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Legacy In The Landscape: Reconsidering Mount Evans

Jim Hill

The recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism across the country have led to a lot of soul-searching — including here in Colorado — about common blind spots when it comes to the ways white supremacy is embedded in the culture. This includes reconsidering memorials and place names honoring controversial legacies.

Last week in Denver, community leaders announced they would be renaming the Stapleton neighborhood, which currently bears the name of a former mayor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Later in the week, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced an advisory board to identify city properties named for people associated with racism so they could be considered for renaming.

Mount Evans is another iconic Colorado landmark subject to renaming campaigns. For some groups, the name is synonymous with racism and unspeakable atrocities.

A legacy under scrutiny

Mount Evans was named for John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado from 1862 to 1865. Evans was a big booster for Colorado. He lobbied for statehood in Washington and was instrumental in bringing the railroads to Denver — a massive boon to the state’s economy.

But he also played a significant role in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, where a regiment of the U.S. military, unprovoked, slaughtered and mutilated hundreds of people — many of them women and children begging for mercy — in a peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne encampment.

Evans wasn’t there that day, but he was known for actively fostering a culture of hatred and fear, pursuing policies that undermined peace plans and encouraging violence against native groups. He was condemned by many contemporaries, and multiple investigations into the massacre implicated him for creating the conditions for the massacre to unfold. Ultimately, he had to resign because of this in 1865.

Naming a mountain

In the mid-1800s, no formal registry existed for geographic names in the U.S. Explorers could bestow names somewhat arbitrarily and sometimes conflicting names would appear on different maps for the same geographic feature.

In 1863, the artist Albert Bierstadt — who famously painted the peak — was first in the historical record to give the peak now known as Mount Evans a name. He called it Mount Rosalie, apparently for a woman he loved and would later marry.

But, Colorado state archaeologist Holly Norton said that name probably wouldn’t have satisfied Colorado pioneers.

“Rosalie wasn’t seen as somebody who had been a part of the project of conquering the wilderness,” Norton said. “It was a name that Bierstadt had given out of love and affection. But it wasn’t part of this project of claiming the place and claiming the mountains under this new regime of Euro-Americans.”

At some point in the 1870s, people started calling the peak Mount Evans. We don’t know who, but in Holly Norton’s interpretation, this was an act of conquest — a move to solidify the control of white settlers.

CU Boulder’s Center of the American West director Patty Limerick said it may have been an attempt to curry favor with the wealthy and influential former governor.

“It’s 20 years into Colorado statehood, and so it’s like, okay, we’re just in charge here… let’s find some name of someone who in the past… played a big part in making a claim on this place that we are now living in as Coloradans in 1895,” Limerick explained.

What we do know is that in 1895, state legislature actually enshrined the name of Mt. Evans into law – an unusual move. Limerick attributes this to “nostalgia and… looking back, the softer focus lens… Those were the days of people being very forceful and heroic.”

To change a name

Nowadays, the names of mountains can no longer be switched out on a whim. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names regulates this, and they require a formal name change proposal.

A couple years ago, an elementary school teacher from Denver did just that. She proposed the name Mount Cheyenne Arapaho to honor the two tribes that were attacked in the Sand Creek Massacre.

Another Denverite also submitted a proposal to the naming board, this time proposing Mount Soule. That’s for Silas Soule, who was a militant abolitionist and captain in the 1st Colorado cavalry. He was at the Sand Creek Massacre and was one of two captains who recognized the immorality of the attack and ordered their men to hold fire. Later he reported the atrocities he saw and even testified against Chivington, who led the massacre, in court. Silas Soule is also a proposed name for the Stapleton neighborhood.

Colorado's Native American tribes weigh in

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names regularly reaches out to almost 600 Native American tribes for input on all name changes under consideration – including those proposed for Mount Evans. They did not receive any responses to the Mount Evans query. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t interest among descendants of Sand Creek.

