The Sand Creek Massacre
Major Edward Wynkoop Reports on Smoky Hill Council
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We'll never forget
Major Edward W. Wynkoop reports on his meeting with Cheyenne Principal Chief Black Kettle at the
Smoky Hill Council, September 18, 1864.
By late summer 1864, Union troops finally began to mount a defense against Indian attacks against settlements on the Plains. In
early September, Cheyenne principal chief Black Kettle held a council with other chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to
discuss a peace proposal with military troops in the vicinity of southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. The chiefs
present at the council wanted to disassociate their respective clans from the hostile Cheyenne Dog Soldier and Sioux warrior
clans on a collision course with the Union Army due to their brutal summer raids on white settlements throughout Kansas,
Nebraska and Colorado.
Among the peace chiefs present at the council were Arapaho Chief Left Hand and his cousin Neva, who had negotiated a trade
with several renegade warrior clans for four children kidnapped in raids on the Little Blue River in Nebraska. Now in Black Kettle’s
charge were 16 year-old Laura Roper, Isabel Eubank (5) and her cousin, Ambrose Archer or Asher (8), and Daniel Marble (9).
Three other hostages, including Isabel’s mother and infant brother, and Nancy Morton (kidnapped with Daniel Marble near Plum
Creek, NE), were believed to be in the vicinity, but their whereabouts were not yet known by the chiefs. An eighth hostage by the
name of Mrs. Snyder, kidnapped by Little Raven's son in a raid that killed her husband and a teamster near Camp Fillmore, CO,
committed suicide in Left Hand's camp (reported by Laura Roper).
Black Kettle proposed that they offer the hostages to the Army to demonstrate their willingness to negotiate a peace treaty. The
other chiefs at the council agreed and enlisted the help of Indian interpreter George Bent to draft a letter to Indian Agent Samuel
Colley and Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commanding Fort Lyon. Three Cheyennes, One Eye, his wife, and Minimmie (Eagle Head)
volunteered to deliver the letters to Fort Lyon. The mission was a calculated risk, for the Indians knew that Army troops were
currently under orders to kill any Indian who approached a fort. One Eye, however, was known to many Fort Lyon soldiers as a
peaceable and sincere gentleman whose daughter was married to a white rancher in the area (John Prowers). The gamble paid
off, and when Lyon scouts spotted One Eye’s party near the post, their white flag of surrender was honored. They were searched,
blindfolded, and then taken to deliver Black Kettle’s letter to Major Wynkoop. (See Black Kettle’s letter.)
A contentious meeting ensued, but the suspicious Wynkoop was admittedly impressed by One Eye, who had once received an
endorsement of good character from Colonel John M. Chivington. One Eye assured Wynkoop that Black Kettle and the other
chiefs aligned with him did not want war. He then informed Wynkoop that Black Kettle wanted him to come to a meeting point
deep in Indian territory on the Smoky Hill River in Kansas, where the hostages would be given up as a good-faith exchange for a
peace treaty. Although Wynkoop suspected Black Kettle offered the captive children as a means to sue for peace, or possibly to
set a trap, One Eye offered himself and the others in his party as hostages to assure his safe passage to and from the Smoky
Hill. He and Minimmie further declared they would fight against Black Kettle, if indeed a trap had been set for Wynkoop and his
Ultimately concerned with rescuing the hostages, Wynkoop finally agreed to Black Kettle’s proposal. Without first taking the time
to clear the journey with his superiors in Kansas, Wynkoop and Captain Silas Soule accompanied One Eye’s party to the
proposed meeting place on the Smoky Hill River with contingent of 130 Lyon soldiers. Arriving at the Indian camp, the soldiers
encountered the daunting sight of warriors, numbering in the thousands, who had been alerted to the soldiers’ approach and
were drawn in a battle line. At the lead was Black Kettle, who cautiously sent a messenger to ascertain Wynkoop’s intentions.
