Object of the Month

Is this a depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre? A view of U. S. cavalry advancing on a Cheyenne village by Bear’s Heart, 1877.

U.S. Cavalry advancing on Cheyenne village Ink, watercolor, colored pencil on wove paper

U.S. Cavalry advancing on Cheyenne village

Image 1 of 1

This striking image of dismounted United States cavalrymen, assembled in stark opposition to an Indian encampment under attack, may represent a Native American’s record of a pivotal moment in the bitter history of Native American-white conflict. One hundred fifty years ago, on 29 November 1864, Colorado volunteers led by Col. John M. Chivington brutally slaughtered the inhabitants—mostly women and children—of a “peaceable” Cheyenne village and neighboring Arapaho encampment at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado. Janet C. Berlo, who has written with great insight about Plains Indian drawings, has speculated that this image, made in 1877 by a Cheyenne prisoner named Bear’s Heart (Nockkoist) at Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, may recollect these events. If so, it is very unusual in depicting Indian-white warfare from an Indian point of view and also as an image made by a war prisoner. Battle art undercut the purpose of the experiment then underway at Fort Marion—to “reform” Plains Indian prisoners who had been moved more than a thousand miles from their ancestral homelands and to integrate them into the white way of life.

The Sand Creek Massacre

During the Civil War, as waves of white emigrants passed through or settled upon traditional tribal lands in Colorado, there were outbreaks of Indian-white violence. The territorial government of Colorado adopted measures to force the Cheyenne and Arapaho to move onto reservation lands in the eastern part of the territory near Fort Lyon. Locally raised units of volunteers were available in the fall of 1864 when the Colorado government launched a retaliatory strike not against Indians who had been attacking settlers—whom it would have been almost impossible to locate and bring to battle—but against Cheyenne and Arapaho who had assembled peacefully at Sand Creek, south of Fort Lyon.

Col. James M. Chivington led mounted volunteers equipped with artillery on a forced march through wintry weather from Denver to Sand Creek, where at sunrise on 29 November 1864, they attacked without warning. In the words of the report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War of the United States Congress:

And then the scene of murder and barbarity began—men, women, and children were indiscriminately slaughtered. In a few minutes all the Indians were flying over the plain in terror and confusion. . . Not content with killing women and children, who were incapable of offering any resistance, the soldiers indulged in acts of barbarity of the most revolting character; such, it is to be hoped as never before disgraced the acts of men claiming to be civilized. No attempt was made by the officers to restrain the savage cruelty of the men under their command, but they stood by and witnessed these acts without one word of reproof, if they did not incite their commission.

More than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed and many were wounded. Ironically, the Sand Creek Massacre united the previously divided “hostile” and “peaceful” factions among the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and their allies in a revenge war on soldiers and white civilians that would overspread a much wider area of the Plains and continue for more than a decade.

If Bear’s Heart’s drawing is a representation of the Sand Creek Massacre, it is impressionistic, rather than a historical document: while Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors fought bravely to defend their families, few probably had time to dress in their battle regalia or to mount their horses. White accounts describe crossing a snow-covered landscape on the way to Sand Creek, but Bear’s Heart has drawn a lush green landscape with leaf-covered trees in the background. Nevertheless, he has captured in stark juxtaposition the caterpillar-like massed formation of dismounted soldiers with their horses lined up behind them—although it is hard to believe that the 100-days-service Colorado volunteers presented such a uniform appearance—and the chaos erupting in the Cheyenne village as a few defenders attempt to protect their families who flee to the right.