Billie Sutton represents Arapaho District 1 in the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal Legislature. “We’ve always hated it,” she said, referring to the Mount Evans moniker.

In January, Sutton co-sponsored a resolution there to support renaming Mount Evans.

“It brings back memories — it brings back those stories that we hear, all the atrocities,” she said about why she wants to see a different name on the peak. “So when you hear it, you immediately – you just feel that anger. Because when we think about what our ancestors had gone through, it’s just brutal. And it gets you right there to where you almost can’t speak about it.”

Fred Mosqueda is Arapaho coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. He worked with his Cheyenne counterpart to come up with a new name that was meaningful to both tribes. “One name that I thought about was Blue Sky,” he said. “The Arapahos are known as Blue Sky people. Well, the Cheyennes have a yearly ceremony they do – it’s like the renewal of life, and it’s done before their sun dance. And it’s called Blue Sky.”

Whatever the Arapahos called Mount Evans when they lived in the area just might be lost to time. Mosqueda doesn’t remember it, and neither do several other people with expertise in the Arapaho language. But he says whatever the name was, it served its purpose then. Mount Blue Sky is a better name for the moment.

“Replace it with a name that means so much to the two tribes that he done it to, to me is stronger than the original name,” Mosqueda said. “It’s like replacing him with us. He’s gone, but we’re still here.”

Names stuck in limbo

The two proposals submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names — Mount Cheyenne Arapaho and Mount Soule — are now stuck in suspended animation through bureaucratic process.

Jennifer Runyon, a researcher at the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, said that formally proposing a name is only the beginning of the process, which involves a lot of gathering of stakeholder input at the state and local level. She explained that the board gives a lot of weight to local opinion. But they’re also looking at a few other things. They don’t approve names that honor a living person or promote a commercial enterprise.

They prefer names that have historical or cultural significance. Applicants need to build a solid case.

“Consult with your local historical society. Do you homework, check old maps... Find out why that name came to be,” Runyon said. “To be honest, our board does not like another Elk Creek or Bear Creek. They’re just so bland. Use your imagination. Find a name that pertains to history.”

If a state naming board approves a name change, it has a good chance of making it through at the federal level.

Unfortunately, the Colorado Board of Geographical Names no longer exists. It dissolved in 2016. So, about a dozen renaming proposals in Colorado, including the two for Mount Evans, remain in administrative limbo.

"They also have names"

Mount Blue Sky has not been submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. And it might not be the obvious choice for those looking to consult with people indigenous to the area, because the Cheyenne and Arapaho aren’t the only tribal stakeholders in Colorado’s Front Range.

Ernest House Jr. is a senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center. He’s also a former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“As Ute people, we’ve been for at least the last 10 to 12,000 years. Now, in that timeframe, there absolutely has been names for peaks and for valleys and for rivers,” he said.

House pointed out that at least 48 different tribes have ancestral ties to the area. “Tribes like the Kiowas and Comanches and Arapahos and Cheyenne, they also have names… There have been generations and thousands of years of indigenous cultures that have had names for these specific areas.”

He would like to see a broad coalition of interested tribes collaborate on a name, although he admits that would be a heavy lift.

“When I try to let folks know on working with tribes, I often ask them to take their watch off, or try to hide their phone,” he said. “Because, you know, for a lot of tribal nations, it’s where our heart is, right? It’s why we’re doing this effort.”

Billie Sutton, the Cheyenne Arapaho legislator, doesn’t necessarily agree with that slower approach.

“It would be a huge step between the relationships between Native people and Caucasian people. I’d hope to see it in my lifetime. But I’m not holding my breath,” she said.

And she might not have to. A national nonprofit, the Wilderness Society, is lobbying to get Congress to rename Mount Evans. It would be a way to bypass the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. So far, the Wilderness Society team is taking a lead from the Cheyenne and Arapaho and plans to propose Mount Blue Sky. They say Sen. Michael Bennett has shown interest and they’re hoping to get legislation introduced as soon as next year.

This story is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for June 24. You can find the full episode here.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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