Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 4 : War Comes to the Cheyennes | Summary



The Pike's Peak gold rush of 1858 brings white men flooding into Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho country. In 1861 the U.S. government names this territory Colorado, and begins "maneuvering for a land cession from the Indians." A new treaty is signed at Fort Wise. Only 6 of the 44 Cheyenne chiefs are present, and the real terms of the treaty are much different from what the chiefs are led to believe. Most of Cheyenne and Arapaho land is taken away, leaving the two groups with "a triangular section of territory bounded by Sand Creek and the Arkansas River."

The Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs of Kansas and Colorado try to keep their young men busy hunting buffalo away from the white men's roads during the early years of the Civil War. But by 1864 the white men are growing bolder, and they prowl off the beaten path. Soon, news comes of white soldiers attacking a tribe of Cheyennes on the South Platte River. Just days later, soldiers arrive with canons at Chief Black Kettle's camp. Chief Lean Bear rides out on his horse to greet them in friendship but is immediately shot down. Cheyenne warriors retaliate. Black Kettle yells at his people to stop, but the damage is already done. Three Cheyennes, including Lean Bear, and several white soldiers are dead.

Black Kettle doesn't know why the white soldiers attacked his camp. He asks his friend William Bent, a white man who married into the tribe, for insight. It turns out Colonel John M. Chivington's Colorado volunteers—the same men who attacked Black Kettle's camp—are on a crusade to "kill Cheyennes whenever and wherever found." This is exacerbated by Colorado governor John Evans's August 1864 proclamation authorizing "all citizens of Colorado" to kill any and all "hostile" Indians. "Friendly" Cheyennes and Arapahos are told to report to Fort Lyon on their reservation to avoid being killed.

Black Kettle isn't sure how to get 2,000 Cheyennes and Arapahos to the reservation safely. He asks for help from the fort's commanding officer, Major Edward W. Wynkoop. Wynkoop is pretty sure Black Kettle is luring him into a trap—his 100 soldiers couldn't possibly hold off that many Indians. He takes Black Kettle's two emissaries, One-Eye and Eagle Head, as hostages to ensure no harm will come to his troops. He is surprised by how much he ends up liking them.

Wynkoop, Black Kettle, and seven other Cheyenne chiefs travel to Denver in September 1864 to make peace with Governor Evans and Chivington. Black Kettle promises he only wants peace, but Evans insists the Cheyennes are in an alliance with the Sioux, who have been "do[ing] all the damage to the whites they can." Chivington tells the chiefs he will continue fighting Indians until they "lay down their arms and submit to military authority." The Cheyennes leave Denver unsure whether they've made peace or not.

Wynkoop takes good care of the Cheyennes and Arapahos who report to Fort Lyon, which makes him unpopular with his superiors. He is soon replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony, who takes great pleasure in harassing Indians. Shortly after his arrival, he assures Black Kettle that the Cheyennes will be safe as long as they are camped near Sand Creek. Then he crafts a plan to annihilate them.

On November 29, 1864, a force of 700 U.S. soldiers led by Chivington attacks the peaceful Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek, which is virtually unprotected because most of the warriors are out hunting. The white soldiers ignore Black Kettle's American flag—given to him as a sign of protection by Commissioner of Indian Affairs A.B. Greenwood two years earlier—and kill every Cheyenne they can find. Women and children, as well as several old men, are indiscriminately slaughtered by Chivington's troops, and their bodies mutilated with glee. A few hundred Cheyennes manage to escape to the hunting grounds where the warriors are. They are bloodied, battered, and freezing when they arrive.

Word spreads across the plains about the Sand Creek massacre. Leaders of various Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes plan their next move. It comes in January 1865 with a series of attacks on wagon trains, small military outposts, and stage stations along the Platte River. Towns are burned and miles of telegraph wire destroyed. Most of the Indians then decide to go to Powder River country in present-day Montana, where they join up with the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes.

Black Kettle and his followers move south of the Arkansas River to join the Southern Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches. In the summer of 1865 Black Kettle and Arapaho chief Little Raven are called to make a new treaty with the white men. It seems the land on which Denver City was built belongs to the Indians. The white men want to null all Indian land claims in Colorado "so that white settlers would be certain they owned the land once they ... claimed it." The Indians don't want to give up the land where their loved ones died at Sand Creek, but they have little choice. The white men have already taken over their old land. The treaty, signed on October 14, 1865, signifies the end of the Cheyennes and Arapahos in Colorado.


