Interview with Historical Western Author John Buzzard

That-Day-front-cover-draftI’m so excited to introduce a new author to you, my good friend John Buzzard, author of That Day by the Creek.

John’s new book is a historical western about the tragic Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, written from the point of view of a young, well-intentioned missionary who gets caught between Colorado settlers and the Native Americans whose territories the settlers are encroaching upon.

I don’t usually read such tragic stories, but I was glued to the pages of this story from first to last. John really brings this era to life, and he shows good people on both sides of the conflict trying to bridge the cultural gap and make peace.

I loved following the main character, Josh, as he grew to love the Cheyenne who he was there to work with, and even though I knew how the book ended, I was still caught up in his increasingly-desperate efforts to save his friends.

(Ladies, this isn’t a romance, although there is a sweet subplot where Josh falls in love with his Cheyenne wife, so it might not be for you. If you know a man who loves stories of the old West, would you point him toward this interview?)

Faith:  John, welcome to the blog! How did you become interested in the Sand Creek Massacre?

John:  I guess that goes back to the 1970s when I was about ten and looking through a book that had a copy of Robert Lindneux’s painting of of the massacre:  The U.S. Cavalry firing indiscriminately into a Native American camp that prominently flew the Stars-and-Stripes and a white flag of peace from a lodge pole.  Even at that young age I could tell something was seriously out of place.

Faith:  What’s the most interesting thing you learned while researching this story that did not make it into the book?

John:  That would have to be the New Mexico campaign that initially made Colonel John Chivington a hero in the public eye.  I’ll try to keep this brief, but basically there was this huge Civil War battle fought in the southwest.

Confederate regiments recruited in Texas actually attempted to march to the California coast hoping the US Navy would divert ships there, thus weakening the blockade of Southern ports.  The Texans were stopped by Spanish speaking Union volunteers from New Mexico and the Colorado militia.

Colonel Chivington led the Colorado troops in pursuit of the retreating Southerners all the way to El Paso.  Although this episode has no direct bearing on the events of Sand Creek it does reveal something of Chivington’s character.  He was not a coward who made idle boasts.  In the heat of battle he proved to be very courageous, which makes things even more baffling as to why he committed such a cowardly act two years later.

Faith:  What do you think might be the most overlooked perspective in the events of your story?

John:  I think it’s important to point out that the massacre was not carried out by regular US Army troops, but rather is was done by the territorial militia, which today is known as the National Guard.

Several companies of the First Colorado Cavalry, who were mostly Civil War veterans, refused to take part.  The majority of the heinous acts, but certainly not all, were committed by a regiment of hundred-day volunteers; many with criminal records.

I’ve seen recent articles that try to simplify the affair that the Army had an agenda of complete genocide against all Native Americans, yet they provide no proof.  From my research, the events were more complicated than that.

Colonel Chivington wanted another “victory” to pad his credentials while running for Congress and Governor Evans wanted to justify the expenditure of creating the 100 Day Volunteer Regiment to the War Department. Although it made little difference to the Cheyennes as to why they were mercilessly butchered.

Faith:  How closely does your story stick to the facts?  Are there any places where you deviated from the historical accounts for dramatic effect?

John:  The book is accurate when it comes to the major events that took place.  Actually there were so many facets leading to the massacre that they couldn’t all be included.  There was this on going tit-for-tat situation.

The settlers would provoke the Indians into a fight and when the Indian did react the settlers would demand the Army retaliate.  When the Army retaliated the Indians would retaliate in kind.

My main character Joshua is fictional, but his protege Making Medicine was real.  Although, there is no evidence Making Medicine was at Sand Creek he did say in an interview in his later years that he participated in attacks against white settlers and soldiers as revenge for the massacre.  In my book, I did take the liberty of having Making Medicine at Sand Creek, so he was able to witness the same events as Josh.

Faith:  Did you discover any conflicting accounts of events as you were researching this story?  If so, what was the difference in opinion about what happened, and which account did you use?

John:  No, of the various accounts out there I didn’t find any that conflicted as to what happen, but as I stated earlier not everyone can agree as to the why.  All of the credible chronologies list Stan Hoig’s 1961 book from the University of Oklahoma Press in their bibliographies, so that’s what I went with.  For the anthropology I relied on George Bird Grinnell’s 1923 publication called The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways.

Faith:  What do you think we can learn from the Sand Creek Massacre and the events leading up to it?

John:  Hmm, that’s a tough question.  As far as the events leading up to the massacre it was nothing more than graft, corruption, and greed.  Those have always been mainstay elements of the political machine and always will.  For the massacre itself, it shows that even the most grievous of crimes, i.e. terrorism and mass murders, can be justified in the mind of the perpetrator.

Faith:  What is it about the history of the Old West you find compelling?

John:   I’m not sure exactly why, but I’ve always been fascinated with it.  No doubt it has been overly romanticized in literature and film, but I’m okay with that.  People back then seemed to have lived a life of self sufficiency, but it was mostly a lot of hard back-breaking work, and at times, dangerous.

Faith:  Can you talk a little about the role of religion in the events leading to the massacre?

John:  I didn’t find any evidence that religion had any part in it.  It was political.  Yes, Colonel John Chivington was an ordained minister, but his credentials were revoked by the Methodist church when he was found guilty by an investigating Congressional committee.  When he married his son’s widow his church membership was also terminated.

Faith:  As you were researching the historical figures involved in this story, were there any that you found especially intriguing?  And why?

John:  That would have to be Captain Silas Soule.  He was an agnostic with a drinking problem, but he’s the one who emerges as a man of conscience.  There were others, but he was the highest ranking one.

When ordered to attack the Indian village he refused and ordered the companies under his command to stand down.  Anyone who has been in the military knows how serious it is to disobey an order.

Another intriguing figure was John Chivington himself.  He was an ordained minister, a teetotaler, an abolitionist who hated slavery, yet was perfectly comfortable with murdering women and children.  For a Christian novel, I thought these two historical characters made for some interesting contrast.

Faith:  Are there any secondary characters in this book that you think would make good characters for another book, and why?

John:  Porcupine Pete comes to mind.  He’s fictional, but I had fun developing the character.  There needed to be someone to guide Josh through the wilderness, so I came up with this experienced mountain man who was totally uncouth around government bureaucrats, but knew everything about the plains Indians.

I figured a guy like him would have a million stories about trapping in the Rockies, evading hostile Indians, and guiding settlers across the great plains.  Porcupine could easily appear in other novels.

Faith:  Can you talk a little about the context of the massacre– what was happening in this time that shaped public opinion?  What political forces made these events more likely to happen?

John:  There was a lot happening at once.  Colorado became a territory in 1861 and within three years the governor and the legislators were already scrambling for statehood.  For that to happen they needed to increase the local population and in order to bring more people in they needed a stable economy.

The Cheyenne and Arapahoes where squeezed onto this little reservation where there was no game and little water.  Corrupt agents on the reservation exasperated the problem by withholding the Indians’ food packages and selling them for cash.  The warriors had to leave the reservation to hunt for food and the buffalo became more scarce they resorted to cattle rustling. This resulted in the numerous clashes between the white settlers and Indians.

The final straw for the territorial government occurred when a band of rogue warriors brutally murdered a ranching family southeast of Denver.  Citizens in the area blamed all Indians for what happened.  The political power brokers also promised if Colorado did become a state, they would appoint Governor Evans as one of its US senators and back Chivington if he ran for the House of Representatives.  But first, the Indians would have to be defeated.

Faith:  What was the aftermath of the massacre?  What changes did these events trigger?

John:  Chivington believed a military victory over the Indians would ensure his election to Congress.  His attack on a peaceful village not only ruined his political ambitions, but caused the Cheyennes to unite with their long hated enemies the Kiowas.  The war launched by the Cheyennes and their new allies would force regular US troops to take an active part and the bloody fighting continued for another twelve years.

Faith:  What was the hardest part of this story to write?

John:  Definitely the massacre itself.  When you read the testimonies of the officers and soldiers who were there it really takes an emotional toll.  Admittedly, I worried about the violence.  Leaving the violence out would not do the story justice nor would it have achieved the strong emotional impact on the reader for which I was striving.  However, to include every atrocity reported would be too overwhelming causing the reader to close the book and never finishing the story.  The horrific events I do mention are only a small fraction of what actually occurred.

Faith:  What difficulties did you have in researching this story?  Were there in historical details you had to extrapolate or guess at?

John:  There’s plenty of information out there about Sand Creek, so the research for the main story was not a problem.  What did stump me was finding information on missionaries to the western Indians in the Nineteenth Century.  I work a full time job, so I do rely heavily on the Internet for my research, but I couldn’t find anything in that area.  I hate having to use another author’s work of fiction as a source, but that’s what I had to do.  In James A. Michener’s novel Hawaii his main character is a Methodist missionary from New England.  That’s where I learned about the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and how they pretty much only recruited at the Ivy League schools.  The male applicants were required to be married, so the different Methodist churches would have a couple meet and they only had one or two days to decide if they wanted to marry or not.  By knowing what to research I was able to find other sources that corroborated what I found in the Michener novel.

Faith:  Did you insert any fictional characters into the narrative, and if so what role did you need them to play?

John:  Yeah, there’s several of them actually.  My POV character Josh Frasier needed to be in a position where he could witness both sides of the competing forces that eventually clashed.  By moving him from a missionary to a militia chaplain who is taken in by Chivington we can see the political elements.  Having him married to the Cheyenne woman, we experience the problems of her tribe as the try to adapt to this new way of life being forced upon them.

Oscar Devenish represents those questionable missionaries that the ABCFM recruited  from those areas of New England inhabited by descendants of the Puritans.  They responded to the Great Commission from a sense of Christian duty, but they were so resentful of the people they were sent to help they accomplished very little.

Then there are my two Gollum-like characters, Joe Blackburn and Nate Talbot.  They’re fictional, but the names are listed on the muster roll for Company B of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry.  That company was the worst of the worst.  I didn’t want a single tough guy villain, so I opted for a couple of cowardly back shooters, which is what the 3rd Cavalry, aka the 100 Day Volunteers, consisted of.  There are others, but I can’t think of all of them off hand.

Faith:  Thank you for joining us.

John:  Thank you for having me.

Here’s more about That Day by the Creek:

Set in 1864 Colorado Territory, based on the actual events that led up to the infamous massacre of peaceable Cheyennes and Arapahoes.

At the height of frontier expansion, Joshua Frasier comes West as a missionary to the Cheyenne Indians. He marries into the tribe and then is recruited as chaplain in the Colorado militia to fight on the edges of the Civil War and to deal with the ‘Indian problem.’ Caught up in the military and political conflicts of frontier Colorado, Joshua’s faith and mettle are tested severely.

John Buzzard’s well-crafted story weaves both historical and fictional characters into the fast-paced action. He balances a heart-wrenching tragedy of the West with human warmth, hope, and these universal themes: In a clash of cultures, where do ambition, fear, and violence lead? And how is healing even possible?

Bringing this colorful but tragic piece of history to life, the author reminds us not to allow fear, distrust, and anger to escalate to the place where we would ever again experience such a day as That Day by the Creek!

Read John’s novel set during the Sand Creek Massacre:

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