Sand Creek Massacre: John Evans's Descendants Discuss a Dark Legacy

Descendants of those who survived the Sand Creek Massacre did not hear much about it when they were growing up; that day was too painful for their elders to talk about. "They would always cry," one remembers. But some descendants of John Evans, Colorado's territorial governor during the November 29, 1864, massacre, didn't hear about it at all.

See also: John Evans Founded DU, But He Left a Legacy of Shame

Lucy Schiller was a high-school senior in Illinois when she decided to write a paper for her senior history seminar on her great-great-great-grandfather, John Evans, whose name was still revered in the state where she lived. A physician who'd become active in the Methodist Church, Evans had helped start what became DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 1837, before moving on to Chicago. There he invested in real estate and became a founder of Northwestern University; the town of Evanston, where the school was built, is named after him. A dozen years and many investments later (some successful, some spectacular failures), Evans was named territorial governor of Colorado in 1862 and moved to Denver, which was then barely three years old. Still active with the Methodist church, he co-founded the Colorado Seminary in 1864 (it would later morph into the University of Denver) and helped save the fledgling frontier town when the railroads snubbed it in favor of a route through Cheyenne; Evans and other local boosters formed a railroad company that linked Denver to the national network.

Schiller had no problem finding information on Evans, but it wasn't until she spoke with a cousin who lived in Colorado that she heard about the Sand Creek Massacre, when over 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho, most of them women, children and the elderly, were killed by troops led by Colonel John Chivington -- a fellow Methodist and a friend of Evans's. And even if Evans didn't order the killings, he created the climate that made them possible. "I was floored," she remembers. "This guy who had been so vaunted in our family had been involved in something horrific. I wound up devoting my year to uncovering his role in the Sand Creek Massacre."

This was back in 2005-'06, "and there was much less written about Sand Creek, much less online," she says. It wasn't in her Illinois history books -- although Sand Creek did rate two pages in the best-selling high-school textbook The Colorado Story, by Leroy and Anne Hafen, who called it "one of the most debatable subjects in Colorado history."

Schiller and her father went looking for the massacre site, and all they found was the granite monument that calls it a "battle field," which had been erected back in 1950. But perceptions hadn't changed that much fifty years later, she discovered: "I was grappling with the idea that people were still calling this a 'battle' in academic texts," Schiller recalls. This despite the fact that as early as 1865, the federal government had labeled it a massacre.

At Grinnell College, Schiller wrote a thesis that explored the "incongruous rhetoric" of Evans and Chivington, who were both vocal in their opposition to slavery but becoming increasingly vehement in their determination to exterminate Indians. "Nits make lice," Chivington reportedly told his soldiers.

And now, as a writer in New York City, Schiller is weighing her family's history again. "We all inherit this legacy," she says. "There's an interesting distinction between forgetting, willful ignorance and learned ignorance."

Her mother knows all about that.

Continue for more about the descendants of John Evans and the Sand Creek Massacre.
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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