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In August, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis rescinded two proclamations made by John Evans, the territorial governor in 1864. Historians say the proclamations had helped create the atmosphere that resulted in the massacre of 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho


On a day of August sunshine only mildly marred by wildfire smoke, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addressed a dark time of Colorado’s history. Standing at the foot of the Capitol’s western steps, Polis announced that he was rescinding two executive orders that had been issued in 1864 by John Evans, then the territorial governor.

“We are gathered here on a very somber but also, in some ways, celebratory day in that we are finally addressing a wrong of the past,” Polis said. Sitting in the chairs that had been set up and standing around were members of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute, Navajo, and likely other tribes.

“In 1864, Territorial Gov. Evans issued two proclamations shamefully targeting and endangering the lives of Native Americans who resided in Colorado,” Polis continued, looking out on the western skyline, the 14,265-foot Mt. Evans prominent in that front row of peaks.

Gathering at Evans/Sand Creek ceremony

There were sounds of exultation in mid-August when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis formally rescinded two proclamations issued in 1864. Photo/Allen Best

Evans had arrived in Colorado in 1862 to fill dual posts to which he had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, that of territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. Historians have firmly concluded that he was more zealous about the first job than the second, whose responsibilities included looking out after the best interests of the natives.

As Elliot West and other historians have noted, the tribes were having problems already. The stepped-up immigration from the east upset an already messy apple cart. Peace did not reign before the arrival of the Americans from the east. The diary of John Charles Fremont from the 1844 expedition tells of being asked by the Utes to come to battle with them against the Arapaho in South Park. (He declined). Residents of the new camp of Denver were horrified to see proud Arapaho returning from battle parading the scalps of Utes.

Relations between the latest immigrants and those of an earlier era worsened in 1862 and 1863. Fears grew along with violence, although a full accounting of who did what to whom is complicated. Settlers were not without cause to be afraid.

And Indians very clearly had reason to be leery. Some among them had been to Washington D.C. and New York City. Among those who clearly understood the mismatch was a Cheyenne leader named Little Bear. He had traveled to Washington D.C. in 1863 to meet with Lincoln and other federal officials. In May 1864, he and other Cheyenne were camped at a location about 330 miles east of Denver. Troops arrived, and Little Bear had walked out to meet the soldiers. He was carrying a medallion he had been given in Washington as well as peaceful intentions. He was shot dead. Soldiers then rode up and shot his body again.

Worse came at the start of winter. Evans was absent from Colorado in November, on his way to Washington D.C., when Col. John Chivington led combined forces of a 100-day militia and a unit from the U.S. Army in a pre-dawn attack at Sand Creek, about 180 miles southeast of Denver.

The Indians, mostly Cheyenne but also Arapaho, about 700 altogether, had gathered there, believing with good cause that they had been promised safety.

“Two-hundred-and-thirty Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children, the young and the elderly, were slain in the Sand Creek Massacre,” Polis said.

Gov. Jared Polis is honored for his action with a blanket.

The governor did not say, but among those killed was an octogenarian, White Antelope, who had also been to Washington D.C. and New York City.

Historians have agreed that Evans fell short. A report in 2014 by a panel from the University of Denver, one of two institutions of higher learning that Evans had co-founded, went further. The August 1864 proclamation made it “fair game for attack and robbery by vigilantes at the endorsement of the governor.” This with additional actions in effect “did the equivalent of handing Colonel Chivington a loaded gun,” the DU panel concluded. For a full understanding of the proclamations, see the 2014 report by the DU panel.

The proclamations, said Polis, were never legal and they have never been rescinded. “Today we are changing that,” he said. “Today we are officially rescinding the executive orders of the territorial governor, John Evans.”

And then there were cheers, hoots, and howls.


Looking into 2022

Evans was forced to resign in 1865 after two Congressional inquiries into the horror of Sand Creek and one military investigation. He remained in Colorado, though, and substantially completed what he had set out to do, helping develop railroads and real estate and accumulating a large fortune.

In 1895, two years before Evans died, Colorado legislators renamed the peak west of Denver in his honor. Even then, Evans had never defended his actions leading up to Sand Creek.

Will it now be renamed? Four proposals have been submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic names: Mount Blue Sky, Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho, Mount Rosalie (its former name), and Mount Soule.

tombstone of Silas Soule

The tombstone of Silas Soule, who was martyred by assassins in 1865, is located near the tombstone of John Evans, the territorial governor at the time of the Sand Creek Massacre.

Soule was the name of a captain under Chivington who had refused to let the men under his command participate in the massacre. Soon after, he and another officer, Lt. Joseph Cramer, who had similarly held back his men, wrote scathing letters to their commander, Maj. Edward Wynkoop, which led to the congressional and other investigations. Soule was assassinated a few months later in Denver.

In 2020, Polis formed the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board to make recommendations to him on what he should recommend to the federal board on this and other renaming proposals. The board has already taken up dozens of proposals. It has recommended that Squaw Mountain, west of Denver, be renamed Mestaa’ėhehe (pronounced mess-ta-HAY) Mountain. Among many others, it also recommended changing Negro Creek and Mesa in Delta County. There were many more of the same nature.

The board has yet to take up the issue of Mt. Evans. Another proposal would rename Kit Carson, another 14er, Frustrum Peak, while still another proposal to be considered is whether the name Nuchu should replace Gore, in the mountain range.

Allen Best
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