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Renaming Mount Evans: Thoughts on the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864

A few days ago, a formal petition was filed by the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and The Wilderness Society with the Board of Geographic Names, part of the U.S. Geological Society, to rename 14,271-foot Mount Evans, the 14th highest mountain in Colorado, to Mount Blue Sky, an English-language translation of its tribal name.

The Board is also considering three other new names for the mountain, Mount Cheyenne Arapaho, Mount Soule, and Mount Rosalie. This name change is long overdue and necessary to further the healing of one of the most tragic and ignominious events in Colorado history.

The mountain was named in 1895 to honor Territorial Governor John Evans, a transplanted Illinoisan (Evanston, a Chicago suburb is named for him) who was appointed the second governor by President Lincoln in 1862. Evans, however, was complicit in the horrific Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado. In 1864, Evans, also the region’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, told residents to take up arms and “all citizens of Colorado ... to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.”

Based on that order and with Governor Evan’s blessing, Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado Volunteers marched 675 infantry and cavalry troops to southeastern Colorado, and, despite warnings from other soldiers not to attack the Cheyenne who were negotiating for peace, Chivington’s men attacked a winter village of roughly 500 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people in the early morning hours of November 29, 1864.

In eight hours, the troops murdered over 230 people, mostly women, children, and elders, as well as several chiefs, while the others fled on foot, running across the snow-covered, cactus-studded prairie. The soldiers killed indiscriminately, shooting children in the head at point-blank range, cutting breasts and vaginas from still-living women and penises from men, and scalping others.

Two commanders, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, didn’t allow their troops to participate in the massacre of innocent people. Holding their men on the bluff above the big bend of Big Sandy Creek, they were unable to stop the slaughter since they too were threatened with death if they intervened.

Testimony later in U.S. government investigations and writings by observers are absolutely horrifying accounts.

“I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would. Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us and getting on their knees for mercy ... it was hard to see little children ... have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Captain Silas Soule

“Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles--the last for a tobacco pouch….” Stan Hoig

“I saw one squaw lying on the bank, whose leg had been broken. A soldier came up to her with a drawn sabre. She raised her arm to protect herself; he struck, breaking her arm. She rolled over, and raised her other arm; he struck, breaking that, and then left her without killing her. I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.” Robert Bent

“I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to piece... With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors ... By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops...” John S. Smith

I visited the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in far eastern Colorado a month ago and walked the trail along the bluff above the bend of Big Sandy Creek. The last, lingering golden leaves of cottonwoods rustled in the breeze along the dry creek bed and the sun gleamed from a flawless blue sky. It was the kind of autumn day that makes you feel that all is right with the world.

But out there at Sand Creek, I felt anything but all right. It’s a hallowed place with sacred ground, the site of murder, mayhem, and cultural genocide, a place of blood, gore, hatred, and everything that is so ugly in the world. Walking along the bluff, I sensed the cries of anguish, the sobs of the lost souls, the silence of the dead. It’s a moving experience to stand and look across the shallow valley, mostly unchanged since that terrible day 156 years ago. It is a place that every Coloradoan and every American should visit and pay respect to those innocent people that died at the hand, rifle, and knife of the United States government.

A few days ago, on November 29, a small, socially-distanced three-hour ceremony occurred at Sand Creek as it does on that fateful day every year. The descendants of those Cheyenne and Arapaho people that died there gathered to remember the ancestors. The chiefs and tribal members there decided that the new name of Mount Evans should be Mount Blue Sky. Fred Mosqueda, the coordinator of the Culture Program of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, said they could feel their ancestors there. “It was windy. It was tough to get going. We sang the songs, and this feeling came over us. They were happy we still came.”

So, yes, I support renaming that broad-shouldered mountain looming beyond the Denver skyline for the ancestors and for the still-living Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Mount Blue Sky. It’s hopeful and healing. It’s what dominates this land of prairie, peak, and plateau.

We don’t need a mountain name that commemorates and honors a man who urged his fellow citizens to wantonly kill native peoples. We need a reckoning of our history and an understanding of not only the good, but also the evil. We have to stop running from our historical sins to begin the process of healing. We have to remember that this land that we call Colorado, a place of beauty, majesty, raw nature, and a vault of blue sky, is the ancestral homeland of ancient native peoples. They didn’t own this land. They belonged to the land.

Photograph below: Looking west from the summit of 14,471-foot Mount Blue Sky to Mount Bierstadt (left) and 14,265-foot West Blue Sky, an unranked 14er also called West Evans on a stormy August afternoon. Photograph © Stewart M. Green


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