The Unpunished Crimes of John Chivington

At sunrise on Tuesday, November 29, 1864, John S. Smith, special Indian agent and interpreter was awakened by Indians who ran into his camp and told that U.S. soldiers were approaching their village. Black Kettle, chief of the Cheyenne band lodging there, had already taken precautions. He raised the U.S. flag that he had been presented by Colonel A.B. Greenwood years before and tied under it a small white flag, as he had been instructed to do to show that his villagers were not hostile to American troops. Smith left his camp to advise the troops (thinking them unfamiliar with the area) that the Indians were friendly.

He discovered troops under Lieutenant Luther Wilson, a battalion of the 1st Colorado cavalry from Fort Lyon. Since Smith had been sent to the Indian encampment by U.S. Indian Agent Major S.G. Colley with the express permission of Major Scott J. Anthony, commander of Fort Lyon, and since he was known by the troops, Smith had every reason to believe he would be able to discuss the matter with them. Instead, they began to fire on him. He ran back to his camp.

The U.S. troops swept through the camp. Almost all the male Indians escaped, some on horseback. But the troops did not follow. Instead they were engaged in mopping up operations around camp.

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

John Milton Chivington. (Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)

Smith emerged once again from his camp, and Colonel John Chivington, the commander of the attack recognized him and called him to come forward. Smith ran as fast as he could, and Chivington had him get on the other side of him, away from the troops. There was no spare horse, so Lieutenant Baldwin had him hold on to the caisson. Smith thus followed the Major and Lieutenant viewing what must have been a surreal scene. Soldiers were firing on small groups of Indians, mostly women and children, almost none of which had weapons.

Major Anthony testifying before a joint congressional committee on the matter in March, tried, for obvious reasons, to put a good face on this matter, but it was difficult for him; he was repeatedly caught in contradictions. He said he had only seen one attempt by a soldier to mutilate a corpse. One soldier scalped a woman next to Chivington. But perhaps, Anderson said, she had not been scalped; maybe her head was grazed by a bullet. He did volunteer that a squaw who had been mortally wounded drew her babies to her and cut their throats. “That was not done by our men,” Anderson asserted. He did recall another incident:

There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw his rifle and fire—he missed the child, another man came up and said, “Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.” He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but missed him. And third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.

If Major Anderson did not see any mutilations, other soldiers did. Affidavits sent to Congress from Denver detailed “dead bodies of women and children were horribly mutilated,” said Private David Louderback of the 1st Colorado cavalry. Lieutenant James D. Cannan of the 1st New Mexico volunteer infantry said he heard “of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in a feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish. I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats, while riding in the ranks.”

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Painting by Robert Lindneaux (1871-1970) of surprise attack by troops under Major John Chivington on November 29, 1864 at the Big Bend on Sand Creek. (Reproduction NPS. Colorado History.)

Smith was forced to see the battlefield with Chivington but all he would say was that a large majority of the dead bodies were of women and children, “all of whose bodies had been mutilated in the most horrible manner.” Chivington wanted him to view the old men to see if he could identify any chiefs. Smith couldn’t tell if a body was of Black Kettle; it was so mutilated he couldn’t tell one way or the other. But that was not the end of the trauma for Smith.  He testified:

“I had a half-breed son there, who gave himself up. He started at the time the Indians fled; being a half-breed he had but little hope of being spared, and seeing them fire at me, he ran away with the Indians for the distance of about a mile. During the fight up there he walked back to my camp and went into the lodge. It was surrounded by soldiers at the time. He came in quietly and sat down; he remained there that day, that night, and the next day in the afternoon; about four o’clock in the evening, as I was sitting inside the camp, a soldier came up outside of the lodge and called me by name. I got up and went to have; he took me by the arm and walked towards Colonel Chivington’s camp, which was about sixty yards from my camp. Said he, “I am sorry to tell you, but they are going to kill your son Jack.” I knew the feeling towards the whole camp of Indians, and that there was no use to make any resistance. I said, “I can’t help it.” I then walked on towards where Colonel Chivington was standing by his camp-fire; when I had got within a few feet of him I heard a gun fired, and saw a crowd run to my lodge, and they told me that Jack was dead.”

