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In this 2016 file photo, visitors pass the sign on the summit of Mount Evans. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board — which evaluates proposals to change the names of geographic features and public places in Colorado — has finally begun considering a potential name change for Mount Evans, renamed in 1895 to honor the disgraced territorial governor John Evans.

Evans was governor of Colorado territory from 1862 to 1865, when he was forced to resign for his leadership role in the Nov. 29, 1864, Sand Creek Massacre, which resulted in the murders of more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and older adults. 

More than 100 people attended a virtual meeting on Tuesday night to hear a historian and Native American tribal members and leaders educate the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board about the events of the Sand Creek Massacre, Evans’ role in the murders and the importance of renaming the 14,265 foot mountain that is visible from Denver.

There are six pending proposals to rename Mount Evans, far more than the usual one, an indication of its controversial nature. Mount Soule, Mount Rosalie, Mount Blue Sky, Mount Cheyenne Arapaho, Mount Sisty and a request to keep the name the same are all on the table. 

The proposal to maintain the name of the peak seeks to redefine it to honor John Evans’ daughter, Anne Evans, who co-founded and supported some of Colorado’s largest cultural institutions such as the Denver Art Museum, the Central City Opera and the Denver Public Library, said Tim Mauck, deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources and board chair of the renaming committee.

At the meeting on Tuesday, many Native Americans and non-Native Coloradans advocated for Mount Blue Sky or Mount Cheyenne Arapaho. 

Typically, Colorado’s geographic renaming board holds multiple meetings while the public considers a possible name change. Those meetings typically include an educational session led by historians and stakeholders linked to the geographic feature, a presentation by proponents advocating for a name change, a question and answer session and time for public comment before board deliberation. The process can take up to a year.

The Colorado renaming board does not make final decisions on name changes. Following public comment, the panel will make a recommendation to Gov. Jared Polis. If Polis agrees with the name change, that recommendation is sent to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which permanently changes the name.

Since it was established by Polis in the summer of 2020, the committee has considered 56 naming or renaming proposals and has so far made recommendations on 26, Mauck said. The work has mostly focused on replacing slurs used to identify public places or geographic features.

Proponents of the six proposed name changes for Mount Evans will present their suggestions during the next meeting on Nov. 17. 

Mount Evans was formerly named Mount Rosalie, after Rosalie Bierstadt, the wife of Albert Bierstadt, a German painter, whose expansive landscapes captured many Colorado mountains. Mount Rosalie is again under consideration as a new name for Mount Evans.

“As you have heard over and over during this meeting, the atrocities and the things that Evans has done to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people — it’s absolutely horrific just to hear (his) name,” said Morning Star Jones, a Cheyenne woman who is a descendent of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre.

“As a Cheyenne woman raising my children here, I just want to have a different connection to the mountain than the Evans name,” she said.

The view from close to the summit of Mount Evans in Colorado. Evans was originally named Mount Rosalie but was changed to Evans in 1895 for John Evans, the second governor of Colorado who resigned for his part in the Sand Creek Massacre. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado became a territory in 1861, after the discovery of gold in 1858 caused a rush of miners to the region. Evans, who had plans to use his railroad connections to build Colorado into a center of wealth and prosperity was appointed territorial governor by Abraham Lincoln. Evans was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and in charge of the military in Colorado.

Evans essentially abdicated his roles during the massacre, allowing then-Colonel John Chivington to attack a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people who were then under the protection of the U.S. Army, said Andrew Masich, a historian and consultant, who has worked with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members for three decades.

Sand Creek was not only a crime against Cheyenne and Arapaho people. It launched the plains Indian wars that lasted for decades, Masich added.

Several investigations — including one in 2014 by Northwestern University, a school Evans founded in Evanston, Illinois, and another that same year by the University of Denver, a school Evans also founded the year of the massacre — have condemned the murders and Evans’ role in it.

