Sand Creek Massacre Site, 1864
Update, 1999

The location of the Sand Creek Massacre has long been, like the event itself, the subject of controversy. In the fall of 1864, Sand Creek, in eastern Colorado, was the refuge of Black Kettle's band of Southern Cheyenne and some Arapahos. Black Kettle believed that his people were protected by an amnesty with the governor of Colorado, the assurance of the officers at Fort Lyon, and the flying of an American flag. However, in the predawn hours of November 29, 1864, the encampment was attacked by Colorado volunteer troops led by Col. John M. Chivington. Chivington's men killed an estimated 150-200 Indians, perhaps of whom two-thirds were women and children.

By the 1870's there were serious doubts that the location in modern Kiowa County commemorating the attack was accurate. Metal detector hobbyists had repeatedly failed to find any evidence of an engagement around the site of the 1950 monument. In addition, members of the Sand Creek Descendent Association said that Cheyenne tradition placed the camp elsewhere. The Colorado Historical society began a study to locate the site, but was unsuccessful. In 1998, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Republican, Colorado), introduced legislation directing the National Parks Service (NPS) to locate the site. The legislation was signed into law on October 6, 1998.

AS the legislation directed, the NPS consulted on the project with the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as well as the State of Colorado. Work began soon after the legislation passed, and the NPS historian and archaeologists renewed efforts to document the whereabouts of the massacre site. Tribal oral histories, historical archival research, aerial photography, geomorphic studies, photographic interpretation, and interviews with local residents contributed to the body of data archaeologists needed to begin field investigations in late May of 1999.

With financial assistance from the American Battlefield Protection Program, the Intermountain Region of the NPS finally concluded a successful search for the elusive site late during the summer of 1999. NPS archaeologists Doug Scott of the Midwest Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, led an interagency team consisting of volunteer professionals from the NPS, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Oklahoma Historical Society. Members of the Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho Tribes and the local landowners were also active in the archaeological field work. The field team spent two weeks working its way upstream along Sand Creek, focusing on an area that historical research and Cheyenne oral history indicated was the most likely candidate for the site of Black Kettle's village.

At an undisclosed point over a mile from the commemorated site, the archaeologist began to uncover over 300 period artifacts. These included shell fragments from artillery of the type known to have bombarded the camp (12-pounder cannonballs), other ammunition, a cast iron kettle, cooking pot fragments, tin cups and plates, utensils, iron arrowheads, and personal ornaments. According to Scott, "The artifacts are mid-19th century in date and are consistent with the types of materials found archaeologically in other Native American villages of the same time period. There is little doubt that we have found the camp attacked by the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry." He also noted that a low percentage of projectiles fired by Indians versus non-Indians substantiates the consensus that the engagement was a massacre.

The archaeological fieldwork capped the first phase of this project, which was to find the Sand Creek Massacre site; the NPS is completing a site location report. The second phase of the project, preparing a Special Resources Study outlining management alternatives for the site, began in October.

Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Purchase Sand Creek Massacre Site in Colorado.

Sources: American Battlefield Protection Program; Archaeology, 52, no. 6 (November/December 1999)

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