Art by Ahania Soni, Clara Gustafson
Art by Ahania Soni, Clara Gustafson

Gaming the system: Evans’ power grab

Stepping into a tense political landscape, Evans moved to Colorado with a mission: statehood for the territory.

February 27, 2023

Manifest Destiny, a philosophy coined in 1845 by American journalist John Louis O’Sullivan, was the belief that the infant nation was destined to settle the continent from sea to shining sea, expanding its dominion and extending its power through negotiations, purchase and war.

Commonly romanticized through nationalist ideology, Emanuel Leutze’s mural study, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, highlights an idealized version of American migration to the west. Leutze suggests that while European colonization was inherently dangerous, the American West contained an abundance of resources and revealed the potentials of American “greatness.”

Against the backdrop of abstract sentiments, the stories of Native American populations are often overlooked. Treaties, formally concluded and ratified agreements between sovereign states, intended to establish strict borders and advise controlled behavior between the United States and its Indigenous counterparts.

“In accordance with Article 6, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution—known commonly as the Supremacy Clause—the ratification of a treaty acted as an explicit and formal acknowledgement of a nation-to-nation relationship—in the case of Native people, a Native nation and the United States government,” the University of Denver (DU) John Evans Study Report reads. 

The origins of treaty-making trace back thousands of years; this instrument of facilitating international relations is among some of the earliest forms of peacemaking.

The Revolutionary War came to a formal end on Sep. 3, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. With this legislation in effect, the British Crown recognized American independence and ceded most of its territory east of the Mississippi River to the newborn nation, ultimately doubling the size of the United States and laying early foundations for westward expansion.

Following the American Revolution, the United States continued the British approach of treaty-making with Native populations. Recognizing tribes as independent entities, President George Washington adopted treaty-making as the most appropriate form of international diplomacy. During the century from the Revolutionary War to the aftermath of the Civil War, hundreds of treaties were negotiated. These formal, legally binding contracts defined the relationship between the United States and Native Americans and set a precedent for cultural coexistence.

“George Washington established the principle of federal supremacy in Indian affairs in 1789,” the Northwestern University (NU) Report of the John Evans Study Committee states. “Washington adopted this approach because he wished to block states or individuals from negotiating land purchases with tribes on their own or initiating hostilities with local Indians and thus drawing the entire nation into wars. By calling agreements with tribes ‘treaties,’ Washington wanted to ensure that the national government would handle all formal interaction with tribes. He also wished to demonstrate that his young country would be a nation of just laws and high principles.”

In general, there were some good intentions behind treaties and they had some value to them. However it was a dynamic, changing, evolving reality on the ground.

— Retired Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Frederick Hoxie

Treaties are not exclusively harmful; they have been used to communicate the conclusion of prolonged wars and ease tensions over land disputes. 

“In general, there were some good intentions behind treaties and they had some value to them,” says Hoxie. “However it was a dynamic, changing, evolving reality on the ground.”

The nation’s history is littered with unfulfilled promises. As white settlers continued to migrate westward in search of better opportunities, Native American populations were blatantly disregarded. America’s fifty states are representations of our nation’s splintered past, one that was often masked by bandages, suppressing only entrance wounds rather than deep-rooted concerns.

“Treaties were inherently problematic from the beginning, because of the difference between the cultural outlook of the Native people and the U.S. government.” Hoxie continues, “They were often negotiated by small groups of people and then enforced on others. Treaties had some benevolent potential, but they also were instruments of conquest and harm.”

Under the leadership of President Jackson from 1829–1837, legal precedents were implemented to constitute a systematic approach for Native American removal. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 utilized treaties as the principal means for the relocation of Indigenous peoples. While the statute itself did not formally order the involuntary removal of Native Americans, it granted the Jackson administration the ability to incite, provoke and intimidate Indigenous peoples. The act offered financial and material aid to Native tribes to entice them to relocate to designated lands and form new livelihoods with supposed “guaranteed” protection from the United States Government. When tribes expressed resistance towards these relocation policies, Jackson would exert force tactics.