Anthony testified that he told Chivington before the execution that Jack Smith was not only friendly but could provide useful intelligence against the hostile Indians (he had in the past):

Colonel Chivington replied, “I have given my instructions; have told my men not take any prisoners. I have no further instructions to give.” I replied to him that he could make that man very useful, and I thought that perhaps he had better give the men to understand that he did not want him killed. The colonel replied again, “I said at the start that I did not want any prisoners taken, and I have no further instructions to give.”

The news of the massacre spread East and ignited a firestorm. The intelligence was not only that Chivington had committed heinous crimes, but also that the entire surprise attack had been undertaken against Indians under U.S. Army protection.

And the latter part, which makes the entire proceeding inconceivable, was not only true but Chivington took part in the meeting during which that protection was arranged. But he was part of the faction in the Territory that held that all Indians were responsible for depredations and at the time no one was in a mood to make fine distinctions.

The mountains around Denver had gold, and the area was undergoing a similar rush that had taken place in California a decade and a half previously. But the gold here could not be panned for. It required mining equipment, and hence Eastern capital. Any interruption in operations would make capital more expensive, if not dry it up altogether.

The Cheyenne, Arapahoes and several other nations had a treaty with the United States since 1851 granting most of what is now eastern Colorado and parts of surrounding states. The gold rush that began in 1858 saw easterners streaming through the Indian territory with many settling on it. In 1861 S.B. Greenwood was able to negotiate with the Arapahoes and the southern portion of the Cheyenne to accept a drastically reduced territory. The northern Cheyenne balked. The year 1864 was particularly bad, when the “Dog Soldiers,” as the non-settling Cheyenne were called, began depredations on the settlers around Denver. Beginning in June regular reports were spread of settlers attacked, sometimes killed. More worrisome to the inhabitants of Denver was the interruption of mail and other supply trains. By September many in Denver were beginning to fear mass starvation, especially if the Indian prevented the fall harvest.

Captain S.M. Robbins, Chief of Chivington’s calvary, but who was not present during the attack, tried to offer one word of exculpation to Congress on behalf of Chivington:

For a year and a half past there has been a state of war existing between the Indians and the whites, as far as the opinion of the Indians were concerned; whether by the authority of the head chiefs or not we cannot tell. At all events, the interruption of communication on the Arkansas route and on the Platte route raised the price of everything consumed by the people out here. And the people emphatically demanded that something should be done. The point I wish to make is, that perhaps Colonel Chivington might have been forced into this by the sentiment of the people.

Question [By Representative Daniel Wheelwright Gooch]. Would the sentiment of the people lead a man to attack Indians who were known to be friendly, and who were known to be trying to avert hostilities?

Answer. I should say it would. They wanted some Indians killed; whether friendly or not they did not stop to inquire.

The people demanded a hero or a butcher, it didn’t matter which. Chivington was uniquely willing to give them what they wanted.

Chivington had come from Ohio, near Cincinnati, born in 1821. Married at 18, he had three children in short order, whom he supported as an apprentice carpenter. At 21 he was “born again” at a religious revival and studied to become a preacher. Two years later he was in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio. He travelled about as an “itinerant” in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, serving in the last place as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians. When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he became a warm abolitionist and soon Republican. He attempted to turn the slave-state of Missouri Republican from his pulpit, where, it was said, he kept revolvers. He moved to Omaha where he rose in the ranks of the church and joined the Masons. In 1860 he named presiding elder of the M.E.C. church in Denver, at a time when the city was enjoying the first blush of the gold boom.

With the Southern rebellion turning into hot war, Chivington saw his ambition and abolition sentiments merge into a new idée fixe: military and ultimately political preferment through military valor. He was offered a commission as military chaplain, but he made it clear he meant to fight. In 1861 he was commissioned a major in the 1st Colorado Regiment. This required him to engage in recruiting to fill his battalion. He did this while continuing to preach. Chivington’s massive frame and bold talk attracted men to him. But his sharp elbows made enemies with long memories of his superiors and peers.

