The morning of Nov. 29, 1864, U.S. soldiers stormed a camp of around 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho people at Sand Creek, Colorado in a surprise attack led by Colonel John Chivington. The massacre lasted nine hours and over 200 people were killed, according to a report by the University of Denver.
Soldiers scalped the residents of Sand Creek, mutilated their genitals and even severed fingers to remove rings. “One woman was cut open, and a child taken out of her, and scalped,” wrote Captain Silas S. Soule of the 1st regiment of U.S. Colorado Volunteers. Chief White Antelope was killed unarmed, his arms in a gesture of peace and his lips poised in song.
Of the over 700 cavalry men who invaded Sand Creek in November, 425 of them were untrained volunteers of the 3rd regiment of U.S. Colorado Volunteers. This regiment was authorized on Aug. 11, 1864 for 100 days, at the urging of Colorado territorial governor John Evans. The University of Denver’s report accuses these volunteers of lacking discipline and committing the worst of the atrocities at Sand Creek.
John Evans founded both the Colorado Seminary (later renamed the University of Denver) and Northwestern University. The towns of Evanston, Illinois and Evans, Colorado as well as Mt. Evans in the Rocky Mountains bear the legacy of his name.
As a university that owes its existence to John Evans, Northwestern has made recent efforts to acknowledge his legacy. The university officially recognizes that it is built on the homelands of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa people. Northwestern has also commissioned a film to be made to educate people about Sand Creek and John Evans, which will be part of an informative exhibit in the John Evans Alumni Center, according to Jasmine Gurneau (Oneida and Menominee), the senior program coordinator for Native American and Indigenous Initiatives at Northwestern.
“It is important to acknowledge the past and history in order to move forward,” Gurneau said.
This Saturday, the university held a Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration hosting descendants of the massacre, as the 154th anniversary approaches.
However, Northwestern’s Report of the John Evans Study Committee strikes a different tone than its counterpart by the University of Denver, which is more critical of Evans. As the report itself points out, the university has benefited from his otherwise admirable reputation.
“There are folks I know that were not too happy about what the report said,” said Gurneau. “Regardless of what they state in the report, Northwestern needs to do better at making this place welcome and inclusive for native peoples now.”
Sand Creek was a chiefs’ camp; in it resided 14 of the 44 chiefs of the Cheyenne Council and an estimated 30 or more Cheyenne leaders in total. The other residents were mostly women, children, orphans and the elderly, who depended on the chiefs for survival.
Sand Creek and its residents were under the protection of the U.S. government at the time of the massacre. Chief Black Kettle (Cheyenne) and Chief Left Hand (Arapaho) had been told to remain at Sand Creek after negotiating a truce with Majors Wynkoop and Anthony at Fort Lyon just a few weeks before. At the beginning of the attack, Black Kettle raised an American flag and a white cloth in a plea for peace.
Chivington’s campaign was supposed to target purportedly hostile villages further east. Evidence suggests that Chivington was not transparent about his intentions with his superiors, according to a report by Northwestern.
Evans held the position of territorial governor in Colorado from 1862 until his forced resignation in 1865. The position also designated him the role of Ex Officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and he played a leading role in addressing land disputes left unresolved after the 1861 Fort Wise Treaty.
According to the University of Denver’s report, Evan’s mistakes included neglecting his duties as superintendent, rejecting opportunities to negotiate peace, deferring authority to the military and lobbying for a federalized regiment of undertrained volunteers.
The report concludes that: “While not of the same character, Evans’s culpability is comparable in degree to that of Colonel John Chivington, the military commander who personally planned and carried out the massacre.”
Evans was in Washington D.C. at the time of the massacre, buthe defended the massacre in 1889 as being beneficial for Colorado in the long run.
Northwestern is taking steps to open up the discussion around Sand Creek’s history. But addressing Evans’s legacy has been a recent initiative, and Gurneau said the university has a long way to go.
“It’s definitely not a checked box,” Gurneau said. “It’s a continued relationship and conversation and consultation with tribal communities.”