Mount Evans on cusp of name change? Other Colorado place names also warrant reconsideration.

Byers and Downing also had objectionable ties to Sand Creek Massacre

October 14, 2022 11:44 am

Cheyenne tribal member Michael Bearcomesout speaks at a ceremony marking the expansion of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeast Colorado on Oct. 5, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

This commentary originally appeared in Big Pivots.

Our heartburn about the name Evans appears to be nearing resolution. The Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board this week heard testimony about the role of John Evans, then the territorial governor, in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

The evidence presented by representatives of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, the primary victims of the massacre, was not new, but it was damning. Can there be any doubt that Colorado’s 14th highest mountain, dominant on Denver’s western skyline, should have a different name? Blue Sky and Cheyenne-Arapaho are among the names formally proposed.

The board will likely adopt a recommendation to Gov. Jared Polis in January or February. Polis will in turn report to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the final arbiter.


Other names assigned our mountains, streets and schools may cause indigestion if you examine the historical footnotes. Just how much more geographic cleansing do we need to address those wrongs?

Take William Byers, a frontier newspaperman who encouraged and then defended the bloodletting. That most lovely triangle of a 12,804-foot peak overlooking Fraser bears his name, as does an orange-hued canyon of the Colorado River.

Then there’s Irving Howbert, whose name adorns an elementary school. Then 18, Howbert was among the 3rd Regiment soldiers nearing the end of their 100-day volunteer enlistments. They methodically killed between 150 and 230 people, mostly women and older men but also children and babies. Victims also included several Anglo-Indian “half breeds.” In camping peacefully along Sand Creek, they believed they had been afforded protection from the attack by the U.S. Army. They held up their end of the deal. Howbert, later a founder of Colorado Springs, never apologized.

And what to do with Downing, one of Denver’s most prominent streets, named after Jacob Downing, who participated in the massacre. Later, he helped create Denver’s City Park. Like many others, including Evans, who also did much good, his story is not a simple one.

Blame comes easily in the case of John Chivington, the commander of the volunteers. He was blatantly driven by aspirations for glory, likely aspiring to elevated military rank and ultimately high political office.

Evans has been a more difficult case. Abraham Lincoln had also appointed him as Indian agent, giving him responsibility for looking after the best interests of the tribes. He did not, as a report issued in 2014 by a Northwestern University panel made clear. A University of Denver report the same year, the 150th anniversary, delivered a more stinging conclusion, putting Evans on the same high shelf of culpability as Chivington. The report found that Evans, through his actions, “did the equivalent of giving Colonel Chivington a loaded gun.”

Both institutions were founded by Evans.

A statue that was part of a Civil War monument at the Colorado Capitol was toppled overnight between June 24 and 25, 2020. The monument recently had been a target of protesters, because some of the units it honors took part on Nov. 29, 1864, in the Sand Creek Massacre. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

George “Tink” Tinker, an American Indian scholar-activist who contributed to that DU report, told advisory board members that discussions were “much more radical than the final report was.”

Said Ryan Ortiz, a descendant of White Antelope, an Arapaho chief killed and mutilated at Sand Creek: “The most prominent peak in Colorado should not be named after a man who (was) comfortable with the massacre of other human beings.”

As for Byers, no proposal has been filed for shedding his name from Grand County, the site of the peak and the canyon. As editor of the Rocky Mountain News, the mining camp’s first newspaper, Byers had habitually inflamed local fears with “stories that focused on Indian war, atrocities, and depredations, greatly exaggerating the actual threat locally,” says the Northwestern University report. “This press campaign made already apprehensive settlers think that Indians might set upon them at any moment.”

Like Evans, Byers refused to condemn the massacre even decades later. Instead, he argued that it had “saved Colorado and taught the Indians the most salutary lesson they had ever learned,” according to Ari Kelman’s “A Misplaced Massacre,” one of several dozen books about Sand Creek.

Oddly, while two congressional committees and a military commission that investigated Sand Creek pronounced it an unprovoked massacre, Colorado did not. Until it was toppled by protesters in 2020, a statue honoring veterans located at the Colorado Capitol referred to the “Sand Creek Battle.”

That statue now stands several blocks away in History Colorado, where museum visitors are asked: “Do we need monuments?”

Museums, yes, but not monuments, one person answered. But here we are, stuck in 21st century Colorado with a lot of names of 19th century men on our maps. Some seem not to offend, but those associated with the massacre assuredly do.

An Evans-Byers house stands near the Denver Art Museum. The names have been scrubbed from the sign, though. I suspect in time we’ll do the same with our mountains.


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