On Nov. 29, 1864, along an ice-covered creek on the Colorado Territory's Eastern Plains, Bill Tall Bull lost his grandpa.

Peace-minded Cheyenne chief White Antelope was probably Tall Bull's great-great-grandfather, but he calls him grandpa.

Tall Bull learned about the Sand Creek Massacre not from books but from oral stories from his people, as is the Indian way.

He does not cry about it as much as before, but his ancestor's killing and mutilation by Colorado soldiers remains part of him.

Mag Hayden first heard about Sand Creek when her mother told her not to talk about it. Hayden's great-great-grandfather was John Evans, a man so central to Colorado history that his name graces a mountain.

Only by her own research did Hayden learn of the territorial governor's actions before and after the carnage. She sees no need to feel bad but did extend a hand to descendants of victims.

On the 150th anniversary of one of Colorado's darkest chapters, greater attention is focused on who was responsible for the slaughter at Sand Creek, bringing hard questions for descendants of victims and those who share blame.

The University of Denver and Northwestern University have concluded that Evans, one of their founding fathers, contributed to the factors that led to the massacre of an estimated 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mainly women, children and elderly.


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The United Methodist Church is conducting a similar inquiry into Evans and the colonel who led the attack — both prominent Methodists — and the church's influence broadly.

"You hear people say things like, 'Oh, why not just forget it? It happened 150 years ago,' " said David Halaas, former chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society and consultant to the Cheyenne. "Well, it was a Holocaust. ... It's owning up to your history."

Tensions ran high

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site is in Kiowa County, near Eads, commemorating where more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were killed by militiamen in 1864.
The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site is in Kiowa County, near Eads, commemorating where more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were killed by militiamen in 1864. (Andy Cross, Denver Post file photo)

Tensions were running high in 1864 as white settlers and Indians clashed in the Colorado Territory. In April, passions were inflamed when Arapahos slaughtered a ranching family east of Denver.

That November, three major chiefs who advocated peace set up camp with their people on Sand Creek, near what is now Eads, with a government pledge they would be safe.

On a clear, cold morning, Col. John Chivington invoked memories of settlers killed by Indians and led cavalrymen on an attack on about 100 lodges.

Witnesses described Indians on their knees begging for mercy and children used for target practice. Victims' body parts were sliced off and taken to Denver as trophies. Two other military leaders refused to let their men participate and condemned the attack.

Although congressional and military hearings and a treaty condemned "gross and wanton outrages" and a "foul and dastardly massacre," Chivington was never held to account.

Most examinations of Sand Creek have focused on Chivington, a former Methodist minister who used to preach with a gun on the pulpit.

Only recently has attention shifted to Evans.

In early 2013, under pressure from students, Northwestern University established a committee to examine the role of Evans, a university founder and major donor.

The University of Denver followed suit. Evans was central to the founding of the Colorado Seminary, later DU.

In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, the staunch abolitionist was sworn in as second governor of the Colorado Territory, which brought the additional role of ex-officio superintendent of Indian Affairs. Later, he became a railroad baron who was key to Denver's rise as a city.

To DU committee members, the examination was overdue. The massacre occurred in close proximity to the university's beginning, and the campus sits on ancestral Cheyenne and Arapaho land.

The study released this month concluded Evans had "serious culpability" for the massacre, citing neglect in treaty negotiating, leadership failures and reckless decision-making.

(The Denver Post)

It was Evans, the report noted, whose "shrill urgings" convinced the War Department to deploy a regiment of largely undisciplined volunteer soldiers responsible for the worst atrocities.

Evans' proclamations in the summer of 1864 were effectively war declarations, encouraging vigilante justice without defining how to separate "hostile" Indians from peaceful ones, the report said.

Northwestern's report covered similar ground, but its conclusions about Evans were not as critical or strongly worded. No known evidence exists that Evans helped plan the massacre or knew about it in advance, but he was among several individuals who helped create a situation that made it possible, Northwestern found.

The DU committee consisted of 11 faculty members, two outside historians and six Sand Creek massacre victim descendants, although descendants did not have a hand in writing the report.

Nancy Wadsworth, an associate professor of political science and the committee chairwoman, said that for many years, the massacre largely was understood two ways: Either bad people did bad things or good people could not have done such bad things.

"What if it's good people who did horrific things?" she said. "This is a story about how good, upstanding citizens can do horrendous things under the right circumstances. There are lessons in this massacre for us still today about what can bring out the worst in human nature."

Jeff Broome, a faculty member at Arapahoe Community College who has written books on 19th- century conflicts with American Indians, takes a more sympathetic view of Evans — who was forced to resign in the massacre's aftermath — and a harsh view of DU's report.

"It's sort of Monday morning quarterbacking," he said. "People today are picking apart all the documents and trying to find how bad Evans operated. But I think he tried his best."

