Colorado War Description

Published on March 3, 2013 by Carol

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A delegation of Cheyenne, Kiowa,
and Arapaho chiefs at Denver,
Colorado on September 28, 1864.
Black Kettle is second from left in the front row.

The Colorado War was fought from 1863 to 1865 and was an Indian War between the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, against white settlers and militia in the Colorado Territory and adjacent regions. The Kiowa, and the Comanche played a minor role in actions that occurred in the southern part of the Territory along the Arkansas River, while the Sioux played a major role in actions that occurred along the South Platte River along the Great Platte River Road, the eastern portion of the Overland Trail. The United States government and Colorado Territory authorities participated through the Colorado volunteers, a citizens militia while the United States Army played a minor role. The war was centered on the Colorado Eastern Plains.

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The war included an attack in November 1864 against the winter camp of the Southern Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle known as the Sand Creek massacre. The battle, initially hailed in the United States press as a great victory, was later publicly condemned as an act of depraved genocidal brutality. The massacre resulted in military and congressional hearings which established the culpability of John Chivington, the commander of the Colorado Volunteers, and his troops.

The war was fought over the ability of the North American Plains tribes – mainly the Cheyenne and Arapaho – to maintain control of the bison migration grounds on the Great Plains in the upper valleys of the South Platte, Republican, Smoky Hill and Arkansas River valleys, at the edge of the plains where they met the Rocky Mountains. In the first Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), the Cheyenne and Arapaho had agreed to accept as their designated hunting grounds the Eastern Plains between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers.

The area was of little use to the American colonists before 1859, when the Colorado Gold Rush brought the first large numbers of settlers to the Colorado Piedmont along the mountains, inundating the designated Native American lands with settlers and prospectors. The new settlers demanded that the US government extinguish the Native American claims and in the autumn of 1860 federal agents reopened negotiations with factions of the two tribes at a council on the Arkansas River. At the council, in the Treaty of Fort Wise some of the Cheyenne and Arapaho agreed to surrender all their former hunting lands except for a small Indian reservation along the Arkansas River between the northern boundary of New Mexico and Sand Creek. Moreover, the tribes would be converted from nomadic hunting to a farming lifestyle. The new reservation, instead of being an open hunting territory, would be surveyed and divided among the tribal members, with each member receiving 40 acres (160,000 m²) of land. Moreover, the federal agents promised that each tribe would receive a US$30,000 subsidy for 15 years, as well as a grist mill, saw mill, and schools. The leader of the Cheyenne who signed the treaty was Black Kettle.

The policy of promoting a peaceful transition to farming, to which the tribes agreed, was thwarted in many cases by mismanagement and malfeasance of the politically appointed federal agents. One notorious example was Samuel Colley, the federal agent of the Upper Arkansas during the early 1860s, who became known for his misappropriation of tribal goods, which he sold through his son Dexter, a trader.

The conflict occurred during the last two years of the American Civil War. The same units of the 1st Colorado Volunteers of the US Army that fought in this war also spearheaded the Union counterattack in the New Mexico Campaign against the Confederate Army.

The war was initiated in April, 1864 without warning by the whites, for the purpose of driving the Indians into a reservation by force, but following minor successes against small bands of surprised Indians it became a defensive battle against intense Cheyenne and Arapaho attacks on travelers on the Overland Trail along the South Platte

Source: Legendsofamerica Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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