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Did He Plan It? Governor’s Culpability in Sand Creek Massacre Still Unclear

Nearly a century and a half after a congressional panel recommended John Evans be removed as governor of the Colorado Territory, he's on trial again.
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Nearly a century and a half after a congressional panel recommended that John Evans be removed as governor of the Colorado Territory, the man is on trial again.

Evans, founder of Northwestern University and the University of Denver, was believed to be partly responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre, referred to as the “foulest and most unjustifiable crime in the annals of America.” After a federal investigation into his actions found him evasive, Evans resigned as territorial governor in 1865.

Now, an eight-member research committee formed by Northwestern University to investigate Evans’ role in the massacre has concluded that he did not help plan it and likely did not have prior knowledge of it.

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

“The extant evidence suggests that he did not consider the Indians at Sand Creek to be a threat and that he would have opposed the attack that took place,” states a report released by the committee. “No known evidence establishes that Evans was even was aware” of the attack.

At dawn on November 29, 1864, more than 700 heavily armed U.S. cavalry descended on a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, an isolated spot on the high plains in southeastern Colorado. At the head of the force was Colonel John Chivington, who directed his men to charge.

Soldiers ignored the American flag and white flag tied to a pole at the camp and killed between 165 and 200 people—two-thirds of them women, children and elderly—and wounding another 200. The bodies were horrifically mutilated—some of them scalped multiple times.

Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said the committee began its research by acknowledging Sand Creek as an “appalling atrocity.”

“But what was Evans’s role in that?” Cubbage said. The committee was appointed in early 2013 to “clarify, as best as possible, the connections of John Evans to the Sand Creek Massacre and to what extent Northwestern benefited.”

Alysa Landry

This stone marks the site of the Sand Creek Massacre—150 years after the massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants still grapple with the tragedy.

In short, the committee was tasked with determining whether Northwestern was built with blood money, said Gary Fine, the John Evans professor of sociology at Northwestern and the man who spearheaded the study.

Fine called the report “scathing,” but said it was too lenient when it came to Evans’s role.

“It’s a report that is very critical of John Evans, though maybe not quite critical enough,” he said. “What they found is that there wasn’t any direct evidence that said John Evans ordered the Sand Creek massacre, but you can’t expect that there was. If you look at other incidences of genocide, leaders don’t put that on paper.”

Fine cites a proclamation Evans issued forcing all peaceful Indians in the region to report to reservations or be attacked. A second proclamation issued one month before Sand Creek invited white settlers to indiscriminately “kill and destroy … all hostile Indians.”

Evans, a physician and railroader, co-founded Northwestern 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.

Fine said Northwestern has a moral obligation to confront its history and work to overcome it. A second committee formed earlier this year is reviewing the report and will make recommendations to the university.

“Eventually this will have a good ending,” Fine said. “Whether it’s a short ending or a long one, that’s up to the university.”

The committee’s 114-page report is the first of two expected this year as Northwestern and the University of Denver prepare for the 150th anniversary of the massacre. A similar committee in Denver is working on a response to Northwestern, said Nancy Wadsworth, associate professor of political science and chair of the university’s John Evans Study Group.

Wadsworth believes Denver’s response will be more poignant, given its proximity to the massacre site and the fact that the university stands on land that once belonged to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The university opened just two weeks before the massacre.

The report, expected by the end of summer, will take a second look at Evans’s culpability, Wadsworth said.

“In some respects, Northwestern’s report comes up a bit short, especially from the perspective of our university,” she said. “He was here in Denver, setting up a ‘civilizing institution.’ The picture that comes together is perhaps one of greater culpability.”