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Mount Evans, named after a disgraced territorial governor of Colorado, is highest on the list of peaks that could be renamed amid a sweeping call to change offensive or disrespectful names from Colorado's peaks, valleys, creeks and mesas. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday formally asked the federal U.S. Board on Geographic Names to strip the name of a disgraced territorial governor from one of the state’s most well-known mountains and rename it Mount Blue Sky.

The move comes after the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in November voted unanimously to change the name of Mount Evans. The Clear Creek County peak was named in honor of John Evans, who was territorial governor from 1862 to 1865, when he was forced to resign because of his role in the Sand Creek Massacre, a deadly attack against Native American people. 

More than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people died in the 1864 massacre, mostly women, children and older adults.

Polis requested the name change in a letter to Trent Palmer, executive secretary of domestic names for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. That board is expected to meet soon and accept the recommendation, which would make the switch, years in the making, final.

Polis wrote in the letter that the process of deciding whether to rename the 14,265-foot mountain, which is visible from Denver, and what to change it to, included input from many stakeholders who said the “Evans” name is painful for them.

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

Native American tribal leaders, local government officials and family members of those who were killed in or survived the Sand Creek Massacre met several times with members of the state’s renaming board to provide information about Evans’ culpability in the massacre.

Anne Hayden, John Evans’ great-great-granddaughter, noting that she did not represent all members of her family, testified at a public meeting about renaming the peak and said she favored changing its name.

In his letter to the federal renaming board, Polis said each of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado deserves “a name befitting their majesty.” While many Coloradans have grown up knowing the name Mount Evans, Polis wrote that it is clear people want a new name that unites the community rather than dividing it. 

Polis cited research by scholars at the University of Denver and Northwestern University, both of which Evans helped found, in his letter, saying their work showed “Evans’ culpability, tacit or explicit, for the Sand Creek Massacre is without question.

“Simply put, Gov. Evans didn’t just engage in warfare against Native Americans, but facilitated the senseless slaughter of non-combatants, including large numbers of women, children, and the elderly, by his proclamation and acknowledged initiative to fully eliminate eastern Colorado of any Native American presence and actions further empowering Col. John Chivington,” Polis wrote.

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After the massacre, Chivington celebrated in Denver, parading through the streets with the deceased bodies of Native people. Evans praised Chivington and his men for their “valor in subduing the savages,” Polis’ letter says.

The name change won’t erase Evans’ other roles in Colorado, Polis said. Evans will remain credited with bringing the railroad to Denver and for his impact on the medical profession, as well as his opposition to slavery and close relationship to Abraham Lincoln. 

“However, as History Colorado has noted, he had a glaring blind-spot for the rights — and even the very humanity — of Native Americans,” Polis wrote in the letter. “This complicated history will continue to be studied, taught and debated in academia, our research and historical institutions and classrooms, and his name will undoubtedly continue to appear in many places inside and outside of our state.”

MorningStar Jones, a Denver-based Cheyenne woman, said in a written statement released by the governor’s office on Friday that she is proud of tribal leaders for working with Colorado officials in a way that “admits and remembers” the horrific events that occurred at the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Changing the Mount Evans name to Mount Blue Sky brings healing, especially for indigenous communities, she said.

“Representing my ancestors and doing the footwork to knock down barriers like changing names in the community has not been easy,” she said in the statement. “Reliving the atrocities and injustices that family members in my lineage endured has been overwhelming with emotions. I want my sons, daughter, nieces, and nephews to live in a different world than what our grandmothers and grandfathers faced. ”

Connor Ryan, a Hunkpapa Lakota member and professional skier, said Friday in a statement released by the governor’s office that the name change represents a chance for Coloradans to restore their relationships with the mountain rather than celebrate a legacy of genocide and colonization.

Clear Creek County’s commissioners helped develop the process to rename the mountain and have supported the Mount Blue Sky name change for about a year, commission Chairman Randall Wheelock said. 

He called the name change, discussed by the commissioners since 2017, “well overdue” and said it will make the county a more welcoming place and help future generations better educate themselves and their children.

“I don’t think there’s any erasure of history taking place,” Wheelock said. “I think what we’re actually doing is supplementing history with greater accuracy.” 

Mount Evans is a major tourism and recreation draw, with the scenic byway to the summit leading travelers to two Denver mountain parks: Echo Lake and Summit Lake.

Wildfire smoke take over Mount Evans Wilderness seen on Tuesday August 18, 2020, near Idaho Springs. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Four other replacement names were considered, far more than usual, in an indication of Mount Evans’ controversial nature: Mount Soule, Mount Rosalie, Mount Cheyenne Arapaho and Mount Sisty.

There was also a request to maintain the mountain’s name to honor Evan’s daughter Anne Evans.

Starlyn Miller, native lands partnership director for the Wilderness Society, wrote in a statement to reporters that she applauds Native communities for their leadership and advocacy to change the mountain’s name because it paves an easier path forward for future efforts to do the same. 

“Yet, there are still thousands of harmful place names that stain our landscapes,” she said in the statement. “These sites include rivers and mountains that commemorate individuals who have perpetrated atrocities, like the former territorial Gov. John Evans and Mount Evans, which bears his name. We look forward to supporting Tribal Nations and Indigenous partners in removing more offensive names from public lands – including harmful commemorative place names. Today’s announcement is a positive step in the right direction.” 

While the peak can be renamed, the 74,401 acre wilderness area that surrounds it still will carry the Evans name. “The wilderness area can only be renamed by the U.S. Congress. So legislation would have to be introduced on that and signed by the president,” explained Chris Arend, spokesman for the state naming board.

The state naming committee was convened by Polis in the summer of 2020 and its work has mostly focused on replacing slurs used to identify public places or geographic features. The Colorado renaming board has made recommendations on 40 naming proposals and has five proposals under current consideration, Arend said.

In his letter to the federal renaming board Friday, Polis also requested that a creek and mesa in Delta County labeled by Mexican settlers with the Spanish word for the color black be renamed Clay Mesa and Clay Creek.

Cedaredge High School students in western Colorado helped select the Clay Creek and Clay Mesa names and presented them to the state naming board in 2020. Clay, the students said, was selected to reflect the geography of Delta County.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is expected to meet on March 9 to approve or deny the new names.

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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 and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, Zumba, learning how to...