“The desire for Indian lands by white settlers created an uncontrolled momentum that would break any promise by the American nation,” says Donald Fixico, Thomas Bowlus Distinguished Professor of American Indian History and Director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas in a PBS interview.

The 1840s signified a time in which large numbers of white settlers began their journey west to settle in the newly acquired territories of Oregon and California. The discovery of gold in 1848 initiated vast migration, as a rapid influx of ambitious colonizers sought after the wealth that was believed to coincide with its possession. Anticipating the immediate need for treaties with the Indigenous nations that occupied the Plains, the United States government began to facilitate legal agreements in an effort to ensure a harmonious passage for its westward-bound citizens and perpetual settlement of the interior West. That same year, the U.S. government purchased Fort John, a notable 19th-century trading post, and renamed it Fort Laramie, which surrounded the nation’s desire to sustain an active military presence. 

Signed in 1851, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was negotiated between the United States government and several tribes that occupied parts of present southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. The treaty presented traditional territorial claims and put a temporary end to hostilities. However, the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 encouraged white settlers to enter and travel through the plains in masses, seeking vast fortunes in Colorado; as whites trespassed on Cheyenne and Arapaho land that was allegedly preserved, the treaty’s initial purpose was blatantly dismissed.

As the territorial governor of Colorado, John Evans also served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the territory, a role he exploited through overcompensation and unethical behaviors. Just a decade after the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise–which intended to eliminate Natives from valuable lands–was ratified, which jeopardized prior gains, lessening the tribes holding to less than one-tenth of what they had been formerly granted. This legislation ultimately appropriated the encroachment of colonizers. 

With the resources in Colorado, Governor Evans wanted Indians removed. There were proclamations that essentially allowed the killing of anything or anybody that was considered hostile, which was a very subjective definition, but it was a precursor to things like the Sand Creek Massacre.

— Dallin Maybee, Director of Development at the Native American Rights Fund

“Ten days before Colorado became a territory, ten Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a treaty at Fort Wise, ostensibly ceding all of the area to the United States except a small reservation north of the Arkansas River, including the Sand Creek site. This was the dubious Fort Wise Treaty that most Indians rejected and that John Evans was expected to induce them to accept,” the NU Report communicates. It continues, “The treaty promised the future division of the new reservation into individual farms and the provision of agricultural and other supplies to the tribes, which were expected to abandon their nomadic culture and take up a pastoral life. [It] implicitly acknowledged that only a few chiefs had signed it by calling on them ‘to induce all that are now separated to rejoin and reunite with them.’ It also pledged that the Indian Office would ‘notify’ the absent bands and ‘induce them to come in and unite with their brethren.’” 

The Treaty at Fort Wise aroused fierce opposition. Several members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes claimed that United States officials had warped its intent and that the treaty had been consented by only a small percentage of the tribe, leaving the vast majority in a state of oblivion. 

The agreement not only increased hostilities between Indigenous populations and the United States government, but also caused disunity within Native tribes; these disruptions ultimately contributed to the presence of heinous acts.

“With the resources in Colorado, Governor Evans wanted Indians removed,” says Dallin Maybee, the Director of Development who is Northern Arapaho and Seneca at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). “There were proclamations that essentially allowed the killing of anything or anybody that was considered hostile, which was a very subjective definition, but it was a precursor to things like the Sand Creek Massacre.”

The practice of treaty-making with Native Americans ended in 1871 with the passing of the Indian Appropriations Act, which asserted that Indigenous nations were no longer sovereign entities capable of creating and maintaining diplomatic relations. From that moment on, agreements with Native Americans have typically been ratified through Executive Orders, Executive Agreements and Congressional acts.

In the case of Sand Creek, America proved to be far from an alleged “promised land.”

“This is a classic broken treaty,” says Mark Hirsch, a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian in a Smithsonian article. “It is such a naked example of a treaty abrogated by the United States in which the U.S. shows profound lack of honor and truthfulness.”

