A Misplaced Massacre


This is Ari Kelman’s book on the memory of the Sand Creek Massacre.  This book has justly won the 2014 Bancroft Prize from Columbia University and the 2014 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians.  The prose is wonderful and the book details the story of how the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site came into existence.  It’s not so much a history of the massacre as a history of how the massacre has been remembered.  The massacre came about during the time of a national struggle, and the massacre has itself been the subject of a struggle over how it would be remembered almost from the time it happened down to the present day.  The basic details of the massacre are that at daybreak on November 29, 1864, a force consisting of the Third Colorado and elements of the First Colorado, under the command of Colonel John Chivington, attacked an Indian village that housed 130 Cheyenne lodges under their chief, Black Kettle, along with 8 lodges of Arapahos under their chief, Left Hand.  The village was supposed to be under the protection of the U.S. Army and was even flying the American Flag.  The village was destroyed and hundreds of Native Americans were killed, many of them having their bodies desecrated by the soldiers.  While Chivington sought to portray it as a great battle and victory, controversy surrounded it from the beginning.  An officer under Chivington, Capt. Silas Soule, refused to send his troops against the village and called it a shameful massacre from the beginning.  The first struggle was whether it was to be remembered as a battle or a massacre, whether it was a glorious victory or a shameful, disgraceful case of murder and desecration.  That struggle persisted and finally and only fairly recently it’s become accepted that this was a shameful, disgraceful massacre of peaceful Native Americans.  Another significant struggle dealt with the exact location of the massacre.  George Bent, a survivor of the massacre, had created a map showing its location, and this map was used by descendants of the Native Americans as a guide for their ceremonies honoring the victims.  The problem is that, as the title of the book implies, the site of the massacre had been misplaced.  This became a huge struggle because the descendants saw it as another example of the government disregarding the views of Native Americans and being insensitive to the cultural differences.  Surrounding that struggle were the interests of the then-current owners of the land and the value of the property.

The book reads like a novel, and Kelman weaves the story with great skill, showing the real-life drama as politicians, NPS personnel, ranchers, Native Americans, and other interested parties interact, sometimes angrily, sometimes sadly, to try to bring about this memorialization in a manner that gets at the truth of the event, though a major question that has to be resolved is whose truth is going to prevail.

Tangential to this story is the question of whether or not the Sand Creek Massacre was part of the American Civil War.  I started out being skeptical of this, and to a great extent I am still skeptical.  In order to place Sand Creek as part of the Civil War, we have to define the issues of the Civil War as including how the territories would be governed beyond whether or not they would be free territory.  I have yet to see anything from that time period defining any issue of the war as including that.  Where the territories were mentioned, the issue was whether they would be slave territories or free territories, and the status of Native Americans in those territories wasn’t mentioned.  Chivington and his supporters wanted to place Sand Creek as an action of the Civil War, but that was self-serving on Chivington’s part.  I would at this point in time place Sand Creek solidly as part of the American Indian Wars, particularly since Sand Creek led to other clashes between Native Americans and US soldiers/Colorado militia.  I’m definitely open to further evidence on this, particularly since some historians I greatly respect, such as Ken Noe, Megan Kate Nelson, and Nick Sacco, are convinced Kelman is right to place Sand Creek as part of the American Civil War.  So let’s just color me unconvinced at this point and awaiting further evidence, particularly contemporary evidence that shows either the status of Native Americans in the territories was an issue in the war or that governing the territories beyond the question of slave or free was an issue in the war.  I did speak with Ari during the CWI conference, and he told me he meant this only in a small way.  I’m open to that, but I’d like to see the evidence.

That small issue aside, I highly recommend this book.  It is a wonderful read and it really opened my eyes to many of the cultural clashes that still exist today, as well as the sensitivities that have to be developed in order to bring about a memorialization of a controversial event.  The fact that American Indian bodies had been used for scientific study was a particular insult to the descendants, and that was something of which I had no previous knowledge.  The repatriation of those bodies was a major step in the healing process and is something I believe all of us who are not Native Americans need to understand.  It’s yet another reminder that we need to try to see events through the eyes of others as well as through our own eyes.  There is much to learn and consider in this book beyond what happened at the massacre.



