It's getting close to exactly 150 years ago, that Col. John M. Chivington led 700 members of a rag-tag outfit named Third Colorado Calvary onto an open field of the broad Great Plains, where approximately 500 men, women, and children, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahos, were camped. Under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle, these Native people had signaled their intention to live in peace; but Colorado was aflame with hate because white folks had been attacked in prairie schooners on their way west, murdered and mutilated.
Governor John Evans wanted them out, every last one of them. Even though what was then called "the Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota had taken place two years before, memories of the unspeakable horrors by hostile Dakota braves had lingered. In August, Gov. Evans had authorized “all citizens of Colorado . . . to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.” Those who, like Black Kettle, had indicated their intention to live on reservations, should be spared, he said.
But very early in the morning on November 29, 1864, Rev. Chivington, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who'd founded a Denver seminary, led those 700 troops into Black Kettle's camp and killed--massacred--50 men and 110 women and children, wounding scores more. Bullets ripped through human flesh as howitzers reigned horror down on an encampment totally unprepared for any attack, on families who had already made clear their intention to move to a reservation in peace.
Today, 150 years later, there's very little at Sand Creek to catch the eye, but there's ever so much to stop the soul. What's there is endless prairie, not a woman or woman in sight. To get to the place the massacre took place, you take blue highways through cow towns that may well be dying and ten miles of dusty gravel roads because no one lives at or near the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. A couple of park rangers will be there to answer your questions. You want to listen to them. They'll tell you the whole story. Quietly.
Colorado, in the national mind, means Rocky Mountain highs: Vail, Loveland, Telluride, Breckinridge, and Powderhorn, winter wonderlands, skiers paradise. Colorado has master class hiking trails crawling up the whole range of "Fourteen-ers," rocky paths that take young and old closer to heaven than you can get almost anywhere on the North American continent. Colorado means Coors, the Broncos, John Elway, Payton Manning.
But if you want to stop at the Sand Creek Massacre, you have to go in the opposite direction down roads you wish you hadn't taken, and when you get there what you'll find is mostly nothing at all: a half-mile hike through wide open Great Plains prairie to a spot on the horizon that looks over a valley not much deeper than a dish pan.
There's no blood anywhere to be seen, no rags, no dead bodies. Aside from a few trees there's nothing to see, but so much to remember.
High school students in the Golden (CO) School District walked out of class earlier this month when the school board, packed by conservatives after recent elections, determined that the curriculum for Advanced Placement History was too radical, too anti-American, to, well, "liberal," touting civil disobedience far more than free enterprise.
I think I have a solution. Bring them all to Sand Creek, all those patriotic board members and all those striking students, their parents and their teachers. Drive them all out there in small groups of a half-dozen or so, mixed company too--rugged conservative business people and mouthy progressives. Introduce them to one of the rangers out there in all that silence, and ask them to tell the story.
Then make them walk together in a group, in silence, to a sacred place where many innocent human beings fell in an assault as evil as anything ever perpetuated in the name of the Lord.
Let them out there for a while. Let them stand there in the silence, in the wind that never dies. Let them create the pictures their imaginations will certainly conjure once they hear the story.
Then lead them in prayer, ask forgiveness, pledge love instead of hate.
Once that's over, let them go back to Golden, carful after solitary carful, a long and dutiful procession, and see if then we all can't somehow get along.