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Chief Niwot: The Story of “Left Hand” and the Boulder Valley Curse

In honor of National Left Handers Day, August 13, we thought we would share some history as to why so many things in Longmont and the surrounding area are named “Left Hand.”

Here in Longmont we have Left Hand Brewing Company, Left Hand Creek, Left Hand Greenway, and Left Hand Creek Park, and in Boulder County there is Left Hand Canyon. All of these references to ‘left hand’ refer back to the southern Arapaho tribal leader, Chief Niwot. Niwot means left-handed, so even the quaint town of Niwot, Colorado (7 miles west of downtown Longmont) and everything with the word Niwot in it (Niwot Mountain, Niwot Ridge) also means left hand.

Chief Niwot played an integral role in Colorado’s state history. He and his people lived along the Front Range, often spending winters in Boulder Valley. In the fall of 1858 during the Colorado Gold Rush, early prospectors were welcomed by Niwot and his people to the area, even though it was Arapaho territory. Chief Niwot was an intelligent man, not only urging his tribe to coexist peacefully with the white man, but also learning English, Cheyenne, and Sioux, which allowed him to communicate with white settlers and other tribes. Peaceful relations between the southern Arapaho and the white prospectors, however, did not last.

Pikes Peak Gold Rush Map by J.S. Filmore. The Boulder Valley region is circled in red.
Pikes Peak Gold Rush Map by J.S. Filmore. The Boulder Valley region is circled in red. Click on the map for a larger image.

It was a tumultuous time in U.S. history between the white man and Native Americans across the Plains, and tensions ran high. Tribes raided wagon trains, in 1862 the Sioux Uprising against the U.S. Army took place, and the final straw was when the Hungate family was murdered 25 miles southeast of Denver in June of 1864. Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans believed all Native tribes were responsible and decided to get rid of the “Indian problem.” He then ordered the peaceful southern Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes to relocate to Sand Creek, an area in southeast Colorado north of Fort Lyon, a United States Army fort at the time. Governor Evans then ordered the Third Colorado Cavalry, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, to patrol the land for hostile Indians.

Colonel Chivington and his men had patrolled Colorado’s eastern plains for months without finding any hostile tribes. Frustrated, they headed to Sand Creek. Despite Major Edward Wynkoop, commander of Fort Lyons, stating that the Native people at Sand Creek were peaceful, Chivington and his men attacked the Araphao camp the morning of Nov. 29, 1864. There are no exact statistics on the number of people who were killed that day, but most historians believe approximately 180 people were killed during the Sand Creek Massacre, including Chief Niwot, and mostly women, children, and the elderly.

President Abraham Lincoln, bogged down by the Civil War, called for a Congressional investigation into the tragedy. Congress ruled the “gross and wanton” incident a “massacre” rather than a “battle.” Chivington was reprimanded for his actions and lost his commission, Governor Evans was removed from office, and Colorado was placed under martial law. The Sand Creek Massacre site is now designated as a National Historic Site.

Today, we remember Chief Niwot. Upon meeting the first goldseekers in the fall of 1858, Niwot is said to have stated his legendary Curse of the Boulder Valley. According to local lore, Chief Niwot said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

Call it a curse. Call it a prediction. Call it an urban legend. Many Longmont visitors do wind up moving here after a visit, so it’s up to us to make sure we continue to respect the beauty of our land, our neighbors, and the history of Boulder Valley.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads, Colorado
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads, Colorado

Cover photo courtesy of local artist, James BO Insogna. To see more of his beautiful work, click here.

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