Wynkoop returned a message that he was responding to Black Kettle’s proposal, assuring the chief of his peaceful intentions. He
further stated that he would withdraw and wait for Black Kettle to bring a small contingency of leaders for council.
At the Smoky Hill Council, Black Kettle and Left Hand turned over the four white children and promised to return the other three as
soon as they were found. Wynkoop was further impressed when Bull Bear, one of the more influential Dog Soldier chiefs,
attended the Smoky Hill Council and pledged his support of Black Kettle's efforts to make peace with the military. The chiefs
hoped their efforts would demonstrate to Wynkoop that they sincerely wanted to keep their respective clans out of the impending
war between the Army and the pro-war Dog Soldier and Sioux warrior tribes. In their meeting, Major Wynkoop told the chiefs that
he did not have the authority to negotiate a peace agreement, but he offered to bring the chiefs to Denver for a meeting with
Governor John Evans, who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Wynkoop believed at the time that Evans, who in the past had negotiated with the Indian tribes, would welcome the opportunity to
settle a peace agreement with the non-combatant members of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Black Kettle and the
chiefs privately conferred on the matter, and although several leaders distrusted Wynkoop and warned that the Denver journey
was too dangerous, Black Kettle overruled them. He returned with a small group of chiefs, and rode first to Fort Lyon with
Wynkoop’s command, and then on to Denver, where the eventual disaster of Sand Creek would take root.
The following is Wynkoop’s report to General Samuel Curtis regarding the Smoky Hill Council:
United States War Dept.: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Series I Volume XLI, Part III, pp. 242-243.
FORT LYON, COLO, TER., September 18, 1864.
Lieut. J. E. TAPPAN,
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, Dist. of Upper Arkansas:
SIR: I have the honor to report for information of the major-general commanding that on the 3rd instant three Cheyenne Indians
were met a few miles outside of this post by some of my men en route for Denver, and were brought in. They came, as they stated,
bearing with them a proposition for peace from Black Kettle and other chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations. Their
propositions were to the effect that they, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, had in their possession seven white prisoners whom
they offered to deliver up in case that we should come to terms of peace with them. They told me that the Cheyennes, Arapahoes,
and Sioux were congregated for mutual protection, at what is called "Bunch of Timber," on headwaters of the Smoky Hill, at a
distance of 140 miles northeast of this post numbering altogether about 3,000 warriors, and desirous to make peace with the
whites. Feeling anxious at all odds to effect the release of these white prisoners, and my command having just been re-enforced
by a detachment of New Mexico infantry sent by General Carleton, commanding Department of New Mexico, to my assistance, I
found that I would be enabled to leave sufficient force to garrison this post by taking 130 men, including one section of the battery
with me, and concluded to march to this Indian rendezvous for the purpose of procuring these white prisoners above mentioned,
and to be governed by circumstances as to the manner in which I should proceed to accomplish the same object. Taking with me
under a strict guard the Indians I had in my possession, I reached my destination and was confronted by from 600 to 800 Indian
warriors drawn up in line of battle and prepared to fight. Putting on as bold a front as possible under the circumstances, I formed
my little command in as good order as possible for the purpose of acting on the offensive, or defensive, as might be necessary,
and advanced toward them, at the same time sending forward one of the Indians I had with me as an emissary to state that I had
come for the purpose of holding a consultation with the chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations; to come to an
understanding which might result in mutual benefit, and that I had not come desiring strife, but was prepared for it, if necessary,
and advised them to listen to what I had to say previous to making any more warlike demonstrations.
