Sand Creek. We have over 400 pages of his letters in our archives and what we cited above from page 159 in Life of George Bent is not in his letters.   

Bent was asked about Sand Creek many times by historians, and throughout those letters, he had different names for the event. Out of 53 references, George called it an affair one time, a battle four times, a fight eleven times, Sand Creek thirty-two times and a massacre five times. 

“I had seen lots white people get killed in Missouri during the war for nothing,” (Bent to Hyde 3-26-1906). Bent seemed to understand the reason for the Indian wars. He was quite aware of the wagon trains they attacked, settlers they killed, and those they took captive.

In the summer of 1864, just a few months before Sand Creek, Bent saw scalp dances in the center of each village he rode past on his way to one of the largest Indian villages of Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho on the Solomon River, (Bent to Hyde 2-28-1906). “Dog Soldiers were in fact outlaws. Their young men were always in mischief,” Bent said, (Bent to Hyde 6-20-1904). They made raids from the South Platte River to the Little Blue River, and the Dog Soldiers were coming in from all directions bringing in lots of plunder, (Bent to Hyde 2-28-1906). Interestingly, Bent used the word mischief to describe the activities of the Dog Soldiers. He also said that tornadoes caused mischief to towns, (Bent to Hyde 7-?-1908). Due to his limited vocabulary, Bent at times used the wrong word or a not strong enough word. 

Also in the summer of 1864, “Cheyennes made good many raids towards Denver,” (Bent to Hyde 5-3-1905). It is unknown if Bent participated in the Hungate massacre but likely included some Cheyenne and Arapaho. The summer before Sand Creek, about the time the Hungate family was murdered, the Arapaho were raiding in the Denver area, (Bent to Hyde 2-28-1906).

“Women & children ran up bed of Sand Creek about 2 ½ miles and dug pits under bank in sand. Women and children dug the pits while men fought off the soldiers until the pits were ready to get into. Sand was very soft to dig into,” (Bent to Hyde 4-30-1913). We go into detail in our book why Bent said this. See chapter 12. 

This is likely where one of the rifle pits was. Look for a future blog on what Chuck found there and why it works as a rifle pit.

It’s unlikely that women and children ran two and a half miles and dug rifle pits that morning, while soldiers on horseback chased after them. The Indians saw the soldiers several miles away and were able to flee the village. (See our previous blog on that here.) It is likely they ran to the rifle pits but they wouldn’t have had time to dig pits that morning. Also, the traditional story says that it was only women, children and some elderly in the camp. If that was true, that’s even more unlikely they would make it over two miles above the village and dig rifle pits. Bent also said that men fought off the soldiers until the pits were ready to get into. 

“The Cheyenne girl…, her sister, father and mother were all in same hole with me and others. About 19 or 20 persons all together,” (Bent to Tappan 2-23-1889). A rifle pit of this size would have had to be dug prior to the Sand Creek event. 

Since Bent acknowledges that men fought off soldiers, it’s most likely that the pits were pre-dug and men fought off the soldiers until Indians got into them. 

One of the key elements of the traditional massacre story is the claim the soldiers stormed through a sleeping village and killed the Indians as they came out of their tipis, and they could see up close the age and sex of each Indian. George Bent and soldiers debunk this idea.

Bent wrote in his letters that women were not targeted at Sand Creek. “Soldiers could not tell the difference and would have killed the women, taken them for men,” George Bent said, (Bent to Hyde 5-24-1906). 

“It was utterly impossible, at a distance of two hundred yards to distinguish between the sexes, on account of similarity of their dress,” Irving Howbert said, (Howbert, Irving, Memories of a Lifetime In the Pike’s Peak Region, page 125).

Chuck found many Indian tipi sites and there wasn’t much action at the village, with the exception being Black Kettle’s tipi site. Most of the activity took place in running battle locations going in multiple directions from the village. This supports the idea that the soldiers were firing from a distance that would make it utterly impossible to tell the difference between a male or a female Indian. 

After Sand Creek, the Cheyenne warriors went in all directions, killing all the white men they encountered, (Bent to Hyde 3-15-1905). “Cheyennes made good many raids towards Denver. Mary Fletcher and Mrs. Fannie Kelley, who wrote book. I do not know the name of it but I have seen it. For some time Mrs Fannie Kelley work at Patent Office as clerk. She was captured by Siouxs,” George Bent said, (Bent to Hyde, May 3, 1905). The book Bent mentioned was Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux by Fanny Kelly. 

As stated above, the Cheyenne warriors’ actions after Sand Creek were not simply retaliatory—they were raiding, killing white settlers and taking captives the summer of 1864, several months before Sand Creek. 

George Bent was conflicted what to call it—he saw thousands of deaths in the Civil War and he was fully aware of the raiding and killing of white settlers before Sand Creek. 

As George Bent and soldier accounts show, there is no broad brush to paint or describe Sand Creek. People can debate accounts made by soldiers or George Bent, but the story the artifacts tell cannot be debated. 

This blog is merely a snapshot of the Sand Creek event. To read more about it and the discovery Chuck and Sheri Bowen made, check out Our Story on the front page of this website. We go into much more detail in the book about George Bent and the discovery of thousands of Sand Creek artifacts. 

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