Chivington was born into an Ohio farm family in
1821. His father died when he was only five and the burden of providing for the
family fell to Chivington's mother and older
brothers. Although he had not been particularly religious as a child and young
man, Chivington found himself drawn toward Methodism
when he was in his early twenties. He was ordained in 1844 and soon began his
long career as a minister.
When the Civil
War broke out, Colorado's
territorial governor, William
Gilpin, offered Chivington a commission as
a chaplain, but he declined the "praying" commission and asked for a
"fighting" position instead. In 1862,
Chivington, by that point a Major in the first
Colorado Volunteer Regiment, played a critical role in defeating confederate
forces at Glorietta Pass in eastern New Mexico, where his troops rappelled down
the canyon walls in a surprise attack on the enemy's supply train. He was
widely hailed as a military hero.
Back in Denver after the defeat
of the Confederacy's Western forces, Chivington
seemed destined for even greater prominence. He was a leading advocate of quick
statehood for Colorado,
and the likely Republican candidate for the state's first Congressional seat.
In the midst of his blossoming political prospects, tensions between Colorado's burgeoning
white population and the Cheyenne Indians reached a feverish pitch. The Denver newspaper printed
a front-page editorial
advocating the "extermination of the red devils" and urging its
readers to "take a few months off and dedicate that time to wiping out the
Chivington took advantage of this
dangerous public mood by blasting the territorial governor and others who
counseled peace and treaty-making with the Cheyenne. In August of 1864, he declared that
will have to be roundly whipped -- or completely wiped out -- before they will
be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing
to do is kill them." A month later, while addressing a gathering of church
deacons, he dismissed the possibility of making a treaty with the Cheyenne: "It simply
is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully
satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace
and quiet in Colorado."
later, Chivington made good on his genocidal promise.
During the early morning hours of November 29, 1864,
he led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers to the Cheyenne's Sand Creek
reservation, where a band led by Black Kettle,
a well-known "peace" chief, was encamped. Federal army officers had
promised Black Kettle safety if he would return to the reservation, and he was
in fact flying the American flag and a white flag of truce over his lodge, but Chivington ordered an attack on the unsuspecting village
nonetheless. After hours of fighting, the Colorado
volunteers had lost only 9 men in the process of murdering between 200 and 400 Cheyenne, most of them
women and children. After the slaughter, they scalped and sexually mutilated
many of the bodies, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.
Although he was
never punished for his role at Sand Creek, Chivington
did at least pay some price. He was forced to resign from the Colorado militia, to withdraw from politics,
and to stay away from the campaign for statehood. In 1865 he moved back to Nebraska, spending
several unsuccessful years as a freight hauler. He lived briefly in California, and then returned to Ohio where he resumed farming and became
editor of a small newspaper. In 1883 he re-entered politics with a campaign for
a state legislature seat, but charges of his guilt in the Sand Creek massacre
forced him to withdraw. He quickly returned to Denver and worked as a deputy sheriff until
shortly before his death from cancer in 1892.