Chief Niwot (which means “Left Hand” in English) was a Southern Arapaho tribe leader who was born around 1825. He spent many winters in Boulder Valley, particularly at Valmont Butte, which is sacred to the Southern Arapaho.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. In it, the US government accepted that much of the country between Oregon and the Rocky Mountains belonged to these tribes, and in exchange, the Native Americans agreed to let wagon trains of settlers and gold prospectors heading to California pass through the area unharmed. Roads and fortifications might also be built on this property in exchange for $50,000 per year paid to the aforementioned nations for the following fifty years.

During the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858, however, a group of European prospectors rode from Fort St. Vrain into Sunshine Canyon, where they were welcomed by Niwot and several other Southern Arapaho tribal members. This was not the chief’s first interaction with white men; his sister had married a trapper named John Poisal, and Niwot had learnt English from him. This, combined with his diplomatic abilities, made him a perfect emissary for his people.

Niwot welcomed the prospectors with open arms, but he also warned them they had to go because they were on Araphao soil. When they objected, he threatened them, and the situation turned tense. Niwot stayed with the white guys, who tried to bribe him with booze and canned food to let them stay. Meanwhile, Niwot‘s deputies, Bear Head and Many Whips, began to assemble their forces at Valmont Butte in preparation for an attack on the prospectors.

But, in the end, peace triumphed. One of the Southern Arapaho’s wisest men is claimed to have dreamed of a cataclysmic flood that drowned his tribe but spared the white people who had lately arrived in the area. This dream appeared to be a forewarning: the white settlers and prospectors would arrive anyway, and Niwot would be powerless to stop them. To avert bloodshed, Niwot and another local chief, Little Raven, made peace with the white people.

But the peace would not endure. After a family of settlers was slain by four Native American warriors near what is now Elizabeth in the summer of 1864, Territorial Governor John Evans stopped distinguishing between peaceful tribes and those hostile to whites. He commanded the relocation of all tribes to the eastern plains. In the end, the outcomes were devastating.

The governor directed the Southern Cheyenne (led by Chief Black Kettle) and Southern Arapaho (led by Chief Niwot) to set up camp at the Big Sandy River, about 40 miles from Fort Lyons. They were promised protection there. To demonstrate that the two tribes were not at odds, Black Kettle flew the American flag. Many of the warriors left to hunt buffalo, leaving just women, children, and a few of elderly men at the camp.

On November 28, 1864, 700 troops of the Colorado militia led by Colonel John Chivington attacked the encampment. While some cavalrymen refused to participate in the massacre, the majority complied. Despite Black Kettle’s efforts to intervene by raising a white flag of surrender when the militia began firing on them, over 100 Cheyenne and Araphao women and children were slaughtered. Chief Niwot was injured in the attack and died a few days later.

Despite the fact that the slaughter occurred at the height of the Civil War, it was terrible enough for President Lincoln to order an investigation into what had occurred. Congress eventually branded the act “gross and wanton,” censured Colonel Chivington for his involvement (ensuring the end of his career), ousted Governor Evans from office, and proclaimed martial government in Colorado.

Before he died, Niwot is claimed to have bestowed the “Curse of Boulder Valley” on the settlers. “People who see the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will ruin the beauty,” he said. Whether or not you believe in Niwot‘s Curse, there is no denying that many people who come to Boulder either decide to stay or return after a period of time away.

photo credit: Michael Kahn

Statue located on the Boulder creek bike path.