They consented to meet me in council, and I then proposed to them that if they desired peace to give me palpable evidence of their
sincerity by delivering into my possession their white prisoners. I told them I was not authorized to conclude terms of peace with
them, but if they acceded to my proposition I would take what chiefs they might choose to select to the Governor of Colorado
Territory and state the circumstances to him, and that I believed it would result in what it was their desire to accomplish, viz, peace
with their white brethren. I had reference particularly to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. The council was divided, undecided,
and could not come to an understanding among themselves. Finding this to be the case, I told them I would march to a certain
locality, distant twelve miles, and await a given time for their action in the matter. I took a strong position in the locality named and
remained three days. In the interim they brought and turned over into my possession four white prisoners, all that was possible at
the time being for them to turn over, the balance of the seven being, as they stated, with another band far to the northward. The
released captives that I have with me now at this post consist of one female named Laura Roper, aged sixteen, and three children
(two boys and one girl), named Isabella Eubanks, Ambrose Asher, and Daniel Marble; the three first mentioned all being taken on
the Blue River, in the neighborhood of what is known as the Liberty Farm, and the latter captured somewhere on the South Platte
with a train of which all the men were murdered. I have the principal chiefs of the two tribes with me, and propose starting
immediately to Denver City, Colo. Ter., to put into effect the proposition made aforementioned by me to them. They agreed to give
up the balance of the prisoners as soon as it is possible to procure them, which can be better done from Denver City than it can
from this point.
Hoping my action may meet the approval of the major-general commanding. I respectfully submit the above report.
I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. W. WYNKOOP,
Major First Cavalry of Colorado, Commanding Post.
Although Wynkoop saved the children, his subsequent decisions were fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, he went to the
Smoky Hill without gaining permission from his superiors. His reasoning was due to a warning sent by Black Kettle that the Chief
couldn't guarantee how long his clan could safely remain at the proposed meeting place. Wynkoop feared that the lengthy
process of sending messengers across Kansas to Leavenworth and awaiting a reply could doom the children, whom had already
endured a month of hostile Indian captivity.
Secondly, once Wynkoop secured the release of the children, he believed Governor Evans, as Indian Superintendent, had full
authority to negotiate a peace treaty, when in fact the Army was now officially at war with the tribes. Such authority rested solely
with General Samuel Curtis, commanding the District of Kansas. (Although 500 miles away from Leavenworth, Colorado's Fort
Lyon was part of the Upper Arkansas District, and ultimately under Curtis' authority.)
At the time of the Smoky Hill Council, Wynkoop’s top responsibility was to take the rescued children along a shorter and safer
route back to Fort Lyon. Once at Lyon, Wynkoop knew that taking Black Kettle and the other Chiefs to Denver (250 miles northwest
along the protected Platte Trail) with his small escort of 40 soldiers was less risky than taking them to Fort Riley or Leavenworth -
across 400 miles of hostile Indian country. Although a reasonable decision (perhaps the only option under the circumstances), it
would later appear that Wynkoop again breached military protocol by not gaining General Curtis' permission before he acted. He
instead sent a messenger ahead to Denver, boldly informing Governor Evans that he was bringing the Indian leaders for a peace
Wynkoop’s decision would not only exacerbate the political power struggle for command of the Colorado Territory between
Colonel John Chivington and General Curtis, it would also turn the wrath of Denver's nervous citizenry on Evans for allowing the
much feared Indian chiefs into the city.
For a full account of the resulting council in Denver, go to The Weld Council.
In his letter, Black Kettle offered to return the hostages in exchange for a peace agreement with all the Plains Indians tribes. This
was an unreasonable request at the time, for many historians conclude that Black Kettle mistakenly believed he had more
influence over the warrior clans who were unbending in their resolve for war.
Hoig, Stan The Sand Creek Massacre
Roberts, Gary L. Sand Creek: Tragedy and Symbol
Go to bibliography for citation.
For the story of Laura Roper and Isabele Eubank's ordeal with the Dog Soldiers, go to: Ellenbecker, John G.: Oak Grove Massacre,
(Oak, Nebraska), Indian Raids on the Little Blue River in 1864. Marysville, KS: Marysville Advocate-Democrat, 1927. (Special
thanks to Christopher Wynkoop).
|Sand Creek also
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