Art by Ahania Soni
Art by Ahania Soni

In years after Sand Creek Massacre, media, political operatives salvage Evans’ reputation

Content warning: The following article contains graphic, disturbing descriptions of the aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre.

February 27, 2023

Dec. 22, 1864. The streets of Denver, Colo. were roused in grotesque celebration. Colonel John Chivington’s troops returned merely a month after the Sand Creek Massacre, parading the “trophies” they had taken from the mutilated bodies of native people through the streets. They displayed limbs, scalps, male and female genitalia and a fetus which had been cut from the body of a murdered pregnant woman.  Rather than recoil, Denver welcomed these soldiers back with open arms. Upon their arrival in the city, Chivington’s Third Regiment was met by crowds of admiring onlookers. His soldiers bragged about their bravery on the “field of battle,” and were celebrated as heroes by Coloradans. A Denver newspaper described the scene of this parade. 

“As the ‘bold sojer boys’ passed along, the sidewalks and the corner stands were thronged with citizens saluting their old friends: and the fair sex took advantage of the opportunity, wherever they could get it, of expressing their admiration for the gallant boys, who donned the regimentals for the purpose of protecting the women of the country by ridding it of red skins,” read the Rocky Mountain News on Dec. 22, 1864. 

Although we now know it as the Sand Creek Massacre, for over a century the events of Nov. 28 were called a “battle.” The men who are now condemned as murderers were—in many cases —celebrated and revered. Despite the graphically disturbing testimonies of soldiers, and the eventual congressional investigation which led to the resignation from the governorship of John Evans’, the territorial governor at the time, the prevailing narrative in Colorado was one of brave American troops warding off dangerous Natives.  

In 1864, The Rocky Mountain News published a story titled “The Battle of Sand Creek” in which it explained, “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results,” and “In no single battle in North America, we believe, have so many Indians been slain […] All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.” 

This glorification of violence against Indigenous people was far from uncommon. As more Americans moved west, in search of freedom or wealth, more land had to be taken from Native Americans—all too often violently. But white settlers didn’t want to see themselves as thieves or murderers, so they created a narrative where they maintained their moral standing while simultaneously encroaching further and further into the territory Natives had lived on for centuries. In their story, God intended America for white folks, and Native people were a violent, frightening obstacle in their path to the coast. This concept—the idea that women and children had to be protected from fierce savages—shifted the way white Americans viewed violence against natives. Megan Hyska, Assistant Professor of Psychology who studies propaganda, studies how settlers may have rationalized the massacre.

People tend to have some kind of personal or cultural code about when it is okay to harm other people. So, any narrative about an act of killing or harming being ‘heroic’ has to function within those parameters.

— Megan Hyska, Assistant Professor of Pyschology at Northwestern University

“People tend to have some kind of personal or cultural code about when it is okay to harm other people. So, any narrative about an act of killing or harming being ‘heroic’ has to function within those parameters. When you suggest that the people murdered were, in fact, combatants, then this is an instance of self protection. Or, for instance, you say it’s just war—-the same kind that any two European powers would wage against one another. It’s fine to kill other combatants in a war,” says Hyska.

Colorado was in the perfect social and political climate to support Chivington. Denver had struggled with violence between settlers and nearby Native populations for years. In the lead up to the massacre, in 1864, a young family called the Hungates were murdered and mutilated just outside of the city. They were presumed to have been killed by Indians, and their bodies were brought into the city and put on display in order to show the dangers that Native communities might pose to homesteaders. With this event at the forefront of people’s minds, the assumption that all Natives wanted to kill and scalp white women and children didn’t seem far-fetched to the people of Denver. The widespread fear led Evans to create the Third Regiment of the Colorado Militia, a volunteer army with the specific goal of killing Native Americans in order to “protect” white Coloradans. Evans also issued a proclamation in August of 1964 which encouraged white settlers to kill Indians in order to defend their land.

“In his August proclamation, August 1864, [Evans] basically gave carte blanche to vigilantes to go after Indians. And that was something of a surprise. And I think that was what basically gave Chivington permission to attack these peaceful Indians that were living on their reservation,” says Richard Clemmer-Smith, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Denver.

Reaction Outside of Colorado 

Colorado was primed to accept the brutal violence against its Native population, but in the months after the massacre, pushback began to build on the East Coast. Witnesses to the massacre were beginning to share what they had seen in letters to their friends and family, and their gruesome testimonies prompted moral concern from metropolitan areas in New England and the Midwest. The New York Times wrote in July of 1865, “The truth is that [Chivington] surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men women and children on Sand Creek.” Beth Redbird, a Northwestern Sociology professor who focuses on Indigenous wellbeing, explains that the western states were much more inclined to dehumanize Native populations. 

“The West is a place of significant Native population. There’s a sociological theory called ‘population threat,’ which is that, when a group is large compared to yours, you find it threatening […] That idea was certainly prominent in the minds of people in the West at the time.” Redbird says, “The people in the West had memories of conflicts with Native groups—they had witnessed conflicts with Native groups. The conflict was real in a way that it wasn’t in the east.”

