One by one, the runners walked by the simple marble gravestone of one of two U.S. Army officers who refused to fire on their ancestors in one of the worst atrocities in the settlement of the West.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho runners touched the stone in Denver’s oldest cemetery after trekking from the scene of the Sand Creek massacre on the plains about 180 miles away.
Their journey marked the 150th anniversary of the attack that left about 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead.
On Wednesday, some tribal members and others who joined them added to the rocks on top of the marker for Capt. Silas Soule. Next to the headstone stood a framed photo of the Kansas grave of Lt. Joseph Cramer, the other officer who refused to take part in the slaughter.
Led by people holding tribal flags and staffs bearing eagle heads, about 70 runners then made their way through the industrial neighborhood to downtown and the state Capitol. There, Gov. John Hickenlooper apologized for the massacre on behalf of the state.
“We will not run from its history, and we will always work for peace and healing,” Hickenlooper told the crowd of more than 300 people at the run’s end.
Soule and Cramer witnessed but ordered their men not to participate in Col. John Chivington’s Nov. 29, 1864, attack on Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along a dry creek bed. Many of the tribal members killed were women and children.
The raid came after months of fighting and rising tensions between Indians and white settlers. Many of the newcomers, like Cramer and Soule, were lured by the promise of striking it rich in gold, which pushed the tribes from their traditional lands.
The Indians believed they were safe after making peace with the commander of nearby Fort Lyon. They even flew a U.S. flag at the camp.
Both Soule and Cramer attended peace conferences with the Arapaho and Cheyenne chiefs earlier in the year and heard U.S. military commanders tell them they were in no danger.
Some descendants of Sand Creek survivors credit Soule and Cramer for their own existence, believing further bloodshed might have wiped out their ancestors too.
Many also credit Soule’s graphic written account of the massacre with helping push leaders to start coming to terms with the massacre. A letter he wrote resurfaced in 2000 as Congress considered creating a Sand Creek historic site.
“If it wasn’t for him, they would not have would not have remembered what happened that day,” said Daryn West, 27, of Oklahoma’s Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, who ran the entire 180-mile route.
The yearly run to commemorate victims and survivors of the massacre started in 1999. It roughly traces the path Chivington and his soldiers took back to Denver after the attack, carrying some of the victims’ remains to display in the city.
At the Capitol, a Soule descendant, Byron Strom, read the letter, which describes the killing and mutilation of the victims, as some in the crowd fought back tears.
Just a few feet away stood the Civil War monument that reflects Colorado’s struggle to come to terms with the events at Sand Creek. Chivington was hailed as a hero in Denver, although scathing federal investigations — spurred by Soule and Cramer’s criticism — ultimately led to the resignation of territorial governor John Evans.
The monument still lists Sand Creek as the state’s last battle of the Civil War. A plaque describing the controversy over its inclusion was added near its base in 2002.
Alexa Roberts, superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, which opened in 2007, said she thinks the state and country have reached a watershed moment regarding the tragedy. Rather than arguing about what happened, more people are looking ahead to how it should be remembered.
“There isn’t a comfortable middle ground,” she said. “It was a massacre, and we just have to say that, and I think that’s what’s happened.”