Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Massacre at Sand Creek (Screen Gems/CBS, 1956)


The odious Colonel Chivington


The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 was one of the most shameful episodes of nineteenth-century American history. It hasn’t really been dealt with much by screen Westerns. I suppose in the earlier days of our beloved genre the US military were so much the goodies, arriving at the last minute to save beleaguered settlers or wagon trains (they’d being doing this at least since DW Griffiths’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913) and then they were altogether heroic and noble in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, so that Sand Creek simply wasn’t appropriate subject matter. And when revisionism reared its unlovely head, and the goodies became the baddies, heroes being debunked and so on, the targets were the likes of Custer (Little Big Man), Wyatt Earp (Doc) or Billy the Kid (Dirty Little Billy). Soldier Blue, made in the wake of another disgraceful massacre by Americans, My Lai, did reference Sand Creek, in a generic way, but it was set in 1877, thirteen years after Sand Creek, was as much about Custer’s attack on the Washita as anything, and made no mention of Col. Chivington, the prime mover of the horror of 1864.


A depiction of the massacre


There were tangential references to Sand Creek in Tomahawk in 1951, while The Guns of Fort Petticoat trivialized the affair shamefully in 1957, and there are mentions in The Last WarriorYoung Guns, Last of the Dogman and The Last Samurai but these are only mentions.  On TV, the 1978 miniseries Centennial includes the Sand Creek massacre as part of Episode 5, and the 2005 miniseries Into the West includes it as part of Episode 4. But really the only serious screening the slaughter ever got was in an early episode of Playhouse 90 on CBS, in Massacre at Sand Creek.


Even in Massacre at Sand Creek the names were changed. The odious Col. John Chivington became ‘Col. John Templeton’. I don’t know why, because several other aspects of the movie were quite accurate. It isn’t as if they were afraid of litigation at that remove. The other characters were also fictionalized, Cheyenne chief Black Kettle (Mo’ohtavetoo’o) becoming ‘Chief Little River’, for example.


The real John Milton Chivington was an unsavory character to say the least. He was a Methodist minister of dubious probity. A commentator of the time, James Haynes, said, as tactfully as possible, “Mr. Chivington was not as steady in his demeanor as becomes a man called of God to the work of the ministry, giving his ministerial friends regret and even trouble in their efforts to sustain his reputation.” Chivington moved his family to Denver, Colorado Territory, where he was elected Presiding Elder of the new ‘Rocky Mountain District’ but controversy dogged him there too. He was not reappointed at the 1862 conference; rather, his name was recorded as “located.” Apparently, according to the Methodist system, describing a minister as “located” means that he has effectively been retired. Historian of Methodism Isaac Beardsley, a personal friend of Chivington, suggested that Chivington was “thrown out” because of his involvement with the armed forces. Certainly Chivington was eager to serve in the Union army in the Civil War, turning down a role as chaplain in order to take up arms himself.



Col. John Milton Chivington, 1821 to 1894


He gained fame when the Confederates launched an attack in the West under General HH Sibley, moving up from Texas into New Mexico and heading for Colorado (and its goldfields). Now a major of volunteers, Chivington led a 418-man detachment to Apache Canyon. On March 26, 1862, they surprised about 300 Confederates under Major Charles L Pyron. The startled Texans were routed with 4 killed, 20 wounded and 75 captured, while Chivington’s men lost 5 killed and 14 wounded. This small victory raised morale in the Union army.


Two days later General Slough sent Chivington and his men on a circling movement, with orders to hit Sibley in the flank once Slough’s main force had engaged his front at Glorieta Pass. But it is difficult to know which general, Slough or Sibley, was the more incompetent, and Chivington waited in vain for either of them to arrive. At this point scouts reported to Chivington that Sibley’s entire supply train was nearby at Johnson’s Ranch. Chivington seized his chance: his men waited for an hour in concealment, then attacked, driving off or capturing the small Confederate guard detail without any casualties. Chivington ordered the supply wagons burned, and the horses and mules slaughtered.


Meanwhile, the Battle of Glorieta Pass was raging. Chivington returned to Slough’s main force to find it rapidly falling back. The Confederates had won the fight, but because of Chivington and his forces, they had no supplies to sustain their advance and were forced to retreat. Chivington had completely reversed the result of the battle. Sibley’s men reluctantly straggled back to Texas and never again threatened New Mexico. There were those who suggested that had Chivington moved quickly to reinforce Slough’s army when he heard gunfire, his 400 extra men might have allowed the Union to win the battle. And a captured Confederate chaplain, wrote that Chivington had threatened to kill the prisoners he took at Johnson’s Ranch. Nevertheless, Chivington was now the hero. He was promoted colonel.


By the way, I have found The Civil War in the Western Territories by Ray C Colton, The Battle of Glorieta by Don E Alberts and The Civil War in the American West by Alvin M Joseph all to be good, if you want to know more. And if you are down that way the site makes an interesting visit.




Chivington clearly had military and political ambitions. He was an Indian hater in a climate when that sentiment was widespread, and a vote-winner. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he said. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” In October 1864, his Civil War enlistment had expired and his office with the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Volunteers was nearing an end, meaning he would soon lose his command position. He determined to act quickly to forestall that.



