Colorado History

What's in a Name? Colorado's Imperfect History.

Summit Lake on what's now known as Mount Evans.
Summit Lake on what's now known as Mount Evans.
The top five-mile section of the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America, closed for the season today, September 3; the ten miles from Echo Lake to Summit Lake are slated to close by October 7. And when the road reopens next spring, will it still climb to the summit of Mount Evans? Or will Colorado's fourteenth-highest peak have a new name?

There are currently two requests to rename Mount Evans, which was originally called Mount Rosa or Mount Rosalie but in 1895 was named for John Evans, who'd made a remarkable comeback from disgrace. Thirty years earlier, Evans had been forced to resign as territorial governor because of his role in the Sand Creek Massacre. In 1864, Evans had encouraged Colonel John Chivington, a fellow Methodist minister with whom he’d co-founded the Colorado Seminary (today the University of Denver), to pull together the ragtag volunteers of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, and while Evans might not have given the actual orders for Chivington to ride out on the plains with his men and massacre more than 200 members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes staying in a peaceful camp on the Big Sandy, he created the climate that made the slaughter possible. That’s what a DU group studying Evans’s role determined a few years ago as it grappled with the inglorious legacy of its founder, whose name lives on through a professorship and assorted buildings, as well as a street that runs right through the campus.

Today, DU is once again grappling with complaints — not just over the Evans name, but the "Pioneers" label it has long used but is now downplaying. "Denver Boone," the Pioneer mascot, was retired years ago; ardent alums, including the LetsGoDU website that uses Boone as a mascot, are worried that the school is trying to erase the Pioneer nickname, pulling the words "Pioneer Card" off student IDs, among other actions.

Students and faculty members alike have complained that the word "pioneer" refers to a time when indigenous cultures were displaced and even wiped out by Europeans and their descendants moving west. In a statement to Denver7, which reported on the controversy September 2, DU said that it’s "a very important and complex issue for us, and we’re not taking the concerns of our community lightly."

Then-governor John Hickenlooper apologies to descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Then-governor John Hickenlooper apologies to descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Brandon Marshall
The federal government does not take such concerns lightly, either. Because the top of Mount Evans is on federal land, the name-change requests — to make Mount Evans either Mount Cheyenne-Arapaho or Mount Soule, after Captain Silas Soule, who defied Chivington's orders, testified against him and was later assassinated — went to the United States Board on Geographic Names. It's reached out to the tribes, to Clear Creek County, to the City of Denver (Mount Evans includes a Denver Mountain Park) and the State of Colorado, which has slowed the process because it's currently without an office that handles name-change requests.

I can never look at Mount Evans without thinking of David Halaas, the former Colorado state historian. A gentleman and a scholar, Halaas led the way to identify the site of the Sand Creek Massacre near what became the town of Eads; today it's the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. A member of the Sand Creek Massacre Commemorative Commission, Halaas was instrumental in arranging for then-governor John Hickenlooper to issue an apology to tribal descendants on the 150th anniversary of the killings.

While that commission was meeting, a petition proposed changing the name of Chivington, a town near the massacre site named for its engineer. Tribal representatives, as well as Halaas, were not fans of the proposal: Don't erase the past, they advised; instead, we must never forget what actually happened.

click to enlarge Civil War Monument at the Colorado State Capitol. - COLORADO.GOV
Civil War Monument at the Colorado State Capitol.
That's what Halaas had said back in 1998, when a Colorado legislator suggested striking Sand Creek from the circa 1907 statue at the State Capitol commemorating Colorado's Civil War battles. "There are various things wrong with tempering history for today's audience," he told Westword at the time. "Once you start monkeying with one incident, where do you stop?" Instead of erasing the words, Halaas pushed to have a plaque placed near the Civil War Monument that explains what really happened on that bloody day in November 1864; congressional investigations conducted the next year had rightly called it a "massacre."

Halaas had been pushing for another, bigger reminder of the Sand Creek Massacre at the Capitol; while the proposal for that statue is still on the table, it's been stalled in discussions over location. And Halaas won't see it to fruition: He passed away last month, and is buried on the Cheyenne reservation near Lame Deer, Montana. (A memorial service for Halaas will be held September 7 at Fairmount Cemetery.)

I'd like to see Mount Evans named after Halaas, a gentleman and a scholar who always fought for what was right — but he wouldn't like it. Still, I'll think of him every time I see the mountain, drive on Evans Avenue, pass by that Civil War Monument at the Capitol. I'll remember the imperfect past of this state and all of Halaas's hopes for a better future.