Colonel John M. Chivington
Colonel John M. Chivington

John M. Chivington was born in 1821 in Lebanon, Ohio to a farming family. His father died when he was only five and the burden of providing for the family fell to Chivington's mother and older brothers. While he was growing up, Chivington worked on the family farm so much that he received only an irregular education. By the time of his marriage in 1844 he had been operating a small timber business in Ohio for several years.

Although he had not been particularly religious as a child and young man, Chivington found himself drawn toward Methodism when he was in his early twenties. He was ordained in 1844 at the age of 23 and soon began his long career as a minister. He accepted whatever assignment the church gave him, moving his family to Illinois in 1848 and then to Missouri the next year. Chivington was something of a frontier minister, usually establishing congregations, supervising the erection of churches, and often serving as a de facto law enforcement officer. For a time in 1853 he assisted in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot Indians in Kansas.

Chivington's contempt for slavery and talk of secession caused him enormous trouble in Missouri. In 1856, pro-slavery members of his congregation sent him a threatening letter instructing him to cease preaching. When many of the signatories attended his service the next Sunday, intending to tar and feather him, Chivington ascended the pulpit with a Bible and two pistols. His declaration that "By the grace of God and these two revolvers, I am going to preach here today" earned him the sobriquet the "Fighting Parson."

Soon after this incident, the Methodist Church sent Chivington to Omaha, Nebraska to escape the tumult of Missouri. He and his family remained in Nebraska until 1860, when he was made the presiding elder of the Rocky Mountain District of the Methodist Church and moved to Denver to build a church and found a congregation.

When the Civil War broke out, Colorado's territorial governor, William Gilpin, offered Chivington a commission as a chaplain, but he declined the "praying" commission and asked for a "fighting" position instead. In 1862, Chivington, by that point a Major in the first Colorado Volunteer Regiment, played a critical role in defeating confederate forces at Glorietta Pass in eastern New Mexico, where his troops rappelled down the canyon walls in a surprise attack on the enemy's supply train. He was widely hailed as a military hero.

Back in Denver after the defeat of the Confederacy's Western forces, Chivington seemed destined for even greater prominence. He was a leading advocate of quick statehood for Colorado, and the likely Republican candidate for the state's first Congressional seat. In the midst of his blossoming political prospects, tensions between Colorado's burgeoning white population and the Cheyenne Indians reached a feverish pitch. The Denver newspaper printed a front-page editorial advocating the "extermination of the red devils" and urging its readers to "take a few months off and dedicate that time to wiping out the Indians."

Chivington took advantage of this dangerous public mood by blasting the territorial governor and others who counseled peace and treaty making with the Cheyenne. In August of 1864, he declared, "the Cheyennes will have to be roundly whipped -- or completely wiped out -- before they will be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them." A month later, while addressing a gathering of church deacons, he dismissed the possibility of making a treaty with the Cheyenne: "It simply is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado."

The following is from "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" written by Dee Brown:

"On the morning of November 29, 1864, 600 Cheyenne and Arapahos camped on a bend of Sand Creek were awakened by the sound of charging hooves. Two thirds of these 600 were women and children as the government granted able bodied men to go east and hunt buffalo to feed their hungry families. Only 35 braves were in the camp. This made the ensuing charge all the more frightening for the women, children, elders, and remaining braves.

So great was the fear of the coming charge that men, women, and children ran from their lodges into the biting cold taking no time to fully dress. The partially dressed Indians began to gather under a huge American flag above Black Kettles lodge (Black Kettle was given the huge American flag and peace medals by Abraham Lincoln and Colonel A. B. Greenwood in Washington only a year earlier and was told that as long as the American flag was above them, no one would be harmed). The braves present surrounded the women and children gathered under the flag. At 8:00 am more than 700 cavalry men under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington and Major Scott J. Anthony, rode in and fired on the huddled Indians from two directions. After the initial charge the US soldiers dismounted and continued the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children. During the killing unspeakable atrocities and mutilations were committed by the soldiers. Accounts from two white men, John S. Smith and Lieutenant James Connor, described the acts of dehumanization."

According to John S. Smith, Colonel Chivington knew these Indians to be peaceful before the massacre. Smith witnessed, as did helpless Indian mothers and fathers, young children having their sex organs cut away. U.S. soldiers mutilated Native American women, cutting away their breasts and removing all other sex organs. After the Massacre, soldiers displayed the women's severed body parts on their hats and stretched them over their saddle-bows while riding in the ranks. The sex organs of every male were removed in the most grotesque manner. One soldier boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch with the removed privates of White Antelope, a respected elder. Conner witnessed a soldier displaying the body parts of a woman on a stick. The fingers of Indians were cut off to get at the rings on them. Connor remembered a baby only a few months old who had been hidden in the feed box of a wagon for protection. When the soldiers discovered the baby some time later, the baby was thrown onto the frozen ground to die. In going over the site the next day, it was noted that every corpse was mutilated in some way, and scalped.

