By Benjamin Dancer
Freckled Face Woman was on the trail to the spring when she saw a crimson dust cloud in the distance. The men of the village were hunting, and she thought, at first, the dust was caused by their horses or maybe a herd of bison. She hadn’t been awake long, and it took time for her to recall the reason for her visit to Sand Creek.
When Freckled Face Woman told Ned that Chivington had stopped the mail and all traffic on the Arkansas along his route to Fort Lyon, he downplayed her concern. Chivington was present at the peace council. Both he and Governor Evans authorized Major Wynkoop to accept Black Kettle’s and Left Hand’s surrender. There was no misunderstanding about that.
Freckled Face Woman tried for two days to persuade her son to come home.
He said his place was with Left Hand.
It was a good sized-village, over a hundred lodges, a handful of which constituted Left Hand’s camp. The pony and mule herds were scattered around the encampment totaling many hundred animals. Freckled Face Woman saw Kingfisher and Little Bear running in the blue grama grass from the direction of their eastern herd. They were shouting something.
A flock of meadowlarks was foraging in the dry grass on both sides of the trail. Apart from the herders in the distance, she was alone. Most people had not yet risen.
Freckled Face Woman forgot about the coffee she intended to brew when she saw the long column of soldiers approaching from the south. Sand Creek was mostly dry, and the Americans were riding through the sandreed in the wide floodplain.
By then, Little Bear was close enough for her to hear what he was shouting. “The soldiers are coming!”
By force of will, Freckled Face Woman suppressed the panic she felt in her breast and took the time to scan the horizon. She saw a group of young boys driving their ponies toward the village. Others herders were fleeing. She told herself it might be Wynkoop coming to finalize the peace. The nearest pony herd was about a half mile away. If she was going to escape, this was her chance. She thought about running for the horses. But she couldn’t leave without her son.
The encampment was near a bend in Sand Creek, and the head of the column stopped to the south where the soldiers unloaded their baggage. Freckled Face Woman ran back to Left Hand’s camp.
A girl’s head poked out from a lodge to see what all the yelling was about. Bison Woman was putting on her moccasins.
Freckled Faced Woman was winded and within the village when she heard a man shouting. “Wake up Arapahos! The soldiers are attacking! Run! Scatter! We will all meet again in two moons where we had our last Sun Dance!”
The cavalry was now in a gallop in a column of fours. She looked inside the lodge, but Ned was no longer there.
A battalion separated from the larger force and advanced north in order to envelope the east side of the village. A small detachment from that battalion raced toward one of the herds. They would have slain Little Bear, but the oldest boys anticipated the maneuver and charged their ponies to meet those soldiers in battle. Little Bear and Kingfisher got through, but the other herders were shot from their mounts. Meanwhile, Major Anthony’s battalion galloped toward a position to the south.
By now the everybody was awake and the village was in unmitigated chaos. Half dressed children ran out of their lodges, caught sight of the soldiers enveloping them and screamed. Old men ducked back inside to retrieve their weapons. The soldiers were forming a horseshoe around the encampment, and there was only one way out. A stampede of partially dressed people fled into the creek, hoping to escape upstream.
Black Kettle presented a large American flag tied to the end of a lodgepole. Beneath the American flag was a smaller white flag. He called out in a strong voice, “Do not be frightened. We are under protection. There is no danger.”
Those who saw flight as hopeless surrendered themselves. Scores of women and children pleaded for mercy. Many of them dropped to their knees or bellies in supplication, women covering their children with their own bodies. Others ran toward the soldiers with their hands in the air. Some waved white calico. Still others were too petrified to move.
By now, the ponies were running through the village. An old chief put two of his granddaughters on one of the horses.
“Ride fast,” he sent them upstream. “We will find you later.”
As was reported to Colonel Chivington by Captain Soule on the previous day, John Smith, an United States Indian interpreter and special Indian agent, and David Louderback, a United States Army private, were camped at Sand Creek trading and gathering intelligence under the authority of Major Anthony. When they saw the camp being enveloped, they ran toward their compatriots, Louderback waving a white flag, Smith with his hands in the air, to explain that the Indians they were camped with had surrendered. The line of cavalry responded with several volleys of rifle fire.
Major Anthony was still forming his line when the battalion to the northeast opened the attack. He shouted, “Kill the sons of bitches!”
A fusillade of lead ripped through the supplicating bodies of women and children.
By the time Little Bear made it back to his lodge, his parents were gone. Freckled Face Woman watched as he put on his war bonnet.
