John Evans (1814–97) served as second governor of Colorado Territory, from 1862 to 1865. His role in precipitating the massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek in November 1864 forced him to resign. A doctor and Methodist minister who helped found Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Evans also established what became the University of Denver and helped connect the fledgling territory to the transcontinental railroad. Perhaps more than most in Colorado’s founding generation, Evans represents the complicated legacy of US expansion in the mid-nineteenth century.
John Evans was born to Rachel and David Evans on March 9, 1814, in Waynesville, Ohio. As a young man, he had no desire to follow in the footsteps of his farmer parents. When he was twenty-years old, he pleaded with his father to allow him to pursue higher education. David Evans reluctantly agreed, and in 1838 John received his MD from Cincinnati College. That year he also married Hannah Canby.
In July 1839 Evans moved to Attica, Indiana, to begin his medical career. Two years later, Evans heard a talk by the Methodist Episcopal minister Matthew Simpson, which motivated his conversion to Methodism and to a lifelong belief in the importance of fostering education in new communities. Meanwhile, as a physician, he made a name for himself by starting the state’s first mental hospital and becoming its first superintendent in 1845. At the same time, Rush Medical College in Chicago hired him as a professor. After struggling for three years to balance the two jobs, Evans resigned from the Indiana hospital in 1848 and moved his family permanently to Chicago.
Shifting to Business in Chicago
Evans arrived in Chicago at a crucial moment in the city’s history, when its role as a hub connecting Western resources to Eastern capital was causing it to grow from a relatively rough city of 30,000 people in 1850 to a booming metropolis of 110,000 ten years later. For a man as intelligent and energetic as Evans, it was easy to thrive. Within a few years, he had helped establish the Chicago Medical Society, cofounded Illinois General Hospital of the Lakes, and edited a medical journal.
Yet Evans soon redirected his ambitions from medicine to business and politics. The signal event in his professional transformation came in 1852, when he traded the medical journal he owned for five acres of Chicago land and helped to organize the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad, which enhanced the city’s infrastructure. Evans’s real estate and railroad interests made him wealthy—by the mid-1850s he no longer practiced medicine. As he gained prominence, Evans was able to engage in public service more directly as a two-term Chicago alderman from 1853 to 1855, focusing on urban development, public health, and education.
Northwestern and New Opportunities
Evans’s zeal for promoting education led to his prominent role in founding Northwestern University, his most lasting legacy in the Chicago area. In 1850 he joined with eight other local Methodists to establish the university, and then spearheaded the five-year effort to actually open the school. He helped draft the university’s charter, select its first president, and acquire the property north of Chicago, where the school and a surrounding Methodist town would be located. For his efforts, Evans was elected chairman of the board of trustees, and in 1854 his fellow trustees moved to name the new university town “Evanston” in his honor.
Evans achieved great professional success in the 1840s and 1850s, but he also experienced his share of personal setbacks. Of the four children to whom Hannah gave birth, only one, Josephine, born in 1844, survived childhood. Then in 1850 Hannah succumbed to tuberculosis. In 1853 Evans married again, this time to Margaret Gray, the sister-in-law of a fellow Northwestern trustee. When Northwestern opened its doors to students in 1855, Evans moved his family from Chicago to a large new house just south of campus.
Governor of Colorado
As a well-known doctor and then businessman and civic booster in Chicago, Evans easily developed a network of influential political connections. A Whig early in his life, he transferred his allegiance to the new antislavery Republican Party in the mid-1850s and became acquainted with his fellow Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Evans and his friends made no secret of his desire to be named governor of some plum western territory. His chance came in 1862, when he replaced the first territorial governor of Colorado, William Gilpin, who was removed from office for authorizing military payments without approval. On April 11 Evans took his oath in Washington, DC, before quickly returning to Evanston and then setting out for Colorado by stagecoach.
