Prologue Magazine

The Search for the Site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2

Summer 2001, Vol. 33, No. 2

By Christine Whitacre


Sand Creek site excavation Mildred Red Cherries uncovers artifacts from the Sand Creek Massacre site. (National Park Service)

Traditional Tribal Methods

As part of the site location study, Cheyenne and Arapaho spiritual leaders and elders also agreed to employ traditional tribal methods to help determine the location of the massacre. Descendants of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre had often stated that there are ways other than oral histories or written accounts by which they know of the location of the massacre site. Among the traditional ways mentioned most frequently is sensing a spiritual presence or hearing the voices of women, children, horses, or other animals while present on the site. The National Park Service understood that these methods were often private in nature and could not be used effectively in the presence of non-Indians but agreed to assist in these investigations to whatever extent possible.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Volume One: Site Location Study includes an account given by Robert Toahty, a descendant of an Arapaho survivor of Sand Creek. Based on visions that he saw at the site, Toahty believes that the people killed at Sand Creek are scattered for about two miles in the creek bed north of the stone monument in the vicinity of the Dawson South Bend. Other descendants noted hearing the voices of both people and horses. Southern Cheyenne descendant Laird Cometsevah described hearing voices in the Dawson South Bend while on site during both the 1997 and 1999 archaeological field sessions. And, as noted earlier, the Cheyenne Arrow Keeper blessed the Dawson South Bend as "Cheyenne earth" in 1978, thereby designating it as the Sand Creek Massacre site.

Archaeological Survey

By the time the archaeological survey began in May 1999, a number of draft reports— including the historical documentation report by Jerome Greene— had been completed. The results of these efforts, as well as preliminary information from the oral history interviews and traditional tribal methods, indicated five areas as potential sites of the Sand Creek Massacre. The research also indicated that the massacre did not take place in a small isolated area. According to a variety of accounts, the massacre was a running engagement that occurred along a stretch of Sand Creek approximately five to six miles in length. Encompassed within this area were the Indian village site, the sandpits, and areas of Indian and troop movements.

An underlying assumption of the site location study was that the Cheyenne and Arapaho village site, and possibly the sandpits area, might contain enough intact archaeological remains to identify the massacre site. Historical archaeology has been very successful in verifying the location of various battle sites throughout the Trans-Mississippi West. The investigations at Sand Creek used metal detecting and other remote-sensing applications to identify cultural material associated with the Indian village and the military. Remote-sensing equipment minimized disturbance to the landowners' pastures and fields and to any human remains below.

In preparation for the archaeological investigations, the National Park Service commissioned a geomorphological survey of the Sand Creek area. Geomorphologists analyzed soil samples to determine if a site was likely to contain physical evidence of the 1864 massacre and if it contained a layer of soil dating from the 1864 era. Dating the soil layers was particularly important along Sand Creek, as many people speculated that the layer that contained the Sand Creek Massacre artifacts might have been lost to flooding and wind erosion. Test results indicated that the alignment of Sand Creek had not changed substantially over time, eliminating that as a factor in locating the site. In addition, the geomorphologists concluded that the area in the vicinity of the Dawson South Bend had not been substantially disturbed by erosion or agricultural practices, at least not to the extent that such activities would have destroyed all archaeological evidence of the Sand Creek Massacre.

In May 1999, NPS archeologist Douglas D. Scott oversaw the archaeological reconnaissance survey of several areas along Sand Creek. The investigation, which included NPS staff, volunteers, landowners, and several members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, resulted in the collection of nearly four hundred artifacts that, according to archaeological analysis, confirmed the location of Black Kettle's village in the area projected by Jerome Greene's historical research. The greatest numbers of artifacts were concentrated in Section 24, Township 17 South, Range 46 West, at the northern edge of the Dawson South Bend. Found here were Civil War-era tin cups, cans, horseshoes, horseshoe nails, plates, bowls, knives, fork, spoons, barrel hoops, a coffee grinder, a coffee pot, iron arrowheads, bullets, and case shot fragments. As archeologist Douglas Scott observed, the majority of the artifacts are objects typical of Native American encampments of the nineteenth century and, when compared to lists of trade and annuity goods known or requested for distribution to the Cheyennes and Arapahos in southern Colorado, "demonstrate a striking degree of concordance."14 The team also found a variety of iron objects modified for Native American uses. These artifacts include knives altered to awls, iron wire altered to awls, fleshers or hide scrapers, strap iron altered by filed serrations as hide preparation devices, and several iron objects altered by filing to serve an as-yet unidentified cutting or scraping purpose. Cheyenne and Arapaho members of the archaeological team identified many of these artifacts. Among them was a crescent-shaped object identified as a Cheyenne man's breast ornament.15