“What are you doing?” he asked her. “Run!”
She could not leave without her son. Although she knew the canvas could not stop a lead ball, she crouched behind one of the tipis. She felt afraid, but, for the time being, it was a mother’s fear, and it had yet to occur to her that she also was in harm’s way. Freckled Face Woman was on her hands and knees when she slowly looked around the tipi and saw the battery of howitzers. The Model 1835 Mountain Howitzer fired wrought-iron hollow spheres four and a half inches in diameter, filled with a bursting charge of black powder and about seventy-eight musket balls. Shortly after the commencement of the assault, came a barrage from two twelve-pounder howitzers. Shrapnel and .69 caliber balls perforated the canvas and splintered the lodge poles of Freckled Face Woman’s shelter. The grenade-like explosions ripped through the women around her, and howls of pain accompanied the repeated concussions of the ordinance.
White Antelope had parleyed with President Lincoln the year prior. He had told the Cheyenne that the Americans were good people and had compelled his relatives to camp with him under the protection of Fort Lyon. So when he saw the soldiers shooting into the lodges, he made up his mind not to live any longer. White Antelope stood with his arms folded across his breast singing the death-song, “Death is upon us. Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains.”
There was nowhere for Freckled Face Woman to hide. As she cowered in the white sage, she saw an adolescent boy rope a horse. While he was tying the bridle, he told someone still in the lodge, “Get ready. You’re going to ride out of here.” Then a pregnant woman came out and mounted the pony. Freckled Face Woman recognized her as the boy’s mother. He told her to follow the other horses then went back into the lodge and came out with his bow and arrows.
The bullets sounded like hail when they shredded the canvas.
There was a woman on her knees with two small children pleading for their lives in front of a group of soldiers. The Americans were no more than ten feet away when the first one fired. Over the course of two or three seconds, the rest of them discharged their rifles, as well, but their eyes were closed. The mother was shot in the thigh, and no one else was wounded. The mother drew a knife, the only protection she had left, and used it to kill her children. Then she killed herself.
Freckled Face Woman was surrounded by the dead and dying. Dogs were barking and licking up the blood.
A girl, maybe five or six, was running toward the creek bank with one moccasin on and the other foot bare. She carried a little backpack in one hand and held her older brother’s hand with the other. He was no more than seven. A couple of old men stood between the fleeing children and the cavalry, holding the line of soldiers back with their arrows. All those men had for cover was a cottonwood sapling. The children were in the switchgrass at the top of the creek bank when the boy stumbled. She climbed back up the bank to help him, but he was bleeding and couldn’t get up.
“Don’t look back,” he told her.
As the bullets went by, they made a sound Freckled Face Woman had never heard before. It was like they were ripping the air. People were falling down everywhere.
She saw a little boy in the wide creek bed. He was walking in a half circle, as if he didn’t know where to go. Then she saw one of the old men running toward him. The man grabbed the boy and ran.
Freckled Face Woman jumped down the bank and started running, too. She wasn’t aware that it had happened, but she was no longer thinking about her son. She was no longer thinking. She just ran.
Major Anthony maneuvered his battalion so that the force was pursuing the people on opposite sides of the wide creek bed. Colonel Chivington was in command of two distinct military elements at Sand Creek, the first of which was the regiment of five hundred volunteers; the second element was composed of soldiers from the First Regiment of Colorado Cavalry, which he commandeered the previous day from Fort Lyon–with the notable exception of two companies: Captain Soule’s D and elements of Lieutenant Cramer’s K, who refused to participate. As the village emptied, Chivington’s volunteers, equipped with an assortment of muskets, rifles, carbines, revolvers and cavalry sabers, joined in the pursuit. There were some seven hundred mounted soldiers slaughtering the People as they fled.
As Freckled Face Woman ran, she saw a young mother in the creek ahead. Her daughter couldn’t keep up with her. The mother tried to carry the girl, but the woman was of a slight build and didn’t get far before she gave out. The mother scooped out a hole in the sand. She was covering the girl when Freckled Face Woman ran past.
“Don’t cry,” the woman told her daughter. “I’ll come back.”
She saw a boy crawl into a hollow log.
There were scores of people trying to escape on the prairie. Some on the horses they caught, others on foot. Two sisters were chased by horsemen. They ran until their lungs stopped working. Then they fell to their knees and clasped each other around the neck. That’s when they were shot.
