It’s About Time column: Descendants of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre
It’s About Time
I’ve never used the word genocide in my writings … until now. It’s too fraught with powerful and deadly meaning to do anything but consider using it with great caution.
But for the bravery of Captain Silas Soule’s refusal to obey orders, caution was nowhere to be found on the 29th day of November 1864, when American troops attacked a peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne village along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado.
The village was flying a white flag and the United States’ stars and stripes. There is no accurate count of the number of mostly women and children who were killed. The best recorded estimate is 130 to 200, although verbal accounts from tribal members estimate up to 500.
Among those few women who survived was my wife Kate’s great-great-grandmother, Matilda Sage Spoonhunter, who was probably 18 at the time.
Matilda had a daughter, Edith Spoonhunter, who married John Edward Collins from County Wicklow, Ireland. Edith’s daughter was Frances Elizabeth Collins.
Frances was shipped out-of-state to Indian Schools. She excelled as a top student through brutal treatment at Genoa and Haskell Indian Schools, where she was not allowed to speak Arapaho.
Frances’ son was also named John Edward Collins, but is better known as Ed. Ed had four children: Craig, Bret, Coco and my wife Kate.
In 2019 the immediate family and some of the other of Matilda’s descendants gathered in Denver for Ed’s 90th birthday celebration. The next morning we all had breakfast at the hotel where everyone stayed.
It was a privilege to be accepted into such a family. Kate and I had spent a few days with her cousin in Riverton, Wyoming, during the 2018 solar eclipse. I helped pitch a tepee for us to sleep in, and the day of the eclipse we watched the sun disappear from the family cemetery on the Wind River Reservation, where Edith Spoonhunter Collins is buried.
To be allowed to listen in on the conversation about the Sand Creek Massacre that morning in Denver was an honor.
Everyone was in agreement that the family was indebted to Matilda Spoonhunter for their very lives.
I looked around the table at Ed’s family. Craig is a physician with an MBA, a fellow in the American College of Surgeons and the president of the Southern California chapter of the American College of Surgeons. He has twin daughters and a son, all in college.
Bret is a hard-working truck driver who negotiates Denver traffic with an 18-wheeler.
Coco is senior account manager for OfficeScapes with one teenage daughter.
My wife Kate is the director of community outreach at Alpine Bank and principal of Write Brain West, helping clients with marketing and communications. She has two sons.
As a historian I knew the story of Sand Creek from an academic point of view. But listening to the descendants of Matilda Sage Spoonhunter talk about it made it personal.
I can’t begin to imagine the terror of being awakened at dawn by gunfire, from 700 members of the Colorado Territory militia — under orders from Union Colonel John Chivington — opening fire on friends and family, with women and children falling all around you.
The details of Matilda’s escape have been lost to time.
The one question I ask is: What contributions to the world would’ve been made by the would-be descendants of those slaughtered women and children?
By definition genocide is “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” But the attempted annihilation of Black Kettle’s camp on the banks of Sand Creek that November day failed.
I’m fortunate to have such relatives and unspeakably grateful for Matilda Sage Spoonhunter’s survival.
Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.
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