  1. I’ll be very interested to read this. Thank for the review.

    I’ve written elsewhere that I have mixed feelings about trying to fit aspects of the Indian wars into the Civil War. Elliot West (a wonderful historian; I highly recommend his _Contested Plains_, which is basically an environmental history of how the Cheyenne lost the central Plains after the gold rush of 1859) tried to fit the Nez Perce War of 1877 (entitled _The Last Indian War_) into the larger narrative of Reconstruction–much as Kelman is trying to fit Sand Creek into a larger CW narrative. West’s argument is that the new-and-improved nation was trying to “reconstruct” the West into its post-war vision of itself, just as it was the South. Both regions had large minority populations that needed to be “civilized,” and both regions had vast resources that needed to be incorporated into the emerging capitalist world. An interesting idea–an interesting framework–but, like you, I have my doubts. But regardless, West’s work is all first-rate. He’s a great writer.

    1. He did tell me that he only intended a limited fit, Chris.

  2. jfepperson · · Reply

    So, did they finally figure out where it happened?

    1. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, Jim. 🙂

  3. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    It is almost as if the CW created a lull in the westward expansion, but we know this is not correct. The Homestead Act and Railroad Act were both passed during the war. These two acts and you might as well throw the Land Grant College Act in there as well would have a major impact on the development of the West. People were still moving west during the war. The telegraph lines were being strung across the continent bringing an end to the short lived Pony Express.

    As for Chivington and the actions of the Colorado Volunteers, would that have been possible had the CW not been going on? We know that the West was stripped of soldiers which created a vacuum filled by the volunteers. Sand Creek was not the only action in the West either. The Dakota Uprising occurred during this time frame and the failure of the federal government to pay attention to what was going on in Minnesota contributed to the sordid mess there.

    Of course, would anything have prevented the genocide whites perpetuated on the Native Americans? It had been going on since the days of Jamestown by the Anglos in the East. While the Spanish were a little better about it, they too were killing any one who resisted their authority.

    I think that in the context of things we have to include Sand Creek and the Dakota Uprising in the framework of the CW, but only on the periphery. The CW contributed to these events, but it was not the sole cause of them.

    1. I think Kelman’s view is also that it’s on the periphery, if I correctly understand the comments he made when I spoke to him at lunch time at the CWI.

  4. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    The war against those who occupied America before Columbus had been going on long before the Civil War started, and continued for years after that. Let’s not forget the 38 Sioux who were hanged in the mass execution in 1862 in Minnesota. Was that truly justified?

    I’m not afraid to admit to Northern faults: The working conditions in the factories, child labor, the murder of free blacks during the NY draft riot, and the plight of the Native Americans. The truth is, nothing that anybody in the North did, no atrocity, or act of racism, will ever change the fact that the Southern desire for independence was based solely on the desire to keep and maintain slavery.

    1. Lincoln felt the execution of the Lakota was truly justified, Pat. He reviewed all the evidence and the testimony at the trial. He commuted the sentences of over 260 Lakota because he didn’t believe their executions would be justified. A couple of good sites are here and here.

  5. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Al, thank you for the information on Lincoln and the Lakota execution. I was just jumping the gun anticipating that someone from the anti-Lincoln club would read the “misplaced massacre” post and use it as a reason for Southern independence. Back around 2006, or so, I had a lengthy discussion with a neo-Confederate who argued that the Southern cause was better for native Americans, and that set the tone for my response.

    1. They apparently didn’t know what Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart were doing prior to the Civil War, or the genesis of the Trail of Tears.

  6. One of my CWRT colleagues is a Lincoln impersonator, and his son teaches at a school out in South Dakota. Fred went out to visit his son and do his Lincoln thing, and only then realized that many of the students were descendents of the people involved in the 1862 Sioux uprising. It all went OK and generally respectfully, but he did get some negative commentary from a couple of young men—“Lincoln hanged too many Indians.”

    1. My CWRT has a Lincoln portrayer also. Plus, Jim Getty lives in Gettysburg and that’s not far away. I don’t suppose he talked about how many Indians Lincoln saved.

      1. He tried to make that point, but I think the students—middle school or maybe high school—were not that interested in the details.

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