‘An Even Grander Stage’ for Evans

Infographic by Ethan Ravi

As the United States existed as a fractured nation in the mid-19th century—fighting to preserve unity and instill freedom in a country that had relied on slave labor since its conception—political figures were still vying for power. The acquisition of new territories in the American West had, in part, served as the catalyst for the Civil War. As the fighting ravaged the eastern and southern coasts, some politicians viewed the abundance of land in the west as an opportunity—not only to develop industry, but also their independent careers. 

Abraham Lincoln appointed John Evans as the territorial governor of Colorado in 1862. At the time, the Confederate South was overwhelmingly Democratic; the Union North, Republican. In the event that Colorado gained enough population to become a state, Evans knew that the industrialization, urbanization and modernization would essentially guarantee the state to become a Republican stronghold—with him at the top of the list of potential senators for the territory-turned-state.

Evans’ political ambitions were longstanding. With fewer states in the nation, becoming a senator meant Evans, were he to become a senator, would be one of the most powerful men in the country. Instead of campaigning for election in states that had already been established, Evans sought to make a name for himself in the ever-expanding west. Evans’ staunch support of Lincoln’s candidacy and presidency can be viewed as a tactical endeavor to achieve this goal.

“The Republican Party had risen very quickly. On one hand, they were powerful; Lincoln was reelected which was a huge political achievement. But [the party members] were scrambling constantly to build and maintain their support. They did this by rewarding the loyalty of people and using those people as building blocks to political power. However the [Republican Party] was involved with the Civil War, so they had grown even more worrisome about opposition. There was every incentive to really demonize the opposition to encourage supporters. John Evans is a [prime] example of this, rewarded with political office,” says retired Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Frederick Hoxie.

Evans initially expressed interest in the governorship of the Nebraska Territory. Introduced in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill proposed by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, ultimately divided the land west of Missouri and created two new territories; Kansas and Nebraska, both of which had the potential to become crucial to the west.

When discussion surrounding a transcontinental railroad ramped up in the mid 1850s, Tom Cuming, Nebraska’s acting governor, viewed Nebraska as an essential aspect of its route. John Evans saw Nebraska as a place where he could establish political roots; in 1857, Evans intended to create a thriving commercial center near present-day Plattsmouth, located at the convergence of the Missouri and Platte rivers. Already a man of great influence when he began to design Oreapolis, Evans wanted it to become a transportation hub. 

“When gold was discovered in Colorado the following year, the venture appeared to be a sure thing. John wrote to [his wife] Margaret from the fledgling boom town, where he had gone for an extended stay in order to direct operations first-hand, ‘I shall make a road that will be a great thoroughfare to the gold regions’ and the Pacific Coast, ‘and when the road is once opened it will make Oreapolis the great starting point for the over land routes to those points.’ The settlement, he predicted, ‘will make a great city and there can be no mistake,’” the Northwestern University (NU) Report of the John Evans Study Committee reads. “By the fall, however, Evans realized that even his prodigious energy and gifts as a businessman could not turn Oreapolis into a success.”

Eventually, Lincoln offered Evans Washington state instead, a proposition he declined. Washington state was isolated, which meant it would be years before it gained the population necessary to become a state–making it impossible for Evans to gain senatorship there. However, when William Gilpin, the governor of the Colorado territory at the time, was ousted amid a financial scandal, Lincoln prompted Evans to step into the role. Evans accepted and was sworn in on April 11, 1862 as Gilpin’s replacement. Now, Evans had a territory to develop despite the thriving Native presence there. 

Evans centered his term as territorial governor around his push for Colorado statehood, which he argued would increase public willingness for the construction of an intrusive railroad in Denver, sustain active military presence and secure a smooth transition to senatorship.

“[Evans] also knew that Republicans looked forward to Colorado becoming a state, since it almost certainly would send two more party loyalists to the Senate. Evans had every reason to believe that he would be one of those senators, which would furnish him an even grander stage from which to advance the interests of his country, his church, his family, and himself,” the NU Report communicates.

Still, Colorado voters actively repudiated Colorado’s admission into the Union. If they gained statehood, the U.S. government would be less involved in their affairs, which would mean much less military support. The threat of an active Native presence was a determining factor in Coloradans fear of becoming an independent entity. They were concerned that Colorado didn’t have the means to protect themselves or create a flourishing industry without federal protection. 