The 1861 treaty signed at Fort Wise established a reservation for the Southern Cheyennes and Southern Arapahos located between the Arkansas River and Sand Creek. Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs thought the treaty allowed them to leave the reservation and hunt wherever they pleased. This was important because their assigned reservation was devoid of wild game, and the land wasn't suitable for farming. The Indians wouldn't be able to support themselves if they couldn't go elsewhere to hunt. But the Indians couldn't read English, and their interpreters weren't always reliable or accurate. The treaty actually stated the Indians were never allowed to leave the reservation.

This misunderstanding causes a multitude of problems for the Cheyennes and Arapahos. Colonel Chivington and Governor Evans want all Indians out of Colorado. The best way to do this—and make sure they don't come back—is by killing them. Because of the Fort Wise treaty, any Indian off reservation property was considered hostile and out of bounds, which Chivington thought made them fair game for attack. Chivington allows his enemies no mercy, and tells his soldiers, "It is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians." Chivington's superiors feel the same way, which is why no one blinked an eye when he led his Colorado regiment into Kansas to hunt Indians.

Governor Evans also wants to see the end of Indians in Colorado, and not just because he wants their land. He was given the money and manpower to raise the Third Colorado Regiment because he told Washington officials the Indians in his territory were a major problem. They weren't, but he needed an excuse to help men living in Colorado avoid the Civil War draft of 1864. If they were already in a military outfit fighting Indians, they wouldn't have to go fight the Confederates. Agreeing to peace terms with the Cheyennes and Arapahos would be a signal to Washington officials that Evans had misrepresented the situation. In short, they would know he lied. This is why Evans resists meeting with Black Kettle and the other Cheyenne chiefs, and why he tells Wynkoop he's not authorized to "make peace."

Wynkoop's attitude about Indians undergoes a dramatic change in the summer of 1864. Like most U.S. soldiers in the West, he neither trusts nor likes Indians, and he's suspicious of Black Kettle's intentions when One-Eye and Eagle Head first arrive at Fort Lyon. His opinion of the two Cheyennes, and of Indians in general, changes as soon as he talks to the men for an extended length of time. "I felt myself in the presence of superior beings," he was later quoted as saying. Instead of being "cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty" as he had been told, they were honest and kind. Wynkoop's change of heart sets him apart from his fellow soldiers, and he finds himself becoming an advocate for Indian interests while still employed by the U.S. Army. He doesn't have to take Black Kettle and the other chiefs to Colorado, but he wants to. Colonel Chivington is Wynkoop's superior officer, so Wynkoop is familiar with the prevailing attitudes about Indians in the Colorado government. Now that he knows them, he wants to make sure they are treated fairly. He continues helping the Southern Cheyennes as the agent at their reservation a few years down the road.

Wynkoop had already been dismissed by the time Chivington and Major Anthony, Wynkoop's replacement, were planning the massacre at Sand Creek. By all accounts, it was one of the most horrific and disturbing events to ever have taken place on American soil. The soldiers didn't just kill 133 Indians—they took a grotesque pleasure in disturbing and dismembering their bodies, often while their victims were still alive. Men's testicles were removed for later use as tobacco pouches, female genitalia were mounted on sticks or worn as hats, and infants—even an unborn child—were scalped. The Indians didn't forget this. The 1866 massacre near Fort Phil Kearny left many of the dead bodies in the same state as those at Sand Creek, only this time they were the bodies of white soldiers. Brown maintains, "The Indians who ambushed Fetterman were only imitating their enemies."

Not every soldier under Chivington's command obeyed his orders to slaughter the Southern Cheyennes. Captain Silas S. Soule and Lieutenant Joseph A. Cramer, both friends of Wynkoop, refused to fire their guns during the ambush. Two letters from Soule and Cramer, both addressed to Wynkoop, were uncovered in 2000. Each man gives his account of what happened at Sand Creek, which lines up with Brown's account, and they speak of their hope that Chivington will not receive a promotion. Cramer speculates that Chivington planned the attack with Anthony in order to become a Brigadier General. This is why his official report says 400–500 warriors were killed, when in reality no warriors were there, and fewer than 140 Indians died. Cramer hopes Wynkoop can do something in Washington, DC to prevent Chivington from being rewarded for the massacre. And in fact, Wynkoop does. He testifies against Chivington during an investigation of the massacre the following year. Chivington is never formally punished for his role at Sand Creek, but he is forced to resign from the militia and abstain from politics for the rest of his life.

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