Gail Ridgely, a Northern Arapaho massacre descendant and member of the DU committee, said re-examining Sand Creek helps bring historical awareness and spiritual healing.

"There is no goal," said Ridgely, a former schoolteacher and principal. "There are milestones."

To Ridgely, assigning culpability is another milestone on the long road of healing.

To honor and remember

Bill Tall Bull works for the government that slaughtered his ancestor.

Before he took the job as a business specialist with the National Park Service, Tall Bull consulted tribal elders. They urged him to go ahead, to use his position to educate and effect change.

"Coming to work for the federal government, it was interesting," said Tall Bull, who is in his 50s. "But the federal government is everywhere."

Slavery taints American history, yet black people work for the federal government, he said. Same with Japanese-Americans who live with the memory of World War II internment camps. So it is with Tall Bull and Sand Creek.

Tall Bull is skeptical of the institutional soul-searching over the massacre.

The story already is known to American Indians, but their oral recollections often are disregarded, he said.

"We as native people continue to honor and remember those people who were brutally massacred," Tall Bull said. "That is way more important than these reports that are coming out."

Tall Bull is more interested in keeping history alive than assigning blame — in honoring the peace chiefs and teaching school children.

Other massacre descendants believe assigning responsibility is another lesson that must be taught.

"We are really a people not only dedicated to peace but to honesty and truthfulness," said Henrietta Mann, founding president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College in Weatherford, Okla. "It happened, unfortunately. So we need to know the truth in as far as possible. History could have changed."

Wrongly blamed?

Mag Hayden lives on a ranch 8 miles west of Evergreen, on what was originally the John Evans homestead. She can see Mount Evans from the property.

The Denver native said she remembers her mother talking once about Sand Creek — and that she was not to talk about it in front of her grandmother's sister. That generation believed Evans was wrongly blamed, she said.

Hayden, 63, said she began her own research about a decade ago.

To Hayden, Evans was a good man under intense pressure from constituents, including people in gold camps starving because conflicts with Indians prevented supply wagons from getting through.

At the same time, she said, Evans "fanned the flames" by declining to meet with peaceful chiefs in 1864. His refusal to blame Chivington or accept any responsibility afterward was unacceptable, she said.

She said she "disagrees somewhat" with DU's conclusions.

"I feel like I don't need to apologize or feel badly, but I do feel we need to reach out to those who really did suffer from this," she said.

Hayden said she initiated a private meeting this fall between descendants of Evans and massacre victims, and she said she believes positive strides were made toward healing, understanding and closure.

"Different members of my family have different ideas, that is for sure," she said. "I just felt like we needed to step up to the plate and acknowledge what happened and not pretend Evans had nothing to do with it."

A cousin of Hayden's, Lucy Schiller, also discovered her family ties to the massacre independently, when she began researching Evans for a high school history paper.

"It stuns you with this massive force field of guilt," Schiller said. "And then you start to ask yourself questions about what a relative of yours did a long time ago and what you can do to atone for that."

For Schiller, 26, that meant writing her college thesis on the massacre and continuing to write about it.

The 150th anniversary of the massacre will be remembered in the coming days.

For the 16th year, massacre descendants will lead a "healing run" from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado to downtown Denver.

The run begins Sunday and will end Wednesday with speakers on the Capitol steps.

At DU, committee members who determined their founder was culpable in a terrible massacre have issued recommendations, including a permanent campus memorial and scholarships for Cheyenne and Arapaho students.

"We can admit that something horrible happened," said Billy Stratton, an assistant professor of American Indian studies. "It doesn't mean it defines us as people. But if we can't admit we were wrong, we can't learn from the past and ever go forward."

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, egorski@denverpost.com or twitter.com/egorski

150th anniversary events in denver

Tuesday, 6 p.m.: Candlelight vigil, Denver Art Museum wheel sculpture, 100 W. 14th Ave., Denver.

Wednesday, 7 a.m.: Opening ceremony, Riverside Cemetery, 5201 Brighton Blvd., Denver.

8 a.m.: Honoring those who refused to take part in the massacre: Capt. Silas Soule and Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry, and Lt. Joseph A. Cramer and Company K, 1st Infantry Regiment Colorado Volunteers, Riverside Cemetery, 5201 Brighton Blvd., Denver.

9 a.m.: Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run from cemetery to 15th and Arapahoe streets in Denver.

10 a.m.: Presentation of the Capt. Silas Soule Memorial Plaque and continuation of the healing run. Participants asked to walk the last mile to the Capitol. Starting at 15th and Arapahoe streets.

11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Presentation and speakers at west steps of the Capitol, 200 E. Colfax Ave.

6 p.m.: Powwow, Sheraton Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place, Denver.