Sand Creek: Fact or Fiction: Part 6: Why Did Soldiers Attack Black Kettle’s Village on Sand Creek?

By Mike Bowen

Co-author We Found the Lost Sand Creek Site

[The following information comes directly from Sand Creek eyewitnesses]

On November 29, 1864, at daylight, members of the 1st and 3rd Colorado cavalries arrived at a bluff, and saw a large Indian village, scattered about two miles away, (Howbert, Irving, Memories of a Lifetime In the Pike’s Peak Region, page 122-123). The soldiers soon dropped their overcoats and anything unnecessary for battle and made their way to the village. Indians had already began to flee the village after Little Bear saw them. (See our previous blog with his account here), (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 19).

To get to Sand Creek before the sun came up, the soldiers rode all night from Fort Lyon, about a 40-mile ride, with some even sleeping in their saddles. There was also no moonlight, it was pitch dark, (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 18). 

Why would soldiers ride 40 miles during the night with no moonlight to attack a village of Indians? This ride from Fort Lyon to Sand Creek was after an over 200 mile ride from Denver to Fort Lyon.

Chuck grew up on a ranch on this part of Sand Creek. When they would go gather cattle, he would realize at the end of the day they rode 15 miles on  horseback. “It’s hard to believe the soldiers could ride 200 miles,” Chuck said. 

“On the afternoon of Nov. 15th we left Denver, our destination being Ft. Lyon, on the Arkansas River,” (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 13). “Long before camping time on this day snow began to fall, which increased as night came on…During the following day we reached the summit of the divide where snow was at least twenty inches deep,” (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, pages 13-14). “It was tedious in the extreme, and our greatest exertions were required to keep from freezing, and many did have their feet frost-bitten,” (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 14).

Almost two weeks later, the soldiers arrived at Fort Lyon on Nov. 28th about the middle of the afternoon, (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 17). They left Fort Lyon for Sand Creek later that night about 9 p.m. (Coffin, Morse, The Battle of Sand Creek, page 18). 

The traditional story says the village was peaceful. Many soldiers testified about brutalities the Indians committed before Sand Creek, and even George Bent talks about going on raids with other Cheyenne warriors.

“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).

The Hungate headstone at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver:

Nathan W. Hungate born Jan. 18, 1835  

Ellen His Wife born Aug. 31, 1838  

and their children 

Laura V. born Nov. 3, 1861  

Florence V. born Jan. 18, 1864  

killed by Indians June 11, 1864

Concerning the Hungates: “The father and mother had been shot down and mutilated with horrible brutality, and the children who had tried to escape had been pursued and killed, so that not one of the family was left alive. This news made the people of Colorado City, and the settlers along the Fountain and on the Divide, very uneasy, and of course, after that, they were constantly on the lookout, not knowing where the savages might next appear,” (Howbert, Irving, The Indians of the Pikes Peak Region page 76).

Some claim children were targeted at Sand Creek, but eyewitness testimony doesn’t back that up. There are accounts of soldiers killing children, which we mention in our book, but there are not accounts of soldiers chasing down children such as what happened to the Hungate children, who were targeted and mutilated by Indians. One of the little girls was two and a half years old and the other was only six months old. They weren’t just targeted, they were pursued and killed as Irving Howbert said.  

After many settlers were killed and wagon train raids were perpetrated by Indian warriors, Governor of Colorado Territory, John Evans, made many appeals for help. 

“Officials in Washington, D.C., seemed unresponsive to territorial Governor John Evans’s appeals for help, while attacks and feeling of siege continued. On 11 June, the ‘Hungate massacre’ near Denver brought terror to the white population. The ranch where the Hungate family lived was found in ruins: the house burned, the family—husband, wife, and two little children—killed, scalped, and mutilated. Their bodies were brought to Denver and publicly exhibited side by side in a box. Everybody saw the four, and anger and revenge mounted all day long as the people filed past or remained to talk over Indian outrages and means of protection and reprisal. During the rest of the summer, attacks and hysteria continued; finally in August Governor Evans created a hundred-day volunteer regiment,” (Holsclaw, Birdie Monk, Life and Death on the Frontier: The Robert and Loana McFarland Family of Boulder Valley, Colorado, NGS Centennial, A Special Issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Volume 91, No. 4, December 2003, page 283). 

Sept. 28, 1864

Fort Leavenworth

“To Col. Chivington:

…I want no peace until the Indians suffer more…I fear Agent of Interior Department will be ready to make presents too soon: it is better to chastise before giving anything but a little tobacco to talk over. No peace must be made without my directions.

S. R. Curtis,

Major General Commanding Department Kansas,” (Report on the Conduct of the War, 38th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1865). 

The murder of the Hungate family was certainly a catalyst for Sand Creek. Their bodies were placed on public display in Denver, and no doubt that got people’s attention about the severity of the attacks on settlers by Indians. The Hungate family is one example. As we’ve stated previously, Bent said the warriors were out raiding along the Platte all summer long of 1864. They raided wagon trains, took white captives, and killed settlers. (See our blog about warriors in Black Kettle’s camp on Sand Creek here.) 

Sand Creek was not a starting point. After many wagon train raids, settlers killed, scalped and mutilated, Sand Creek was fighting back against a band of Indians that had been terrorizing settlers in Colorado Territory, and not a rogue mission by John Chivington— it was ordered by General Curtis, as noted above. 

We understand the controversy about Sand Creek, but as documented in this blog, there are many reasons the 3rd Colorado Cavalry was formed and went to Sand Creek. 

We can’t paint Sand Creek with a broad brush using 21st Century judgment, but we need to look at it from the perspective and context of the day. 

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 and the discovery of thousands of Sand Creek artifacts. 

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