The increased eastern concern over the massacre soon prompted a Congressional investigation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a committee composed of Union generals who investigated internal mismanagement within the Union Army. Suspicious of the claim that the events at Sand Creek had been a “battle,” the Committee asked soldiers who had been present to testify about their experience. Silas Soule, the captain of the First Colorado Cavalry at the time, was one of the few soldiers willing to condemn his Colonel in a testimony for Congress. 

[Chivington] deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty.

— Joint Committee on the Conduct of War

First, Soule described that “the Indians seemed very anxious to make peace.” He reported that he protested the idea of attack to his commanding officer, Major Anthony, and described Anthony’s response, saying, “He told me that we were going on Smokey Hill to fight the hostile Indians; he also said he was all in for killing all Indians, and that he was only acting or had been acting friendly with them until he could get a force large enough to go out and kill all of them.”

His testimony, along with others which corroborated his story, was convincing. It became clear to the Committee that the attack had been unprovoked and unrequited. Contradicting the early news reporting, the Committee’s statement explicitly outlined that the attack was in fact a massacre, and condemned Chivington for his role in orchestrating it, saying: 

“He deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.”

But despite its abundance of evidence and damning conclusion, the report’s effect only extended so far. Chivington resigned from his position before he could suffer any disciplinary action from the Union military. Although the commission recommended that charges be brought against the instrumental players in the massacre, namely Chivington, none ever were. In fact, instead of swaying the public against Chivington, after its release it seemed to strengthen the anti-Indian sentiments of Coloradans. They perceived the government council as an upper class institution which has no comprehension of what they lived through on the frontier. Despite all that the report illustrated, the people of Colorado only wanted to see the narrative which they had written—the one where they were brave heroes. 

“Indignation was loudly and unequivocally expressed, and some less considerate of the boys were very persistent in their inquiries as to who those ‘high officials’ were, with a mild intimation that they had half a mind to ‘go for them.’ This talk about ‘friendly Indians’ and a ‘surrendered’ village will do to ‘tell to marines,’ but to us out here it is all bosh.” 

The press even used the Huntgates’ murders as explicit justification for the massacre, claiming that: 

“The confessed murderers of the Hungate family – a man and wife and their two little babes, whose scalped and mutilated remains were seen by all our citizens—were ‘friendly Indians,’ we suppose, in the eyes of these ‘high officials.’ They fell in the Sand Creek battle.”

By associating the Indians at Sand Creek with those who allegedly killed the Huntgates they spoke to the much broader idea that “Indians are killers.” If they could believe that any Native person was capable of scalping a baby, then even though the natives at sand creek were unarmed and peaceful it was still “morally sound” to murder them. By establishing that all Indians are murderers, the court of public opinion sentenced them to death.  

It didn’t take long for the resentment for the investigation into Chivington’s behavior to spiral into even more Violence. After receiving numerous death threats for his decision to aid the Commission, just two months after his testimony in front of congress, Silas Soule was murdered.

Native Retaliation

August 1864. Evans issued a proclamation explicitly commanding Coloradans to murder any Natives outside of a few areas which became designated safe zones. For Indigenous people, Colorado became a warzone. 

“I, John Evans, Governor of Colorado Territory, do issue this, my proclamation, 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, scrupulously avoiding those who have responded to my call to rendezvous at the points indicated. Also, to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” 

The tribes that would eventually converge at Sand Creek all originally traveled to Fort Lyons, one of the areas where Evans had claimed they would be protected. Many chiefs and other tribal leaders, mostly Cheyenne and Arapaho, brought their women, children and elders to the safety of the fort, where they were given sustenance and protection from American troops. But after some time at Fort Lyon they were asked to relocate to Sand Creek, around 40 miles away, still with the promise of governmental protection. 

I, John Evans, Governor of Colorado Territory, do issue this, my proclamation, 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.

— John Evans

But of course, Sand Creek was not safe, and hundreds of those women and children were massacred by the same troops who had been sworn to protect them. The Sand Creek Massacre shook the Colorado Native community in many ways. On top of the emotional strife caused by such destruction, power structures in Native society were weakened by the death of a large number of chiefs and political figures who had stayed in the village. With little to no safety in the Colorado territory, the majority of survivors of the massacre joined the “Dog Soldiers,” a group of Cheyenne warriors, and retaliation began in earnest. 

Many chiefs still called for peace but over the winter months of 1865, the Dog Soldiers essentially waged war on white Coloradans. They attacked the town of Julesburg, burning it to the ground. They continued on, raiding towns along the Platte River. In their attacks they were often indiscriminate, killing women, children and soldiers. 

The massacre at Sand Creek was the catalyst of large-scale, widespread violence. Like so many other oppressed communities, Native people were radicalized by the violence perpetrated against them by settlers. This radicalization served as the tipping point—pushing the already on edge Native groups to the point of warfare. But the Natives’ retaliation only served to further whites’ fear and hatred, and so a cycle of violence was born, which plagued Colorado for years after the massacre, and ruined hopes of potential peace between Native and white communities.

