Universities Join Forces to Explore Colorado’s Dark History

Northwestern University and the University of Denver have teamed up to explore the history behind their institutions including John Evans.

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.

Photo courtesy National Parks Service

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.

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.”

Photo courtesy National Parks Service

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.

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