Essay

Silas Soule and Fortitude

[Two weeks ago, in a comment, David Stravers asked about men and women of conviction in America’s western saga. I responded with a few names I knew, but then took his comment to heart and decided to review the story of a good, good man, a hero, even–some say–a martyr for the cause of justice. This is only part of his incredible story.]

As much an adventurer as anyone else from out east, Silas Soule went west when what was back home wouldn’t cut it any longer. He was just a kid, but he knew–his abolitionist father told him–that what was out there would challenge both spirit and truth. Amassa Soule grabbed his family and headed west when the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) ruled popular sovereignty, the vote of the citizenry, would determine whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as slave or free.

Like other members of the anti-slavery Emigrant Aid Society, Amassa Soule didn’t know his way around out west. He assumed his family had arrived close to Kansas when they arrived at St. Louis. He said later that the hardest passage still lay ahead, the Missouri, “that river of mud, crooks and shoals.” The Soules went to Lawrence, Kansas, a frontier village, with the moral imperative to do everything in their power to stuff the ballot box, and thereby keep slavery out of the territory.

Amassa, some say, was a religious fanatic, a friend of John Brown.

Si Soule was just a kid–maybe 15 years old–when he was leading runaway slaves up the Underground Railroad in midnight Kansas darkness. Blessed with an endearing personality, he shined up to a Missouri jailer and thereby helped spring an abolitionist from a Missouri jail in one of the era’s most famous acts of freedom. In fact, after the foiled slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, went down, Silas worked hard at creating yet another jail break in a plot Brown himself shut down because, Soule was told, John Brown sought martyrdom, wanted to die. 

Somewhat disillusioned, Si Soule went even farther west with a trembling case of gold fever, worked the mines for a year or so, then joined the Union Army, Colorado’s First Regiment, and fought, hard, hand-to hand, at Glorietta Pass, New Mexico, where his valor was noted by the preacher turned Union field commander John Chivington. 


in 1864, Lieut. Soule was one of several officers under the command of Major Edward Wynkoop who, after significant bloodshed throughout the region, brokered a peace deal with Black Kettle and other Cheyenne and Arapaho headmen, which led to their coming into frontier Denver, where someone with a camera got this wonderful shot. Once a deal had been determined, the Calvary escorted the Indians into town to ratify the peace. 

That photographer caught this too: the U. S. military and the chiefs at the peace conference. Si Soule is front and center right.

Colonel John Chivington also wanted peace, but he felt the First Colorado needed to punish the Indians for the violence they’d perpetrated on homesteadeders or those simply passing through Native land. Chivington was boss. That’s how it was Lieutenant Silas Soule came to Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. The night before, Soule made perfectly clear that he didn’t intend to have anything to do with whatever his boss, Chivington, was scheming–and he said so, to Chivington. He claimed anyone who did violate the peace agreement he and Wynkoop had brokered would be “a low-lived cowardly son-of-a-bitch.”

It is difficult to imagine a more barren land between here at the Rockies. The site of the Massacre at Sand Creek could barely be pastured, although buffalo, I’m sure, made a go of it during their endless roaming. The only way to get to Sand Creek is perseverance, ten miles or more of gravel road. It’s out of the way for almost any traveler, unless, of course, you need to go. Few do. More should. 

In 1864, barrel-chested Chivington, the most notable Sunday School teacher in Colorado Territory, led the First Colorado, a mixed bag of ruffians, into the camp of a Northern Cheyenne chief named Black Kettle and, forthwith, killed just about all of the people–maybe 150, maybe more, 100 of them women and children–then butchered them, cutting out private parts–penises, vaginas–as souvenirs. 

That morning Lieutenant Silas Soule stayed away from the attack, commanded his troops not to fire on the Cheyenne village on Sand Creek, told them he’d shoot them if they took part in the carnage.

A day later, Soule wrote a letter to Major Wynkoop, telling him every last awful thing he’d witnessed. Inquiries were held both in Colorado and Washington, Soule was a major witness, despite death threats. 

When he came back to Colorado, he became a town marshal. Just two weeks after getting married, he was gunned down in the streets. Back then–and even today–people can’t help but believe the man responsible for Silas Soule’s death was one of Col. John Chivington’s many, many supporters. Out west, Silas Soule’s moral courage didn’t make him many friends. 

At just 26 years old, Silas Soule was dead.

He’s not disappeared from history. You can google him–I did. You can read his biography. The Sand Creek Massacre and big John Chivington will most certainly turn up in any summary of the long and painful history of the Plains Indians, who didn’t forget.

Didn’t take long, and the rest of us did. 

David Stravers asked about heroes of the west. To me and to many others, Silas Soule should be up close to the top of the list.

Just read this yesterday in a note from Image magazine: “As a culture we have spent a great deal of time in recent decades naming and deploring the crimes and injustices in our history. This is right and necessary. But the present crises have exposed crimes and injustices deeply embedded in the society we live in now. . . . All this comes down to the need to recover and sharpen a functioning sense of justice based on a reverent appreciation of humankind, all together and one by one. The authenticity of our understanding must be demonstrated in our attempting to act justly even at steep cost to ourselves. We can do this as individuals and as a nation. Someday we will walk out onto a crowded street and hear that joyful noise we must hope to do nothing to darken or still, having learned so recently that humankind is fragile, and wonderful.” Marilynne Robinson in the New York Review of Books.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • jane brown says:

    Appreciate this true story-
    A story that made me think of importance of sharing those who acted to help –
    ie prevent spread of slavery, help lead slaves to freedom, guard peace of Indians-
    So important to tell these stories to remember and encourage perspective – we often hear the “Chivington” type stories, we need to hear the Micah 6: 8 type stories to anchor/ grow our vision

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, These are important stories to remember in the current climate of murdering young black men, one of whom was just jogging as he usually did. I am profoundly amazed at this happening after all the work that was done by whites and blacks on behalf of the people we stole from another country and who did much of the work of starting up our country. Instead of a sincere thank you we give black people the worst treatment of all-murder.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Beautiful ugly story that set me up for the prophetic Robinson quote. Thank you. Helps me lament the racism that that marks me and my culture and my history. Helps me lament the loss of life, the suffering, the injustice. Racism is a pandemic our government is handling in a way that strengthens its deadly power to harm and wound and oppress and kill. Thank you again Jim for the story, for the ongoing research and writing you’re doing, and for the Robinson quote. I pray that I may discern how to act justly even at a steep cost to myself.

    • Walter Ackerman says:

      This an interesting story. For those who live in Colorado much of what you wrote about is only a day or two from Denver. I have spent many days just riding around areas of Colorado. I was blessed to work for the state and travel each week around the state. I saw what some former CRC churches look like now. We are fortunate to have the Colorado History Museum in Denver that I visit a lot. This museum has stories about immigrants from the Netherlands brought to the US expecting a nice place to live but when they got to the US but ended in places like Alamosa, which still has a thriving CRC, and a couple of CRC Churches that were in the North East area of Colorado and no longer exist. Many years ago I had to visit the area where the church was that my father was a summer intern. Today all that is left is a small cemetery. For you who visit and get to Burlington, as you enter Colorado,you will see on the north side of the road a small refurbished country church that was the original CRC church. History is always interesting to me.

  • Thanks! A story we needed to hear!

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