When Western History Turns Out, In Fact, Finally To Be WESTERN FICTION

Those of us who write (or, at times, TRY) to write engaging western fiction and, in particular, western historical fiction, are at times amused or appalled when facts turn out to be fiction. This should be viewed as quite a different phenomenon than those who claim “life is more amazing than fiction.”

Such is the case for the famous, and now rightly infamous, 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. One hundred fifty years ago last November, the commander of the Colorado Volunteers, John Chivington took his troops out after the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians camped on Sand Creek. Already a Civil War hero for his efforts at Glorietta, the Methodist Minister-turned-soldier marched his troops from Denver City and routed, destroyed, massacred the sleeping Indians whose warriors were out hunting.

In the century and a half since, many Coloradans and descendants of the early settlers held this battle up, oddly, as a great Civil War victory. And plaques to that effect still can be found in Denver and elsewhere in the state.

The problem is, as many soldiers of the times knew (some refused the order to attack), this was not only not a great Civil War battle, but, as has been chronicled in some history books, movies, and historical fiction (including my forthcoming Chief of Thieves from Sunstone Press), it was a massacre of innocent women and children peacefully camped under both an American and a white flag. Furthermore, many of the soldiers committed horrible atrocities and paraded the results of those atrocities through the streets of Denver City.

Last November 29th, on the 150th Anniversary of the massacre, Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado publicly apologized on behalf of the State of Colorado.

Here is a thorough Denver Westword article on the issues leading up to the public ceremony and the ceremony itself, both from the white and Indian point of view:


The overriding takeaways from this incident are, of course, horrible: from Chivington’s (and some say Governor John Evans’) duplicity and bestiality; to the betrayal of Black Kettle’s serial attempts at peace with the whites; to the atrocities committed on innocent women, children, and babies by individual soldiers; to the murder of Captain Silas Soule in a Denver City alley after he testified against Chivington; to the enmity and rationalizations that led to the false Coloradan century-long memories and celebrations of an exemplary Civil War victory.

Kudos to Governor Hickenlooper and those responsible for the apology and for setting the facts straight and for putting the fiction irrevocably to bed. And kudos, too, to the patience and grace of the contemporary Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples.

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