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Sand Creek Massacre Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Brenda Smiley

[image] Joe Big Medicine (Cheyenne), Dick Harmon, and Doug Scott dig for artifact located with metal detector (William B. Lees, Oklahoma Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

The site of the Sand Creek Massacre, where 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were killed, has finally been pinpointed after a century of dispute over its location. Before dawn on November 29, 1864, more than 700 soldiers, mostly volunteer Colorado state militia, attacked an Indian encampment on Sand Creek in southeartern Colorado, killing old men, women, children, and babies, while most of the men of the village were away hunting. Leading the attack was Colonel John M. Chivington, a former Methodist preacher known as the "Fighting Parson." Chivington was already on record as saying his mission in life was "to kill Indians."

At Sand Creek, he ignored peace signals, an American flag and a white flag hanging from the lodge of Black Kettle, chief of the Southern Cheyenne. Black Kettle, among those who survived, died four years later in another attack, by troops under Lt. Col. George A. Custer at the Washita River in Oklahoma.

The exact location of the massacre had been in dispute because of faulty historical maps, conflicting information, and a paucity of evidence. As recently as 1997, the state of Colorado tried and failed to nail down the site.

Cannonball fragment from massacre site in hands of Bill Dawson, landowner (William B. Lees, Oklahoma Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Chief Laird Cometsevah, 68, president of the Sand Creek Descendants Association and a leader of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, says the Cheyenne have always known the location from their own oral history, but made no attempt to verify it until the early 1970s. When the initiator of that effort died, Cometsevah and his wife stepped in, enlisting the support of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), a Southern Cheyenne, to add a Sand Creek historical site to the National Park system. Campbell's bill, signed into law in 1998, mandated new archaeological surveys to locate the site.

Last May, archaeologists, historians, and local landowners, working with the National Park Service, state officials, and Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho tribal representatives, began searching, focusing on a section of river known as Dawson's Bend. In 1997, descendants of the massacre victims viewed the area from the air and recognized it from their oral histories.

Doug Scott, an NPS archaeologist and field director at Sand Creek, said the village was found a mile north of where historical evidence and oral tradition suggested it might be. "We just kept working our way upstream [finding] an arrowhead here, a bullet there," said Scott. "We determined there was very little evidence of defensive fighting in and around the camp, supporting the concept that this was a surprise attack and was, indeed, a massacre."

[image] Metal detector line during survey of Dawson property (William B. Lees, Oklahoma Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

"The clincher," he said, "was the discovery of 12-pounder cannonballs--the type used by the Colorado cavalry in the engagement." Sand Creek was the only time artillery was used against Native Americans in eastern Colorado.

The recovered artifacts compared "beautifully" against records of goods given to the Indians and to items found at a previously excavated camp of the same time period, said Scott. "What we have here is consistent evidence of a Native American camp from the 1864 period," he said, adding that the Sand Creek inquiry demonstrated the accuracy of the Native Americans' oral history, passed down through several tribal generations, and its value in archaeological research.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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