Chivington at Sand Creek, and Sibley at Wood Lake

In comparing the actions of the US Army—and particularly the behavior of individual soldiers—against Little Crow’s Santees in Minnesota and Black Kettle’s Cheyennes in Colorado, obvious and enormous differences appear. Though anti-Indian sentiment ran high in both areas before, during, and after the conflicts, Colonel Sibley’s Sixth Minnesota volunteers never sank to the barbaric levels of Chivington’s Colorado volunteers. There are several factors that contributed to these differences, including the fact that the Americans were fighting a primarily defensive war in Minnesota while the Coloradans waged a premeditated offensive campaign. However, the leadership of the respective regiments appears to have been the most important difference.

Officials in Colorado territory were spoiling for a fight with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, and indeed Governor John Evans had formed Chivington’s Third Regiment specifically for war with the Indians. Evans was concerned that if war did not materialize, then officials in Washington would insist that his volunteers were needed to fight the Confederate army. Chivington and his men had decided that they would rather take their chances “against a few poorly armed Indians” than face the full-scale war raging in the East.[1] Governor Evans issued a decree that all friendly Cheyennes and Arapahos must report to Fort Lyon, where they would be safe; any Indians ignoring this order were assumed to be hostile, and would be treated accordingly. It was impossible to get the word out to all the bands, since they were scattered across the plains hunting buffalo, and Chivington’s men began patrolling the plains and provoking skirmishes.[2]

Little Raven (Arapaho) holding his granddaughter Grass Woman (Arapaho), William Bent, Little Bear (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven, Shield (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven - 1869

Little Raven (Arapaho) holding his granddaughter Grass Woman (Arapaho), William Bent, Little Bear (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven, Shield (Arapaho) the son of Little Raven – 1869

Black Kettle’s Cheyennes, along with some Arapahos, eventually received the message, and they made camp on Sand Creek, about forty miles north of Fort Lyon. Several chiefs, including Black Kettle and the Arapaho Little Raven, traveled to Denver to meet with Evans and Chivington so that they might make their peaceful intentions known and receive assurances of their peoples’ safety. The tone of the meeting left the chiefs more frightened and confused than before, but they returned to Sand Creek hopeful that their people would be safe. They were assured of their safety by Major Edward Wynkoop, the commander at Fort Lyon, but he was soon replaced by an officer less friendly to Indians and more loyal to Chivington and Evans. Major Anthony, Wynkoop’s successor, cut the rations of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, but assured them that it was acceptable for their men to go out hunting buffalo. At the same time, Anthony was requesting reinforcements.[3]

Moke-tavato (Black Kettle) - Southern Cheyenne - 1865

Moke-tavato (Black Kettle) – Southern Cheyenne – 1865

When the reinforcements arrived, Chivington was leading them, and preparations were made for what would become the awful climax of the war. Plans were made to attack Black Kettle’s friendly Cheyennes at Sand Creek, and despite resistance from some of his officers, Chivington proclaimed his “right…to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”[4] The column set out, with soldiers drinking along the way, and attacked the sleeping Cheyennes and Arapahos, most of whom were women and children. Despite the American flag and white surrender flag waving above Black Kettle’s teepee and numerous attempts by the Indians to show that they wanted only peace, Chivington ordered his men to attack. In the end, there were over 130 dead Cheyennes and Arapahos, the vast majority of them women and children, though Chivington claimed to have killed several hundred warriors. Soldiers, many of them drunk, mutilated bodies and engaged in numerous other atrocities, all with the approval of Colonel Chivington.[5]

In Minnesota, Little Crow’s Santees were doing their best to live in peace with the growing numbers of white settlers who surrounded them. The Indians had ceded much of their land in questionable treaties, and unscrupulous agents and traders often skimmed a large portion from the annuity payments before they were distributed to the tribe. In 1862, the payments failed to arrive from Washington, and Little Crow and his Santees, already angry about the string of broken promises and abuses, reached a breaking point. The starving and destitute Santees were told to “eat grass or their own dung,” and a crisis erupted.[6] Four young Santee men killed some settlers one night, and several chiefs went to Little Crow to persuade him to go to war with the white men. Little Crow reluctantly assumed the mantle of war chief, and preparations for battle were quickly made.[7]

Little Crow (Ta-oyate-duta) Mdewakanton - 1858

Little Crow (Ta-oyate-duta) Mdewakanton – 1858

The Santee uprising took the countryside by surprise, and the Indians had some successes in their first skirmishes. Dissension among the chiefs began to take its toll on Santee cohesion, however, and the Indians began suffering setbacks even before Colonel Sibley’s regiment arrived from St. Paul. The Santees did fight well against Sibley’s men at Birch Coulee, but a combination of treason on the part of Wabasha and bad luck on the battlefield dealt Little Crow a defeat at Wood Lake. It was at Wood Lake where the contrast between Sibley and Chivington became most clear; after some soldiers scalped the dead Santees, Sibley put a stop to it, saying, “The bodies of the dead, even of a savage enemy shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized and Christian men.”[8]

Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) the son of Gray Iron - Mdewakanton - 1863

Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) the son of Gray Iron – Mdewakanton – 1863

Chivington by his words and deeds made it clear that he considered Indians less than human, and this attitude was absorbed by the men under his command. Sibley, on the other hand, allowed that even the corpses of hostile Indians deserved to be treated with dignity. It is interesting to speculate about the reason for Sibley’s views on this subject; there is some evidence that Sibley had been involved with a Mdewankanton woman, Red Blanket Woman, around 1840, and had in fact fathered a child with Red Blanket Woman. Helen Hastings Sibley, also known as Wahkiyee, or Bird, was born in 1841, though Sibley refers to her cryptically and only once in writing.[9]


[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. First published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 79.

[2] Ibid., 74-75.

[3] Ibid., 79-86.

[4] Ibid., 86-87.

[5] Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 86-91; Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 184-5.

[6] Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 38-40.

[7] Ibid., 43-45.

[8] Ibid., 45-57.

[9] Jane Lamm Carroll, “’Who Was Jane Lamont?’ Anglo-Dakota Daughters in Early Minnesota,” Minnesota History Quarterly 59, no. 5 (Spring 2005): 192. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/59/v59i05p184-196.pdf.

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