This story first appeared in Mountain Town News.
Mt. Blue Sky, their proposed name, was arrived at after consultation with The Wilderness Society. The name seeks to represent the Arapaho, who were known as the Blue Sky People, and the Cheyenne, who have an annual ceremony of renewal of life called Blue Sky.
“It is time to rename Mt. Evans and remove the stain of this name from our public lands,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy at The Wilderness Society. “No name can undo the pain and suffering caused by the Sand Creek Massacre, but removing the name of the man most responsible for the massacre honors the very tribes that Evans sought to destroy. There is no place to honor perpetrators of atrocities on America’s public lands.”
The petition by the tribes was initiated in consultation with The Wilderness Society following that organization’s probing during the last two years the namesakes of federal wilderness areas, national forests, and features of public lands as well as rivers and streams.
Sand Creek remains one of darkest stains on Colorado’s history. It occurred on Nov. 29, 1864, in the dry bed of Sand Creek as it flows across the Great Plains in eastern Colorado, about 180 miles from Denver. The flood of settlers to the new territory of Colorado created after the discovery of gold in 1858 had inflamed tensions between native tribes and newcomers. Depredation and acts of bloodshed were committed on both sides.
As summer waned, a tribal leader among some of the bands bravely approached a U.S. military fort along the Arkansas River to solicit interest in peace. Defying orders to kill all Indians, Ed Wynkoop, the post commander at Fort Lyon, was intrigued. This led to an envoy of Black Kettle and several others traveling to Camp Weld, near what is now downtown Denver, that September. The Indians returned to eastern Colorado, near the Kansas border, believing they had an agreement that they would not be attacked if they stayed true to their promise of peacefulness. John Evans, after whom the mountain is named, was territorial governor during those sessions.
Before arriving in Colorado, Evans already had had an illustrative career. He had already founded Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and as a physician he had accomplished much in medicine. Later, he founded the University of Denver and became wealthy because of his investments in railroads and other infrastructure of the new state. His name lingers in towns, streets and other public places in Colorado and several states.
Just what role Evans played in the massacre remains disputed. Evans was absent from Colorado that November when the Colorado Third Cavalry led by Col. John Chivington made its way to southeastern Colorado to attack the peacefully assembled Cheyenne and Arapaho. A majority were women, children and older males. The younger males were mostly absent — and, it must be noted, not necessarily bound to the terms of peace negotiated in Denver.
Attacking at dawn, the soldiers from the gold camps of Colorado killed an estimated 150 of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Mutilations were commonplace and obscene. About three-quarters of those killed were women and children. The U.S. Army led an investigation in the following months that resulted in the formal condemnation of Chivington.
In advance of the 150th anniversary of the massacre in 2014, both Northwestern University and the University of Denver commissioned in-depth investigations by historians and others to examine the culpability of Evans. They found no evidence Evans knew of the plans and, had he known, likely would have opposed them. But they didn’t let him off the hook, either. One tell-tale fact is that even decades later he did not condemn what happened.
The Wilderness Society has concluded that Evans created the climate in which the Sand Creek Massacre could occur. Spitler points to directives from Evans to Colorado residents to kill and destroy natives. A telling fact, he says, is that President Andrew Johnson dismissed him as territorial governor.
Tribal representatives see no reason to want to continue celebrating the career of Evans with his name on a 14er.
“One hundred and fifty-six years ago, Territorial Governor Evans devised the strategy for the massacre at Sand Creek for political gain and now the victims, the Cheyenne and Arapaho People, will continue to be known in Colorado through the renaming of that mountain as Mt. Blue Sky,” said Fred Mosqueda, Arapaho coordinator of the Culture Program of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
Name of Squaw Mountain also debated
A key tribunal will be the new Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board appointed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year to recommend to him positions on renaming proposals. It has now met twice, during which it grappled with its mission and the housekeeping matters of a new organization. Early next year the board expects to begin reviewing several proposed name changes in Colorado, including Mount Evans.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names has final authority. Jennifer Runyon, senior researcher with the national board, advised the Colorado board that state recommendations are very influential.
Also proposed have been Mount Cheyenne Arapaho and Mount Soule. The latter would honor Silas Soule, a commander at Sand Creek who held his men back from the attack. He was assassinated in Denver several months later. Rosalie, the name used for the mountain prior to 1890, when Colorado legislators renamed it Mount Evans, has also been suggested.
In past controversies about names, the positions of local jurisdictions have typically been solicited and often honored. Mount Evans is in Clear Creek County. The county previously had officially registered opposition to a name change, but that opposition was registered in error, says Randy Wheelock, one of three county commissioners. The county took no position, nor has it established one now.
The county’s position will be determined by stakeholder discussion, he says. He considers Cheyenne and Arapahoe people to be important voices in discussions within Clear Creek County. That includes those for whom Colorado was part of their ancestral homes.
As an individual, though Wheelock has strong feelings, he was moved enough to get up at 3 a.m. on Sunday to drive to the Sand Creek National Historic Site to participate in the dawn memorial that is held each year after Thanksgiving.
“I recognize the atrocities caused by Governor Evans at Sand Creek and consider it wholly unacceptable for such a prominent place as Mount Evans to be named for a man responsible for such horrific acts,” he said.
He says he strongly supports changing the names of both Evans and the adjoining Squaw Mountain.
The latter name, a reference to an anatomical part of women who are Native American, is seen by most tribes as offensive.
“My hope and intention are that we will move directly from or in parallel with the Mount Evans conversation to that about Squaw,” he says.
For the Wilderness Society, this will be the first of many such efforts, the result of a new focus on equity and inclusivity on public lands, says Spitler. In 1993, The Wilderness Society and other conservation organizations supported creation of the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, supporting the choice of the name, unaware of the history.
But with the new drive to reexamine the historical record, the Wilderness Society began sifting through names and also reached out to tribes. Mount Evans and the wilderness area were at the top of the list.
“We had no idea that (wilderness) area was named for a man who facilitated the Sand Creek Massacre,” says Spitler. “Now we are recognizing that we can’t ignore these issues anymore.”
Also reflecting the new intent to filter the named landscape through a 21st century lens of equity and inclusivity is legislation introduced in Congress by Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Rep. Al Green, a Democrat from Texas. The proposed Reconciliation in Place Names Act would create an advisory committee to make recommendations to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on geographic features to be renamed and recommendations to Congress on renaming federal land units with offensive names.
“All visitors to public lands deserve to feel welcome and comfortable while enjoying all that nature has to offer them. However, offensive or racist place names are restricting access and prevent many from feeling welcome on lands that belong to all of us,” she said in announcing the legislation in September. “It’s past time to change the offensive names of public lands, especially with input from groups who have been discriminated against.”