Many of the artifacts showed evidence that they had been intentionally broken, a pattern of destruction typical of U.S. Army actions of the period. The arms and ammunition that were found are likewise consistent with those carried by the cavalry units that participated in the massacre. In particular, the archaeological fieldwork uncovered fragments of twelve-pounder mountain howitzer shells.

Identification of the Location and Extent of the Sand Creek Massacre Site

By fall of 1999, the end of the first project year, the National Park Service believed that the first task mandated by the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Study Act— identifying the location and extent of the massacre site— had been accomplished.

Jerome Greene's review of historical documents, primarily the 1868 Bonsall map, had indicated that Section 24, Township 17 South, Range 46 West, was the likely site of the village. And, indeed, the archaeological survey uncovered approximately four hundred artifacts in a concentrated area within this section, the type and distribution of which are consistent with an Indian village of approximately five hundred people. Also within this artifact concentration— among the shattered plates, utensils, hide scrapers, awls, and trade items that had once been part of the daily lives of the Cheyennes and Arapahos who had camped here— the survey team found evidence of the ammunition and weapons used to attack and kill them. Although no conclusive evidence of the sandpits was found during the 1999 archaeological survey, historical accounts indicate they were anywhere from three hundred yards to two-plus miles upstream of the village, but most likely at around one-quarter mile to one mile. As such, Greene concluded that the probable location of the sandpits is in Sections 13 and 14, Township 17 South, Range 46 West. Among the artifacts that had been found in this area were shell fragments from twelve-pounder mountain howitzers, which were known to have been used in the sandpits area.16

However, at an October 1999 project meeting, the Cheyenne tribal representatives to the project team, as well as the representative of the State of Colorado, disagreed with the conclusions of the National Park Service as to the location of the village and the sandpits. As noted earlier, Cheyenne tradition held that the village lay within the "vee" of the Dawson South Bend, not at its northern edge, where the artifact concentration was found. Cheyenne representatives and Colorado state historian David Halaas also pointed to the two sketch maps drawn by George Bent that showed the Indian encampment as being within the "vee" of the bend. While NPS historians found the Bent maps to be valuable tools in terms of placing the relative locations of specific encampments, they also believed that they lacked scale and immediacy to the event. Moreover, while the National Park Service believes that the placement of the village at the northern edge of the Dawson South Bend does not conflict with most oral history accounts of the massacre, that view is not shared by all of the tribal representatives to the project. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe believe that the oral histories are strong evidence that the village is located in the "vee" of the Dawson South Bend.

If, as the representatives of those tribes believe, the village was in the "vee" of the Dawson South Bend, then what is the concentration of artifacts approximately one mile north in Section 24? Laird Cometsevah, great-grandson of Cometsevah, who was a survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre, believes the artifacts may be evidence of the sandpits, or perhaps a later Euro-American settlement in the area. Others believe the artifacts may be the northern edge of the village, the area where the soldiers bivouacked after the massacre, or both.

The Northern Arapaho representatives of the project team concur with the conclusions drawn by the National Park Service with regard to the location of the village site and the sandpits. However, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe maintain that additional archaeological survey work will provide proof that the village was, indeed, within the crux of the Dawson South Bend. While the distance between these two contested village locations is less than one mile— and are both located within the Dawson South Bend— they also reflect a much wider gulf between interpretations of "truth" and of scientific evidence versus cultural knowledge. They also represent, in a broader sense, a continuing distrust of the U.S. government by tribal members, a relationship at least partially rooted in the Sand Creek Massacre itself.

While there was no consensus regarding these issues, all members of the project team also recognized the importance of the larger effort to memorialize and protect the Sand Creek Massacre site. Ultimately, the entire team— the National Park Service, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and the State of Colorado— agreed on a map that delineated the boundaries of the Sand Creek Massacre site (which extends approximately five and a half miles in length and two miles in width). All parties agreed that all the significant events of the massacre— including the Cheyenne and Arapaho village site, the sandpits, the area of Indian flight, and the point from which Chivington and his troops launched their attack— are located within that boundary. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell concurred that this map met the intent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Study Act to define the "location and extent" of the massacre site, which allowed the project to move forward. The final site location study includes the various viewpoints, including interpretive maps, as to the locations of the components of the massacre site. The study also notes that while there is no consensus regarding the exact location of some elements of the massacre, project team members believe that additional archaeological work may resolve some of these issues.

