Events at Sand Creek, 1864

Historical Context

When the Civil War broke out, John Milton Chivington, a missionary in Kansas, was offered a commission as a chaplain but refused it as he wanted to fight. As a result he was given a commission as a major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers. During the war, Chivington earned the reputation of being an inspirational leader to his men. His most notable accomplishment in the Civil War came during the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico. Though the Confederates won this battle, Chivington prevented the Confederates from carrying on their campaign into New Mexico when he captured and burned their supply wagons.

However, Chivington’s actions both during and after the events at Sand Creek have made him one of the most controversial people in US military history. On November 29, 1864, Chivington commanded a force of 700 men who attacked and destroyed a village of about 800–900 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians encamped in southeastern Colorado.


The US Army, following the Civil War, concentrated its efforts against the Native Americans from the Great Plains. These actions negatively affected the population and culture of Native Americans. Typically, textbooks provide very shallow coverage of the status of Native Americans in the late nineteenth century. Sand Creek is reflective of the government’s attitude toward the original Americans.


  • Describe the event at Sand Creek.
  • Compare the trial of Colonel Chivington to that of Maj. William Calley.
  • Support, citing evidence, and defend an opinion as to the following essential question.
  • Effectively use a debate format in the discussion of the topic.

Essential Question

Should Col. John M. Chivington have been praised or punished for his actions at Sand Creek?



On the night before the class, students are to visit the Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre page above and complete the following:

  1. Examine and describe the events of the Sand Creek Massacre by reading the primary resource documents provided. All of the documents on the Archives of the West website from PBS are to be read, including two editorials from the Rocky Mountain News (1864); Congressional testimony by John S. Smith, an eyewitness to the massacre (1865); and the deposition by John M. Chivington (1865). Students are to list at least ten things learned from the primary documents. The documents can be found at the following link:
  2. In a 100–200-word paragraph, students summarize their feelings and reactions to some of the events that took place. In the paragraph, students are to explain how their opinions and emotions changed while reading the primary documents. Students will use their paragraphs for a class discussion on the historical event.


See the Buffalo Bill Paintings and "An Introduction to the My Lai Courts-Martial."

  1. Examine the supplemental paintings by Eagle Robe. (Eagle Robe is a descendant of Little Raven and the great-grandson of Lame Man, a survivor of Sand Creek.) Students will describe what they see in the paintings versus what they read in the primary documents.
  2. Students are to engage in a discussion in which they exhibit their understanding of the Sand Creek event through a comparison of the Robe paintings and the result of their homework.
  3. Students are to research the trial of 1st Lt. William Calley, convicted for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and compare his actions to that of Chivington.
  4. Divide students into four groups. Two groups will take one position as to the essential question, and two groups will be assigned the alternate position. The four groups are to work independently of each other and then select an individual to engage in the debate. Therefore, two debates will take place.

Summary Question / Closure Activity

Relate the Sand Creek Massacre and other historical events, including the My Lai event. Did Chivington live up to his responsibility as a military officer?