Chivington, John Milton, 1821-1894

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Chivington was born in Lebanon, Ohio on January 27, 1821, the son of Isaac and Jane Chivington, who had fought under General William Henry Harrison against members of Tecumseh's Confederacy at the Battle of the Thames.

Drawn to Methodism, Chivington became a minister. Following ordination in 1844, his first appointment was to Payson Circuit in the Illinois Conference. On the journey from Ohio to Illinois, Chivington contracted smallpox. He served the Illinois conference for ten years. In 1853, he worked in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot people in Kansas, a part of the Kansas–Nebraska Annual Conference. His outspoken views in favor of abolitionism put him in danger, and upon the advice of "Congressman Craig and other friends," Chivington was persuaded to leave the Kansas Territory for the Nebraska Territory.

As a result, the Methodist Church transferred Chivington to a parish in Omaha, Nebraska. Chivington left this position after a year. Historian James Haynes said of Chivington's pastoral abilities: "Mr. Chivington was not as steady in his demeanor as becomes a man called of God to the work of the ministry, giving his ministerial friends regret and even trouble in their efforts to sustain his reputation."

In May 1860, Chivington moved, with his family, to the Colorado Territory and settled in Denver. From there, he sought to establish missions in the South Park mining camps in Park County. He was elected Presiding Elder of the new Rocky Mountain District and served in that capacity until 1862. Controversy began to mar Chivington's appointment, who stopped performing his function as presiding elder. Chivington was not reappointed at the 1862 conference; rather, his name was recorded as "located." According to early Methodist polity, describing a minister as "located" means that the minister has effectively been retired. Historian of Methodism Isaac Beardsley, a personal friend of Chivington, suggested that Chivington was "thrown out" because of his involvement with the armed forces. Chivington's status as being "located" did not remove him completely from Methodist politics. His name appears as a member of the executive board of Colorado Seminary, the historic precursor of the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. His name also appears in the incorporation document issued by the Council and House of Representatives of the Colorado Territory, which was approved by then governor John Evans.

When the Civil War broke out, Colorado Territorial Governor William Gilpin offered him a commission as a chaplain, but Chivington refused it, saying he wanted to fight. He was commissioned a major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers under Colonel John P. Slough. During Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley's offensive in the East Arizona and New Mexico territories, Chivington led a 418-man detachment to Apache Canyon. On March 26, 1862, they surprised about 300 Confederate Texans under Major Charles L. Pyron. The startled Texans were routed with 4 killed, 20 wounded and 75 captured, while Chivington's men lost 5 killed and 14 wounded. This small victory raised morale in Slough's army. On March 28, Slough sent Chivington and his men on a circling movement, with orders to hit Sibley in the flank once Slough's main force had engaged his front at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico. Chivington got into position above the Pass, but waited in vain for either Slough or Sibley to arrive. While they waited, scouts reported that Sibley's entire supply train was nearby at Johnson's Ranch.

Chivington's command, among whom there was a detail of Colorado Mounted Rangers, descended the slope and crept up on the supply train. They waited for an hour in concealment, then attacked, driving off or capturing the small Confederate guard detail without any casualties. Chivington ordered the supply wagons burned, and the horses and mules slaughtered. Meanwhile, the Battle of Glorieta Pass was raging at Pigeon's Ranch. Chivington returned to Slough's main force to find it rapidly falling back. The Confederates had won the Battle of Glorieta Pass, but because of Chivington and his forces, they had no supplies to sustain their advance and were forced to retreat. Chivington had completely reversed the result of the battle. Sibley's men reluctantly retreated back to Texas and never again threatened New Mexico.

Chivington earned high praise for his decisive stroke at Johnson's Ranch, even though his discovery of the Confederate supply train was accidental. Critics have suggested that had Chivington returned quickly to reinforce Slough's army when he heard gunfire, his 400 extra men might have allowed the Union to win the battle.

In April 1862, Chivington was appointed colonel of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Regiment of Cavalry. The darker side of Chivington was revealed in the complaints of a captured Confederate chaplain, who wrote that Chivington had threatened to kill the prisoners whom he took at Johnson's Ranch. In November 1862, Chivington was appointed brigadier general of volunteers, but the appointment was withdrawn in February 1863.

Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.