Evans’ Town 

March. 1865. While in D.C., John Evans justified the Sand Creek Massacre in front of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He claimed that there were “hostile intentions” amongst the Indians at Sand Creek and blamed the influence of other Native tribes for the unrest in Colorado saying that he had “no doubt . . . that emissaries from the hostile tribes who were driven out of Minnesota have got us into these difficulties.”

During the same testimony, Evans attempted to distance himself from the massacre. Despite his proclamation encouraging attacks on Native communities, Evans claimed that he had given “no orders” and had no prior knowledge of the attack. But despite his attempts to wash his hands of blame, when the Committee recommended that charges be pressed against Chivington, they also heavily pressured Evans to resign from his position as territorial governor. Although he attempted to use connections in Washington to avoid his exile, Evans eventually acquiesced, and on Aug. 1, 1865, he gave up the governorship and his chance at a future political career. 

But despite the ruin of his political career, Evans’ social status in Colorado was barely altered. According to the Northwestern Report, he returned to Denver, and much like Chivington’s soldiers just over half a year before, was met by a brass band and a congregation of soldiers serenading his residence. Although he couldn’t fulfill his dreams of going to Washington, Evans maintained prominence in local politics, and soon after the end of his governorship he entered into the railroad business. 

Evans created the railroads linking Denver to Union Pacific’s Transcontinental lines, as well as the remote mine-heavy areas of the state, and New Orleans. With these lines of transportation established Denver boomed as a Western hub, with its population increasing from 5,000 to 35,000 in 1870, the year that the railroad was established there. In essence, the railroads made Denver the city it is today, and Evans became the face of that progress, with The Rocky Mountain News writing about him dissolving railroad conflicts, and describing him as a “pioneer capitalist.”

On top of his position in industry, Evans became a vital part of the Denver religious community. He was an important donor to many congregations and eventually was elected to the Methodist Church’s primary leadership body. 

Evans is an appointee of Abraham Lincoln’s […] He’s is somebody who represents the president. He’s sent there specifically to help Colorado become a state. He’s made this promise [to natives], and this promise is broken by the actions of his cavalrymen. That reverberates back through the reputations of people from the east. In some re- spects, it’s personal to them.

— Beth Redbid, Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University

For Evans, in Denver, it was almost as though the Sand Creek Massacre hadn’t happened. His condonement of brutal murder was ignored, if not celebrated. His life was lavish, his investments were lucrative, his family was prominent and well-received and he was looked up to as a community leader. Despite having a hand in one of the most immoral attacks in our history, Evans lived a good life. 

In John Evans’ other home, Evanston Il., where he spent his early years and had a role in the formation of Northwestern, the reaction wasn’t much harsher. In the early days there was some condemnation of the actions of the Third Regiment, with one clipping referring to Chivington as a “cowardly butcher,” it was dispersed amongst pieces that glorified the soldiers to nearly the same extent as the Colorado media. 

“Chivington is the recognized hero of the fight, and his grand colossal frame, which seems to defy the ravages of time and to stand against the wind and weather like the rocky front of some sturdy mountain, is well calculated to carry all the honors that may be heaped upon it.” reads the Chicago Tribune on Aug 8th 1887.

In all of the reporting about the Sand Creek Massacre—whether good or bad—Evans was hardly mentioned and never held culpable for the role he played in inciting violence against the Colorado Indigenous population. Evanstonians didn’t question the morality of Evans, who had been linked by Congressional trials to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children. In fact, Evans served as the president of the Northwestern Board of Trustees until 1895. When he died in 1887, 15,000 Evanstonians gathered to pay their respects to the Ex-Governor. 

“Mayor Dyche spoke of the loss Evanston and the whole country had sustained in the death of ex-Governor Evans, and at his suggestion, resolutions were adopted expressing the sincere grief with which the people of Evanston received the news of his death and their appreciation of his public spirit, great generosity and devoted interest in the cause of education which characterized his life” reads the Chicago Tribune, Jul 6, 1897.

Evanstonians saw Evans as the kind of man who fit in with their society. They stressed his dedication to education, portraying him as a benevolent elite who strove to help young people search for knowledge and truth. For a man like that, a man who in many ways was a personification of everything Evanston stood for, to be instrumental in a grotesque, inhumane, slaughter would fracture their ideas of upper class white society.  

“Evans is an appointee of Abraham Lincoln’s right governor, and it’s not an elected position, it’s an appointed one. Here is somebody who represents the president he’s sent there specifically to help Colorado become a state. He’s made this promise and this promise is broken by the actions of his cavalrymen.” Redbird says, “That reverberates back through the reputations of people from the east. In some respects, it’s personal to them.”

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Evanstonian
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of the Evanstonian. We are planning a big trip to the Journalism Educators Association conference in Philadelphia in November 2023, and any support will go towards making that trip a reality. Contributions will appear as a charge from SNOSite. Donations are NOT tax-deductible.

The Evanstonian • Copyright 2024 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in

Donate to The Evanstonian
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Evanstonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *