History, and Inspiration, Isn’t Always Black and White

Inspiration comes from different places. For years I’d struggle with fleshing out my characters. I had trouble coming up with reasons for why my characters act the way they do. Each of us has our individual struggles and for me that was coming up with character attributes that make them act the way they do. What caused my antagonist to murder Clara’s family in Fortune’s Flame? Why is he such a jerkhole?

To answer that, I started researching what was happening in the 1860s. What was the political environment at the time? What was happening historically?

Well, two things: Railroads and indian wars. The Civil War had just ended, the transcontinental railroad was uniting the country, and the white folk were desimating Indians all across the west.

In the midst of my research I came across a fantastic article from the Smithsonian magazine about a forgotten massacre in Colorado, and the political aftermath.

Boom. I had the inspiration for my bad guy, Joseph Hogben!

Here’s what happened in real life:

In November 1864, 675 men under John Chivington’s command attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado territory, killing anywhere from 70-500 Native Americans.

Let’s back up and set the stage: in 1851, the United States and seven indian tribes signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave the Cheyenne and Arapaho the territory between the North Platte and the Arkansas Rivers. Then in 1858 gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, bringing with it a rush of immigrants. Tensions rose among the Natives and the settlers. Because of the gold rush, a new treaty was signed which gave the Cheyenne and the Arapaho 1/13th the size of the original territory. Nice, right? Understandably, some factions of these tribes were not happy, and as more and more white people moved in, tensions only got worse.

The Civil War broke out in 1861. During this time, Union soldiers were posted in various places across the west to protect against Confederate forces and Indian attacks. In 1863, Union Chivington’s regime of soldiers was posted as a home guard in Colorado.

Chivington severely disliked the Natives. Like, severely. He’s quoted as saying, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little…”

After a white family of settlers was killed, reportedly by a raiding band of natives, Colorado’s governor John Evans called on the state’s citizens to take up arms against the Indians. He ordered “friendly” Indians to seek sanctuary at U.S. forts or risk their own demise.

A Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle heeded the offer. He and his followers were asked to remain at a camp at Sandy Creek until they were given further instructions.

Sand Creek map

Meanwhile, Chivington and his men were growing restless. As the Civil War continued, they were “stuck” in Colorado doing nothing. Perhaps as a result of this restless (but for reasons not fully known), Chivington led 700 men to Sandy Creek, where he slaughtered Black Kettle’s peaceful band of natives.

Chivington defended his actions, justifying his use of force by claiming that he was saving the lives of white people by destroying those who would prey on them. But public opinion was not on his side, nor was the U.S. military. A trial took place, but Chivington remained steadfast in his view that he’d done the right thing. He would’ve been court martialed except for the fact that he’d already resigned his post.

On the nose, it feels like Chivington was a horrible, godless man with a vendetta against Native Americans. But during my research into the massacre, I learned that he was a Methodist minister and staunch abolitionist. So why then had he done what he’d done?

And that, my friends, is where the inspiration for Joseph Hogben in Fortune’s Flame came from.

I found Chivington a fascinating man not only because he was so clearly a villain (justifying his actions and insisting on his own “rightness”) but also because I had to ask myself how an educated man could so easily justify the slaughter of so many–most of whom were women and children. Was he simply too prideful to admit he’d screwed up? Or was he so afraid of the Natives that he believed  his only recourse was kill or be killed?

What do you think about Chivington’s motives? What do you think about his steadfast belief in his own rightness?

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