John Evans was born on the Ohio frontier. By 1838, he had an Ohio college medical degree. In 1845, he became the first superintendent of an Indiana insane asylum he pioneered with the belief that patients should have fresh food and water. Evans moved on to Chicago, where he developed quarantine techniques to combat cholera. He invented an obstetrical extractor to reduce the trauma of childbirth for babies. He was one of the group of Methodists who founded Northwestern University. Evanston, Illinois, is named for him.
Evans became wealthy from investments in real estate, banking and railroads. An abolitionist, he was one of the founders of the Illinois Republican Party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. This sounds like almost a model life – before he got to Colorado.
In 1862, Lincoln appointed Evans the second governor of the Colorado Territory. At the same time, Evans was bringing the railroad to Denver City, which made him richer and the city bigger. He was also the territory’s superintendent of Indian Affairs, at a time when Evans and other Denverites feared Indigenous tribes were preparing to storm the city after U.S. Army troops had been withdrawn for service in the Civil War. This was at least partly a matter of projection, since civic-minded souls such as Evans also were preoccupied with scattering the tribes they were displacing. In 1864, Evans implored “all citizens of Colorado ... to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians (and) kill and destroy all enemies of the country” – orders approved by Lincoln.
Evans appointed John Chivington, a fellow Ohioan and a Methodist minister, colonel of the Colorado Volunteers. On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, at Big Sandy Creek, on the plains about 180 miles southeast of Denver, Chivington ordered his 675 troops to attack a camp of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children. As many as 200 were killed, and mutilated, with soldiers taking scalps and female genitalia as well as fetuses for souvenirs.
Also present at the Sand Creek Massacre was Capt. Silas Soule, originally of Maine, another abolitionist, who told his men to stand down. “I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would,” he wrote. “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.”
Upon Chivington’s return to Denver, he and his troopers were feted and paraded their trophies as hat bands. Gov. Evans decorated them for valor “in subduing the savages.” Women of Denver took the ghastly souvenirs and hung them above the stage of the Denver City opera house.
But, thanks in part to Soule, the Army began an investigation. Soule testified at a court of inquiry in January 1865. Evans, accused of a cover-up, was forced by Congress to resign as governor. On April 23, Soule was on duty as a provost marshal in Denver when he was murdered. His killer was identified but never charged. Evans, ever undeterred, helped found the University of Denver and served as chairman of its board of trustees until his death, of natural causes, in 1897.
The highest peak in the Front Range’s Mount Evans Wilderness, at 14,271 feet, was known as Mount Rosalie until 1895, when the Colorado Legislature renamed it in the former governor’s honor. On July 2, Gov. Jared Polis created a board to evaluate name changes for public places in Colorado, to “ensure that we have inclusivity and transparency around the naming process.” There is already a petition to change the name of Mount Evans to Mount Soule. It is never too late.