Last post, I introduced you to our new-old rusty, outdoor steel table, which had recently been topped with reclaimed barnwood from an old barn in Wray, Colorado, the site of a long-forgotten battle between the US Cavalry and the Plains Indians.
I did not know that digging more deeply into the history of this reclaimed-wood tabletop would lead me to the Civil War, the Indian massacre at Sand Creek, African-Americans fighting for the Cavalry, and right up to debate sparked by recent events in Charlottesville and Colorado's own memorial to the Civil War that stands outside our Capitol building in Denver.
But I'm getting way ahead. Let's start at the beginning.
While in Santa Fe this past June, we hauled home a beat-up, bent-up, rusty old steel table frame from architectural salvage Seret + Sons. You can read more about the Santa Fe trip and our discovery of the table. We reached out to Due South in Lafayette, Colorado, for a custom-fit tabletop using reclaimed barnwood from an old barn in Wray, Colorado.
Wray is a small town on the Colorado Plains about 170 miles east of Denver and nine miles from the Nebraska state line. As it did in September of 1868, the Republican River winds through this area, although floods and river course changes have altered the landscape since then. There is now no sign of the narrow sandbar that became the site of a long-forgotten battle between the Cheyenne and forces of the US Cavalry.
Here's the story of the battle, as documented in Frontiertravel.com: "In September of 1868, 50 frontiersmen under the command of Major George Forsyth of the 9th Cavalry, ran headlong into more than 1,000 Cheyenne, near present-day Wray, Colorado, in Yuma County. The soldiers took up a position on a sandbar in a dry fork of the Republican River. The sandbar, according to later accounts, was about 90 yards long and 30 yards wide. For days the soldiers were pinned down. By the time rescue came in the form of Lt. Carpenter’s 10th Cavalry -- called Carpenter’s Brunettes -- the men on the island were reduced to eating rotting horse flesh. The Buffalo Soldiers were truly saviors on that day."
The "Buffalo Soldiers" who arrived to save the 9th Cavalry were African-American soldiers, likely freed slaves, who had joined the cavalry after the Civil War ended.
The Battle of Beecher Island, as this conflict came to be known, was one of many that followed after a war-crimes event at Sand Creek during the Civil War.
Most Americans view the years of the Civil War as battles between North and South, not between the cavalry and Indians on the Western Plains. But the two conflicts are closely related. Ari Kelman, a historian at Penn State University and author of A Misplaced Massacre, explains the shared motives and overlapping timeframes in Smithsonian Magazine. The Civil War was rooted in westward expansion and whether new territories would join the nation as free states or slave states. Slavery was only one obstacle to free white settlement of the West. Plains Indians were the other.
“We remember the Civil War as a war of liberation that freed four million slaves,” Kelman says. “But it also became a war of conquest to destroy and dispossess Native Americans.”
image via clio.com
Sand Creek is in eastern Colorado. In 1864 it was the site of the worst atrocity ever perpetrated against Native Americans, an atrocity that was lost in white memory until the National Park Service opened the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.
Again, from Smithsonian Magazine: "In late autumn of 1864, about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho lived in tepees here, at the edge of what was then reservation land. Their chiefs had recently sought peace in talks with white officials and believed they would be unmolested at their isolated camp. When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies."
The Sand Creek Massacre destroyed any hope of peace on the Plains. It solidly united disparate tribes against western expansion, cemented distrust, and kept the nation at war until the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 -- 25 years after the South's surrender in 1865.
Photo credit: M.Torres / Travel-Images.com
The Colorado State Capitol in Denver erected its own Civil War memorial in 1909, a statue of a Union soldier, dismounted and with rifle in hand. Its plaque commemorates the Colorado Volunteers’ 22 battles, four of which were battles against American Indians. The list of battles includes the Sand Creek Massacre. A small plaque describing actual events of the Sand Creek Massacre has since been added. (Source: Denver Post.)
Of course, I find all of this deeply, deeply disturbing. I'm also no historian and I know that a blog can hardly do justice to a topic of such great importance. If you've read other blog posts, you know I'm a Colorado transplant from Michigan who fell in love with the West more than a decade ago during a visit to the Tetons. I visit Mesa Verde and Taos Pueblo with reverence for the ancient history and culture evident there.
None of this information hinders the rough-hewn appeal of my new-old, barnwood-topped table. Every time I see it, every time I pass my hand over its rough, aged wood grain, I will remember what I've learned.