Methodists and the Sand Creek Massacre

May 25th, 2016

The following is a transcript of a report given by Gary L. Roberts to the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. Roberts is the author of Massacre at Sand Creek: How Methodists Were Involved in an American Tragedy.

Good evening. The prophet Isaiah told the ancient Hebrews that faith and goodness are sustained by a very small remnant, those few wise and brave souls whose spirituality and right action are placed above form and tradition and rules of order and self. Except for them, Isaiah said, “We should have been as Sodom and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.” I’m here today because there are those within the church who desire to make past wrongs right, and because The United Methodist Church itself, by solemn action in General Conference, is strong enough to face its past. The report I bring is both sobering and challenging. Sobering in what it reveals, and challenging in whether or not it will produce any ultimate good. What the Methodist Church does with it after all is up to you.

When we began this project I listened to the concerns of the members of the Joint Advisory Committee, including church leaders; Cheyenne and Arapaho people of Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana; and professional historians, all of whom help to define the parameters of the study from their different perspectives. I made it clear in response to them that I am a historian, not an advocate, not an activist, that I would not write a brief for some predetermined conclusions. Father Francis Paul Prucha is a historian who greatly influenced me years ago, wrote, that it is a historian’s role not to care what the truth is; his only concern must be with finding it. He said that the historian’s job is “to supply enlightenment, understanding, and perspective, and to provide sound information on which balance judgements can be made.” How well I’ve succeeded I will leave to others to decide. What I can say is that I was fortunate to have the advice of the committee who encouraged my approach. It’s easy to justify or condemn any event, or person, or idea. It is far more difficult to understand them.

At dawn on the morning of November the 29th, 1864, a column of Colorado volunteer cavalry, mostly “one hundred day men,” struck a village of Cheyenne and Arapahos on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. The attack quickly deteriorated into indiscriminate slaughter. Over much of the day that followed, killing continued. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of those killed were women, children, and the elderly; and when the killing ended, scalping and mutilation of the dead continued into the next day when the village was burned and the troops moved away. The events were so brutal that entire companies of attacking forces were repulsed by them. Individual soldiers in other companies simply refused to participate, and still other soldiers who rode into the action were horrified by the excesses.

Initially, the Sand Creek affair was heralded as a great victory by the citizens of Colorado, and the commanding officer, Colonel John Milton Chivington, was proclaimed the hero. Denver celebrated. Local theaters displayed strings of scalps on their stages along with three small children as trophies and other gory booty from the attack. News of the attack was celebrated and other newspapers, especially in Western territories and states. But within a matter of days, a darker story emerged. Reports circulated of the atrocities committed at Sand Creek, but perhaps more damning was the fact that the village attacked was there because there have been promised safety. The Sand Creek attack was a violation of plighted faith and carried out by the man who was responsible for the Cheyennes and Arapahos being there in the first place.

In the midst of the bloodiest war in American history with thousands of soldiers North and South dying every day, the Sand Creek Massacre led to the debate in both houses of Congress as well as investigations by two congressional committees and the military commission. Both the Congress and the military condemned what happened there in the harshest of terms. The governor of Colorado and the commissioner of Indian affairs were both removed from office. The great victory that was supposed to have saved Colorado from the Indians set off an Indian war along the overland routes and cost an estimated $30 million.

At The Treaty of the Little Arkansas negotiated with the Cheyennes and Arapahos in October 1865, the government acknowledged its responsibility for the Sand Creek Massacre and agreed to pay reparations to the survivors and the families of the victims of Sand Creek. The shadow of the massacre hung over federal Indian policy, military operations in the West and the Indian reform movement for twenty-five years and more.

The Cheyenne Creek encampment had been a “chiefs’ village.” It was a bold experiment that the tribes were watching. The majority of the Cheyennes and Arapahos were skeptical of the government’s intentions and chose to wait and see what would happen to those who had responded to invitation to come in. The attack destroyed whatever trust remained within the tribes. Thirteen members of the Cheyenne Council of Forty-Four and four soldier chiefs were killed at Sand Creek. The Arapaho peacemaker, Left Hand, died of wounds sustained at Sand Creek and at least two others, Arapaho chiefs, were killed. Sand Creek affectively destroyed the Cheyenne political structure and helped to further divide the northern and southern bands. It was a historical trauma of profound effects and a symbol of a failure of the United States in its relationships to indigenous people.

