From Chapter Two: Looters
In late summer 1993, two amateur artifact collectors traveled to southeastern Colorado, headed for a parcel of land owned by a rancher named William Dawson. Variously described by people familiar with the effort to memorialize the massacre as “history buffs,” “treasure hunters,” or, with tongue in cheek, “looters,” the men drew attention to themselves in Eads, a Ford pickup kind of town, by arriving in a luxury car. Passionate about Western history, they wanted to return home with a small part of the past, to own a piece of one of the region’s greatest tragedies. They came looking for arrowheads, minié balls, regimental pins, or any other materials associated with the Sand Creek massacre. And they chose Dawson’s land because conventional wisdom dictated that Black Kettle’s and Left Hand’s people had, on the night of November 28, 1864, camped in a large bend in the creek there. The next morning the massacre reputedly had begun at that spot, before continuing upstream, a running engagement, for several miles. Oddly, though, no matter how hard the two men scoured the ground, systematically working a series of grids with their metal detectors, they found none of the relics that should have been spread across a site where more than a thousand people had fought for their lives during a daylong slaughter. The absence of artifacts made no sense. Unless there was a simple explanation: the men were prospecting in the wrong place.
Puzzled, the two collectors traveled to Denver, where they contacted David Halaas, then the chief historian at the Colorado Historical Society (CHS). They told Halaas that, “the ground was completely sterile, there wasn’t any evidence at all that a massacre happened there,” and suggested that maybe the slaughter had taken place in another creek bend, eight miles to the north of the Dawson ranch. Halaas, a native Coloradan and one of the leading experts on the massacre’s history, at the time was almost finished writing a book about George Bent. Although he found the prospect that the site had been misplaced “potentially earthshaking,” akin, in his words, to “suddenly losing track of the Gettysburg battlefield,” he remained uncertain about the story’s credibility. Still, he approached his co-author on the Bent book, Andy Masich, who, as vice president of the Historical Society, also served as Halaas’s boss at the time. Together, they began the initial search for the Sand Creek massacre site.
Their hunt ultimately would prove significant not for its results but for the interdisciplinary methodology it introduced, for bringing a disparate cast of characters together, and for touching off a series of nettlesome controversies. All of which would later shape the National Park Service’s effort to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Still, even if Halaas and Masich’s search would end in anti-climax, it began cinematically. The two historians convinced the Colorado National Guard to take them up in Huey helicopters during a training exercise on September 1, 1993. Halaas recalling the film Apocalypse Now, noted how much he regretted not bringing along a recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for background music. The gunships took off from Buckley Field, near Denver, and headed southeast before flying over Dawson’s property and then further upstream to a second large bend in the creek. After spending nearly a full day in the air and poking around on land, Halaas, Masich, and the colleagues they brought along found no compelling evidence of the massacre at all. Still, they believed that Dawson’s ranch might have hosted the bloodshed. “It looks right, feels right, and meets all contemporary descriptions,” Masich wrote after their fieldtrip. But he also cited “an archeological rule of thumb”: “no battle-related artifacts, probably no battlefield.” The two men decided that the search was “way too big of a project for a weekend kind of thing.” So they turned for help to the Colorado State Historical Fund (SHF), one of the nation’s most ambitious historic preservation initiatives.