The Denver Post/Andy Cross
This is one of the signs at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads, Colorado.

Universities Join Forces to Explore Colorado’s Dark History

Alysa Landry

Two universities located 1,000 miles apart are joining forces to explore one of Colorado’s darkest moments.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and the University of Denver in Colorado were founded by John Evans, governor of the Colorado Territory in 1864 and one of the men responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre. Both universities have appointed research committees to clarify Evans’ role in the massacre and determine whether he funded the institutions with blood money.

The committees are scheduled to report their findings by June 2014, in time for the 150th anniversary of the November 29, 1864 massacre. The findings could change the way both universities—and America as a whole—view Evans, a politician, physician, railroader and namesake of Evanston, Illinois, and Mount Evans, Colorado.

“It is our role as an institution of education to be engaged in self-reflective, active consideration of our role in history, our role in the present and our role in the future,” said Gary Alan Fine, the John Evans professor of sociology at Northwestern. “We have to confront where our money comes from. That doesn’t mean we erase all the good things the university has done in its 162 years, but we remember the entirety of our history.”

As governor, Evans issued a proclamation forcing all peaceful Indians in the region to report to the Sand Creek reservation or risk being attacked. Soldiers ignored the American flag and white flag tied to a pole in the village. They killed children by clubbing them in the head and women by slicing their bellies open. Then they mutilated the dead, taking body parts as trophies.

Between 165 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were killed—two-thirds of them women, children and elderly—and another 200 were wounded, according to National Park Service data. Evans, appointed as governor by President Abraham Lincoln, lost that position after Congress investigated Sand Creek.

Evans co-founded Northwestern University in 1851—13 years before the massacre—and the University of Denver in 1864. He held leadership roles at both universities and gave about $200,000 to Northwestern, Fine said.

Fine was the impetus behind Northwestern’s decision to re-evaluate Evans’ contributions to the school. He worked closely with the university’s newly established Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance to petition administrators, seeking an investigation into Evans, creation of a Native American Studies program and scholarships for Native students.

A granite memorial stone stands at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads, Colorado. But this, like much in reference to the Sand Creek Massacre, refers to what happened in 1864 as a “battle,” while it was anything but. (Photo courtesy National Parks Service)The university appointed a committee to examine whether Evans’ financial support could be attributed to “wealth he obtained as a result of policies and practices he pursued while territorial governor regarding the Native American populations there.”

The committee comprises professors at several universities, including Ned Blackhawk, professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Blackhawk, who is Western Shoshone, is one of few Natives formally involved in the research.

“It’s very important to understand that Indian country in the West was an integral part of Civil War history,” he said. “These were really dark chapters in history with long legacies. If we don’t understand them, we don’t fully understand our history as a country.”

As Northwestern’s cause gained momentum, the University of Denver got on board, appointing a similar committee and launching a website to document progress.

“We want to look at Evans’ role in history, in Sand Creek, talk about ways we might recognize and honor his contributions or take him to task for bad behavior,” said Dean Saitta, chair of the anthropology department at the University of Denver. “There’s a history there that maybe has been whitewashed, forgotten, ignored. It’s important to surface that and come to terms with it, sort it all out and put our founder in an objective and comprehensive light.”

Little remains at the massacre site near Eads, Colorado, and historical accounts have left something to be desired, said Gail Ridgley, who is Northern Arapaho and a descendant of a massacre survivor.

“It is recognized in some places as a battle instead of a massacre,” he said. “You have to look at it as a massacre to understand the historical trauma that came out of it, the intergenerational trauma that has led to so many defects in our society now.”

Ridgley has worked with the National Park Service since 1999 researching the massacre, preserving the site and documenting oral histories. He hopes the investigations into Evans help raise awareness of the massacre and its importance in American history.

The site remains much as it was 150 years ago, said Alexa Roberts, superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Congress authorized the National Park Service to acquire 12,000 acres to preserve the site and commemorate those who died. About 5,000 people visit every year, Roberts said.

“It’s undisturbed, beautiful prairie landscape,” she said of the site. “A visitor to the site today can well imagine the events that took place on that landscape in 1864.”

This preservation of history is what descendants of the massacre hope come from the universities’ investigations.

“It’s still painful for us today,” said Joe Big Medicine, who is Southern Cheyenne and is descended from a massacre survivor. “We need to educate the American people and our descendants today.”

