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A Tailing Tale of Lt. Joseph Cramer

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Forgotten Heroes and Villains from Sand Creek

By Maggie Magoffin

Joseph Cramer stands as an unsung hero of the horrific massacre at Sand Creek. Born in 1838 in New York, Cramer was one of the tens of thousands of men who headed west during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. Immediately after arriving in Colorado, he made his way into the mountains and the Central City area.

Like most of his fellow Argonauts, Cramer found more hardships than riches. Hard rock mining was difficult and dangerous work, with little chance of “striking it rich.” To recover the precious metal, holes were drilled into solid rock, black powder blasting resulted in piles of rubble that had to be mucked out, all this done in dark, wet, poorly ventilated tunnels. Most gold seekers lived in extremely primitive conditions. Cramer lived in Nevada Gulch in accommodations his friend, Silas Soule, referred to as a “dirt den.”

When fire engulfed Nevada City in November of 1861, destroying everything in Nevada Gulch, Cramer enlisted in the First Colorado Cavalry. The Civil War began in April of that year and recruiting for the cavalry began in August. Many discouraged miners, tired and broke, and seeking a steady income, saw enlisting in the cavalry as an opportunity to improve their lot. However, payday in “Gilpin’s Pet Lambs” was infrequent at best.

In August 1864, Joseph Cramer was stationed at Fort Lyons under Major Wynkoop and later Major Anthony. Several weeks before Wynkoop was to meet with Chief One Eye, Crammer engaged in a clash with some Arapahos who had approached the fort. When a scout spotted the band of Indians, Wynkoop sent Lieutenant Cramer and Lieutenant Horace Baldwin leading fifteen soldiers each. Cramer had pursued the Arapahos for nearly twenty miles, leaving his men far behind, when the band turned to fight. They engaged in a skirmish that continued for nearly four miles before the Arapahos rode off.

Cramer discovered later that the band was led by Chief Left Hand’s brother, Neva, who was trying to deliver a “peace” letter from Black Kettle. Apparently, after Neva’s band of Indians rode off, leaving Cramer unharmed, they returned to the same area. Cramer and Baldwin’s soldiers were watering their horses, vulnerable to an attack. However, as was later revealed, Neva thought he could kill them all, but did not wish to fight, because he was on a mission of peace.

Shortly after Cramer’s skirmish with Neva, he was injured in a riding accident that injured his kidney and laid him up for several days. In spite of his injuries, however, in September Cramer accompanied Wynkoop, Soule and others to the Smokey Hill and was in attendance at most of the talks. Wynkoop had given orders no additional Indians were to be permitted to come near the camp. However, several Arapaho and Cheyenne men came nosing around. Of particular interest to them was the mountain howitzers Wynkoop had brought with him. A drunken Lieutenant Hardin called his men into formation, increasing the tension of the moment, when Lt. Cramer arrived, and dismissed the troops. When word of the encounter reached Chief Black Kettle, he resolved the problem.

Two months after Major Anthony replaced Major Wynkoop at Fort Lyon, Lt. Cramer attended a meeting between Anthony and Chief Black Kettle. Cramer later testified in the hearings on the Sand Creek massacre that Black Kettle feared soldiers from Denver and the east might come across his young men while hunting and kill them, then he would not be able to restrain his men. Major Anthony assured Black Kettle that his men would be perfectly safe.

In late November, Colonel John Chivington, along with his “hundred days’ men” arrived at Fort Lyon and plans for the attack on Sand Creek were set into motion. Cramer was one of the most vocal against the attack. He later said in his testimony, “I stated to him (Major Anthony) that I was perfectly willing to obey orders, but that I did it under protest, but I believed that he directly, and all officers who accompanied Major Wynkoop to the Smokey Hill indirectly, would perjure themselves both as officers and men; that I believed it to be murder to go out and kill those Indians, as I felt that Major Wynkoop’s command owed their lives to this same band of Indians…I told him that I thought that Black Kettle and his tribe had acted in good faith; that they had saved the lives of one hundred twenty of our men and the settlers in the Arkansas Valley, and that he with his tribe could be of use to us to fight the other Indians, and that he (Chief Black Kettle) was willing to do so. He (Major Anthony) stated that Black Kettle would not be killed; that it was a promise given by Colonel Chivington or an understanding between himself and Colonel Chivington that Black Kettle and his friends should be spared; that the expedition was to surround the camp and take the stolen stock and kill the Indians that had been committing the depredations during the last spring and summer.”

In a letter to Major Wynkoop from Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, written on December 19, 1864, Cramer describes the horrific details of the attack. He stated, “I will acknowledge I am ashamed to own I was in it with my company. Col. Chivington came down here with the gallant Third Regiment known as Chivington Brigade, like a thief in the dark throwing his scouts around the post, with instructions to let no one out…came on to Black Kettle’s village of 103 lodges, containing not over 500 all told, 350 of which were women and children. Three days previous, Major Anthony gave John Smith, Lowderbuck of Company “G” and a government driver permission to go out there and trade with them, and they were in the village when the fight came off. John Smith came out holding up his hands and running towards us, when he was shot at by several, and the word was passed along to shoot him…I got so mad I swore I would not burn powder, and I did not. Capt. Soule the same…I think the officer in charge should be hung. Bucks, women, and children were scalped, fingers cut off to get the rings on them, and this as much with Officers as men, and one of the Officers a Major, and a Lt. Col. cut off ears, of all he came across, a squaw ripped open and a child taken from her, little children shot while begging for their lives…

Black Kettle, White Antelope, War Bonnet, Left Hand, Little Robe and several other chiefs were killed.”

Silas Soule’s similar letter to Wynkoop indicated that Cramer also refused to shoot during the attack. “He [Chivington] said Downing will have me cashiered if possible. If they do I want you to help me. I think they will try to do the same for Cramer for he has shot his mouth off a good deal, and did not shoot his pistol in the massacre.”

Denver citizens honored Chivington and the Third Regiment with celebrations and parades, and it was rumored that the soldiers were showing off their gruesome trophies from the mutilations. The celebratory mood tuned, however, when stories leaked out detailing the massacre. An official investigation was begun, and Lt. James Cannon, Captain Silas Soule, and Lt. Joseph Cramer were among those who gave testimony to the details of the horrific actions of Chivington and his men.

In November 1865, following the suspicious deaths of Cannon and Soule, Cramer mustered out of the cavalry and left Colorado.

Reference: Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek, by Carol Turner

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