Arriving in Denver on May 16, 1862, Evans found himself in a situation full of potential. He had the opportunity to shape a new city and a new territory, to play a large role in developing Denver’s real estate and railroads, and to shepherd Colorado to statehood. As his previous career indicated, he possessed the political tools, business sense, and civic spirit to succeed, and in many ways he did. During his three years as governor, he helped build up the new territory’s infrastructure, economy, legal system, and educational institutions. In 1864 he figured prominently in the foundation of the Colorado Seminary, which was reestablished in 1880—again with Evans’s support—as the University of Denver.
Evans dedicated much of his time as territorial governor to promoting statehood for Colorado, believing that incorporation into the Union would provide better federal military protection, a better chance of attracting a transcontinental railroad route through Denver, and a US Senate seat for himself. Despite his best efforts, however, Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected statehood in September 1864. To Evans’s arguments, they countered that the territory was still sparsely populated and ill equipped for self-government, and that statehood would actually leave the area more vulnerable as the federal government withdrew its support. Perhaps most important, statehood would make Colorado men subject to the draft while the Civil War still raged. Colorado voters changed their minds a year later, after the Civil War had ended and Evans had stepped down as governor, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed statehood.
As governor of Colorado Territory, Evans was also the territory’s superintendent of Indian affairs. These two positions did not necessarily conflict, but in practice it proved hard to act in the best interests of both Colorado’s new migrants, whom Evans represented in his capacity as governor, and the territory’s indigenous inhabitants, whom he represented in his role as superintendent. As tens of thousands of immigrants from the east arrived to mine Colorado’s mountains, set up supply towns along the Front Range, and establish farms and ranches on the plains, they controlled resources that Indians had long relied on and still needed to survive. In response, Indians sometimes conducted raids against the new settlers and the precarious supply lines that linked Colorado to the east. In the charged atmosphere of the Civil War years, with the federal government fearing for its hold on the West and Coloradans concerned about potential Confederate invasions, even small-scale raids provoked alarm bordering on paranoia.
To mitigate potential conflicts, Evans relied on the existing framework of federal Indian policy, which involved making treaties to acquire Indian land for white settlement. Indeed, Evans’s primary goal with respect to Indians was to gain wider Indian support for the disputed 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise, in which a small group of Arapaho and Cheyenne chiefs had ceded their claims to most of the eastern plains, and to forge new treaties with the Utes in the mountains. Evans diligently pursued these diplomatic solutions throughout 1862 and 1863.
In spring 1864, however, reports of stolen livestock led to a violent cycle of harsh military responses by troops under Major John Chivington and Indian raids on the plains. Initially Evans pushed for peaceful diplomacy, but over the summer he began to favor more militant options. In August he requested authorization for a regiment of 100-day volunteers, which took shape as the Third Colorado Cavalry, and issued an aggressive proclamation allowing Coloradans to “kill and destroy, as enemies of the country,” any hostile Indians they encountered.
In late September he reluctantly attended a peace conference with Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho leaders at Camp Weld, where he absolved himself of any responsibility for making peace and said the Indians needed to negotiate with the military. He soon departed for the mountains, where he met with the Utes, and then left Colorado for his annual trip to the east. Meanwhile, Southern Cheyenne under Black Kettle and Southern Arapaho under Niwot (Left Hand) reported to Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, where the commander told them they could camp by Sand Creek. In late November, despite no reports of violence anywhere near Fort Lyon, Chivington went there with his troops, including the new volunteers of the Third Cavalry. Learning that a group of Indians was camped nearby, Chivington ordered his men to attack on the morning of November 29, 1864, killing roughly 150–200 people, mostly women and children.
