and supporters of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Native American
tribes, 2014. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
Every Thanksgiving weekend for the past 17 years, Arapaho and
Cheyenne youth lead a 180-mile relay from the Sand Creek Massacre
National Historic Site to Denver.
The annual Sand
Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run opens at the site of the
Sand Creek Massacre near Eads, Colorado, with a sunrise ceremony
honoring some 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne people who lost their lives
in the infamous massacre. This brutal assault was carried out by
Colonel John Chivington on Nov. 29, 1864.
While the Sand Creek massacre has been the subject of numerous
books, much less attention has been given to two
heroes of this horrific event: U.S. soldiers Captain Silas
Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer.
art of Captain Silas S. Soule by George Levi (2014). Courtesy
of George Levi, Author provided
These were men who rejected the violence and genocide inherent
in the conquest of the West. They did so by personally
refusing to take part in the murder of peaceful people, while ordering
the men under their command to stand down. Their example breaks
the conventional frontier narrative that has come to define the
clash between Colonial settlers and Native peoples as one of civilization
This is a theme Ive previously addressed as a scholar
in the fields of American Indian
studies and Colonial history, both in my book on the Indian
captivity narrative genre, Buried
in Shades of Night, and more recently in writings on Sand
The letters of Soule and Cramer
Soules noble act of compassion at Sand Creek is humbly
conveyed in a letter
to his mother included in the Denver Public Library Western
History Collections: I was present at a Massacre of three
hundred Indians mostly women and children
It was a horrable
scene and I would not let my Company fire.
Refusing to participate, Soule and the men of Company D of the
First Colorado, along with Cramer of Company K, bore witness to
the incomprehensible. Chivingtons attack soon descended into
a frenzy of killing and mutilation, with soldiers taking scalps
and other grisly trophies from the bodies of the dead. Soule was
a devoted abolitionist and one dedicated to the rights of all people.
He stayed true to his convictions in the face of insults and even
a threat of hanging from Chivington the night before at Fort Lyon.
In the following weeks, Soule and Cramer wrote letters to Major
Edwin Ned Wyncoop, the previous commander at Fort Lyon
who had dealt fairly with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Both harshly
condemned the massacre and the soldiers who carried it out. Soules
letter details a meeting among officers on the eve of the attack
in which he fervently condemned Chivingtons plans asserting
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.
Describing the attack to Wynkoop, Soule wrote, I refused
to fire and swore that none but a coward would. His letter
goes on to describe the soldiers as a perfect mob.
This account is verified by Cramers
letter. Detailing his own objections to Chivington, whom he
describes as coming like a thief in the dark, Cramer
had stated that he thought it murder to jump them friendly
Indians. To this charge, Chivington had replied, Damn
any man or men who are in sympathy with them.
In Soules account, he writes, 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.
While few Americans especially those living outside of
Colorado may know their names, Soule and Cramer are honored
and revered by the ancestors of the people they tried to save. According
to David F. Halaas, former Colorado state historian and current
historical consultant to the Northern Cheyenne, without their courage
in disobeying Chivingtons orders and keeping their men from
the massacre, the descendants probably wouldnt be around
today, and there would be no one to tell the stories.
The horrific descriptions of Soule and Cramer prompted several
inquiries into the atrocity. Both men also testified before
an Army commission in Colorado as witnesses. While the officers
and soldiers responsible escaped punishment, their testimony brought
widespread condemnation upon Chivington, who defended the act until
These investigations also ended the political career of the
Colorado territorial governor, John
Evans, who had issued two proclamations calling for violence
against Native people of the plains, and for organizing the 3rd
Colorado Cavalry Regiment in which Chivington was placed in command.
Sites of reverence and healing
The Cheyenne and Arapaho will return to Denver this year to
honor their ancestors and remember Soules and Cramers
conscience and humanity. This will be done through an offering of
prayers and blessings, along with the performance of honor songs.
grave. Billy J. Stratton, Author provided
On the third and final day of the healing run, they will gather
for a sunrise ceremony at Soules flower-adorned grave at Denvers
Riverside Cemetery. The participants will then continue on to 15th
and Lawrence Street in downtown Denver. There, a plaque is mounted
on the side of an office building at the place where Soule was murdered
on April 23, 1865. His death, for which no one was ever brought
to justice, occurred only two months after he testified against
Chivington before the Army commission.
Over the last few decades, Soules grave and place of death
have been transformed into sacred sites of remembrance within a
violent and traumatic frontier past.
The catastrophe of the Sand Creek Massacre is recognized by
historians as among the most infamous events in the annals of the
American West. Even now, it is the only massacre of Native people
recognized as such by the U.S. government, with the land itself
preserved as a national
historic site for learning and reflection.
In Cheyenne and Arapaho stories, this event remains an ever-present
trauma and persists as part of their cultural memory. In addition,
it encapsulates the stark moment of betrayal against their ancestors
and the theft of their lands.
The story of Soules and Cramers actions and their
courage to say no to the killing of peaceful people
at Sand Creek is an important chapter of U.S. history. I maintain
that it is people like Soule and Cramer who truly deserve to be
remembered through monuments and memorials, and can be a source
for a different
kind of historical understanding: one based not on abstract
notions of justice and right, but upon the courage and integrity
it takes to breathe life into those virtues.
On the 152nd anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, as we honor
the memory of those who died at Sand Creek, may we also be inspired
by the heroic actions of these two American soldiers.