Evans’ culpability is comparable to that of Chivington, the military commander who personally planned and carried out the massacre, according to the Denver University report. Evans’ pattern of neglecting his treaty-negotiating duties show a significant level of culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre, the Denver University report found.

The Northwestern report similarly states that Evans failed to make every possible effort to protect Cheyenne and Arapaho people when they were most vulnerable and that he empowered settlers to take Native Americans’ property and offered ammunition and payment to those who would organize into militia companies to kill Native people who were deemed “hostile.” After the massacre, Evans denied involvement but simultaneously tried to rationalize it, the Northwestern report stated.

Evans’ great-great-great-grandson, Brad Hahn of Aspen, has contacted the Colorado Sun in the past and claimed historians are incorrect to link Evans to the Sand Creek Massacre. No one has defended Evans publicly at a Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board meeting, Mauck said, noting that the meeting Tuesday was the first official discussion of the peak. 

When Chivington died in 1894, he drew in the largest crowd ever held at a funeral in Colorado up until that point, Masich said. A few months later, people in Colorado thought it would be appropriate to remember civil war heroes, such as John Evans, and his men, Masich added.

“So they chose to change the name of Mount Rosalie to Mount Evans early in 1895,” Masich said. “Well, the people have spoken today and said it’s time to change this. Mount Evans is an affront to Cheyenne and Arapaho people, but it’s also a disservice to people of Colorado and the people who remember the past and honor the past.”

Almost a dozen people from the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes spoke alongside other Native American tribe members on Tuesday night. Their comments almost mirrored the contents of both university investigations, although a few said the reports’ findings were too easy on Evans.

A YouTube video of Native American elders who were working to educate the public about the massacre and preserve its history was shown during the meeting. Many in the video said they heard about the massacre in first person accounts from family members. As they spoke, historical photos of Native people and the land where the massacre happened are shown. 

When American troops descended on the day of the massacre, they awakened Native American people camping there as they began shooting at victims, a woman in the video says.

A soldier saw a small kid alone while he ran around the massacre site crying and likely looking for his parents. A soldier shot at the child and missed. Another soldier tried to shoot the kid but also missed. A third soldier shot the child, said Morning Killer, a Native American man featured in the video. “‘I don’t even think he was out of his diapers,” my great granddad told me.”

Body parts of dead women and children were sold in Denver and other places, after the massacre, he added. 

Most of the people featured in the video have died and have passed the torch to the Native Americans who led the conversation at Tuesday night’s meeting, such as Otto Braided Hair Jr., whose great-grandparents survived the massacre. His great-grandmother was pregnant at the time.

“It’s always an emotional moment when you have to continue this work without them but I’ve done my best to take the torch and carry it on,” he said at the meeting. “But what’s heaviest is thinking and talking about the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre.”

A mountain goat yearling explores an abandoned building on Mount Evans. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Just last year, Gov. Polis convened with Native American leaders and signed an executive order to rescind two 1864 proclamations by Evans that targeted Native Americans and encouraged violence against them. Rick Williams, who attended Tuesday night’s meeting, was instrumental in getting Polis to rescind Evans’ proclamations.

Conrad Fisher, cultural liaison to the Northern Cheyenne tribal president and a descendant of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, said there have been efforts to raise awareness about the massacre and that the state benefits economically from tourism to its memorial site. However, Native American tribes don’t benefit economically from visits to the site, he said. 

“We don’t see any significant cultural landscape at this time to honor those that fell,” he said.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to honor this national treasure — not only for the State of Colorado today — but for the U.S. to have a mountain named after those people that sacrificed their lives?” 

History Colorado will open an exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre on Nov. 19, telling the story of the Sand Creek Massacre based on tribal accounts and oral histories from the descendants of those who survived one of the deadliest days in state history.

MORE: Find the list of the other names of other geographic features the board is considering changing on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources website, which will soon include the agenda for the Nov. 17 meeting where the six possible new names for Mount Evans will be presented, and the public will be invited to comment. For more information, email dnr_cgnab@state.co.us.

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel...