Sand Creek: the Still Unhealed Wounds
Different aspects of the Sand Creek Massacre - which figured so largely in the life of Anne Evans' father, John Evans, costing him the governorship of Colorado Territory - are again in the news:
in the discussion about the future of old Fort Lyon
in the poignant controversy over History Colorado's current exhibit
in new attempts to come to a just assessment of Governor Evans' responsibility for the massacre.
In my book about the life of Anne Evans, I found it necessary to write about Sand Creek (Chapter 5). This was partly to help readers understand an important event in her family background, and partly to enable me to discuss the airy assumption I sometimes heard stated - with authority, but no documentation – that the reason why Anne Evans spent so much of her time promoting the art of Native Americans was because of her feelings of guilt over her father's role in the Sand Creek Massacre.
There was much discussion - in the Denver Post and in the just-finished session of the Colorado Legislature - over the future of old Fort Lyon.
Now near Las Animas, Fort Lyon (originally Fort Wise) was in a somewhat different location when Colonel John Chivington arrived late in 1864 with his "Thirdster" regiment, ordered Fort Lyon commander Major Scott Anthony to accompany him, along with a large contingent of regular troops, and set out to massacre the occupants, mostly women and children and elderly men, of a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment at Sand Creek. Their leaders had surrendered to the military at Fort Lyon, as recommended by Governor Evans, and were flying both a United States flag and a white flag.
At that time, Fort Lyon consisted of part of the second Bent's Fort, along with additional structures built in the Arkansas River bottoms nearby. In 1867 this site was abandoned, after flooding on the Arkansas River, and replaced by a new Fort Lyon near Las Animas. This was used as a base by the U.S. Army during the period of Indian wars unleashed by the Sand Creek Massacre. Understandably, this event virtually destroyed any confidence, on the part of the Indian tribes, in the sincerity of federal or Territorial peace initiatives.
After the long chapter of the Cheyenne and Arapaho presence in Colorado was ended, tragically - they were decisively defeated, and removed from Colorado to other locations - Fort Lyon was abandoned. It was burned by Indians after the army left. In 1906, the U.S. Navy opened a tuberculosis sanatorium on the Fort Lyon site. It was turned over, in 1922, to the Veteran's Bureau, which became the Veteran's Administration in 1930. Three years later, the VA designated it a neuropsychiatric hospital, operating it until 2001. The site was then given to the State of Colorado, which used it as a minimum security prison until 2011.
The 1913 session of the State Legislature, in its last weeks, apparently settled the issue of what comes next for old Fort Lyon, by now a National Historic Site. It is destined to become a residential substance abuse treatment and job-training center for the homeless. Governor Hickenlooper was one of the chief proponents of this new use for Fort Lyon, but it faced vociferous opposition, both for its cost, and on the grounds that it is too far removed from the larger Colorado cities where most of the homeless are located.
The Denver Post, in a May 12 editorial headlined, OK, GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER, FORT LYON IS YOURS NOW, was frankly skeptical about the chances for the project, "If it fails, voters will know where to place the blame. And if it succeeds, we will be the first to credit the governor for his commitment to the idea."
THE COLLISION: History Colorado's Exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre
I first saw this exhibit - one of seven "Colorado Stories" on the second floor of the Museum building - shortly after the opening of History Colorado's new home. I found the exhibit quite incoherent. Thinking that perhaps the whole display had not quite come together yet, I resolved to return later and spend more time on it. I had not yet managed this when I read Patricia Calhoun's two-page article on the subject, in the February 14-20 issue of Westword. She wrote about the highly critical attitude of Northern Cheyenne tribal members towards the content of the exhibit, and their anger and frustration at the failure of History Colorado to involve them in any meaningful way in the process of it's development.
Shortly thereafter, I went with my daughter Francesca to a lecture at the Museum by Ari Kelman, about his new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. This is the story of the long campaign to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, administered by the National Park service, which finally came into being in 2007. During the question period, I asked Prof. Kelman if he had any comment to make on the controversy over History Colorado's Sand Creek exhibit. He diplomatically referred the question to State Historian Bill Convery, who, he said, would be happy to meet with anyone interested after the meeting. A few of us assembled around Convery, who assured us that he had met with tribal representatives, heard their grievances, and made modifications to the exhibit accordingly. He said that History Colorado was not willing, as requested by tribal members, to close the exhibit during any further discussions.
Having gathered from another article on the subject, in Westword's April 25-May 1 issue, that the controversy is not fading away but gathering steam, I realized that it was time for me to revisit the exhibit and come to my own conclusions. So earlier this week I, armed with archaic pencil and notebook, and Francesca, with her phone/camera, toured COLLISION once more.
While this is not the place for an exhaustive blow-by-blow critique, I will say that overall, I found the exhibit seriously deficient in conveying the depths of the horror that was the Sand Creek Massacre, and its bitter consequences. I will give just a few examples to support this opinion. The title, COLLISION, seems willfully misleading - a gratuitous insult to the encampment's innocent victims. To me, the word collision implies some balance of forces on each side. Its use seems like a conscious effort to mitigate the stigma of the event. Instead of being the subtitle, THE SAND CREEK MASSACRE should be the exhibit's name.
On the large exhibit panels describing the event, there is only one word, "mutilated," that refers to the treatment of bodies after the massacre. It is completely inadequate to explain the butchery at Sand Creek. In two little boxes, which seem like an afterthought, are one reproduction each of letters from Silas Soule and Joseph Kramer, soldiers who refused to take part in the massacre. They describe, in vivid detail, the unbelievably merciless killing of women and children and old men, and the taking of scalps and body parts for trophies. But how many people will take the time to stop and read the small print?
Then there is an older video of tribal members, quietly describing exactly what was done to their ancestors at Sand Creek. There is room for three people to sit and watch this video, but we were the only ones who did so while we were in that area. It is placed awkwardly, near the end of the exhibit, amid a strange combination of sounds, and intermittent illumination of objects hidden behind curved white shrouds of draperies, onto which words are infrequently projected. This part of the exhibit seems to me like a brave experiment that just doesn't work.
In 1865, after the damning reports on Sand Creek from both military and Congressional investigations, a promise made that the U.S. government would pay reparations. Not a cent was ever received by the tribes, and they have long ago given up hope that this promise will ever be redeemed. But apparently, they still passionately wish that one day, the complete and true story of the Sand Creek Massacre will be told - and heard. Then perhaps the healing of this still open historic wound can proceed.
Universities Re-evaluate Governor John Evans' Role in Sand Creek
Ever since President Andrew Johnson secured Governor John Evans' resignation over the Sand Creek Massacre on August 1, 1865, there has been intermittent controversy as to the degree of the Governor's responsibility for the event. This year, the matter will apparently be investigated at both of the universities of which Evans was a major founder: Northwestern University and the University of Denver.
In February, 2013, an official news release from Northwestern University announced that a committee had been formed "to review and report on the history of John Evans." A committee of four faculty members from Northwestern and three scholars from other institutions "will examine the nature of Evans' involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre...and Evans' later involvement with Northwestern." The committee was formed at the request of students and University supporters. It will report to the Provost by June 1914, and will be made public at that time.
At the University of Denver, a committee is working on a statement assessing Governor Evans' relationship to the Sand Creek Massacre. It expects to issue this statement at the beginning of 2014, the 150th anniversary of the University's founding.
Sternberg, Barbara E., Jennifer Boone, and Evelyn Waldron. Anne Evans – A Pioneer in Colorado’s Cultural History: THE THINGS THAT LAST WHEN GOLD IS GONE. Denver: Buffalo Park Press and The Center for Colorado and the West, 2011. 67-80.