“Now what has any of this to do with Methodists?” you may ask.

First, Governor Evans, the governor of Colorado and ex-officio superintendent of Indian affairs was a prominent Methodist layman, one of the founders of Northwestern University, and later, of the University of Denver. He was a close personal friend of Bishop Matthew Simpson, and well-known for his philanthropy. He was also responsible for the failed Indian policy in Colorado. He wanted a railroad through Colorado and attempted to force all of the Cheyennes and Arapahos onto a small reserve, originally intended for only a few southern bands. His efforts to deal with the tribes were feeble at best, and when trouble did arise he panicked and read impending doom into every rumor and event. John Evans' policies pave the road to Sand Creek.

Second, Colonel John Milton Chivington, the commander of the Military District of Colorado was a Methodist minister, formerly the presiding elder of the Rocky Mountain District, who “located” in order to become an officer in the First Colorado Cavalry. He received praise for his role in the New Mexico campaign against the confederate invasion in 1862, and thereafter was driven largely by personal ambition. By 1864 he was out of favor with his superior officers and distrusted even by Governor Evans. He was the mastermind of Sand Creek. He ruthlessly planned and carried out the attack even though he knew that the Cheyennes and Arapahos were there under promises of protection until understandings could be reached.

Third, while the government and public opinion damns Sand Creek, the response of The Methodist Episcopal Church to Sand Creek was tepid best. When the investigations began, a group of Colorado ministers publicly endorsed Colonel Chivington’s attack. Bishop Simpson works vigorously to save Governor Evans’ job. Bishop Calvin Kingsley warned against a sentimental view of Indians offered by critics, and the Methodist press was divided by its opinion of Chivington while strongly supporting Governor Evans. Neither Chivington nor Evans was ever called to account in any way by the church for their roles in the Sand Creek Massacre. The report also explores the church’s involvement in Indian missions and policy during the nineteenth century.

In summary, the report concludes that Sand Creek was a serious breach of faith attended by atrocities of most egregious kinds, that John Evans was responsible for the policies that led directly to Sand Creek, that John M. Chivington carried out that attack, largely as a result of his personal ambitions, and that the Methodist Church failed to address the issues raised by the massacre, choosing to support the social, economic and political agendas of manifest destiny over the core principles of the gospel. Now, I’m confident of the historical validity of these conclusions, which are presented with the approval of the Joint Advisory Committee.

I’ve made no effort to suggest what The United Methodist Church should do with the report. That is for the church to decide. I do suggest, however, that there are lessons here that are profoundly important not only to the Cheyennes and the Arapahos who are the descendants of the victims of Sand Creek, but also to the experience of the indigenous people more broadly.

Sand Creek massacre is not merely a historical relic, some moment in time to be passed over quickly because it is embarrassed or forgotten for the same reason. It’s not something to be rationalized away. It touches upon issues that are as ancient as human experience itself and is relevant as today’s headlines. It is a measure of humanity’s struggle to come to grips with what matters.

I confess, as well, that this study not only enlarged my understanding and perspective on this tragic subject, but also it left me with new questions, unanswered questions, troubling questions, that mean that my personal quest under Sand Creek is not yet complete. It means broadening my perspective. It means following a path of humility. It means learning to listen, truly listen. It means learning and respecting other ways of seeing. It means being a better steward of my own prejudices, fears, character, and worldview. It means realizing that I am cut from the same cloth as other human beings, past and present, and mindful that evil acts are not confined to the wicked. It means recognizing my own rationalizations and sharing my doubts.

I know that what happened at Sand Creek was terribly wrong. What I need to understand is why it happened and what lessons may be learned from it. It is not by chance that this study leaves hard questions unanswered; that is a way of knowledge. While The United Methodist Church’s response to this report is not for me to decide, I hope that there are lessons to be found here that will help the church not only to come to grips with the past, but also to find a sacred way to what is right and just in dealing with all people everywhere.

Early in the attack on the village at Sand Creek, a woman was struck by soldier bullets as she ran up the creek with family members and friends. As she fell dying into the sand, she shouted to those fleeing around her, “Do not forget us.” That is my admonition to you. Listen, learn, and do not forget. Thank you very much.

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