Two other men, Robert Bent and James Beckwourth were forced to ride with Chivington that morning. They recorded similar images. Beckwourth noted that before the massacre, White Antelope (age 75) ran out to meet the soldiers. He came running out to meet the command, holding up his hands and saying Stop! Stop! He spoke in as plain English as I can. He stopped and folded his arms until shot down. Bent remembered seeing the shooting of a little girl carrying a white flag. He also remembered seeing an Indian woman on the ground whose leg had been shattered by a shell. As she lay helpless, a soldier drew his saber, breaking the arm she had risen in defense. She then rolled over on her other side. The soldier did not leave until breaking her other arm with his saber, whereupon he left without killing her. Bent saw a pregnant woman who had been cut open and disemboweled. Her unborn child lay mutilated almost beyond human recognition beside her. Quite a number of mothers were slain; still clinging to their babies. Such was the scene that cold gray morning at Sand Creek, November 29, 1864.


The most divisive issue during the Governor John Evans administration was what has been termed the "Sand Creek Massacre." By 1864 the Plains Indians had virtually shut down most of Colorado's overland trails, attacked travelers, and frightened the new settlers. Major Edward Wynkoop, after an encounter with Chief Black Kettle of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, attempted to discuss peace on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. The success of this meeting led to another one with Governor Evans who somewhat vaguely and noncommittally agreed that these Native Americans should be protected under the United States Flag. Previously, Evans had established an Indian-fighting regiment under Colonel John Chivington, who was eager to teach the Indians a lesson. After Wynkoop was relieved of his peacemaking duties, Major Scott Anthony took command of Fort Lyon. Colonel Chivington assembled his troops and joined with others at Fort Lyon. When the governor left the Territory for a visit to Washington, Chivington shattered the fragile peace created by Wynkoop by attacking a Cheyenne Indian camp at Sand Creek at dawn on November 29, 1864. Many women, children, and elderly were killed as a result of this engagement, which created a feeling of indignation so strong in the East that it prompted a congressional investigation. As a result, Dr. John Evans lost his federal appointment as governor and Chivington's enlistment had already expired that September so he could not be dishonorably discharged. In addition, Colorado's statehood was delayed, a circumstance that became the dominate aspect of Colorado politics in the years following Sand Creek.

Several months later, Chivington made good on his genocidal promise. During the early morning hours of November 29, 1864, he led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers to the Cheyenne's Sand Creek reservation, where a band led by Black Kettle, a well-known "peace" chief, was encamped. Federal army officers had promised Black Kettle safety if he would return to the reservation, and he was in fact flying the American flag and a white flag of truce over his lodge, but Chivington ordered an attack on the unsuspecting village nonetheless. After hours of fighting, the Colorado volunteers had lost only 9 men in the process of murdering between 200 and 400 Cheyenne, most of them women and children. After the slaughter, they scalped and sexually mutilated many of the bodies, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.

Chivington was at first widely praised for the "battle" at Sand Creek, and honored with a widely attended parade through the streets of Denver just two weeks after the massacre. Soon, however, rumors of drunken soldiers butchering unarmed women and children began to circulate, and at first seemed confirmed when Chivington arrested six of his men and charged them with cowardice in battle. But the six, who included Captain Silas Soule, a personal friend of Chivington's who had fought with him at Glorietta Pass, were in fact militia members who had refused to participate in the massacre and now spoke openly of the carnage they had witnessed. Shortly after their arrest, the U.S. Secretary of War ordered the six men released and Congress began preparing for a formal investigation of Sand Creek.

Soule himself could not be a witness at any of the investigations, because less than a week after his release he was shot from behind and killed on the streets of Denver. Although Chivington was eventually brought up on court-martial charges for his involvement in the massacre, he was no longer in the U.S. Army and could therefore not be punished. No criminal charges were ever filed against him. An Army judge, however, publicly stated that Sand Creek was "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation."

Although he was never punished for his role at Sand Creek, Chivington did at least pay some price. He was forced to resign from the Colorado militia, to withdraw from politics, and to stay away from the campaign for statehood. In 1865 he moved back to Nebraska, spending several unsuccessful years as a freight hauler. He lived briefly in California, and then returned to Ohio where he resumed farming and became editor of a small newspaper. In 1883 he re-entered politics with a campaign for a state legislature seat, but charges of his guilt in the Sand Creek massacre forced him to withdraw. He quickly returned to Denver and worked as a deputy sheriff until shortly before his death from cancer in 1892.

John Chivington is buried in the Fairmont Cemetery in Denver, Colorado



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