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

Report Says Evans Should be Held Responsible for His Part in the Sand Creek Massacre

Alysa Landry

The facts are irrefutable.

By nightfall on November 29, 1864, as many as 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho lay dead, their bodies horribly mutilated and their blood watering the banks of southeastern Colorado’s Sand Creek.

Two-thirds of those killed were women, children and elders. All were victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, slaughtered by U.S. soldiers in an attack later called the “foulest and most unjustifiable crime in the annals of America.”

The camp was peaceful, the massacre unprovoked. Soldiers led by Colonel John Chivington ignored Chief Black Kettle, who raised an American flag and a white cloth signaling peace. They shot defenseless women and children and took scalps as prizes. One soldier killed a pregnant woman, cut her womb open, removed her unborn child and scalped it.

In the following weeks and months, the U.S. government took responsibility for the massacre. What remained unclear for a century and a half, however, was the role of John Evans, governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colorado Territory.

On the eve of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the massacre, the University of Denver has released a report claiming Evans should be held “culpable” for the incident.

“Culpability entails moral responsibility that both falls short of and goes beyond criminal responsibility,” said Richard Clemmer-Smith, a professor of anthropology at the University of Denver and one of the report authors. “Maybe there was no criminal activity on his part, but there certainly was intentionality.”

The report is the result of a year-long study conducted by a volunteer committee comprising professors, students and descendants of massacre survivors. It traces Evans’ steps leading up to the massacre and the federal inquiry afterward that led to Evans’ resignation as territorial governor.

RELATED: Universities Join Forces to Explore Colorado’s Dark History

Evans, a physician and railroader, co-founded Northwestern University in 1851 and the University of Denver in 1864. He held leadership roles at both universities and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to each. Now, both universities are taking a closer look at him—and at the blood money used to fund the schools.

Denver’s report comes on the heels of a similar report released by Northwestern in May. That report, authored by an eight-member research committee, concluded that Evans did not help plan the massacre and likely had no prior knowledge of it. Northwestern’s report also suggests that Evans would have opposed the attack had he been aware of it.

Denver scholars disagree. After reviewing Evans’ own proclamations, along with statements from soldiers and Natives involved in the massacre and results of the federal inquiry, the committee concluded that Evans should bear “a significant level of culpability” for the massacre.

“Evans’ actions and influence, more than those of any other political official in Colorado Territory, created the conditions in which the massacre was highly likely,” the report states. “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.”

Specifically, Evans issued a proclamation forcing all peaceful Indians in the region to report to reservations or be considered hostile. A second proclamation issued one month before the massacre invited white settlers to indiscriminately “kill and destroy … all hostile Indians.” He also relentlessly petitioned the federal government for more troops on the ground, falsely claiming an Indian war was at hand.

Evans was not present at the massacre, nor did he give an order for the men to attack, Clemmer-Smith said. He did, however, set the stage for it to happen.

“Those actions reflect some degree of responsibility for the massacre of peaceful and innocent Indians by a group of men who were led to believe that that’s what they should do,” he said. “The only variable is that they did it against Indians who were not hostile. So they violated Evans’ instructions, but on the other hand, he never made clear how the hostile Indians were to be distinguished from the friendly ones.”

Denver’s purpose was not to put Evans on trial, said Nancy Wadsworth, associate professor of political science and chair of the John Evans Study Committee. Its goal was to assess Evans’ legacy and understand him in a way the university never has.

An important element in the discussions was to invite descendants of massacre survivors, Wadsworth said.

“One of the things they talked about was how the massacre was remembered in their families: who was there, who died,” she said. “These are living communities that have been impacted, real communities who experience these memories as if they were yesterday.”

Released with the report was a list of 22 recommendations to help the community confront the past and move forward. The list includes measures to encourage public dialogue, memorialize the incident, provide better opportunities to Native student and professors and make changes to curriculum.

Although the recommendations are robust, they will always fall short, said Alan Gilbert, the John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

“There is nothing that will adequately remedy this,” said Gilbert, who helped author the report. “To say that one could heal or change beyond a certain point is to deceive oneself. What we can do is recognize and name what was being done by leaders of the university, by the governor, by others.”