In November, setting out from Fort Lyon, Colonel Chivington and his eight hundred troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers marched to Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek. On the night of November 28, after camping, soldiers and militia drank heavily. On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his troops to attack. Black Kettle had sent most of his warriors to hunt, provisions from the whites having being withdrawn, leaving only sixty men in the village, most of them too old or too young to hunt. Captain Silas Soule believed the Indians to be peaceful and refused to follow Chivington’s order, telling his men to hold fire. Other soldiers in Chivington’s force, however, immediately attacked the village. Ignoring the US flag flying from Black Kettle’s teepee, and a white flag the Cheyenne raised shortly after the soldiers began firing, Chivington’s soldiers, many of whom were of the lowest kind, massacred the majority of the mostly unarmed Cheyenne, chiefly women and children, taking scalps and other body parts as battle trophies, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia, which they later exhibited in Denver saloons. It was a truly appalling event that still today sends shudders down our spines.



Black Kettle (Mo’ohtavetoo’o) c 1803 to 1868.
He survived Sand Creek but he and his wife would be later killed, shot in the back, at the Washita by Custer’s men.


Chivington’s force lost fifteen killed and more than fifty wounded but this was mostly from drunken friendly fire. How many Indians died is very hard to estimate. Chivington himself later testified before a Congressional committee that his forces had killed 500 to 600 Indians and that few of them were women or children but this was an egregious lie. A prominent mixed-race Cheyenne witness named Edmund Guerrier said that about 53 men and 110 women and children were killed.



Captain Soule testified against Chivington at his US Army court martial. Chivington denounced Soule as a liar. Within three months, the captain was murdered by a soldier who had been under Chivington’s command at Sand Creek.



An Army judge publicly stated that the Sand Creek Massacre 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”. The panel of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War declared:


As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.




This is quoted in the movie.


Chivington resigned and the general Civil War amnesty meant that no charges were filed against him. In civilian life it is said that, his son having drowned, he seduced and then married his daughter-in-law, Sarah. In October 1871, she obtained a decree of divorce for non-support. He borrowed money from Sarah’s family but did not repay it. She said, “The early spring of 1871 he skipped as I heard afterward to Canada … Left me without means of support. I had no desire to live with a criminal.” Chivington later returned to Denver where he worked as a deputy sheriff until shortly before his death from cancer in 1894.



To the end of his life, Chivington maintained that Sand Creek had been a successful
operation. He argued that his expedition was a response to Cheyenne and Arapaho raids and torture inflicted on wagon trains and white settlements in Colorado and was entirely justified. “I stand by Sand Creek.”



In the movie, the Captain Soule figure has become Lt. Tucker, played by John Derek. This was the fifth of Derek’s six Western movies. Derek has his admirers (among them reader Jerry) but there are also those who think he wasn’t exactly Oscarable as an actor.



John Derek is the brave young West Pointer who stands up to the colonel


In Sand Creek he plays the decent young West Pointer who is appalled at his commander but is conflicted, his sense of duty and obedience clashing with his moral repugnance.



His ally is Indian Agent Collery (Roy Roberts), equally shocked and offended at the colonel’s racist and murderous intent. Gene Evans is a sympathetic Sergeant Maddox, who backs the young lieutenant up.



Roy Roberts is the decent Indian Agent



Templeton (the Chivington figure) is played by Everett Sloane, an Orson Welles protégé who was Mr Bernstein in Citizen Kane and Arthur Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai, but who, from a Western point of view, only did this, a small part in Way of the Gaucho and a few episodes in TV shows. He’s OK, though the writing makes him a one-dimensional character and does not attempt to explain or justify his approach or actions.



Everett Sloane as the loathsome ‘Templeton’


The movie was written and produced by William Sackheim, known for the first Rambo movie. He also co-wrote Border River with Joel McCrea and Column South with Audie Murphy. 



Writer Sackheim


The director was Arthur Hiller, best known for Love Story. I say no more.



Director Hiller


The TV movie is worthy and tries to paint a more or less honest picture of Sand Creek, though too much is fictionalized and the writer and director couldn’t resist certain Western tropes such as the young lieutenant becoming blood-brother of the son of the Cheyenne chief, that kind of thing.


You could watch it, once.




Harper’s Weekly ‘s depiction of the event




2 Responses

  1. Well, I wouldn't describe John Derek's acting as Oscarable either, Jeff, but I find him a pretty good action star in a western. And that latter description would fit quite a few of my favourite screen westerners. They didn't need to be Olivier, after all!

    Excellent write-up about the appalling events at Sand Creek which I found very interesting and educational. Around 1957 the BBC showed a number of episodes on TV here from the Playhouse 90 series and "MASSACRE AT SAND CREEK" was one of those televised. I have a note of exactly when I saw it (am I sad??) and it was the only time I have ever seen it.

    1. Yes, that's true: all those Rory Calhouns and George Montgomerys and Rod Camerons were hardly rivals to Laurence Olivier but they were damn good at what they did.
      Massacre at Sand Creek is up on YouTube if you feel the need to see it again!

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