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Sand Creek

Thus it was that three of William Bent's children, George, Julia, and Charles, were at Sand Creek in the Cheyenne camp attacked by Colonel Chivington on the morning of November 29, 1864. William Bent's other child by Owl Woman, Robert, acted as a guide for Chivington's troops, after having been told by Chivington that he would be shot if he refused.[37] There was no reason to doubt Chivington, who had demonstrated several times his capacity to order summary executions.

Chivington had prepared his attack carefully. He employed the sort of men he had used to such good effect at La Glorietta Pass—"volunteers," that is, not professional soldiers. The men in his Third Regiment of Colorado Volunteer Cavalry were largely "hundred-day men," men from the dregs of Colorado society who enlisted for about three months. These mining camp toughs and gamblers were not even issued uniforms. Many of the officers were elected by the men and had little control over them. Chivington marched this force to Booneville, near Fort Lyon and Bent's New Fort, and stopped all travel and mail downriver in order to prevent word from reaching Bent or others who might warn the Cheyenne of the impending attack. Then he moved on to throw a line of sentries around Bent's New Fort, thus preventing anyone from leaving until the attack on Sand Creek had been completed.

On the evening of November 28, the Third Colorado Cavalry, along with part of the Fort Lyon garrison force, a total variously estimated to be between 650 and 1,000 men, left the vicinity of Bent's New Fort and Fort Lyon, arriving at Sand Creek the next morning.[38] During the night, Robert Bent had led the force through a shallow lake. He may have been attempting to ruin the paper cartridges used by some of the soldiers.

At first light, both the Colorado Third, brought to the scene by Chivington, and the Colorado First, provided by Major Scott J. Anthony from Fort Lyon, were in position. The Cheyenne were unsuspecting, having been told by Major Anthony some days before to go to Sand Creek and wait while he passed on their petitions for peace, made at Bent's New Fort, to those with authority enough to act upon them.


Three companies charged across the creek to cut off the village from the main herd of Cheyenne horses. Colonel Chivington directed the troops into position, shouting for them to "remember the murdered women and children on the Platte!"[39] Firing commenced on the village. Small arms and cannon using grape shot and canister were employed.

Accounts of what transpired next are available from many sources. In letters that George Hyde eventually compiled into a kind of autobiography, George Bent wrote of the battle.[40] Panels of inquiry, later took testimony from many of those present at Sand Creek on that day. From this evidence, and from contemporary evaluation of that evidence, it is possible to piece together fairly certain knowledge about a number of aspects concerning the massacre.[41]

At the approach of the troops, and even after firing had begun, the Cheyenne leadership, specifically Black Kettle and White Antelope, were reassuring their people that they would be safe. These individuals had good reason to believe this because of their recent discussions with the soldiers at Fort Lyon, and the fact that they had met with Governor Evans of Colorado Territory and many high-ranking political and military leaders just two months before. In both cases, the Cheyenne were asking for peace, in the face of a number of incidents involving attacks on white persons or their property that had recently transpired. As the troops approached, Black Kettle stood in front of the village, holding a large American flag that had been attached to a lodgepole. White flags were also raised, and for a time Cheyenne clustered around these for protection. As the soldiers continued to attack, killing men, women, and children, and shooting into lodges indiscriminately, White Antelope, who had been urging peace with the whites, decided, in George Bent's words, that "he did not wish to live any longer." He stood in front of his lodge with his arms folded across his breast, singing his death-song:

Nothing lives long
Only the earth and the mountains.[42]

The soldiers were under orders from Chivington to take no prisoners. In one case, three soldiers took turns shooting at a child of about three years of age who was walking through sand approximately seventy-five yards away, making a sort of game out of it, until one of them succeeded in shooting him. There were numerous other instances of women and children being killed after the heat of the battle. Lieutenant Harry Richmond of the Colorado Third came upon three women and five children


being held prisoner, whereupon he killed and scalped them all while they screamed for mercy. A boy of about eight was discovered alive beneath many dead Cheyenne in a trench, and a major of the Third Regiment shot him in the head with a pistol. Jack Smith, a half-breed, was executed after Chivington himself indicated that this should be done.

Finally, the bodies of the dead were horribly mutilated. Many witnesses reported that all the bodies they saw, including women and children, were scalped. A number of people said that White Antelope was not only scalped, but that his nose, cars, and testicles (which were used for a tobacco pouch) were cut off. Others told of the butchery of women and the display of their "private parts" and, in one case, a heart on sticks. Rings, it was said, were obtained by cutting off fingers. A man who claimed that Jack Smith had been killed accidentally while looking at a gun, admitted, nonetheless, that "some of the boys dragged the body out onto the prairie and hauled it about for a considerable time."[43]

Charles Bent was captured with Jack Smith, and the Denver volunteers were eager to execute him, too. Some New Mexican scouts who had been garrisoned at Fort Lyon and who knew the Bent family protected him only by threatening to shoot the Denver men. George and Julia Bent escaped the slaughter by running up the bed of Sand Creek along with about half of the Cheyenne and Arapaho who had been camped there. While the firing continued, they dug pits with their hands and huddled in them for cover. George had been wounded in the hip. When the soldiers withdrew to search for other Indian camps, George and Julia along with the other survivors moved further up the creek bed, "the blood frozen on our wounded and half-naked bodies," as George described it.[44] They proceeded for only a few miles before the wounded and the women and children could go no further. Bivouacking on the open plain, there commenced what George Bent called the worst night of his life. It was bitterly cold and windy. Those who had not been wounded worked feverishly to gather handfuls of dried grass for fires that would keep the wounded and the children from freezing. Relatives and friends of the missing crept back to the Sand Creek site to find naked and mutilated bodies.

Before sunrise the next day the survivors started toward Smoky Hill, where the hostile faction of the Cheyenne and Arapaho were camped. Those at Sand Creek, after all, had been those who were anxious for peace. Warriors from the Smoky Hill camps rode out to meet the survivors with food, blankets and buffalo robes. They were put on horses and brought back to camp. Bent recalled that


as we rode into that camp there was a terrible scene. Everyone was crying, even the warriors and the women and children screaming and wailing. Nearly everyone present had lost some relations or friends, and many of them in their grief were gashing themselves with knives until the blood flowed in streams.[45]

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