This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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As the Colorado board in charge of renaming features takes up the long-anticipated task of renaming Mount Evans, descendants of John Evans are stepping up to defend the former governor.
“Hindsight is a powerful thing. Change the name of the mountain if you want. I’m fine with changing the name. But why do we have to tear down someone in order to make the change?” asks 83-year-old Lucy Hahn, the great-great-granddaughter of the territorial governor who left office in disgrace following the Sand Creek massacre of 1864. “Why does this process require destroying someone’s legacy?”
John Evans, a doctor and minister who founded both Northwestern University in an Illinois city named after him and the University of Denver, was in charge of Colorado’s growing numbers of settlers and miners as well as displaced native residents as the second territorial governor from 1862 to 1865.
In the early morning of Nov. 29, 1864, the U.S. Army’s Col. John Chivington led volunteer cavalry soldiers into a camp of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives and slaughtered 230 people, most of them women and children. State officials had promised the Cheyenne and Arapaho that the encampment would be protected and many leaders of both tribes were slain in the onslaught.
Jared Orsi is a history professor at Colorado State University who this year began serving as Colorado’s state historian with hopes to share more of Colorado’s “undertold stories.”
All historians balance and confront the contributions and harms of historical figures, Orsi said.
“It’s really sensitive and difficult terrain to navigate,” he said.
Orsi detailed several pillars that serve as a foundation for his thinking when weighing the role of John Evans in Colorado history. One of them, he said, is the notion that “having a mountain named after you is not an honor.”
“When I see a mountain named Pike, Evans, Longs or even Yale or Harvard, I see a moment in history when the people who were in charge thought that was a good name. It’s a product of their generation, but it’s not binding to me or my generation,” Orsi said. “We are fully allowed today to say that was a terrible idea and change the name. But along with the right to rename something to suit the current values, we need a dose of humility and appreciation that when we are 80 years old and 90 years old, someone down the line will be wanting to redo the names we assigned. It’s our right to rename, but it’s also our grandchildren’s and our great-grandchildren’s right.”
Investigations found Evans, who was not in Colorado during the attack, responsible for the murders and he was forced to resign his territorial governor from office the following year. The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board this month began the long process of finding a replacement name for the prominent 14,265-foot Mount Evans visible from downtown Denver.
Many Native Americans and non-Native Coloradans have spoken passionately for the renaming, especially those who lost family in the massacre. No one has stepped up to defend Evans in recent meetings and it’s unclear if descendants of the former governor will speak at any of the board’s upcoming naming meetings, which continue Nov. 17.
But some are sending letters in hopes that somewhere in the process, someone will remember what Evans contributed to Denver and Colorado.
Like Hahn. She’s not overly concerned about changing the name of Mount Evans. She’s not planning to talk about her great-great-grandfather before the naming advisory board.
In her effort to highlight Evans’ contributions, she referred a reporter to a host of books that detailed Evans’ history in Colorado and Illinois before arranging a phone call.
“I’m on page 20,” she says of “John Evans, An Appreciation,” written in 1939 by Walter Dill Scott. “Read that page.”
The page details Evans’ work to secure federal land grants and railroad contracts to route railroads through Denver.
“This was not a guy who was doing stuff for vanity or whatever,” Hahn says. “Denver would be in Cheyenne if not for John Evans. Denver would not be the city it is without John Evans.”
The Scott book traces Evans’ role in founding Northwestern University and his medical contributions in Illinois, where the City of Evanston is named after him. It details his anti-slavery work as an educator and Methodist minister. It follows him to Colorado where he lured railroads and helped the city lay out parks as well as founding the University of Denver.
The 60-page book does not mention the Sand Creek massacre.
Fred Mosqueda, an Arapaho speaker who serves as the language and culture program coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, said supporters for changing the name of Mount Evans can sound like they are hating on Evans.
“Sometimes when people are trying to get things done, they belittle the other side and put bad feelings on toward them to make a stronger position for themselves,” Mosqueda said. “This is what is happening here.”
The naming advisory board is not asking Cheyenne and Arapaho to speak about the good things Evans did.
“They are asking us why we want the name gone. They are asking what does it mean to you when you see the name ‘Mount Evans’?” Mosqueda said. “They are loaded questions that bring out the gore and suffering and atrocities.”
Either way, Mosqueda said, don’t expect Native Americans to wave a flag supporting Evans.
“Find what he did good for us and we will wave that flag,” said Mosqueda, who has spoken with several Evans descendants over the years and hopes that someday “all the grandchildren of Sand Creek can gather together.”
“Yes, he created a railroad. Yes, he created universities of higher learning. Did he give us free tuition? Did he help our people recover from Sand Creek? We didn’t gain anything from anything he did,” Mosqueda said.
Descendants of John Evans have stepped forward to defend the former governor before.
In 2000, a grassroots effort aimed to scrub the Evans name from Mount Evans, but this is the first time an official naming board has convened to discuss the change. Family members countered the narratives two decades ago with arguments that Evans, as a civilian official, had no command over the Army.
This time, however, there’s a momentum to remove offensive names from features. The Department of the Interior scrubbed an offensive slur from more than 650 features on federal land this year. The naming advisory board has met for nearly two years, studying name changes across the state. Mount Evans has been a high-profile peak with members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes working to come up with a replacement name.
And this time around, there is academic support for removing Evans from the peak about 35 miles from downtown Denver.
In 2013 and 2014, both Northwestern University and the University of Denver convened committees to study Evans. The reports from those universities have informed much of the recent push for the name change.
The DU John Evans Study Committee concluded that Evans’ “pattern of neglect of his treaty-negotiating duties, his leadership failures, and his reckless decision-making in 1864 combine to clearly demonstrate a significant level of culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre.”
Evans’ actions and influence “created the conditions in which the massacre was highly likely,” the DU committee reported.
The Northwestern committee report also pointed to Evans’ decisions in the months leading up to the massacre as support for his responsibility in the murder of innocents. Those decisions include creating a regiment to combat Natives and authorizing “all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains.”
The Northwestern committee said regardless of Evans’ culpability, his conduct after the massacre “reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation. While he denied any role in the massacre, he refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, what had happened, even going so far as to defend and rationalize it.” The Northwestern committee concluded Evans’ response to the massacre “was reprehensibly obtuse and self-interested.”
Gov. Jared Polis in August 2021 officially rescinded Evans’ proclamations in June and August 1864 that set the stage for the Sand Creek massacre. The June proclamation ordered “friendly Indians” to gather at specific camps and threatened Natives who did not comply. The August 1864 proclamation ordered citizens to “kill and destroy … hostile Indians” and told citizens they could claim any property seized from “hostile Indians.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 issued a formal apology for the state’s role in the 1864 massacre. The Methodist Church, which counted both Evans and Chivington as ministers, issued a resolution in 2016 supporting federal reparations for the Sand Creek massacre, saying “representatives of the church utterly failed to uphold gospel values of respect for human life and all of creation, justice for all people, self-giving love, and hospitality to strangers.”
The DU committee concluded that Evans’ 1864 proclamations were “a clearly articulated framework of encouragement from the top political official in the territory for widespread, undisciplined and preemptive warfare against Native occupants of the region.”
When he rescinded the proclamations, Polis called them “a symbol of a gross abuse of executive power during that grave period of our state’s history.”
Scott Moore, who was born and raised in Denver, is the great-great-great-grandson of John Evans. He is careful in finding a path that champions the former governor’s achievements while not defending the murder of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, which he called “barbaric and brutal.”
Moore asks if it is possible to acknowledge Evans’ contributions in Colorado and Denver while also condemning the Sand Creek massacre. He agrees with the University of Denver committee’s conclusion that Evans helped create the political and cultural climate that led the military to murder women and children at Sand Creek.
“But I think that environment was much broader than himself,” says Moore, who has a brief list of historical arguments in defense of Evans.
Moore says to note the role of Gen. Samuel Curtis, a veteran of the Mexican War who led decisive Union victories in the Civil War and was safeguarding trails through Kansas in 1864 when he ordered Chivington to not accept any peace treaty from the Cheyenne or Arapaho.
“I want no peace until the Indians suffer more,” Curtis wrote to Chivington in a September 1864 telegram.
Consider the context of the time before judging Evans, Moore says. Tens of thousands of American men were dying in the Civil War. Settlers and Natives in the West were fighting. Food supplies, stagecoach routes and telegraph lines to Denver were threatened. The cultural belief that settlers were divinely ordained to take control of North America — the so-called ideology of Manifest Destiny — was a colonizing tenet of America’s western expansion embraced by nearly all politicians.
Moore called Evans’ support of Manifest Destiny “an ethical blindspot.”
Evans’ situation was untenable, Moore says. His role as territorial governor included duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, blending calls for using the cavalry to quash violent bands of Indigenous residents while negotiating peace with tribes. Few leaders in the late 1800s successfully navigated the protection of settlers with obligations to Indigenous people, Moore says.
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(Evans negotiated a peace deal with the Utes in 1863 that opened lands east of the Continental Divide to settlers while protecting lands west of the divide for the Utes. “It was one of the best treaties an Indian Nation had negotiated,” a Denver Library blog post detailing the various peace agreements between whites and Natives in the 1880s reads. The name of that blog post: “Ute Removal and The Hunt Treaty — The Agreement a Buffalo Makes When Pierced with Arrows.”)
The volatile mix of miners and settlers flooding Colorado and pushing out people who had lived there for centuries in the late 1800s created multi-layered challenges “that don’t easily boil down to simple narratives,” Moore says.
“To me sanitizing and simplifying such a complex issue to fit the mode of today, that does not do much to really educate us about our history,” Moore says. “If you erase your history, you can create the environment to repeat it. I think public discussion about this is helpful. But we are losing our ability to have public discourse in today’s society.”
Moore says not all of Evans’ descendants are on the same page when it comes to defending the former governor. The late Tom Hayden, for example, was Evans’ great-grandson and a Clear Creek County commissioner who spent years advocating to change the name of Mount Evans. That was a point of contention between Hayden and Moore’s father “but they still remained best friends,” he says.
Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock visited the Sand Creek massacre site in the fall of 2020 with members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Tribal leaders then spent an afternoon with the three county commissioners, educating them on the need for a name change for Squaw Mountain and Mount Evans. (The naming advisory board last year recommended changing the former S-Mountain, as it was referred to in debate, to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.)
The commissioners earlier this year held three meetings with tribal leaders and the public before unanimously supporting the renaming of Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky.
Wheelock heard from several Evans descendants during this year’s meetings on Mount Evans. Some of them supported the name change. He also heard that same argument raised by Hahn, that the renaming process should not require denigrating one person’s reputation.
“I don’t think this process affects John Evans’ name. I think that’s history itself doing that,” says Wheelock, making clear he was speaking as an individual and not for his fellow commissioners.
Wheelock also heard from family members who urged the commissioners to consider Evans’ contributions to Denver. He remembers tribal leaders pointing out that the philanthropy and economic development promoted by Evans was enabled in part by white settlers taking land from subjugated Natives.
“What was most compelling for me to the conversation and our process was the testimony of the representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes … plus the overwhelming ratio of comments in favor of changing the name to Blue Sky,” Wheelock says.