Chivington’s commanding officer Colonel John P. Slough immediately took a dislike to him over his drilling practices. On their way to their first engagement (to prevent an attack in New Mexico by Confederate General H.H. Sibley), Slough called for Chivington’s court-martial, labelling him a “crazy preacher who thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte.” But military necessity soon intervened. Chivington found himself in a shooting war, and he came to life. Riding around in a hail of bullets with a revolver in each hand and one under each arm, Chivington cut the dashing figure, avoided being shot and earned the respect of his men. In Apache Canyon, Slough directed Chivington to flank the enemy’s camp at the end of the canyon. On the way Chivington fell on the Confederate’s supply train, consisting of 60 wagons. Chivington destroyed the supplies and a 6-pounder gun and took 15 prisoners including two officers.

That event changed Slough’s opinion. When Slough resigned (due to lack of activity) in April 1862, Chivington’s men wrote an ardent petition that Chivington be appointed in his place. Chivington was appointed colonel, much to the disappointment of Slough’s next in command, Lt. Col. Samuel F. Tappan, a man who would dog Chivington the rest of his life.

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

Governor John Evans. (Colorado State Archives.)

The colonelcy was not Chivington’s final ambition, however. He was looking for a brigadier generalship as a stepping stone for a political career. He twice applied, the first time traveling to Washington to press his case to Secretary of War Edward Stanton himself. Chivington was warmly endorsed by the governor of the Colorado Territory, John Evans, who would become his political ally in the coming crisis. Slough even recommended him. Then a curious thing happened. Slough wrote to Stanton withdrawing his recommendation and made a stunning charge:

“Judge Hall late Chief Justice of Colorado has just informed me that when I was Colonel of the Regiment and Chivington Major, he and others conspired for my assassination and that the attempt was made when en route to New Mexico in February and March 1862. The object was to secure the Colonelcy to Chivington who was recognized as a better military man than the Lt. Col. and the promotion of the other conspirators. . . . The base attempt upon my life was frustrated by Providence.”

Nothing came of the charge, but then again Chivington was not promoted. And he left the army.

Recruiting poster for Chivington's 100-day men.

Recruiting poster for Chivington’s 100-day men.

But he was not done. Possibly with the backing of Governor Evans in 1864 he was appointed to command the Third Colorado Calvary, made up of hundred day men. It was a short time-table to deal with what was regarded as wide-spread Indian threats, and Colonel Chivington was a man with a short fuse. He avowed his purpose: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Chivington and Evans were on the total-extermination side of the debate. But there were cooler heads (although not bleeding hearts), especially in the professional army). On September 4, 1864, Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commanding at Fort Lyon, received from three Cheyenne men approaching the fort a letter, written by a “half-bred” in the Cheyenne camp (possibly Jack Smith?) on behalf of Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs. The letter said the Indians desired peace and they had in their possession white women and children who they were willing to turn over if they could achieve peace terms.

Major E.W. Wyncoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Major E.W. Wynkoop (Photographer and date unknown.)

Wynkoop, desiring to obtain the release of the hostages, took 120 men and rendezvoused with the Indians, even though they claimed thy had a congregation of two thousand. The assemblage turned out to be mostly old men, women and children. Many men were following thee buffalo, and those hostile inclined had left to join the Dog Soldiers. The old chiefs were desperate for peace for their people, who couldn’t fight in any event. Wynkoop was able to obtain the release of the four hostages simply on the promise of attempting to obtain some sort of peace for them. He felt confident that he could at least extend the protection of the U.S. Army over them in light of the fact that Governor Evans had on August 11 issued a proclamation advising friendly Indians to repair to Fort Lyon, Fort Larned, Fort Laramie or Camp Collins “for safety and protection” while at the same time authorizing “all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians … to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, where they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” The bloody proclamation had one (and only one) caveat: “scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my said call in rendezvous at the points indicated …”

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row.(National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Photograph of the delegation of chiefs meeting in Denver in September 1864. Black Kettle is shown second from the left in the bottom row. (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.)

Wynkoop arranged for a delegation of the friendly Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs to meet in Denver with Governor Evans, the acting superintendent of Indian affairs for the district. The meeting took place on September 28, 1864. Colonel Chivington was present. The Indians pressed their desire for peace, pointing out they took great risks in coming to Denver for the meeting. Despite his earlier call for the Indians to seek protection, however, Governor Evans tried to wash his hands of the matter. He said they would have to treat with the military for any protection and turned the matter over to Chivington. The colonel told the meeting that he would leave it to Wynkoop and that whatever the major arranged, he would honor. On return to Fort Lyon, Wynkoop invited the chiefs to bring in their families. Two weeks later they all arrived at the fort. Wynkoop began issuing them provisions.

