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.
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.
Susan Davis is a professor of Communication and Library Science at the University of Illinois, and one of her classes focuses on history and memory. She grew up in Philadelphia and had heard about her august great-great-grandfather. But despite spending summers in Colorado, she didn't know anything about Sand Creek until she was reading a book for college -- it might have been Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee -- and remembers being stunned. She later encouraged her daughter's explorations.
Because of Davis's background in academia, she was particularly interested in the report released earlier this month by the University of Denver John Evans Study Committee, which found Evans culpable for the Sand Creek Massacre; one of her Illinois colleagues had served on the Northwestern commission that released its own report in May but stopped short of assigning responsibility. "Evans was my grandmother's grandfather, and I have always been struck by the deep silence in our family surrounding Sand Creek," Davis wrote the chair of DU's committee. "Your report seems to help Coloradans to a more moral and ethical stance toward the massacre and a deeper concept of responsibility."
Davis found the DU group's suggestions that the school acknowledge its physical presence on former tribal lands and expand its American Indian studies programs particularly important. "I know from being on this campus that it's not easy to be either Native American faculty or a Native American student," she says, noting that it took a threat from the NCAA to get the University of Illinois to dispense with its "horrific" Chief mascot. "We can't erase this, but we can talk about it," she adds. "Drawing attention to what used to take place on this landscape is really important and useful. We can't go back and undo stuff, but we can be more conscious. For Cheyenne and Arapaho people, it's so definitely not over."
Davis's cousin, Caroline Goodwin, was living in Sitka, Alaska, two decades ago when Native American author Simon Ortiz gave a workshop there. She remembers pulling his poetry book From Sand Creek off a shelf, reading the introduction -- and discovering John Evans's connection to the massacre. "I had this wonderful great-great-grandfather who had done all these wonderful things, and I felt like I had just uncovered this really dark truth," she recalls.
Living in Alaska, she was all too aware of what has been done to indigenous people. "I've always been interested in the concept of carried shame," she says, "how we carry family secrets regardless of who we are -- and how we carry pain."
She carried hers with her when she moved to California in 1999, for the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in poetry at Stanford University. She carried it with her to San Mateo County, where she is now the poet laureate; she has a book, Peregrin, coming out next spring.
And this fall, acknowledging that shameful burden, she finally wrote a poem, titled "i will not say," which she dedicated to the descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre. "Truth can be so healing; the secrets are so toxic," she says. "It was an extremely painful and evil past...and it wasn't that long ago."
Here's the poem, reprinted with her permission:
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