Evans viewed the occupation of land by Native populations as an obstacle that prevented the United States from reaching their potential. This fixture is emblematic of the approach of white Americans at the time.

‘Chivington and His Friends’

Colonel John Chivington was a prominent protestant minister and civil war hero who was revered and highly respected by the people of the Colorado territory. 

Previous to his military experience, Chivington was heavily involved with the Methodist church. He worked for many Methodist establishments, including the Payson Circuit Conference in Illinois, where he resided for ten years. His commitment to the church, as well as his strong religious values led Chivington to become a highly respected leader within the Methodist community. In 1853, Chivington became a missionary for his church, attempting to convert the Native people in the Kansas territory. However, his abolitionist beliefs put him at odds with the Kansas methodists, and Chvington was convinced to leave Kansas for Nebraska. 

I would say … that the reports that have been made here, a great many of them, have come through persons whom I know to be personal enemies of Colonel Chivington for a long time, and I would rather not give an opinion on the subject until I have heard the other side of the question

— John Evans

When the Civil War began, Chivington was offered a position in the Colorado Methodist Church. But Chivington saw military experience as a faster way to increase his political standing and become a senator. Instead of taking on a position of religious leadership, he asked for a military position. During the war, he gained fame by destroying a Confederate supply train as part of the New Mexico campaign at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, forcing the Confederates to retreat. Chivington’s exploits in Colorado led to him becoming a commander.

It was in Colorado where Chivington met Evans, and where their political relationship began, a relationship that ultimately led to the massacre at Sand Creek.

Evans and Chivington had shared political goals, religious values and motivations for their involvement in Colorado territory. During the height of tensions between the Colorado government and the Indigenous population, Evans appointed Chivington to be the general of military engagement between the government and the tribes, heading up the Third Regiment, which was established for 100 days to help with the increase in tensions between Native groups and white settlers. Chivington headed this entirely volunteer group of soldiers, a role which eventually led to Chivington’s leading role within the Sand Creek Massacre.

A year after the slaughter at Sand Creek, Evans, along with colonels, majors and soldiers, took the trek to the state capitol to sit in front of a congressional committee to be questioned about their roles in the massacre. The hearings loomed large, as the political careers of both Evans and Chivington were at risk.

In the hearings, Evans was quick to defend Chivington.

“I would say … that the reports that have been made here, a great many of them, have come through persons whom I know to be personal enemies of Colonel Chivington for a long time, and I would rather not give an opinion on the subject until I have heard the other side of the question,” Evans claimed before the committee.

While it is known that Evans had meetings with Chivington, the extent of their conversations is unknown. As Evans defended Chivington, the military leader made statements in which he lied about the events of the massacre.

Chivington expressed, “The first shot to fire was by [the Native people]. The first man to fall [was] white.” Later at the congressional hearings, Evans claimed that “Chivington and his friends” had stated that “these Indians had assumed a hostile attitude,” seemingly confirming Chivington’s remarks. However, Evans later attested that he didn’t know if Chivington’s account was true. 

It’s impossible to believe that [Evans] was discouraging Chivington from doing what he did. Chivington obviously is guilty, in my view, and he would not have acted had he not believed that what he was doing was gonna be okay.

— Frederick Hoxie

Evans continued to contradict himself throughout the hearings, to the point that congressmen were unsatisfied with his testimony. Massachusetts representative Daniel Gooch became frustrated and instructed Evans that he wanted to hear the truth rather than Evans’ opinion. That prompted Evans to claim that he was unaware of any of the factors that would justify the massacre. 

While Evans was not physically present during the massacre at Sand Creek, his background presence—and his enabling of Chivington’s actions—loomed large.

To Hoxie, the role Evans played in Chivington’s actions is clear. “It’s impossible to believe that [Evans] was discouraging Chivington from doing what he did. Chivington obviously is guilty, in my view, and he would not have acted had he not believed that what he was doing was gonna be okay.”

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