Silas Soule's letter tells the true story of Sand Creek...but like the massacre, it was misplaced
With all its fancy production -- a soundtrack with barking dogs, gunfire, screams; misty quotes appearing and disappearing, mysterious red, white and blue lights illuminating artifacts -- the single-most stunning item in Collsion: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today at History Colorado is a single-page letter from Captain Silas Soule.
The letter, along with a second letter from Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, is encased in plastic and kept in a pocket near the end of the exhibit. It would be easy to overlook. But then, it was almost lost -- twice.
It was no secret that Soule, who'd been at Fort Lyon when Colonel John Chivington rode in with his "Bloodless Third" troops in late November 1864, determined to attack the peaceful native Americans camped at Sand Creek, refused to participate in the killings. He testified against Chivington when Congress looked into the massacre of 150 mostly women, children and elderly men; Soule was assassinated a few months later, on the streets of Denver in April 1865.
But the letter he'd written shortly after the massacre to General Edward Wynkoop, who'd been transferred from Fort Lyon shortly before Chivington appeared, vanished. In 2000, when Congress was again considering Sand Creek -- this time to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site -- it suddenly appeared again. David Halaas, then the state historian, was going through a trunk of papers found in an attic in Evergreen and realized that the stash included long-lost letters about the massacre from Soule and Cramer. Just weeks after that discovery, then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell read Soule's words to Congress, moving lawmakers to tears. The site was dedicated in April 2007.
The words are from an eyewitness to history, to one of the saddest days in Colorado's history. But a decade after the letters were found, as History Colorado decided to dedicate one of its inaugural exhibits to Sand Creek, the museum chose to feature another letter from Soule -- one to his mother that did not discuss the massacre. It was only after the Northern Cheyenne objected to numerous omissions and errors in the proposed exhibit that the letter was added.
As I write in my current column, "Collision Course," the Northern Cheyenne are still so concerned about Collision that they have requested it be closed until History Colorado consults with the tribe; that hasn't happened. But interest in Sand Creek is high -- so high that two lectures at History Colorado featuring Ari Kelman, a University of California Davis professor who wrote A Misplaced Massacre, a book that follows the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, have sold out; a third has been added at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.
History Colorado should make copies of Soule's letter, and hand them to the hundreds of people who attend each lecture. And then it should make sure to leave all the extra copies at Collision, so that visitors can take home this reminder of one of Colorado's saddest days...and the sad injustices and oversights that continue.