Authorization to Establish the Sand Creek Massacre Site as a National Historic Site

The final task of the project team was to develop management alternatives for the Sand Creek Massacre, including an assessment as to whether or not the Sand Creek Massacre site would be a feasible and suitable addition to the National Park Service. Under Alternative 1, the "no action alternative," the site would remain under private ownership. Alternative 2 proposed the creation of a Sand Creek Massacre memorial on a small portion of the site, approximately fifteen hundred acres of land. Visitors would be able to visit a memorial that would stand on a bluff overlooking the massacre site, but they would not have access to most of the site. Alternative 3 proposed the establishment of a Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, which would provide the greatest protection for the site while allowing for visitor access. The historic site boundary would include the entire massacre site, as well as additional land to provide for visitor facilities and to protect critical viewsheds, encompassing approximately 12,480 acres of land.

In July 2000 the National Park Service submitted to Congress the results of the site location study, the three proposed management alternatives, and the public response to them. Soon thereafter, Senator Campbell introduced Senate Bill 2950, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Establishment Act of 2000, which supported the establishment of a 12,480-acre national historic site as described in Alternative 3.

On November 7, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Establishment Act, which became Public Law 106-465. The law recognizes the importance of the Sand Creek Massacre as ""a nationally significant element of frontier military and Native American history; and a symbol of the struggles of Native American tribes to maintain their way of life on ancestral land." It also authorizes the secretary of the interior— upon the acquisition of sufficient land that will "provide for the preservation, memorialization, commemoration, and interpretation of the Sand Creek Massacre"— to establish the site as a national historic site. Moreover, the law provides "opportunities for the tribes and the State to be involved in the formulation of general management plans and educational programs for the national historic site." Public Law 106-465 also supports special rights of access within the site for the Indian tribes. It also specifically states that all land within the historic site is to be acquired from willing sellers only.

As of March 2000, Congress had not yet appropriated funding for land acquisition within the 12,480-acre boundary of the authorized national historic site. Once that funding is appropriated, the federal government will begin negotiations with willing sellers within the site— an effort that will, hopefully, result in the long-sought-after protection and designation of Sand Creek as a national historic site.

The Search for the Site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Part 1


1 U.S. Senate, 38th Cong., 2nd sess., Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians, Report No. 142 (1865); U.S. Senate, 39th Cong., 2nd sess., Report of the Joint Special Committee, Condition of the Indian Tribes with Appendix (The Chivington Massacre), Report No. 156 (1867); and U.S. Senate, 39th Cong., 2nd sess., Report of the Secretary of the War, Communicating . . . a Copy of the Evidence Taken at Denver and Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory by a Military Commission Ordered to Inquire into the Sand Creek Massacre, November 29, 1864, Ex. Doc. No. 26 (1867).

2 Jerome Greene, Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume One: Site Location Study (2000), p. 44.

3 Greene, Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume Two: Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment (2000), p. 24.

4 Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Civil War in the American West (1991), p. 307, cited in Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume Two: Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment (2000), pp. 33 - 34.

5 The project manager was Rick Frost, assistant regional director, communications, for the NPS Intermountain Region; historian Christine Whitacre was team captain; and Barbara Sutteer of the Intermountain Regional Office of American Indian Trust Responsibilities served as Indian liaison. Other key NPS personnel included Jerome A. Greene, the project's lead historian; Douglas D. Scott, who oversaw the archaeological fieldwork; and ethnographer Alexa Roberts, who assisted the Cheyennes and Arapahos in recording their oral histories and traditional tribal knowledge of the massacre site. The team also included representatives of the State of Colorado and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. David Halaas, historian of the Colorado Historical Society, served as the state representative. Indian participants in the project included Southern Cheyenne representatives Laird Cometsevah, Joe Big Medicine, Eugene Black Bear, Jr., Edward Starr, Jr., and Edward White Skunk; Northern Cheyenne representatives Mildred Red Cherries, Steve Brady, Otto Braided Hair, Steve Chestnut, Lee Lonebear, Conrad Fisher, Norma Gourneau, Reginald Killsnight, Sr., Holda Roundstone, and Joe Walks Along; Southern Arapaho representatives William "Lee" Pedro, and Alonzo Sankey; and Northern Arapaho representatives Eugene J. Ridgely, Sr., Gail J. Ridgely, Ben S. Ridgely, William J. C'Hair, Anthony A. Addison, Sr., Hubert N. Friday, Burton Hutchinson, Joseph Oldman, and Nelson P. White, Sr. Also participating in the project were private property owners of areas that were identified as possible sites of the Sand Creek Massacre, including Mr. and Mrs. Bill Dawson and members of the Charles Bowen, Sr., family.