Meanwhile, in Denver political intrigue by the hardliners arranged to have Wynkoop removed from Fort Lyon. He was replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony.

Anthony was above all a cautious man. At least, he was cautious as it concerned his own interests. He had no real fixed view on how to resolve the Indian problems. He was, however, not particularly sympathetic to their view. He was aware that his superior Major General Samuel R. Curtis had issued orders that Indians were not to be permitted inside forts without blindfolds and only for specific reasons. Curtis had only been recently assigned to Indian duty, having spent much of 1864 fighting Confederates in Missouri, and he was not used to dealing with Indians. On the other hand, Anthony found himself in a situation where his predecessor had offered the protection of the flag to a group of Indians, which was seemingly endorsed by the Governor and a colonel of the Colorado militia.

He tried to split the difference. He demanded that Black Kettle’s band and the Arapahoes give up their arms and all the property they stole from the whites. The chiefs readily agreed. Anthony reported that there were so few weapons and almost no ammunition, so the Indians could not have fought if they wanted to. They also returned a few pack animals. They camped outside the fort, and Anthony issued them provisions. What seems to have changed his policy (he could never explain it convincingly to the congressional investigating committee) was the dearness of provisions. With the rising price and increasing scarcity of everything, it became problematic to provide for the large number of mostly helpless Indians. Of course, the reason thee Indians were so pliable was the scarcity of food and their own inability to hunt. Nevertheless, Anthony ordered them away from the fort. He suggested they move on to Sand Creek. He told them he would advise them if he received any communication from his superiors to their request for peace terms.

Anthony J. Scott. Engraving from unknown book, linked at (which omits mention of Anthony's participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Scott J. Anthony. Engraving from unknown book, uploaded to (which omits mention of Anthony’s participation at the Sand Creek Massacre.)

Over the next 12 days or so he was in communication with the Indians at Sand Creek. He twice received reports from One Eye, a Cheyenne chief, of bands of Dog Soldiers in the area. There was also Jack Smith there, who Anthony relied on for intelligence.

Then on November 28, Colonel Chivington arrived. His arrival completely surprised the fort. He sent no word in advance. In fact he prevented all mail and other communications in the area from reaching the fort so that he would not be discovered. (No one, including Chivington, ever explained why he took these measures. Perhaps he believed that someone at the fort would tip off the Indians he intended to ambush.)

When Chivington arrived that night, he disclosed his intention to attack the Indians at Sand Creek at dawn. He asked Anthony to provide additional men (Chivington having no command authority over Anthony), and Anthony agreed.

Having told the congressional committee that he assured Black Kettle that he would advise him of any response to his peace requests, he should have expected this question:

Question [by Missouri Congressman Benjamin Franklin Loan]: Did you send any word to Black Kettle that you intended to attack him or his band at any time?

Answer. None, whatsoever. It was a surprise, made without any notice whatever to them.

Anthony seemed unprepared for the consternation. Didn’t he offer them protection? Not in so many words. Didn’t he consider them his prisoners? No, he was under orders to fight all Indians, and he felt free to attack even this band, even after they offered to surrender and even while inside the army camp. So why didn’t he? Well, he thought that would lead to a general Indian war. But I thought you said you thought there was already a war, and that’s why you were justified any Indians you could. Yes, but we didn’t feel we could take on the 3,000 warriors we were told were in the area. So why did you go with Chivington to attack these same Indians? I thought we would go on and confront the larger hostile band.

It turned out that this could never have been the intention of Chivington because he did not pursue any who fled. Instead he stayed to massacre the women and children.

Anthony, trying to impress on the committee that the attack was not a craven slaughter, attempted to inflate the number of Indian warriors. As the number of casualties were subtracted there was a number of 500 warriors, according to Anthony’s calculation, unaccounted for. He explained that they must have run off.

Question. Was your command a mounted command?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. How did the remainder of the Indians escape?

Answer. On foot.

Question. What kind of country was it?

Answer. Prairie country, slightly rolling; grass very short.

Question. Do you say that Colonel Chivington’s command of 700 mounted men allowed 500 of these Indians to escape?

