John Evans’ legacy is permanently intertwined with Northwestern University and Evanston—after who the city is named. Why, after so many years, did Northwestern deem it necessary to examine Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre? Evanston Magazine takes a closer look.
Words by Simon Murray / illustration by barry blitt
Black Kettle, a Cheyenne Indian chief, would’ve heard the noise first: a thundering of hooves out on the open plain. In those early morning hours, he might have mistaken the noise for buffalo. But it was far too many, too many hooves, to be the young Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors who had ridden off to hunt buffalo—a necessary hunt if the Indians were to survive the winter. At the camp, they had left behind an overwhelming majority of women, children, and elderly.
It was early dawn, clear and cold on November 29, 1864, when a contingent of U.S. cavalry—numbering more than 700 soldiers—descended on the peaceful encampment at Sand Creek.
The Indians had posted no guards. After a year of sporadic violence between plains Indians and settlers, the inhabitants of the camp had surrendered at Fort Lyon, about 40 miles to the southwest. The fort’s commander, Major Scott Anthony, had directed them to this site: an isolated place on the high plains of the Colorado Territory. The dry riverbed, they thought, would be a safe refuge from the bloodshed.
Part of the advancing force, Major Anthony was, however, not the commanding officer. That distinction went to Colonel John M. Chivington. A Methodist minister turned Union soldier, Chivington had decimated an easily captured Confederate supply chain at a battle, later hailed as the “Gettysburg of the West.” Labeled a hero; he was also well known for his anti-Indian sentiments. “I have come to kill Indians,” he reportedly told the few soldiers who protested his orders the night before, incensing his wrath, “and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven.”
The cavalry charged the encampment at dawn—backed by two, twelve-pound mountain howitzers. One chieftain, upon seeing the advancing soldiers and realizing their intention, stood resolute in front of his lodge singing the Cheyenne death-song. Hoping it was a misunderstanding, Black Kettle rushed inside his tipi to retrieve an American flag and white banner, given to him by a former Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Desperately he affixed it to the top of a lodge pole, trying to signal amity in the gray, early light.
The troops aimed their rifles and opened fire.
Over 1,000 miles away, the Territorial Governor of Colorado and its ex officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs, John Evans, was visiting Washington D.C. Months later, Evans was forced to defend the actions of Chivington, the soldiers, and himself, in front of Congressional investigative committees for what had happened at Sand Creek. By then, they had already begun to refer to it for what it was: a massacre.
Not all eyes that gaze upon history see the same thing. Hindsight, unlike how the saying goes, is not always 20/20. Our understanding of the past can be distorted, consciously or unconsciously. We see what we’d like to see, or what the victors would like us to see, or in our willful ignorance be unable to see. In that way we can be blind.
“There was very real fighting. The valley was not a shooting gallery,” wrote J. Jay Myers in a 1998 issue of Wild West magazine, somewhat strangely titled “Sand Creek Massacre,” given his defense of Chivington and Evans, and what transpired that cold day in November. (Though Myers does admit to the role that white incursions, government mismanagement, and broken treaties played in the build-up to the massacre.) But how much responsibility should be leveled at Evans? And is it enough to tarnish his legacy?
The question is not without merit. A leading founder, chair of its Board of Trustees, and a major donor to Northwestern University, John Evans’ legacy is permanently intertwined with Evanston, after whom the city is named. Last year, Northwestern University formed the John Evans Study Committee in memoriam of the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre—in which Chivington’s soldiers killed approximately 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians—most of them women and children or elderly.
The Committee’s function was to engage in an extensive study on the massacre, assessing the role Evans played in the events leading up to before and its aftermath.
“It can be difficult for an institution to examine its own history,” acknowledged Northwestern President Morton Schapiro in a statement, “but the report does an excellent job of investigating the events that link Sand Creek and Northwestern.”
Did the University receive financial support from a territorial governor who was a staunch supporter of practices to relieve, by any means necessary, plains Indians of their lands? And what, exactly, was the nature of his involvement with the Sand Creek Massacre?
Those questions were left to the Committee to answer. Made up of four Northwestern professors: Committee Chair Carl Smith (English, American Studies, and History), Peter Hayes (History), Andrew Koppelman (Law and Political Science), and Laurie Zoloth (Medical Ethics, Humanities, and Religion); as well as four professors from outside schools: Ned Blackhawk (Yale University), Loretta Fowler (University of Oklahoma), Frederick Hoxie (University of Illinois), and Elliott West (University of Arknansas), as well as Research Fellow Alexander Gourse of Northwestern; the study was done concurrently with the University of Denver, another institution that benefitted from Evans, who played an instrumental role in its foundation.