— Col. John Milton Chivington

In the fall of 1864, several events took place. Major Edward Wynkoop received a letter from Black Kettle requesting a peace council and an exchange of prisoners, and Wynkoop succeeded in holding a conference with multiple Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs, including Black Kettle and Left Hand, and securing the release of some prisoners who had been taken during earlier Dog Soldier raids. Wynkoop and Captain Silas Soule, after the peace conference, traveled to Denver with both the returned prisoners and some of the chiefs. Wynkoop convinced a reluctant Territorial Governor John Evans to meet with the chiefs. Known as the Camp Weld Conference, it resulted in Evans making an offer of protection to those Indians who would surrender to Major Wynkoop at Fort Lyon. The chiefs agreed, and, after gathering their peaceful tribes, camped about 40 miles north of Fort Lyon, at Big Sandy Creek.

Around the same time, Gov. Evans received permission from the War Department to found the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, which would consist of volunteers who would sign on for 100 days. The purported purpose of the regiment was to protect Denver and the Platte road, and it was assigned to the District of Colorado, commanded by Chivington. For political reasons, Evans had stoked the fears of the populace regarding Indian attacks, and he and Chivington had hoped successful military engagements against the Indians would further their careers. But most of the Indian war parties and attacks were occurring hundreds of miles away.

In October 1864, the 100-day enlistment of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry volunteers was nearing an end, and Chivington's Civil War enlistment had expired, meaning he would soon lose his command position. After learning of the agreement reached with the chiefs, Chivington complained to the head of the Department of Kansas, Samuel R. Curtis, that Major Wynkoop was too conciliatory to the Indians. Curtis replaced Wynkoop with Major Scott Anthony, who agreed with Chivington's goal of Indian eradication. But Major Anthony requested that Wynkoop stay and advise him for a short period, despite being under orders from Curtis to end the protection of the Arapaho and Cheyenne encamped near Fort Lyon, and end the distribution of provisions that had also been promised.

After resettling his mostly Southern Cheyenne people, and hearing from Major Anthony that the distribution of provisions was ended, Black Kettle sent most of his warriors to hunt, leaving only 60 men in the village, most of them too old or too young to hunt. Dog soldiers and other Indian warriors were not part of the Sand Creek encampment.

In November, setting out from Fort Lyon, Colonel Chivington and his eight hundred troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers marched nearly to the reservation. On the night of November 28, after camping, soldiers and militia drank heavily and celebrated the anticipated fight. On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his troops to attack.

Captain Silas Soule believed the Indians to be peaceful and refused to follow Chivington's order and told his men to hold fire. Other soldiers in Chivington's force, however, immediately attacked the village. Ignoring the U.S. flag, and a white flag they raised shortly after the soldiers began firing, Chivington's soldiers massacred the majority of the mostly unarmed Cheyenne, taking scalps and other body parts as battle trophies, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia. The attack became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

The Colorado forces lost 15 killed and more than 50 wounded, mostly due to friendly fire (likely caused by their heavy drinking). Between 150 and 200 Indians were estimated dead, nearly all women and children. Chivington testified before a Congressional committee that his forces had killed 500 to 600 Indians and that few of them were women or children. Others testified against him.

A prominent mixed-race Cheyenne witness named Edmund Guerrier, said that about 53 men and 110 women and children were killed.

With Chivington's declaring his forces had won a battle against hostile Cheyenne, the action was initially celebrated as a victory. Some soldiers displayed Indian body parts as trophies in Denver saloons. However, the testimony of Soule and his men resulted in a U.S. Congressional investigation into the incident, which concluded that Chivington had acted wrongly.

Soule and some of the men whom he commanded testified against Chivington at his U.S. Army court martial. Chivington denounced Soule as a liar. Within three months, Soule was murdered by a soldier who had been under Chivington's command at Sand Creek. Some believed Chivington may have been involved.

Irving Howbert, an 18-year-old cavalryman who later became one of the founders of Colorado Springs, long defended Chivington's role in the events. In his autobiographical Memories of a Lifetime in the Pike's Peak Region, Howbert argues that the Indian women and children were not attacked, but a few who did not leave the camp were killed once the fighting began. He said that the number of warriors in the village was about equal to the force of the Colorado cavalry. According to Howbert, Chivington was retaliating for Indian attacks on wagon trains and settlements in Colorado and for the torture and the killings of citizens during the preceding three years; evidence of attacks on the white settlers – including "more than a dozen scalps of white people, some of them from the heads of women and children" – was found in the Indian camp after the battle.