One thing Gilbert would like to see is the myriad things named after Evans replaced with more appropriate names. For example, his job title.

“We have Mount Evans, Evans professors, Evans Boulevard,” he said. “This title is a brand, not an honor, something seared into our flesh that needs to be changed.”

Viki Eagle, a Lakota graduate student, wants to see students learn the truth about Evans and the tribes who once thrived in Colorado. She served as the graduate representative on the John Evans Study Committee.

“Not many people recognize the history,” she said. “Most people don’t know the history of Native people or John Evans. If we have education, we can have healing and moving forward.”

The university likely will consider all the recommendations in forthcoming meetings. At the root of healing, however, is the concept of responsibility, said Billy Stratton, assistant English professor and one of the authors of the report.

“No one likes flimsy declarations or apologies without substance,” he said. “We need to acknowledge Sand Creek for what it was—an extremely ugly and horrific time in our history. Because it’s ugly, we want to move on without acknowledging it when we really need to find things to do concretely to promote healing.”

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
sand creek still stands up as one of the worst genocides perpetuated on our peoples and ANYTHING done to remedy it to some degree is outstanding...chivington was a 'indian-hating' moron who obviously spurred the men under him to be the same...

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Sand Creek, like Wounded Knee 1 & II will stand in NDN memory until the end of time. It's testament to the severity of White expansionism and the gross disregard of human life (in spite of the monumental words, . . . "we hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ). ____________________________________________________________ What DOESN'T stand is the flimsy excuses like this (from the article): " So they violated Evans’ instructions, but on the other hand, he never made clear how the hostile Indians were to be distinguished from the friendly ones.” This is pure bullshit as most HOSTILE NDNs DID NOT raise the American flag OR the White Flag of truce!

Donald L. Vasicek
Donald L. Vasicek
Submitted by Donald L. Vasicek on
I have been doing activities similar to this for the past 10 years with schools, colleges, universities, organizations, television, public interest groups, etc. It's amazing to me how "hungry" people are to learn about the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and the Sand Creek Massacre. We simply need to put ourselves out there to inform, to educate and to create awareness for all of America's indigenous people. Hello, Everyone, I have been invited to make 2 presentations about the Sand Creek Massacre at Federal Heights Elementary School on November 14 from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m to 105 students. 4th graders and ELL students will attend. Linda Mauney, Literacy Teacher at the school, said, “We are working to educate our 4th grade students about the Sand Creek Massacre…we are looking at how the Sand Creek Massacre was told from different points of view.” My presentation will include screening a modified version of my award-winning documentary film titled, “The Sand Creek Massacre.” The film is a story told by Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members. It is about how 700 Colorado and New Mexico troops massacred an estimated 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho children, women, elders and special needs people while the warriors were hunting. Since the film was made to inform, to educate and to create awareness for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and for America’s indigenous people to fight racism, this presentation will benefit young minds who hunger to learn and grow in an environment of love and understanding that regardless of what culture, what religion or what race anyone is from, they are all human beings and should be perceived as human beings on equal footing with every other human being. No one is better than anyone else. Racism is like a cancer. It is terminal. It eats and eats away at one’s mind until hate overtakes them and destroys them. ISIL is a perfect example of this kind of hate. To kill all infidels who do not interpret the Quran as they believe the Prophet Mohammed wrote it to be and to follow that writing. Col. John M. Chivington and many members of the “Bloodless Third” (nicknamed that because the members were signed up as 100-day volunteers and time was running short and they hadn’t killed anyone as yet), the 3rd Colorado Regiment were formed out of miners, bartenders, clerks, laborers, alcoholics, criminals, unemployed, etc. to ruthlessly and without conscience shoot, beat, rape, stab, mutilate and murder Cheyenne and Arapaho people because of their hate for the Indian people. An idea put into their minds that all Indians were savages and did not deserve to live. Many of you know much more than me about racism and hate. I leave it to you to help people, particularly young people learn that love and understanding that all human beings are in this race of life together, so we should embrace each other and work together for a better world. Thank you kindly for your continuing support. I deeply appreciate it. Best Regards, Donald L. Vasicek Olympus Films+, LLC The Zen of Writing & Screenwriting [email protected] [email protected] 303-903-2103