Sand Creek Massacre

Here’s Professor Ari Kelman of Penn State University and Superintendent Alexa Roberts of the Sand Creek Massacre Historical Site at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in St. Louis, Missouri.

They discuss the Sand Creek Massacre. Once again, Ari places the massacre as part of the Civil War, something of which I’m still not convinced.



  1. Oh, I think it fits rather well. The Civil War, such as it was, was in my opinion an event that encompassed the entire nation. I grew up with the story of Sand Creek, and also the story of the Fort Robinson Breakout. Both fit really well with Elliot West’s idea of the Broader reconstruction, which is detailed in his latest book: The Essential West. I was nine or ten years old when I learned about both Sand Creek and Fort Robinson, because I did fourth and fifth grade on the Northern Cheyenne side of where I grew up.

    The Civil War and Reconstruction did a lot to set Federal Indian Policy, and I feel that by focusing exclusively on the North and the South we forget the Western side of the story. As an example, the National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn battlefield has, I believe, seventeen galvanized Yankees buried there. Also, one of the Post Commanders of the old Fort Custer, James Sanks Brisbin, was heavily involved in Reconstruction in Kentucky. To bring the point back to the research I did for my Master’s thesis, the newspaper in Fort Rice, North Dakota from 1865 makes a direct link between the Civil War and the Army’s attitude toward Lakota folks. The editor at one point called the Indian Bureau, the slave power of the territories.

    I guess the question is what was the civil war? If the Civil War was the great crisis in American national identity, and, as Charles and Mary Beard have argued, the Second American Revolution, then how can anyone tell the story and leave out the trans-Mississippi West? If on the other hand, the Civil War was a contest between a Slaveholding South and a Free-Labor North, then leaving out the story of Sand Creek, I guess, makes sense. Certainly, given the way the Fourteenth Amendment excluded Native Americans from a conception of Citizenship, historians need to find a way to integrate the West into the narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction. After all, there are folks still living, who were not citizens of this country until 1924 even though they were born here.



    1. Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. I think academics tend to overthink things. The Civil War was a struggle over the existence of the United States on one side and the existence of slavery on the other side. While Sand Creek took place during the same time period, it was not a part of that struggle. Here’s an example. The Pueblo Crisis took place during the same time period as the Vietnam War, but it was not a part of the Vietnam War. I suppose we could say they were both part of the struggle against Communism, but then the Civil Right Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement happened then, too, and were part of none of the above. Because things happen around the same time doesn’t mean they are part of the same thing.

      Even though the Civil War included actions in the west, even though it included sending galvanized Yankees to the Western Frontier, not all instances of conflict with Native Americans were part of it. I would put Sand Creek as part of the American Indian Wars which spanned not only decades but centuries.

  2. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    If the Sand Creek Massacre is not part of the Civil War, then other events — John Pope’s “excursion” to Minnesota, the beginnings of the Trans-Continental R.R., the Land Grant Act of 1862, the Homestead Act of 1862 and others — probably should not be included either. I liked Kelman’s comment about “liberty and empire moving in lock-step.” The CW did not begin over slavery in the South but about the extension of slavery into the West. Would Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, the Oklahoma Territory and southern California (could have happened) be slave or free? Would the Union survive or would the C.S.A. prevail and expand to the Pacific? Certainly the massacre was a terrible event that just happened to occur during the CW but I think there is more to it than that.

    Interesting, too, that nothing really has been done with the Sand Creek site since it was signed into law in 2005. Is there even a visitor center? Roberts notes that they haven’t really done much since then, are still working on their First Management Plan and have done nothing on their Interpretive Plan. How many years does it take to get something going? I know the wheels of government turn rather slowly but this is kinda ridiculous. One of the problems, of course, is dealing with a bunch of different entities — the Native-American tribes, the N.P.S., the state, the county, nearby landowners including cattle ranchers and others.

    The Public Museum of Grand Rapids has been “in charge” of the Native-American burial grounds (the Hopewell Mounds or Norton Mounds) on the south side of the Grand River for about twenty years. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Years of meetings and studies have produced nothing except a few “plans.” One of the major issues — and please don’t take me to task for this folks — is that members of the local tribes don’t want ANYTHING done with the site, which dates back to around the time of Christ. No trails, no interpretive markers, no visitor center. It’s a burial site, leave it alone. Wikipedia notes that the mounds are “well preserved in a Grand Rapids city park.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The site is closed to the public, has been for at least fifty years and will probably remain closed forever. The site is fenced in and completely overgrown with scrub trees and underbrush. Riding past it on the nearby bicycle trail, if you even saw it you might mistake it for a garbage dump or a toxic waste site. And there she sits, waiting for somebody to come up with a plan.

    1. I think we should ask ourselves these questions:

      – Was it or could it be related to preserving or ending slavery?
      – Was it or could it be related to the preservation or breakup of the Union?

      If the answer to both of these questions is no, then the way I see it, it most likely is not a part of the Civil War.

      It is, however, part of the Civil War Era, which is the time frame the Civil War encompassed.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        FWIW, the N.P.S. does list Sand Creek as a Civil War Battlefield. Also found this interesting. TripAdvisor has a list of the top 30 things/places to see in Colorado. Sand Creek is not on the list but such as the New Belgium Brewing Company, Coors Field and the Telluride Gondola are.

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