Answer. Yes, sir; and we ourselves lost 49 in killed and wounded.

Question. Why did you not pursue the flying Indians and kill them?

Answer. I do not know; that was the fault I found with Colonel Chivington at the time.

The inference to be drawn was plain: Chivington had no desire to pursue anyone that might fire back. He was content with slaughtering women, children and old men. In fact, the army never went on to pursue the 3,000 “warriors” supposedly beyond the peaceful encampment.

When the committee issued its report, excoriating Chivington, it highlighted the testimony of Anthony, which, it found, was “sufficient of itself to show how unprovoked and unwarranted was this massacre.” But neither Anthony (who mustered out of the Army on January 22, 1865) nor Chivington (who left the service on January 8, 1865) were subject to court-martial for the outrages. Nor was there any hope for local prosecution. In fact, just the opposite, Chivington had become a hero locally. The editorial of the Rocky Mountain News, which first broke the assault in Denver, was effusive: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.”

It was clear to those who reproved his craven attack that Chivington was seeking political office or had some ulterior motive for striking a defenseless, friendly camp of Indians. The U.S. marshal for Colorado, A.C. Hall, thought he was looking for promotion. “He had read of Kit Carson, General Harvey, and others, who had become noted for their Indian fighting.” D.D. Colley, son of Major Colley, thought that he wanted to dispatch Indians quickly so as to rendezvous his forces to strike rebels in Texas. General Curtis thought the fault lay in the promotion given those involved in the Ash Hallow Massacre a decade before. No one offered a plausible military justification.

In fact, many believed that the slaughter increased the attacks by hostile Indians that winter. The army’s “voice of reason” in the vicinity, General Curtis, who condemned Chivington’s actions mostly on grounds of military regularity, told General Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, that he did not believe the increased attacks stemmed from Chivington. He reasoned on purely racist grounds: “The Indians of the plains are generally robbers and murderers, and act only from motives of hunger and avarice in their assaults, and by fear in their forbearance.” There was not much room between Chivington’s view of a solution to the Indian crisis and regular Army’s. And so the Indian war would be driven to a genocidal conclusion.

Although he was celebrated locally, he never achieved the political offices he thought he deserved. When he ran for Congress, the Republicans nominated another, perhaps wisely understanding that Chivington would find no ally in Washington Republicans. But he was repeatedly celebrated in Colorado and even held local office. Two years before his death he was Denver’s coroner (in which office he was accused of stealing money from a corpse). He never felt it was enough, and he sued the federal government for expenses of his expedition. (He won nothing.) Later in life a series of scandals surrounded his name, including accusations that he committed arson to recover on insurance. He was also arrested for forging a promissory note in his wife’s name. The sum of all of these later crimes, for which he escaped punishment as well, pales in comparison to the butchery on November 29, 1864, but suggests that Chivington was perhaps a sociopath. But for his great crime he escaped because the country that produced him was equally sociopathic, scrambling for gold, prostrate before Eastern capital, willing to break faith and shed blood for their enrichment. And they principle way to excuse the crimes they all wanted committed was to convince themselves that the victims had forfeited their right to live by failing to submit to the demands of the superior race.

Some things remain the same 150 years later.


Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: [1971]).

Lori Cox-Paul, “John M Chivington: The ‘Reverend Colonel’ ‘Marry-Your-Daughter’ ‘Sand Creek Massacre,’” 88 Nebraska History 126-137, 142-147 (2007).

Obituary, “Col. Chivington, Preacher and Soldier,” New York Times, October 14, 1894, p. 23.

United States Senate, “Massacre of Cheyenne Indians,” Report of the Joint Committee on The Conduct of the War. Senate Report No. 142, 38th Congress, Second Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office: 1865).

  1. This atrocity is illuminated with a depth of horror unrealized were it not for your careful research and perfect writing.

    P.S. I tweeted this, as well as your two Ferguson posts

  2. DK, this is an exceptional historical overview of ” a sociopath” who escaped punishment for egregious crimes “because the country that produced him was equally sociopathic.” It still is from my perspective. The parallel to recent times is well described and clearly shows history repeating because of fear and greed. Then, as now, those wielding the guns and carrying out the slaughter come largely from the uneducated “underclass” whose views can be easily manipulated.

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