by Nancy Gruber
Thousands of years before you or I thought of making Erie our home, an ancient people lived and hunted these lands. The first scientifically proven indications of humans in this area go back to the end of the last Ice Age and were called the Clovis Culture. A cache of 85 stone tools found at the Mahaffey Cache in Boulder in 2006 provide proof that there were humans living here 13,000+ years ago. Biochemical tests of protein residue found on these stone tools indicate that some of the tools were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses that roamed North America. Evidence has also been found that there were elephants, huge bears and ground sloth’s in the Boulder valley area.
More recently and better known to us are the Native American Indian tribes who made these plains their hunting grounds, such as the Ute, the Arapaho and the Cheyenne. About 300 to 400 years ago the Ute came in from Utah and populated most of what we now call Colorado. Then, as the Arapaho were pushed West from The Great Lakes region and Manitoba and the Cheyenne from Minnesota, they moved into the Eastern parts of Colorado and at the same time they pushed the Ute’s further South in Colorado and up into the foothills. The Southern Arapaho that inhabited the Boulder/Niwot/Erie area were called Nanwacinaha’ana, Nawathi’neha (“Toward the South People)” and the Southern Cheyenne who were called Heévâhetaneo’o meaning “Roped People”, hunted and lived in our area and the two nations lived together peacefully, in large part due to their common language group.
The area appealed to these tribes because the weather was less extreme than in neighboring states and Boulder Creek and Coal Creek were convenient water sources. The area also was an abundant source of food with herds of antelope, elk, deer and buffalo grazing these plains. Since the Indians followed these herds, their life style was nomadic and their homes were the portable teepee. At times they would use caves located between Old Town Erie and the Cemetery on the East side of Coal creek.
The government of the Arapaho consisted of four chiefs having equal powers, while each Cheyenne tribe had five chiefs with one of those being the head chief. Usually a chief was about 50 years old and chosen because he was the bravest and kindest. If a chief was unsatisfactory, he was not respected or obeyed. One of the better known chiefs of the Southern Arapahoe was Chief Niwot. Niwot to the Arapahos’ meant left handed. Chief Niwot was also known by Chief Left Hand.
The Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes were known for their beaded designs which were used to record ceremonial formulas such as to make rain or to send off their dead. Beaded belts were used to accompany every official and ceremonial act. They also made very special belts for treaties or for negotiations between tribes. After being used in a ceremony the belts were dismantled and the beads were saved for later use. White beads represented peace and prosperity; purple meant sorrow, death, or hostility; red symbolized war. The Indians around this area were also very skillful in making baskets that were so well woven that they could hold water.
In 1861 when the US Government was pushing to make treaties with the various Indian tribes to acquire their lands, a large tract of land was deeded to the US Government from the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne, an area that includes Erie, and reaching to Nebraska and up into Wyoming. What followed was violent conflict between the tribes and the US Government. In 1864 a portion of the Indians that had occupied the Erie/Boulder area went South to Fort Lyon where they were told they would be safe from conflict. They set up their camps about 40 miles northwest of Fort Lyons determined to maintain peace in spite of pressures from whites. Some 800 Cheyenne lead by Chief Black Kettle and a lesser number of Arapaho lead by Chief Niwot or Chief Left Hand camped together along the Big Sandy Creek. On the morning of November 29th, 1864 U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington with 700 soldiers of the Colorado Home Guard descended upon the Indian encampment and attacked and slaughtered between 133 and 137 indians, mostly women and children. This became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Both Chief Niwot and Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne were killed as a result of that military engagement. What remained of the tribes that inhabited the Erie area ended up on tribal lands in Oklahoma.
Next time you are at the Wise Homestead Museum ask to see the collection of arrowheads that were gifted to the Museum by the Grimson Family and collected along the banks of Coal Creek. And sometime try to think of a time when Erie was just open land and Indians camped here.