When the Legend Becomes Fact; or, The Sand Creek Massacre’s Inconvenient Truths

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

John Wayne Valence

That infamous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962) succinctly describes much of what lies behind sepia-toned country nostalgia and pumped-up cowboy-wannabe posturing: the legend of the West is bigger than its reality, and it’s a lot more interesting to watch with popcorn. 

But there is at least one instance when the facts trumped the legend. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1864 when seven hundred volunteers under Colonel John Chivington struck against a band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped at Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory, killing scores of them in what as at first called a pitched battle, scattering the tribes and effectively breaking tribal alliances in the area forever.

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Attack on Sand Creek Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

From the Rocky Mountain News (1864): The Battle of Sand Creek!

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. . . . A thousand incidents of individual daring and the passing events of the day might be told, but space forbids. We leave the task for eye-witnesses to chronicle. All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.

Chivington, a Civil War hero and staunch anti-slavery advocate, was the stuff of legends again. White people everywhere drew a sigh of relief.
But pesky facts soon began to break through this narrative. Witnesses and survivors began to speak. The people in the encampment were mainly the elderly, women, and children. Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne and other chiefs had recently swapped land for peace. An American flag flew above Black Kettle’s lodge. The warriors were out hunting. A white flag was waved in panic when the soldiers swooped into the camp. Women and children were killed. Bodies mutilated.
At the Sand Creek Massacre

At the Sand Creek Massacre


From the Congressional testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, Washington, DC, March 14, 1865
Question. Were the women and children slaughtered indiscriminately, or only so far as they were with the warriors?

Answer. Indiscriminately.

Question. Were there any acts of barbarity perpetrated there that came under your own observation?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. How cut?

Answer. With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.

By Mr. Gooch: Question. Did you see it done?

Answer. Yes, sir; I saw them fall.

Question. Fall when they were killed?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. Did you see them when they were mutilated?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. By whom were they mutilated?

Answer. By the United States troops.

Question. Do you know whether or not it was done by the direction or consent of any of the officers?

Answer. I do not; I hardly think it was.

By Mr. Buckalew: Question. What was the date of that massacre?

Answer. On the 29th of November last.

The “pitched battle” scenario did not hold up for long. Nine of Chivington’s men were killed; 148 of Black Kettle’s followers were slaughtered, more than half of them women and children. After the massacre, the Colorado militia returned and killed the wounded, mutilated the bodies, and set fire to the village.

How did a Civil War hero who fought against the spread of slavery ever get on the wrong side of history? The “destroy the savage for the Christian people” Force was strong in this one. A narrative that neatly dispensed with actual facts made the march across the West a Godgiven right for the betterment of all humankind everywhere, amen. But for once, facts seeped through this myth, bringing widespread disgust for and condemnation of Chivington’s actions and those of his men. However, no charges were ever brought against them.

This and other atrocities of the Indian Wars are an inconvenient truth that became relegated to sidebars in textbooks (and always weighing in on the side of inevitability). And as I’ve made scores of  paper feather headdresses and Puritan hats in my schooldays, celebrating communal harmony and a peaceful gathering of cultures, as stuffed as I am on turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie leftovers, I have to agree that Ford was right when he made his rather cynical Western: the legend always makes way better copy.


A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

A Peace Council before the Sand Creek Massacre, September 28, 1864

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