Howbert also said that the account of the battle made to the United States Congress by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel F. Tappan was inaccurate. He accused Tappan of giving a false view of the battle because Tappan and Chivington had been military rivals.

Chivington was soon condemned for his part in the massacre, but he had already resigned from the Army. The general post-Civil War amnesty meant that criminal charges could not be filed against him. An Army judge publicly stated that the Sand Creek massacre was "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation". Public outrage at the brutality of the massacre, particularly considering the mutilation of corpses, was intense. It was believed to have contributed to public pressure to change Indian policy. The Congress later rejected the idea of a general war against the Indians of the Middle West.

The panel of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War declared:

As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless [sic] condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.

Chivington resigned from the army in February 1865. In 1865 his son, Thomas, drowned and Chivington returned to Nebraska to administer the estate. There he became an unsuccessful freight hauler. He seduced and then married his daughter-in-law, Sarah. In October 1871, she obtained a decree of divorce for non-support.

Public outrage forced Chivington to withdraw from politics and kept him out of Colorado's campaign for statehood. The editor of the Omaha Daily Herald tagged Chivington a "rotten, clerical hypocrite."

In July 1868, Chivington went to Washington, D.C. in an unsuccessful pursuit of a $37,000 claim for Indian depredations. He returned to Omaha, but journeyed to Troy, New York during 1869 to stay with Sarah's relatives. He borrowed money from them but did not repay. Sarah recalled that they returned to Washington in the spring of 1870 and Chivington "spent his time trying to get money without labor. ...

The early spring of 1871 he skipped as I heard afterward to Canada ... Left me without means of support. I had no desire to live with a criminal.

After living briefly in California, Chivington returned to Ohio to farm. Later he became editor of a local newspaper. In 1883, he campaigned for a seat in the Ohio legislature, but withdrew when his opponents drew attention to the Sand Creek Massacre.

He returned to Denver where he worked as a deputy sheriff until shortly before his death from cancer in 1894. His funeral took place at the city's Trinity United Methodist Church before his remains were interred at Fairmount Cemetery.

To the end of his life, Chivington maintained that Sand Creek had been a successful operation. He argued that his expedition was a response to Cheyenne and Arapaho raids and torture inflicted on wagon trains and white settlements in Colorado.

Chivington violated official agreements for protection of Black Kettle's friendly band. He also overlooked how the massacre caused the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux to strengthen their alliance and to accelerate their raids on white settlers. Until he died, Chivington still claimed to have been justified in ordering the attack, consistently stating, "I stand by Sand Creek."

In 1887, the unincorporated settlement of Chivington, Colorado, was established and named after John Chivington. The railroad town on the Missouri Pacific Railroad line was fairly close to the site of the massacre. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was largely depopulated by the Dust Bowl, but some buildings still remain.

Because of Chivington's position as a lay preacher, in 1996 the General conference of the United Methodist Church expressed regret for the Sand Creek massacre. It issued an apology to the Southern Cheyenne for the "actions of a prominent Methodist".