Bear’s Heart: warrior, artist, and speaker

On 3 April 1875, more than ten years after the Sand Creek Massacre and at the climax of the last Indian war on the Southern Plains, a twenty-four-year-old Cheyenne warrior named Bear’s Heart (“Nockkoist”) was arrested at the Cheyenne Agency in the Indian Territory. Bear’s Heart was among seventy four Plains Indian prisoners and accompanying family members transferred east to Fort Marion later that year. At Fort Marion, he was a participant in Lieut. Richard H. Pratt’s attempt to prepare the prisoners in his charge for a different way of life. Pratt dressed the prisoners in military uniforms (although they proved resistant to having their long hair cut) and had them taught practical skills such as agriculture and carpentry, as well as to read and write. From an unpromising start, Bear’s Heart became a star of the program and also an accomplished artist. The prisoners were given blank books, pens, and colored pencils with which they continued their traditional practice of decorating animal hides and other materials with depictions of life on the plains in a new medium. The images sometimes were autobiographical; soon after he arrived at Fort Marion, Bear’s Heart filled a booklet with images of the prisoners’ long journey as captives from the Indian Territory to their new life in Florida. The volumes of drawings the prisoners created, often referred to as “ledger art,” sometimes were given away as gifts or keepsakes or sold to visitors to Saint Augustine.

More than 100 of Bear’s Heart’s drawings survive, including seven drawings (twelve pages) held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also became a “spokesman” for Lieut. Pratt’s educational program first at Fort Marion and later at the Hampton Institute where seventeen of the Fort Marion prisoners continued their education after their release from imprisonment in 1878. In 1880, Bear’s Heart gave an autobiographical address when President Rutherford Hayes visited the school, and later bore the U. S. flag when Hampton cadets marched in President James Garfield’s inaugural parade. In April 1881, Bear’s Heart (who had become a Christian and taken the name “James”) returned to the Indian Territory where he worked as a carpenter and teamster, but died of tuberculosis the following year.

A winding trail to the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Bear’s Heart drawing is contained in a small ledger art volume that is one of the most unusual and interesting artifacts held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It came to the Society with the papers of historian and MHS member Francis Parkman. Although today Parkman’s writings are seen as filled with stereotypes of “savage” Indians, in his own time, because of his travels as a young man in the American West, Parkman was considered a sympathetic expert on Native American life. In 1877, Howling Wolf, one of Bear’s Heart’s fellow prisoners at Fort Marion, who probably was present as a teenager at Sand Creek, came to Boston for an eye operation. Either during Howling Wolf’s trip or after his return to Florida, Parkman may have been given the ledger art book that contains Bear’s Heart’s drawing--along with others created by Cheyenne and Kiowa artists--as a token of appreciation for hosting Howling Wolf during his medical treatment.

Further reading

In addition to the “Sand Creek” drawing, Bear’s Heart contributed at least six other drawings (twelve pages in all) to the ledger art volume given by Parkman. The MHS has an overview of the ledger art book containing the Bear’s Heart drawing as well as a collection guide to the ledger art volume which contains links to the web display of the drawings.

Afton, Jean. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat. Boulder: Colorado Historical Society and the University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Berthron, Donald J. The Southern Cheyenne. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Hoig, Stan. The Sand Creek Massacre. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

“The Journey of Howling Wolf.” M. H. S. Miscellany. Winter 1992-1993.

Petersen, Karen Daniels. Howling Wolf: A Cheyenne Warrior’s Graphic Interpretation of His People. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1968.

Petersen, Karen Daniels. Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Karen Petersen’s comprehensive account of the captive artists and works of art produced at Fort Marion includes a brief but enlightening overview of the life and artistic career of Bear’s Heart (p. 97-109), and a shrewd dating of the volume in which the image displayed here appears (April 18-July 21, 1877), based upon a careful analysis of internal evidence (p. 312).

Plains Indian Drawings, 1865-1935: Pages from a Visual History. Edited by Janet Catherine Berlo. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.

Janet Berlo’s speculation that Sand Creek is the subject of the Bear’s Heart drawing appears on p. 115 of this catalog of a 1996-1997 traveling exhibition, which she edited for the Drawing Center, New York, and the American Federation of Arts.

Pratt, Richard H. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Edited by Robert M. Utley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Supree, Burton. Bear’s Heart: Scenes from the Life of a Cheyenne Artist of One Hundred Years Ago with Pictures by Himself. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1977.

While this slim volume was aimed at a juvenile audience, it includes a succinct biography of Bear’s Heart and illustrations (now at the Museum of the American Indian) that he made of the Indian prisoners’ journey to Fort Marion and their life there.

Szabo, Joyce M. Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

United States. Congress. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.


Top