Chivington and his troops returned to Denver in triumph, but news of the incident provoked greater violence on the plains and soon prompted official inquiries by two congressional committees as well as the US Army. Still in Washington, DC, as part of his annual eastern trip, Evans testified in March 1865 before both the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and the Joint Special Committee on the Condition of the Indian Tribes. He distanced himself from the massacre and denied knowledge of it, but he also implied that it could be justified by prior Indian attacks. In May the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War passed a resolution condemning Chivington and other officers who were directly responsible for Sand Creek, rebuking Evans for the “prevarication and shuffling” that had characterized his testimony, expressing disappointment in his failure to acknowledge the massacre’s horrors, and calling for his removal from office. Secretary of State William Seward agreed, forcing Evans to resign on August 1.
Evans returned to Colorado, where residents had cheered his arrival. Throughout the rest of his life, he never chastised Chivington or the soldiers involved in the massacre, and he continued to maintain that it had been necessary for the development of Colorado and the west. “The benefit to Colorado, of that massacre, as they call it, was very great,” he declared in an 1884 interview, “for it ridded the plains of the Indians.”
After Evans resigned as governor and President Johnson’s veto of statehood killed his dream of a Senate seat, he no longer pursued public office. His broader engagement in public service, however, did not end. He remained an influential civic leader, particularly in the realm of religion. He donated heavily to a variety of religious congregations and was an elected delegate to the Methodist Church’s main leadership body, the General Conference, every four years from 1872 to 1892.
As he did in Chicago, Evans also continued to combine public service with private profit in the form of economic development, especially railroad development. The city of Denver and the Colorado Territory encountered a major setback to future growth in 1866, when the Union Pacific Railroad decided that its transcontinental route would bypass Colorado in favor of Wyoming’s easier mountain passes. Convinced that Colorado needed strong rail connections to prosper, Evans and other local leaders determined to forge those connections themselves.
To link Denver to the Union Pacific’s transcontinental line at Cheyenne, Wyoming, Evans led the creation of the Denver Pacific Railway, which completed the connection in 1870. Then, to tie Denver directly to central Colorado’s rich mining region, Evans organized the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, which laid its track in the 1870s. Finally, to provide Denver with a quicker connection to the closest port, Evans built the Denver & New Orleans Railroad in the 1880s. Thanks in part to these vital rail connections, Denver’s population boomed during the 1870s and 1880s, growing from a frontier town of a few thousand people to a metropolis of more than 100,000.
As Denver grew, Evans and his family remained firmly ensconced among the city’s elite. In 1865 Josephine Evans, Evans’s surviving daughter from his first marriage, married Samuel Elbert, who was then serving under Evans as secretary of Colorado Territory and would later serve as territorial governor himself. Evans’s son William Gray Evans, born in 1855, followed his father into the railroad business, becoming a leader in the development of the Denver Tramway Company and the Moffat Tunnel. Evans’s youngest surviving child, Anne, was born in 1871 and became one of the most influential cultural patrons in Denver’s history, playing a key role in the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library, Civic Center Park, and Central City Opera.
Despite Evans’s deep ties to the Midwest—he served as president of the Northwestern University board of trustees until 1895—he remained in Denver for the rest of his life. He died there on July 3, 1897, at the age of eighty-three.
During his life and long after, Evans was deeply admired. By almost any measure, he was one of the most influential figures in the early development of both Chicago and Colorado. Not only was Evanston, Illinois, named for him, but also a wide variety of locations across Colorado, including the city of Evans in Weld County, Evans Avenue in Denver, and, perhaps most prominently, Mt. Evans in the Front Range.
For many decades, Evans’s manifold accomplishments insulated him from the Sand Creek Massacre, which was rarely mentioned in eulogies or later remembrances. In recent years, however, scholars have started to emphasize the deep, inextricable ties between Evans’s desire for development and his disregard for the existing ways of life of Indians on the plains. In time for the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre in 2014, both Northwestern University and the University of Denver conducted thorough investigations into Evans’s role in the massacre. The reports concluded that he bore some share of the responsibility for the attack and displayed what the Northwestern report called “a deep moral failure” in refusing to acknowledge the tragedy.