In 2005, the City Council of Longmont, Colorado, agreed to change the name of Chivington Drive in the town following a two-decade campaign. Protesters had objected to Chivington being honored for the Sand Creek Massacre. The street was renamed Sunrise Drive.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Edward W. Wynkoop Collection, 1859-1987 (bulk, 1859-1891) Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, New Mexico History Museum.
creatorOf Chivington, John M. (John Milton), 1821-1894. John M. Chivington papers, 1863-1892. Denver Public Library, Central Library
referencedIn Dunn, William R., 1916-. "I stand by Sand Creek" : a defense of Colonel John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Calvary, 1985. Harold B. Lee Library
referencedIn First United Methodist Church history, [undated]. Boulder Public Library
referencedIn Soule, Silas S., 1844-1865. Papers, 1861-1865. Denver Public Library, Central Library
referencedIn Atkinson, J. W., 1846-. J.W. Atkinson statement : Aspen, Colorado, 1886. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Boulder Daily Camera. Focus Magazine 1973 December 2. Boulder Public Library
referencedIn Wynkoop, Edward Wanshear, 1836-1891. Edward W. Wynkoop collection, 1859-1987 (bulk, 1859-1891). Museum of New Mexico Library
referencedIn Lyman, Clarence Augustus, 1871-. Clarence A. Lyman : [collection] : 1957 ;. History Colorado
referencedIn Sayre, Hal, 1835-1926. Hal Sayre papers, 1859-1925. University of Colorado Boulder
referencedIn The commanding officer of the First Regiment of Cavalry of Colorado : to all who shall see these presents, greeting. Denver Public Library, Central Library
referencedIn Colorado Prospector : historical highlights from early day newspapers, v. 24, n. 1, 1993 Jan. Boulder Public Library
creatorOf Chivington, John M. (John Milton), 1821-1894. The First Colorado Regiment ; The Prospective [microform] / by Col. Chivington, 1884. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Lyman, Clarence Augustus, 1871-. Papers, 1939-1957. Denver Public Library, Central Library
creatorOf Chivington, John M. (John Milton), 1821-1894. Colorado military : civil war : [collection] 1861-1989 ; (bulk 1861-1890) ;. History Colorado
referencedIn Carey, Raymond Giddens. Raymond G. Carey Sand Creek papers. 1950-1971. University of Denver, University Libraries, Anderson Academic Commons
creatorOf Chivington, John M. (John Milton), 1821-1894. Sand Creek Papers, 1861-1864. Colorado College, Tutt Library
contributorOf Inquiry-Chivington, J.M. -- Colonel, Colorado - 1st Cavalry United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Dunn, William R., 1916-. The Sand Creek affair : a reappraisal, ca. 1985. Harold B. Lee Library
creatorOf John M. Chivington : [collection] : 1898-1991 ;. History Colorado
creatorOf Bent, George, 1843-1918,. Samuel Forster Tappan : [collection] : 1861-1875 ;. History Colorado
referencedIn Edward W. Wynkoop letter, 1863 L. Tom Perry Special Collections19th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts
referencedIn Wynkoop, Edward Wanshear,. Letter, 1863. Harold B. Lee Library
referencedIn Oral intervire typescript, Oral re-creation of William Bent of Bent's Fort and the Sand Creek massacre, 1981 University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Kanas Collection
referencedIn Tappan, Samuel F. Samuel F. Tappan papers relating to the Sand Creek Massacre, 1867-1953 (bulk 1867-1913) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
referencedIn Silas Soule : [collection] : 1865 / manuscript. History Colorado
referencedIn Keesee, Daniel, 1841-. Indian depredations : Prowers, Colorado, 1886. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Tappan, Samuel F. Samuel F. Tappan papers relating to the Sand Creek Massacre, 1867-1953 (bulk 1867-1913). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Role Title Holding Repository
contributorOf 1863 - Chivington, J M - File No. C1188 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf Chivington, J M - Colorado - 1863 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf Chivington, I M - Colorado - 1863 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf 1864 - Chivington, J M - File No. K128 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf 1862 - Chivington, J M - File No. C1530 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf Chivington, J M - Colorado - 1863 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
contributorOf 1864 - Chivington, J M - File No. C148 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
Relation Name
associatedWith Atkinson, J. W., 1846- person
associatedWith Balster, Carolyn E. person
associatedWith Black Kettle, Cheyenne chief, d. 1868. person
associatedWith Boulder Daily Camera. corporateBody
associatedWith Carey, Raymond Giddens. person
associatedWith Dunn, William R., 1916- person
founderOf Iliff School of Theology corporateBody
associatedWith Keesee, Daniel, 1841- person
associatedWith Lyman, Clarence Augustus, 1871- person
associatedWith Methodist Episcopal Church corporateBody
associatedWith Sayre, Hal, 1835-1926. person
associatedWith Soule, Silas S., 1844-1865. person
associatedWith Tappan, Samuel F. person
leaderOf United States. Army. Colorado Cavalry Regiment, 1st (1862-1865) corporateBody
leaderOf United States. Army. Colorado Cavalry Regiment, 3rd (1864) corporateBody
founderOf University of Denver corporateBody
associatedWith Wetherell, W. B., person
associatedWith Wynkoop, Edward Wanshear, 1836-1891. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Omaha NE US
Sand Creek CO US
Ohio OH US
Denver CO US
Glorieta Pass NM US
Denver CO US
Civil War, 1861-1865
Indians of North America--Wars--History
Civil war--Cavalry operations
Methodist Episcopal Church--History--19th century
Sand Creek Massacre, Colo., 1864--History
Methodist Church--Clergy
Indians of North America--Government relations
Soldiers--19 century.--United States


Birth 1821-01-27

Death 1894-10-04






Ark ID: w6cj9pt6

SNAC ID: 73660241