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157 years later, Colorado remembers the Sand Creek Massacre

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Items left at a marker at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre
National Park Service

DENVER — Colorado has spent more than a century and a half coming to terms with a bitter chapter of its history: The mass murder of Native Americans known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

The Smithsonian Institution has called the Sand Creek Massacre "one of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated on Native Americans."

To mark the 157th anniversary of this tragedy on November 29, Rocky Mountain PBS presents "Sand Creek Massacre," a 2014 episode of Colorado Experience.

Colorado Experience

Sand Creek Massacre

On August 11, 1864, Colorado Territorial Gov. John Evans issued a proclamation calling on citizens "to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country… all hostile Indians." The call went out for "Indian fighters" to join a volunteer cavalry.

Efforts at achieving peace were underway. Nevertheless, at dawn on Nov. 29, 1864, about 675 volunteer cavalrymen under the command of Col. John Chivington opened fire on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people on the grassy plains of eastern Colorado. Those at the camp had been assured they would be safe there.

"Over the course of eight hours, the troops killed around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children, and the elderly," according to a National Park Service account. "During the afternoon and following day, the soldiers wandered over the field committing atrocities on the dead."

News of the massacre was celebrated at the time by many white people in Denver, who held a parade downtown. But the attack led to a congressional investigation that condemned Chivington's actions and resulted in Evans' ouster as governor.

In August of 2021, Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order officially rescinding Evans' proclamation.

"We are tearing down this awful symbol of hate," Polis said during the signing. You can read the full executive order here.

For more than a century, the story of the tragedy was forgotten, ignored or mischaracterized by many in Colorado. A marker installed at the site in 1950 called it a "battleground," a term many see as inaccurately implying a degree of nobility to what was essentially a mass murder.

Finally, in 1998, Congress directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to begin work with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal governments to establish a Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site as part of the National Park System. The site was dedicated in 2007.

On December 3, 2014, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper officially apologized for the massacre to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people on behalf of the state.

And on November 20 of 2020, the Colorado state Capitol’s Building Advisory Committee voted 7-2 to recommend placing a sculpture of a grieving Native American woman outside the Capitol as a memorial to the 1864 massacre.

The sculpture will replace a statue of a Civil War soldier that was toppled by protesters earlier in the year — a monument that originally listed the Sand Creek Massacre as a battle.

On November 29, 2021, the Denver Public Library is holding a candlelight vigil in commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre. The events starts at 6 p.m. at the Broadway entrance of the Central Branch Library. Attendees will then walk to the Colorado State Capitol. Candles will be provided. More details are available here.

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