“John Evans embodied the major developments of his times,” begins Chapter Two of the 114-page report. (All attempts to interview the individual Committee members were politely declined, as they have collectively chosen to let the report speak for itself.) Evans was an ambitious, hardworking, self-made polymath: the epitome of the American ethos of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” He was, over the course of his long and varied career, a physician and professor of medicine, the first superintendent of a hospital for the mentally ill, a lay Methodist leader, an entrepreneur, a Chicago alderman, and a founder of universities.
Northwestern—or “North Western,” as it was originally written—was his first. Along with eight other Methodist leaders, the early founders decided to plant their fledgling campus on farmland along Lake Michigan, about a dozen miles north of the city.
On November 5, 1855, the University welcomed its first class. The year before, the name of their budding town was put to a vote. The trustee members chose Evanston, naming it after their most out-spoken and devoted founder.
“Although Sand Creek occurred 13 years after the establishment of Northwestern,” said Provost Daniel I. Linzer, “we [wanted] to know in detail the nature of John Evans’ relationship with the University when he was territorial governor and afterwards.”
Like many aspiring businessmen of his time, Evans headed west to stake his claim on the booming railroad business. But not before pledging $5,000 (or about $150,000 today) to the institution, collecting donations for “sixteen lots of land at the corner of LaSalle and Jackson Streets in Chicago,” the income of which was reserved for the University. He also made a down payment on 379 acres in the future town of Evanston—making him one of the first land buyers in the city that now bears his name—and bestowing it to the University. He continued to make donations to Northwestern until his death.
Following the massacre, and it was indeed a massacre, Evans was stripped of his post as the Territorial Governor of Colorado. President Andrew Johnson himself demanded his resignation. Chivington had spread bold lies of what transpired: including marching over 300 hundred miles, at times through snow two feet deep, and slaying in fierce combat between 400 to 500 Indians.
In reality, the Third Colorado Cavalry, the volunteer regiment that Chivington commanded, killed unarmed, by many accounts surrendering Indians—losing fewer than 20 men. This, likely due to the chaotic friendly fire of inexperienced volunteer soldiers, many of whom may have been drunk. After the attack, bodies of the dead were mutilated, with scalps and body parts taken as trophies.
Chivington resigned, but was still considered a hero by many in the Colorado Territory.
And what of Evans? The Northwestern report found no evidence, direct or otherwise, to link Evans to the assault, and that Chivington had acted on his own. However, the report did find that his conduct after the massacre “reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation.” It continues: “While he denied any role in the massacre, he refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, what had happened, even going so far as to defend and rationalize it” in front of the committees.
“From the immediate aftermath of the massacre, there were a number of people who had very different understandings of what happened,” says Ari Kelman, McCabe Greer Professor of the American Civil War Era at Pennsylvania State University and author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. “John Evans and John Chivington and many other Coloradoans were quite keen to have this event remembered as a glorious battle.”
Certainly a stain on an industrious, seemingly well-intentioned career. But instead of whitewashing its founder’s past, Northwestern has accepted it. If not outright vilifying Evans—for it seems he is guilty of harboring anti-Indian sentiments, much like many of his contemporaries—then at least finally coming to terms with it.
“This report will be very helpful in informing the work of the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force,” said Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs and co-chair of the newly formed task force. Established last year, the task force is focused on strengthening Northwestern’s relationship with Native American communities through recruitment efforts, academic programs, and campus support services.
Those efforts will include teaching the award-winning author Thomas King’s unflinching account of the disastrous, and oftentimes fatal, relationship between whites and Native Americans in The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to all incoming freshmen students this fall.
It will also serve as the centerpiece of a year’s worth of lectures, films, and other programs related to issues King raises in his book.
At Sand Creek, with the cavalry crashing down on him, the Cheyenne chieftain, White Antelope, sang the death-song. “Nothing lives long,” he sang, “only the earth and the mountains.” Nothing lives long, sure, but we can remember the fallen and honor their wanton loss. And in our remembrance, affect policies that favor truth over a one-sided perspective, taking responsibility for the horrors of the past and using it as compass for our future actions, so that the Cheyenne and Arapaho people did not die in vain.