It has recently come to light that a political figure in Colorado state history may have been a part of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred on November 19, 1864. At Sand Creek, between 70 and 163 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were slaughtered by the Colorado and New Mexico state forces, led by the bloody-minded commander Col. John Chivington. Supposedly, the figure behind that commander was John Evans, territorial governor of Colorado under Abraham Lincoln.

John Evans (1814-1897) is an eminent figure, and not just for his role as the second Colorado Territorial Governor from 1862-1865: he also helped to found Northwestern University and Denver University. It was these two schools that launched separate investigations into his role in Sand Creek, and their report came out over last May. Now the Denver University John Evans Committee report has been released, sparking many questions for Denver University. The goal of the NWU report was to “determine whether any of Evans’s wealth or his financial contribution to Northwestern was attributable to his policies and practices regarding Native Americans in Colorado while he was in office.”

Both reports admit that John Evans exemplified many of the best qualities of nineteenth century America. Born to a poor family, he was a real-life Horatio Alger character: he was a doctor, railroad entrepreneur, Methodist minister, prominent politician, founder of universities, and more besides. Evans played a key role in founding Northwestern University in 1850 and Denver University in 1864. It was scholars at Northwestern who first raised the question of Evan’s involvement in Sand Creek, with DU scholars following a short time afterwards.

Any direct involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre would result in immense guilt to Evans personally. Eight months after the Massacre, President Andrew Johnson forced Evans’s resignation, and Evans was subject to a full congressional inquire. Evans was never again to hold political office, the Massacre hung over his head like a dark cloud.

The problem that makes this case more than mere historical quibbling is that the two reports come to completely different conclusions.

The Northwestern report says this, “No known evidence indicates that John Evans helped plan the Sand Creek Massacre or had any knowledge of it in advance. The extant evidence suggests that he did not consider the Indians at Sand Creek to be a threat and that he would have opposed the attack that took place.” This is consistent with what is known of Evans personally. While he believed in the rather complacent pieties of his age–he self-servingly held that (1) because he did something it was therefore right, and (2) that doing right was the same as doing well–he also did much that was good in his life. Being a product of his age is not a crime. The NWU report, in effect, exonerated Evans of any direct culpability in Sand Creek while still judging him for failing to improve relations with the Amerindians. 

The DU report, by contrast, came out as holding that Evans was culpable for the events at Sand Creek. The latter has an entire section in which they outlined their differences with the NWU report, and a further set of recommendations for the advancement of “healing” the wounds of the Massacre. Among these recommendations are the establishment of a “healing run” in memoriam of Sand Creek, an acknowledgement on all DU letterhead that DU stands upon occupied native lands and targeting Native American students and scholars for admittance to DU faculty and student body, respectively.

Denver University’s attempt to expiate the wrongs of John Evans by their own public flagellation opens an enormous question: how should we judge historical persons and their failures and wrongdoings?

William Manchester, in the second volume of his biography of Winston Churchill, titled Last Lion, noted something insightful: Churchill, he wrote, was brilliant, self-centered, and egotist, a user and discarder of men, and much more besides. Yet, for the man who saved Western civilization, “we can forgive him his faults.” Churchill, like Lincoln, Adams, and Washington, was a flawed person. It is not a question of whether a man is flawed–this can be taken as truth for everyone–but rather a question of what sort of man he was. What did his words and deeds reveal about him? By the accounts I’ve reviewed, it is clear that Evans was a man of his time, just like we all are.

Historian John Lukacs has written that in looking at historical figures, it is never a matter of black-and-white moral judgments. Each person is like a zebra, having both white and black, both good and evil, in the lives they left behind. We should judge historical figures based upon the strength of the goodness and the depth of the evil they did. In the case of Churchill, the good far outshone the evil. For a man like Hitler, who was arguably brave, intelligent, and loyal, these virtues are wholly drowned in the sea of evil he wrought upon the world. Let John Evans be weighed on the scale fairly, not condemned outright in the name of present-day moralistic causes.

It may be that I am wrong in my judgment of Evans. Whether Evans is worthy of losing his legacy or not I will leave to the universities to decide. But what must be remembered is this: if we continue to offer knee-jerk reactions because of past sins against presently favored minorities, we will eventually throw out all of our history. At some point in the past, members of every group committed murder, rape, theft, or slavery against some other group. Should we really judge all of history like this? If so, then no one is admirable, good, virtuous or worthy of emulation.

It is a poor thing to judge a man solely by the worst thing he ever did. History should be treated with greater care than to be a mere tool in the hands of political interests.