Freckled Face Woman was running beside a grandmother. The woman was naked and carrying a baby. Then ran together for sixty yards or so. Then she wasn’t beside her anymore. Freckled Face Woman looked back and saw the baby wailing in the wheatgrass. The woman had been shot in the head. But Freckled Face Woman didn’t stop running. The possibility never occurred to her. Someone else stooped down and picked the baby up.
By this time there was no organization among the soldiers. Some got off their horses to shoot the people hiding under the banks, which ranged anywhere from two to twenty feet high. Others advanced along both sides of the wide creek to kill those running away. The carnage was so disorderly that the Americans repeatedly came under fire from their own ranks. Some of them were engaged in collateral action throughout the surrounding prairie, pursuing women and children in every direction.
Freckled Face Woman was winded and limping with one hand on her side when she came upon the defensive line the chiefs were organizing in the creek bed. The People were digging entrenchments in the sand, and the old men, armed with bows and a few muskets, were gathering the women and children behind them.
Little Bear was in one of the sand pits. All the feathers were broken on his war bonnet, and there were bullet holes in his shield.
Freckled Face Woman was offered a chert knife from one of dying. Then she saw Ned with Spanish Woman and some others, almost all of them bleeding, digging a pit under an overhang in the creek bank. She ran to her son and helped the women dig.
She could see a dozen of the dead from where she lay beside a little girl in the sand. A young girl was scalped as she was being raped in the grass. A battery of howitzers was being pulled by mules on the opposite side of the creek. There was a bluff to the west, and one of the boys told her that they could get away if they climbed it. Some of the women went with him. But Ned refused to leave.
Earlier in the fight, Yellow Coyote staked himself out in the creek to defend the people behind him. Those soldiers didn’t stay back because they were afraid of the old chief’s arrows. His courage shamed them. Ned was fourteen years old. He saw how the man chose to die and felt proud to be counted with him. In the context of the carnage, his emotions made no sense, not even to himself, except that once he decided to die like that old man, his heart felt light.
Freckled Face Woman tried to persuade the little girl to flee with the others, but she wouldn’t let go of her hand.
They heard footsteps above them. Two, maybe three, soldiers were searching for people hiding under the bank. Freckled Face Woman could feel the little girl shuddering and pulled her to her breast. The morning’s slaughter had depleted her ability to be frightened. What she felt was outrage.
Bluestem grass hung from the bank above her. She saw the blond hair through the leaves, then the green eyes and the head hanging upside down.
The soldier called up to his companions. “There’s some here!”
What Freckled Face Woman saw next was the barrel of a Whitney revolver. She stood, grabbed the soldier’s gun with one hand and thrust her knife into his eye with the other. The gun went off and the gas escaping from the cylinder gap opened her palm. She let the revolver fall into the sand, then she yanked the soldier’s hair and pulled him down. Immediately following his corpse into the pit was a .44 caliber Colt repeating rifle.
Freckled Face Woman didn’t know she had been shot. All she could feel was the pain in her hand. Ned packed the hole in her side with his cotton shirt.
Freckled Face Woman found the soldier’s powder and bullets and used the rifle to shoot an American on the opposite bank who was using the buttstock of his Sharps carbine to brain one of the children. It took three shots for her to hit him, and as there were no other visible targets, she handed the rifle to Ned to reload.
By the time she got the revolving rifle back, the soldiers were directing the battery of howitzers at the sand pits. When she aimed at the artillerymen, Ned put his hand over the rear sight and told her to save the powder. They were out of range. Freckled Face Woman had seen what the big guns were capable of in the village and began to bury the little girl in the sand.
The battery fired its remaining ordnance into the defensive positions dug into the creek bed. The explosions propelled shards of iron and balls of lead that blasted the sand of the entrenchments as high as some of the young trees and tore through the women and children.
After the bombardment, the sky was filled with arrows. They looked like blue streaks in the air. Intimidated by the ferocity of the defense, the Americans kept their distance. Freckled Face Woman came to Sand Creek to rescue her son. She remained when she could have escaped because she thought he needed her. She saw now that she was wrong. Her youngest son was now a man beyond her reach. Life itself had moved beyond her reach. Ned fought beside his mother until they ran out of powder. Then they fought with knives. When Freckled Face Woman died, the little girl kept fighting with the rock in her hand.
Benjamin Dancer wrote the novels Patriarch Run, In Sight of the Sun, and Fidelity. “Sand Creek” is an excerpt from his new novel A Tale of Shame and Grace. You can learn more at BenjaminDancer.com.