Sand Creek Massacre: Unlike History Colorado, Northwestern is re-examining the tragedy

Before John Evans moved west in 1862 to become the first territorial governor of Colorado and found the school that grew into the University of Denver (as well as inspire the naming of streets, towns and a mountain), he was among nine founders of Northwestern University north of Chicago, in what's now Evanston, Illinois.

Now, that university is taking a long, hard look at Evans's role in one of the cruelest chapters in Colorado history: the Sand Creek Massacre.

In November 1864, 700 men led by Colonel John Chivington attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho on Sand Creek, killing 165 to 200 Native Americans, most of them women, children and elderly.

The wounds of Sand Creek are still very fresh for ancestors of the survivors: The Northern Cheyenne tribe has charged that History Colorado officials did not consult with them while creating Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today, an exhibit on display when History Colorado opened last April. Members of the tribe asked then that the show not open until certain problems were corrected, and over the past ten months, they've repeated their request that the exhibit be closed. Although History Colorado made a few fixes, Collision remains open.

In contrast, Northwestern's administration is taking student concerns about the Sand Creek Massacre very seriously, and last month, the school established a committee to study John Evans's role. Here's the announcement:

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John Evans Study Committee Formed: Provost names scholars to review historical record

A committee that will review and report on the history of John Evans, one of the founders of Northwestern University, has been formed, Provost Daniel I. Linzer announced today.

The committee will consist of four faculty members from Northwestern and three scholars from other institutions. The group will examine the nature of Evans's involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre, an incident that occurred in 1864, while he was the governor of what was then the Colorado Territory, and his later involvement with Northwestern.

"The year 2014 will mark the 150th anniversary of Sand Creek, so it is appropriate to assess how and what we report about John Evans as part of our institutional history, and if and in what way we should continue to recognize his contributions to the University," Linzer said. "Although Sand Creek occurred thirteen years after the establishment of Northwestern, we would like to know in detail the nature of John Evans's relationship with the university when he was territorial governor and afterwards."

Linzer said the committee would examine whether any financial support for Northwestern from Evans could be attributed to wealth he obtained as a result of policies and practices he pursued while territorial governor regarding the Native American populations there.

The committee is being formed in response to a request from a group of students and supporters who asked the school to create such a group. Members of the study committee will be:

Carl Smith, Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English, American Studies and History, who will chair the committee

Peter Hayes, Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of History and chair, department of history

Dylan Penningroth, associate professor of history and a research professor at the American Bar Foundation

Laurie Zoloth, professor of religious studies and of medical humanities and bioethics

Ned Blackhawk, Yale University, professor of history and American studies

Frederick E. Hoxie, University of Illinois, Swanlund Professor of History, Law and American Indian Studies

Elliot West, University of Arkansas, Distinguished Professor and Alumni Distinguished Professor of History

A graduate student will be invited to work with the committee to conduct archival research, and university archivist Kevin Leonard will collaborate with the committee, Linzer said.

The committee will provide a report to the provost by June 2014 that will be made public at that time. Another committee of university members will then be asked to make recommendations on what actions the school should take as a result of the report.

Evans, one of the nine men who founded Northwestern, was a physician who came to Chicago in the 1840s and became active in politics, including supporting the abolitionist movement and the founding of the Republican party. He served as chairman of the university board of trustees from its founding until 1894. Several Northwestern professorships and the university's alumni center bear his name, and the city of Evanston is named for him.

Evans was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be governor of the Colorado Territory in 1862. In late 1864, a group of Colorado militiamen attacked a band of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians near Sand Creek in eastern Colorado, killing more than 150 Indians, many of them women, children and elderly. The attack became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. The following year, Evans was asked to resign as territorial governor. He remained in Colorado for the rest of his life.

"I appreciate our students and faculty raising this issue, which is important to the historical identity of Northwestern, and I thank our faculty members, and those from other institutions, for agreeing to serve on this important committee," Linzer said. "I look forward to receiving the report next year."

And Northwestern knows that this committee's report could have uncomfortable ramifications. After all, the alumni center there is named for John Evans.

More from our archive: "A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh."

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