Sand Creek: Fact or Fiction: Were the Indians Killed As They Slept? 

Sand Creek: Fact or Fiction: Were the Indians Killed As They Slept? 

The Sand Creek traditional story says that about 700 members of the 1st and 3rd Colorado cavalries stormed through Black Kettle’s sleeping village on November 29, 1864 and slaughtered the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians as they came out of their tipis. 

How much of this is true? 

Here is a brief summary of the traditional story:

The Indians, camped below the bluff on their reservation, can’t see the soldiers approaching. Early in the morning, when the Indians are still sound asleep, the soldiers make a surprise attack. The Indians don’t hear a sound of approaching soldiers, and neither do their dogs. There’s not a horse in the village to escape on—the herds are miles away. Indians are slaughtered as they come out of their tipis. The soldiers are close and can tell the age and sex of every Indian. The Indians were peaceful and unarmed. The warriors were away on a hunting trip—there only were women, children, and the elderly.

When it comes to a surprise attack, there are a few ways to look at it. A surprise attack could be that the Indians were awakened and slaughtered coming out of their tipis. A surprise attack could also mean that the soldiers led an attack without prior warning to the camp but the Indians were not caught off guard in their tipis. 

In his deposition, five months after Sand Creek, Col. John Chivington testified that the attack “was made about sunrise. In my opinion the Indians were surprised,” (Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War 1865, Thirty-Eighth Congress, Second Session, Congress Of The United States, In The House Of Representatives, January 10, 1865). The surprise attack was successful as Chivington testified—the tipis were still there when the soldiers arrived. If the Indians had prior knowledge, they would have left for another location. 

Robert Bent was compelled by Chivington to guide the soldiers to Black Kettle’s village on Sand Creek, (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 18). Bent had two brothers in the camp, George and Charley. Robert did something quite remarkable that allowed the Indians to see the soldiers a few miles away and get a head start out of the village. 

To understand how the soldiers were visible to the Indians, it needs to be known that the Indians were not camped below a bluff, as the traditional story states. 

“At daylight in the morning the command was forty miles away from the fort. Just as the sun came up the command reached the top of a ridge overlooking the valley of the Big Sandy, from which point a large Indian village could be seen scattered along the north bank of the stream about three miles away,” Irving Howbert said in 1908, (Howbert, Irving, El Paso County Pioneers, The El Paso County Democrat, December 1908).

George Bent said that Indian villages were generally two to three miles long, (Bent to Hyde 5-3-1906). 

The length of the village that George Bent described is substantiated by where I found village artifacts— they were scattered over a few miles. 

An eyewitness for the Indians, George Bent, and an eyewitness for the soldiers, Irving Howbert, both said the camp was scattered. Their eyewitness accounts plus the location of the artifacts I found lead us to the conclusion the Indian camp was not under a bluff, but scattered along the creek. 

Also, it was a twenty-foot bluff that would have left the Indians exposed to the cold north winds. The Indians moved to Sand Creek in the middle of November, and with winter approaching, it wouldn’t make sense for their camp to be placed there. The bluff would block the Indians from the warmth of the sun and chinook winds would go over the village in the hollow below. This would also leave the Indians in a location where northerly winds and lots of snow could bury the entire village. These Indians were intelligent and they would choose a location where they would get the warmth of the sun and be near water sources. 

Since the village was scattered, some Indians kept their horse picketed by their tipi, (Bent to Hyde 12-21-1905). Some of the Indians kept their horses a ways off from their tipi. 

Little Bear got up early in the morning and crossed the dry creek bed to get his horse. From a high hill, he looked south toward the Fort Lyon Trail and saw approaching soldiers that looked like a long black line on the horizon, (George Bent to Hyde 4-14-1906).  

After Little Bear spotted the soldiers, the Indians began to scatter and leave the village. I found multiple running battle locations and didn’t find much fighting in the village. There was more gunfire at Black Kettle’s lodge than other tipis and I believe I found where he was camped. But the running battle locations show the Indians were not killed while they slept, but got a warning from Little Bear and fled the village.

The traditional story summary we shared also states the Indians were on their reserve. Major Scott Anthony, Commanding Officer at Fort Lyon, testified that it was not a reserve and that he was present at Sand Creek on Nov. 29, 1864, (Thirty-Eighth Congress, Second Session, Congress of The United States, In The House of Representatives, January 10, 1865). 

This blog is a snapshot on this topic. To read more about this, Robert Bent’s incredible feat, and our discovery of the Lost Sand Creek Site, check out our book here. You can also purchase it here

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Check back for part four of our series, Sand Creek Fact or Fiction.

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  1. This book is an excellent account of what actually happened that morning at Sand Creek. Chuck Bowen has devoted years collecting thousands of artifacts and researching actual accounts by those who were there. This is not an easy read. The truth seldom is. But we need to know history as it happened and not a politicized summary to satisfy certain people. Those who lost their lives that day, regardless of who they were, deserve that honor so their spirits can rest in peace.

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