An informational plaque at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site tells the story of the massacre, for which John Evans, founder of the University of Denver and Northwestern University, is partially responsible. (Photo courtesy National Parks Service)

Read more:

Native Student Group at Northwestern Demands Recognition

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Some of us remember ALL the evil things done to our peoples. To us, it is like yesterday. So many say, "That was a long time ago, so move on & get over it." THAT kind of attitude among the younger ones, regardless of race, is why it all STILL angers some of us even today. We cannot ever forget the past my friends, because we have never healed from all the pain. There may be a sort of forgiving, but we will NEVER forget all we have had happen to our people throughout time since the Invaders first stepped foot on this continent & started the destruction that untimately destroyed whole races & tribes of our ancestors. Perhaps it's mean & cruel of me, but I think those responsible for the various murdering events of our various peoples should have their remains thrown out of their graves & left for the wild animals to drag & tear them to pieces. Such evil ones don't even deserve to be buried in Mother Earth. NEVER forget where you come from & never forget the evils that were done to our people. A people who forget their past is a people who cease being.

candyo's picture
Submitted by candyo on
I posted a comment but as a member of the Cheyenne/Arapaho Tribe they have censored my comment on this site. The same way they censored the massacre that happened at Sand Creek. No one wanted this story to be told because of the horrific carnage. We were told by the military people of the government to go there so that we would be protected but instead our people were killed. Little babies begged for their lives and watched as men killed their mothers. Governor Evans wanted to kill all the Native Americans so that White Settlers could confiscate the land for their own. Methodist preachers were involved, and other religious bigots. It was an annihilation of my people by land hungry immigrants who came to take our land and our way of life that we had lived for thousands of years. They should remove his name from every school or University. He does not deserve to be remembered... I don't think the signs should have his picture on it at the Sand Creek site, it would be like showing signs of Hitler at the place and sites of the ovens that they burned the Jewish people.

Nina S. Wampler's picture
Nina S. Wampler
Submitted by Nina S. Wampler on
I am so grateful that the two universities are taking on this important work. Through understanding this tragedies of the past, we can honor those who died, learn from their survivors and heal the wounds of historical trauma. Honoring the people who died there may help us all. Help us heal, Mother Earth. Wado

Nina S. Wampler's picture
Nina S. Wampler
Submitted by Nina S. Wampler on
I like what Gail Ridgely said about it: “The Sand Creek Massacre Trail, to me, and our people, is about historical remembrance, educational awareness, and spiritual healing of the Arapaho people.”

George Nightwalker Sr's picture
George Nightwal...
Submitted by George Nightwal... on
It has been eons since I even went by this location. I was too busy working and going to school as a young adult...the desires of my Cheyenne/Arapaho/Sioux family. My family was fortunate to travel from Oklahoma to Montana to Wyoming to South Dakota when I was little. I saw and heard many stories of many places and incidents in history..Our history. I now have a degree in US History but also added to my knowledge and understanding of the tribes mentioned as well as other tribes (Native Studies). It is a sad history but Our people came through it all...trauma and all. In that sense We are the Victors. WE have a Connection to the land/lands non-natives cannot possibly know. However, other than that I truly hope that a much Bigger and Better monument and True informational board evenutually mark the location. Yeah,and leave off the picture of John Evans. Nee aash.

Bob Newheart's picture
Bob Newheart
Submitted by Bob Newheart on
How come there are only a few indian reservations in Colorado? It has an abundance of water and where there is water, there is life.

J. White's picture
J. White
Submitted by J. White on
My fourth graders out here in California are doing a biography report about California History. 3 of them chose James Beckwourth, a freed slave who worked as a guide for the US Army among other things, he was forced to help, under punishment of death, guide the Army to the Cheyenne at Sand Creek, but later testified before Congress about the Massacre, a rare occurrence for a freed slave. My students were shocked about Sand Creek and about Chivington's statements about killing Indians. Sand Creek should be known more widely.

Roberta Healy
Roberta Healy
Submitted by Roberta Healy on
Back in the day, I read Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee". It took me almost 20 years to get through it. Why? I would have to put it aside for varying periods of time when I read about the horrors visited upon the Indian peoples. It made me ashamed to be white. And after reading about the massacre at Sand Creek, I couldn't get back to it for almost 10 years. I've never forgotten.