This is Bill Tall Bull’s digital story titled “This is my Home” from the Colorado History Museum‘s Imagine a Great City: Denver at 150 exhibit. This story was made in a workshop facilitated by The Center for Digital Storytelling‘s Denver office. Posted in conjunction with Mile High Stories.
Before dawn on the 29th of November 1864, a force of 700 soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked the sleeping camps of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in what is now Southeastern Colorado. Over 150 tribespeople were killed that day, mostly women, children and elders. Though the American soldiers were initially hailed as heroes upon their return to Denver, within weeks a congressional investigation has been started and the “battle” had been renamed a “massacre.” More information on the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is available from the National Park Service website.
For the past 10 years members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have organized the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run as a way of bringing closure to this pivotal event in the history of the American west. The 10th annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run is taking place November 27-29th, 2008. For more detailed information, download the event brochure.
The following letter was written by Captain Silas S. Soule, who was present at Sand Creek on the 29th of November, 1864. Soule was assassinated in Denver in April of 1865 (close to what is now the corner of 15th and Arapahoe), most likely due to his refusal to fire at Sand Creek and his subsequent testimony against Colonel Chivington.
December 14, 1864
Letter to Edward Wynkoop
Two days after you left here the 3d Reg’t with a Battalion of the 1st arrived here. They then declared their intention to massacre the friendly Indians camped on Sand Creek. As soon as I knew … I was indignant … and told them that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch. Chivington and all hands swore they would hang me before they moved camp, but I stuck it out, and all the officers at the Post, except Anthony backed me.
I was then ordered with my whole company to Major A with 20 days rations. I told him that I would not take part in their intended murder, but if they were going after the Sioux, Kiowa’s or any fighting Indians, I would go as far as any of them. They said that was what they were going for, and I joined them. We arrived at Black Kettles and Left Hand’s Camp at day light.
Anthony then approached to within one hundred yards and commenced firing. I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would. for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us and getting on their knees for mercy. Anthony shouted, “Kill the sons of bitches”. When the Indians found that there was no hope for them they went for the Creek, and buried themselves in the Sand and got under the banks and some of the bucks got their Bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could.
By this time there was no organization among our troops, they were a perfect mob every man on his own hook. My Co. was the only one that kept their formation, and we did not fire a shot. The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain.
One Squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing – when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself. One old Squaw hung herself in the lodge — there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen.
I saw two Indians hold one of anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped.
White Antelope, War Bonnet and a member of others had Ears and Privates cut off. Squaws snatches were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth, which they do not deny.
I expect we will have a hell of a time with Indians this winter. We have (200) men at the Post – Anthony in command. I think he will be dismissed when the facts are known in Washington. Give my regards to any friends you come across, and write as soon as possible.
(signed) S.S. Soule
At 8am on Saturday, November 29th, there will be an honoring ceremony at Riverside Cemetery in Denver, where Soule is buried. The healing run then continues on for an 11:00am presentation at the Colorado State Capitol and a noon reception at the Colorado Historical Society, 1300 Broadway, Denver. Everyone is welcome to attend this event.
Denver is a square, proud, prompt little place, surrounded by immensity.
–Demas Barnes (Denver visitor, 1865)
Denver is the unlikeliest of cities; there’s no port, no access to an ocean or a major river, nowhere to get to (easily) between here and there. Compared to other urban centers, it came late to the party, and unnaturally, forced on an unwilling landscape. Started by claimjumpers and promoted with false claims of easy money, there was never any gold at the confluence, but there was an opportunity to set up a transportation hub in one of the less explored and exploited regions of the country.
In the first two years, 100,000 people came through looking to find a fortune; by 1864, the city had less than 5,000 residents and was practically destroyed by flood and fire. For those still here, isolated in “this god-forsaken place,” it may as well have been the end of the world. It was touch and go until the railroad came in in 1870, setting off one of the first of Denver’s booms.
Maybe it was the boom and bust cycles, or the latecomer status, or the distance from centers of culture, but for much of the city’s history it’s been better known as a place to go through, rather than a place to stay.
You may thank your stars that you left this country when you did, for it is deader than it ever was. The fact is I am getting damn sick of this God-forsaken place.
–Silas Soule (1861)
One hundred twenty years later, in the late 1980s, the oil bust wreaked havoc on the Denver’s economy; people were jumping ship for wherever they could make a living, and mostly anywhere was better than here. Downtown was sleepy and lonely (especially after hours), and the skyscrapers that had been built in the 70s emptied out as fast as they went up. The good news? Parking was plentiful and free.
One of the many odd jobs I had at that time involved emptying the offices (cubicles and desks mostly) from the Arco Tower on 17th Street in Downtown. For weeks, we loaded the furniture on carts and rolled them onto semi-trailers destined for warehouses in Texas. The wealth (and jobs) that had been imported left town when times turned tough.
Looking at the empty storefronts in the Arco Tower, my buddy Ray and I proposed to the property manager that we install a series of temporary artworks that would show the space off while also having a sense of humor. Our proposal? Cows. Denver, we thought, should embrace its traditions, and engage in a fun dialogue to encourage people to come back downtown.
It sounded good to us. But not to the property manager. Anything but cows, he said.
…the rare beauty of the accidental location, the grandeur of the region, the charms of the climate, and the enormous permanent resources of the country became fixed in the minds of the people…
–Jerome Smiley, History of Denver (1900)
From its founding 150 years ago, Denver’s residents have described the city with a combination of self-deprecation and boisterous civic boosterism, sometimes with more than a touch of defensiveness. But along the way, something has changed, and there is a bit of self-confidence that doesn’t seem so out of place; there’s a willingness to embrace both the city’s frontier roots and its urban existence.
Denver is no longer so oddly placed in the middle of the frontier. The world has changed. Denver was an accidental city, but now it has grown to become a metropolitan center. Maybe now we can look back with some pride and just a little bit of nostalgia for our cowtown past.
23 November 2008