6 George Bent, map of "Sand Creek Area," prepared ca. 1905 - 14, Bent-Hyde Collection, folder 10, Western History Collections, University of Colorado Library, Boulder.

7 George Bent, map of Arkansas River, Sand Creek, and Western Kansas, showing massacre site below confluence of Rush and Sand creeks, prepared ca. 1905 - 14, folder 3, Bent-Hyde Collection, Univ. of Colorado.

8 George Bent, untitled map of the Cheyenne Village and Sand Creek Massacre, Indian Archives Division, Cheyenne/Arapaho Agency File, "Warfare," 1864 - 1885, microfilm roll 24, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City; and map of Sand Creek Massacre showing Cheyenne village, prepared ca. 1905 - 14, Bent-Hyde Collection, folder 1, Western History Collections, Univ. of Colorado.

9 Samuel W. Bonsall, map accompanying "Journal of the march of the men belonging to the Garrison of Fort Lyon, C.T., under the command of Lieut. S.W. Bonsall 3rd Infantry, from Old Fort Lyon C.T., to Cheyenne Wells, pursuant to S.O. No 66 Hdqrs Fort Lyon C.T. June 12, 1868," Letters, Reports and Graphic Materials Received, 1868 - 1903, Department of the Platte, Omaha, Nebraska, Records of Topographical Engineer Departments, Chicago District, Record Group (RG) 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, National Archives and Records Administration - Great Lakes Region (Chicago).

10 Scott Forsythe, interview with author, Feb. 13, 2001.

11 Soil Conservation Service aerial photographs, Kiowa County, Colorado, roll AG 298, frames 31, 32, 33, 46, 47, 48, and roll AG 299, frames 05, 06, 07, 08, taken October 17, 1936, and roll YO 56, frame 56, and roll YO 55, frame 68, taken October 27, 1937, Records of the Soil Conservation Service, RG 114, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

12 National Park Service ethnographer Alexa Roberts coordinated this recordation effort; her report on the project, which includes transcripts of the oral history interviews, is published in the Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume One: Site Location Study (2000). Also contributing to this oral history effort were Carolyn Sandlin, Laird and Colleen Cometsevah, Luke Brady, Otto Braided Hair, Patsy Riddle, Gail Ridgely, Eugene Ridgely Sr., Tom Meier, John C'Hair, and Joe Waterman.

13 Alexa Roberts, "The Sand Creek Massacre Site Location Study Oral History Project," Sand Creek Massacre Project: Volume One, Site Location Study (2000), p. 281.

14 Douglas D. Scott, Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume One: Site Location Study (2000), p. 133.

15 The Cheyenne man's breast ornament was identified by Luke Brady of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

16 These twelve-pounder mountain howitzer case fragments were found by Chuck Bowen, the son of landowner Charles Bowen, Sr., prior to the National Park Service archaeological survey. For a complete discussion of Bowen's discovery, see Douglas D. Scott, "Identifying the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre Site Through Archeological Reconnaissance," Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume One: Site Location Study (2000).

Suggested Readings

Sand Creek Massacre Project, Volume One, Site Location Study and Volume Two, Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment (Denver: National Park Service, 2000), are no longer in print but are available on the Internet.

Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).

Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Civil War in the American West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

Gary L. Roberts, "Sand Creek: Tragedy and Symbol" (Ph.D. diss., 1984, University of Oklahoma, Norman).

Robert M. Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848 - 1865 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967).

Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.).

Christine Whitacre, a historian with the National Park Service, Intermountain Support Office in Denver, Colorado, served as the team captain for the Sand Creek Massacre Project. She received her M.A. from the University of Colorado and has worked for the National Park Service for eleven years.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.