Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Visiting the Site of the Sand Creek Massacre

Saturday, 10/21/06
Awoke to a little snow. We worked half a day. I got in a couple hours of studio time, then packed up.

We got on the road at noon, dropping Shadow at doggy day care. The drive is about 200 miles. We got there in 3 hours with a side trip to find Bent's New Fort and Old Fort Lyon site. We found these, but they are on private land, so we could not enter.

Our weather was partly cloudy and cool. I got some photos of old buildings along the way and noted a couple of locations to return to: an old building on road 60 south of US 50 and a collection of barns a few miles east of Lamar. Lighting was not ideal.

Road meets Sky, a minimalist landscape, Michael Baum photo
Road meets Sky, a minimalist landscape (photo)

Checked into the motel (Country Acres) in Lamar. The room is done up in a fishing theme, and as Patrice says "it's cute." Best of all, it's only $45. We relaxed in the room for a while, then drove to Granada for dinner with the group. On the way, we passed the site of Amache, a WW2 Japanese internment camp that housed over 7000 people. The group did a tour of the site earlier in the day which we missed. The site is a powerful reminder of a great injustice done to Japanese-Americans held there during WW2, and a great mistake by the US government in confining them there. The site is maintained as a memorial to Japanese-Americans who fought and died in WW2 defending the freedom that they were denied.

Sunday, 10/27/06
We have a quick McDonalds breakfast and arrive at Chuck and Sherri Bowen's home/photography studio/museum at 9:00. They give our group a thorough overview of their work at the ranch presenting arguments and convincing evidence for their claim that much of the Sand Creek Massacre happened on their land.

We caravan out to the ranch about 40 miles north of Lamar. Here we begin a vehicle tour of the large area of the Indian camps and massacre site. We stop often to take a closer look and to hear an account of the work done and evidence gathered in various locations.

There is controversy over the actual location of the massacre site. The sites on the Bowen Ranch are just north of the traditional site claimed by the Cheyenne and the NPS. The Bowens believe they have the northern and western portion of the Indian camps and massacre site. Their evidence is convincing. I didn't take photos of the artifact collection, but it includes exploded canon balls, grape shot, canister shards, many bullets, personal effects of the Indians and soldiers. The trail from Old Fort Lyon described by George Bent is also visible as are other features described in various accounts. 

Bents Camp, Michael Baum photo
Possible location of George Bent's camp. (photo) Michael Baum.
Could be a future painting.

The day is cool and alternates between sunshine and gloom. Clouds swirl over the open prairie sometimes bringing a little rain and sleet. We stand in what may have been George Bent's camp where the old trail crosses the creek bed. The roiling clouds cast gloom across the landscape and threaten rain or worse. The landscape is a vast, almost flat plain stretching in every direction. We feel small and exposed in the vastness. There are a few cottonwoods--some old enough to have been witness to the massacre--tracing the course of the dry creek. The creek-bed is over 100 yards wide. Under the grass, all is sand. Low sand hills march off to the west, waves on a sea of earth. These would have offered scant shelter from the attacking soldiers.

It's hard to see where one could hide in this open landscape. Accounts of people seeking shelter by desperately digging themselves into the sand make sense when you see this place. It seems a miracle that most of the Indians survived. The Bowens theorize that Robert Bent, forced to lead Chivington's troops to the Indian camps, actually led the soldiers by an indirect route that allowed the Indians to see them coming from a distance and, thus, have time to begin an escape. The bluff far to the south where Chivington recounted that he could see the camps spread out below is in plain sight of the camps.

The Bowens lead us to a large open expanse west of the creek. Here is where they found the greatest evidence that this was indeed the massacre site. With the aid of metal detectors they found exploded cannon balls, and fragments of canister rounds and grape shot along with quantities of bullets mixed in with personal effects. All of this was meticulously documented with GPS coordinates and carefully diagramed. From this, Chuck theorizes that many Indians were driven into this open killing field where the cannons awaited them. As we are pelted by sleet, some stand in silence, imagining what transpired here in this lonely place on November 29, 1864. 

The Bowens lead us to a large open expanse west of the creek. Here is where they found the greatest evidence that this was indeed the massacre site. With the aid of metal detectors they found exploded cannon balls, and fragments of canister rounds and grape shot along with quantities of bullets mixed in with personal effects. All of this was meticulously documented with GPS coordinates and carefully diagramed. From this, Chuck theorizes that many Indians were driven into this open killing field where the cannons awaited them.

As we are pelted by sleet, standing in silence, we are struck by the empty beauty of the prairie, so quiet, so peaceful with no visible sign of the horror that occured here on November 29, 1864. Yet the proof is at our feet.

Suddenly, cows appear over the low hill just to the west. The cows line up across the crest and stare, wonderingly, pondering attack. It is a demonstration of how the Indians could have been surprised by soldiers and artillery hiding just behind the crest of that hill that doesn't look like it could hide anything.


Surprise Attack!

After viewing the traditional site a half mile to the south we pull into a grove of cottonwoods and have lunch by a man-made pond. The water is clear and clean. The pond is constantly fed by water flowing beneath the sand. Water holes like these would have been a necessity to a large encampment. After lunch we drive on to what the Bowen's believe may have been Black Kettle's camp. There is no way of knowing, of course, but based on accounts and the presence of fire pits, it could well have been. Chuck has a lodge pole there that he sometimes stands up with a flag on it. the flag is visible from the overlook to the south where the Indians could have seen  Chivington's approach. A hundred yards away is what the Bowens have named the Witness Tree. It is a huge cottonwood estimated to be over 200 years old. It would have been a part of the Indian camp. We recall accounts of infants being hidden in trees during the massacre. We take a group shot under the tree, a tradition with the Bowens.

Witness tree, Michael Baum photo
A witness tree (200 years old) at possible site of
Black Kettle's camp. (photo) Michael Baum

"Black Kettle's Camp (Witness Tree)", Michael Baum
        Witness Tree, Michael Baum, oil painting, 16" x 12"
Sold (print available)

The last leg of the tour is to the north through more sites. We find flakes of stone struck off as Paleolithic Indians fashioned tools on this site many hundreds of years before the Cheyenne and Arapaho knew this country. Driving back across to the west side of the creek  we arrive back at the gate. We say our thank-yous and goodbyes and start the drive home.

On the way, we backtrack a little to an old house with a few scraggly trees that we saw on the way in. The house and landscape are striking, bathed in evening light. I get several great photos that will certainly be good painting subjects.

Forgotten ranch house, Michael Baum photo
An old ranch house near Sand Creek (photo)
Michael Baum

"Forgotten", Michael Baum
Forgotten, Michael Baum, oil painting, 18" x 14" 
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