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.
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.”