SAND CREEK MASSACRE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, Colo. - More than 142 years after a band of militia volunteers massacred 150 sleeping Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho in a misdirected act of vengeance, a memorial to the tragic event was dedicated yesterday.
The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, 160 miles southeast of Denver on Big Sandy Creek in Kiowa County, pays tribute to those killed in the Nov. 29, 1864, attack.
Seeking revenge for the killings of several settlers by Indians, 700 militia members slaughtered nearly everyone in the village. Most victims were women or children.
Descendants of some of the victims were among several hundred people at the dedication on the rolling hills of the southeastern Colorado plains. The crowd gathered a few hundred feet from a stand of cottonwood trees that historians believe marks the site of the killings along the creek.
After a prayer and a blessing for the troops in Iraq, members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes chanted and played drums.
"It's a site of shame, but it's finally being memorialized properly," said David Halaas, a former state historian.
Eyewitness accounts of the attack include a letter from Lt. Joseph Cranmer: "A squaw ripped open and a child taken from her. Little children shot while begging for their lives."
Tribe descendants claim they can still hear the children cry when they visit the site.
"If there were any savages that day, it was not the Indian people," said former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
Campbell, who sponsored the legislation making the spot a national historic site, said he slept beside the creek Friday night "to get a picture" of what the people saw before the attack.
And Patricia Limerick, chairwoman of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West and author of Legacy of Conquest, said: "I think it is the greatest testimony of the strength of a nation - that you are big enough and strong enough to acknowledge the cruelties and injuries of the past."
The attack was recognized almost immediately as criminal. Congress condemned it, and President Abraham Lincoln fired territorial Gov. John Evans.
Witnesses said at a congressional hearing that the victims had not been hostile. Indian trader John S. Smith testified that the militia's leader, Col. John Chivington, had known the band at Sand Creek was peaceful and not involved in the attacks on settlers.
But Denver residents feted Chivington, a Methodist minister known as "the fighting parson," as a hero after the raid. They were terrified that the Confederacy would use Indians as its surrogates to wage war on them.
"Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results," read an editorial in the Rocky Mountain News at the time.