The Sand Creek Massacre: A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Sand Creek Massacre "A Sight Which Can Never Be Forgotten"
September 16, 2003

The Cheyenne and Arapaho evoked fear and suspicion in the Colorado settlers with their disregard for a federal government that too often pushed them aside. This fear led to sporadic killings of the Native Americans, after which there would be isolated cases of retaliatory raids. Despite these confrontations, Black Kettle urged peace on the plains, taking part in negotiations with federal officials only one month before the massacre. According to historians, the massacre sparked 12 years of warfare, culminating in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Col. Chivington, nicknamed "the Fighting Parson," boasted of the event, exaggerating the number of the dead to 500 to 600, but soon found that he did not have many supporters outside of the Colorado region. In 1865, the federal government conducted three investigations of the massacre and signed the Treaty of Little Arkansas. The treaty promised compensation to the Cheyenne and Arapaho for their suffering and property losses, a promise unfulfilled to this day. Although court-martial charges were later brought up against Chivington, he was no longer in the army, and could therefore not be punished. Chivington worked different jobs in California, Nebraska, and Ohio until settling back in Colorado where his tainted past led to his failure in his campaign for state legislature. U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO, 1992--present), whose Cheyenne ancestors were present at the massacre, jokingly said, "There is a town out there named Chivington, and if I become governor I intend to burn that sucker down" (quoted in Ben Nighthorse Campbell, An American Warrior, p. 334).

[image]Using a metal detector to pinpoint a metal target at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. (Courtesy William Lees, Oklahoma Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

Three separate monuments were built in the second half of the twentieth century to commemorate the Native Americans lost in the massacre, although none adequately marked the event. For years, no one questioned the gray stone monument that had marked the location of the massacre on a bluff overlooking the creek until the early 1990s, when amateur archaeologists with metal detectors found no evidence for the massacre or the settlement. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Sand Creek Massacre Site Study Act sponsored by Sen. Campbell. The Act called for Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho and The National Park Service (NPS) to cooperate in locating the site of the Massacre. The study was completed in June 2000 by two experts in battlefield archaeology: Doug Scott, archaeologist of the NPS Midwest Archaeological Center, and William Lees, director of the historic sites division of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Using a multidisciplinary approach, the archaeologists confirmed a portion of Sand Creek north of Dawson South Bend to be the massacre site. Scott and Lees first positively identified the site as a Cheyenne and Arapaho settlement, using historical records, oral histories, and by comparing the artifacts found with collections of contemporary objects of similar tribes in which the provenience is known. After they saw that the site could have belonged to the tribes, they searched for evidence of the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry. The archaeologists found bullet shells consistent with the cavalry of that period. The most convincing evidence were fragments of four 12-pounder howitzer cases, as Sand Creek marks the only time in eastern Colorado that artillery was used against Native Americans. From patterns in the distribution of weapon-related fragments and the presence of intentionally flattened durable goods such as tin cups and cast iron kettles, the archaeologists documented the intentional destruction of the camp. The archaeological record closely follows the events remembered in oral history, though definitive evidence of the sandpits is yet to be found (see "Sand Creek Massacre," November/December 1999).

On November 7, 2000, the 12,480 acres in Kiowa County agreed upon by the Native Americans and archaeologists in the report was made a National Historic Site to "memorialize, commemorate, and provide information to visitors to the site." However, the law did not give money to purchase the land, most of which remains under private ownership. Project Manager Alexa Roberts, who also conducted numerous interviews with descendants, reports that 920 acres of the site are now federally owned, and that number is increasing. A breakthrough came in 2002 when Jim Druck, owner of a casino management company purchased 1,465 acres of the site for $1.5 million. Druck would donate the land to the Cheyenne and Arapaho under the condition that they renew their contract with his entertainment company. Roberts says that this deal is "moving forward."

Although the NPS is taking positive steps, Roberts cautions that it will take some time before the site is fully established. She is optimistic about the process, explaining "it really needs to be done right, and we've got a lot of planning to do...this will give us time to plan it appropriately." Native Americans are working with the National Park Service, and they have access to the 920 acres and some private land now. When the site is opened to the public, the descendants will be given access to the land and be able to hold private ceremonies there. The artifacts found at the site are kept in collections at the NPS Midwest Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Like the Mountain Meadows site, the previous memorial was difficult to find and did not fully describe the events that took place. In 2002, a new plaque was dedicated at the state capital to honor the victims, replacing the original plaque that celebrated the soldiers who died in the massacre as a Union victory.

[image]Chief Black Kettle (Washington Battlefield, National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

Compared to the conflict among and within the many parties in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Sand Creek project runs smoothly. However, one source of disagreement is that some oral tribal histories don't match with the exact location of the massacre as identified in the report, although all are within the authorized boundary of the National Historic Site. Archaeologist Doug Scott said, "I see the difference between the location of the traditional site and the archaeological site as simply the difference between general accuracy in the oral record and the precision of location afforded by finding physical evidence." But firm beliefs in the exactitude of some oral histories can be points of contention. Sen. Campbell echoed Scott's point of view when speaking to Cheyenne and Arapaho elders, saying, "Let's take the whole thing. If you got the whole area, we can split hairs later whether the campfire was here or there." According to Campbell, "despite the little dispute between science and oral history, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes are happy because the whole site will be protected" (quoted in Ben Nighthorse Campbell, An American Warrior, p. 334).

There may not be a unified voice among descendants in calling for additional archaeology, but, according to Alexa Roberts, all agree that additional research is needed. Scott believes that further archaeology can locate the indisputable location of the massacre, and identify features such as the sandpits. "It becomes imperative to the Cheyenne and Arapaho that the village be definitively located as it is a unquestioned sacred site of paramount importance to their society." Roberts cautions that there are many steps before further archaeology will take place. "First things first: we need to get through the land acquisition process, get the site established and plan for it and see what kinds of questions are remaining and what would be the best use of archaeology to answer those questions."

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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