A historian unravels the tangled story behind the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
On November 29, 1864, with almost six months of bloody fighting remaining in the Civil War, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington and a force of Colorado militia attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho village about 40 miles from Fort Lyon. For Chivington, the engagement was heroic, a defeat of likely Confederate sympathizers, Indians who had terrorized the frontier. For his subordinate, Silas Soule, the “battle” was a slaughter of defenseless women and children, and he ordered his men not to fire or take part in the atrocities that ensued. For George Bent, witness and survivor, the massacre at Sand Creek constituted a cultural catastrophe. These three competing narratives developed in the immediate wake of Sand Creek, and they persist more than 140 years later. Kelman (History/Univ. of California, Davis; A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, 2003) frequently harks back to them as he recounts the effort to bring the site under the supervision of the National Park Service. Instead of the much-wished-for “healing” and “reconciliation,” in publications, in public meetings and on the Internet, old conflicts were renewed among constituencies—private landowners, the tribes and the federal government—jostling to seize control of the Sand Creek narrative. Notwithstanding broad agreement on the geographical dimensions of the site, interpreting events proved remarkably contentious. Traditional historians, ethnographers, archaeologists and cartographers all figured into the effort to memorialize Sand Creek. While Kelman makes his sympathies clear, he mostly plays it straight in presenting the various clashing viewpoints. The Sand Creek Massacre, he notes, had its origins in the fight for control of the West. The tortured cultural and political struggle to properly remember it resulted in the 391st unit of the National Park Service.
Vividly captures the controversy and pain that accompanied this reopening of a dark chapter in American history.