Anyone with a basic knowledge about Colorado history knows the shame surrounding the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.
But what hasn’t been recognized is the culpability of one of the central figures behind the attack – Colorado’s own governor at the time, John Evans.
A scathing report released Monday by the University of Denver – which Evans founded – finds he created the conditions that led to the killing of members of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes who were living under the protection of the U.S. Army on the eastern plains.
The massacre at Fort Lyon 150 years ago this month killed what some scholars say were more than 200 women, children, elderly and infirmed tribal members. Sand Creek is one of the most infamous events in the Indian Wars and perhaps the deepest scar in Colorado’s history.
Historians long have condemned U.S. Colonel John Chivington as a “monster in human form” for launching the attack. And rightly so. Chivington was the killer on the spot. He and his men slaughtered tribal members, mutilated their bodies – some sexually – and then brought heads and other body parts back to Denver as battle trophies.
DU’s report finds that Evans had just as much blood on his hands by manufacturing a war he said the tribes had waged against whites.
Aside from his role as governor, he was appointed by the federal government as superintendent of Indian affairs in Colorado. That job entailed keeping peace with the tribes during the Civil War to avoid a war on the second front. Instead, the report reveals, Evans shot-gunned fear-mongering letters to officials throughout the state. He incited Coloradans to shoot as vigilantes any Indian they ran across and to take his or her property as their own.
“Chivington would not have carried out orders without Evans preparing the way,” said DU professor Alan Gilbert. “The lionization of Evans is the opposite of the truth. Evans launched the extermination of Cheyenne and Arapahoe in Colorado and he should not be honored for it.”
For Gilbert, Evans’ lionization hits close to home. Gilbert is the John Evans professor at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The professorship named after the school’s founder is the highest honor bestowed on scholars both at DU and at Northwestern University, which Evans also helped found.
Evanston, Illinois, where Northwestern is located, is named after the physician and railroad promoter who became the second governor of the Territory of Colorado in 1862. Denver’s Evans Avenue and Mount Evans – the twelfth highest of Colorado 14ers — also bear his name.
“Denver and Northwestern have pretended that Evans was a wonderful man and ignored these intense brutal facts,” Gilbert said.
He had suspicions about the man after whom his professorship was named since being awarded the distinction in 2000. About two years ago, a group of Native American students at Northwestern started studying Evans’ record. Study committees were formed at both universities, each of which released reports this year. The DU inquiry led to a series of meetings with descendants of tribal members killed at Sand Creek.
Northwestern’s report, released in May, found that, although there is “no known evidence indicates that John Evans helped plan the Sand Creek Massacre or had any knowledge of it in advance,” he “helped create a situation that made the Sand Creek Massacre possible.”
“John Evans’s conduct after the Sand Creek Massacre reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation. While he denied any role in the massacre, he refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, what had happened, even going so far as to defend and rationalize it. Regardless of Evans’s degree of culpability in failing to make every possible effort to protect the Cheyennes and Arapahos when they were most vulnerable, his response to the Sand Creek Massacre was reprehensibly obtuse and self-interested. His recollections of the event displayed complete indifference to the suffering inflicted on Cheyennes and Arapahos.”
DU’s report went a step further, saying Evans was directly “culpable” for the massacre.
“Evans’s actions and influence, more than those of any other political official in Colorado Territory, created the conditions in which the massacre was highly likely,” it reads. “Evans abrogated his duties as superintendent, fanned the flames of war when he could have dampened them, cultivated an unusually interdependent relationship with the military, and rejected clear opportunities to engage in peaceful negotiations with the Native peoples under his jurisdiction. Furthermore, he successfully lobbied the War Department for the deployment of a federalized regiment, consisting largely of undertrained, undisciplined volunteer soldiers who executed the worst of the atrocities during the massacre.”
Gilbert likens teaching under Evans’ name to teaching under the names of Confederate or Ku Klux Klan leaders if he worked at a university in the South. DU, he says, has operated under what he calls “a founding amnesia” since its inception in 1864, the year of the massacre.
“I knew about genocide against Native Americans, but I hadn’t been aware of how shocking this is,” he said. “Now I feel like it’s a sort of burning thing in my soul and I have to do something about it.”
DU is behind Gilbert on the importance of recognizing Evans’ role.
“We offer this report as an initial step to promote empathy and healing, for those of us who have inherited this complex legacy, but also for the Arapaho and Cheyenne people, who have displayed an active sense of presence in the face of victimization and, lest we forget, on whose ancestral lands our campus sits,” reads the executive summary.
In a letter to the “campus community” Monday, Chancellor Rebecca Chopp announced DU will hold public forums to discuss the history of Sand Creek and “consult with tribes regarding memorial plans.”
“The Sand Creek Massacre is a tragic event in the history of the University, the city of Denver and the state of Colorado,” Chopp wrote. “We embrace our obligation to learn about it, to learn from it, and to carry those lessons forward as we continue to realize our vision of being a great private university dedicated to the public good.”
The University rushed to release the report before the massacre’s 150th anniversary on Nov. 29. Its findings may be lost in the news cycle – a day before today’s mid-term election.
As Gilbert sees it, the truth about Evans resonates as Coloradans choose — among other elected officials — their governor today.
“What we see here is the horrors that a so-called good man can commit,” he said. “We all ought to consider that there are not only the possibilities of doing slight harm as governor but, as the early history of Colorado shows, the possibilities of doing massive, ghastly harm.”[ Image detail of “The Sand Creek Massacre” by Robert Lindneaux.]