Abraham Lincoln never visited Colorado, just a fledgling territory in the early 1860s. But he did leave his mark on the state through the appointment of his friend John Evans as Colorado’s second territorial governor. Evans, who lived in Illinois (Evanston is named for him), vigorously campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, and as a result was rewarded with a political appointment as governor of the wild and woolly new territory. Evans only served two years as territorial governor, but he and his descendants would leave an indelible mark on Colorado over the next century — and all as a result of Lincoln’s decision.
Born in Waynesville, Ohio, in 1814, John Evans, a physician specializing in gynecology, made his name teaching at Chicago’s famed Rush Medical College and as the inventor of a number of surgical instruments, as well as helping to found the Illinois Medical Society and Northwestern University. Evans was also interested in politics, and as founder of the Illinois Republican Party became personal friends with Abraham Lincoln.
The President appointed Evans territorial governor of Colorado in March 1862. He had previously been offered the governorship of Washington Territory but declined. While governor of Colorado, Evans strived to bring the intellectual culture he had left behind in Chicago to his new home. He founded the Colorado Seminary, which became the University of Denver. With William Byers, Evans also helped found the Denver Board of Trade. In 1864, Evans appointed John Chivington as Colonel of the Colorado Volunteers, whose task was to deal with “hostile” Indians. Col. Chivington attacked a group of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapho on the banks of Sand Creek on November 28, 1864, killing over two hundred, mostly women and children. For his part in the massacre, Evans was forced to resign in disgrace.
The former governor continued with public life, however. He is perhaps most responsible for keeping Denver from dying out when a railroad was planned through Cheyenne, leaving Denver in the dust. Evans successfully advocated for a spur to come to Denver, linking Denver with the rest of the country and making sure it remained and thrived as viable city that attracted new settlers.
Evans’ children and grandchildren also played important roles in the development of Denver. His son William Gray Evans served as president of the Denver Tramway Company and, although never holding political office himself, controlled Denver’s political machine for many years. On the more positive side, William’s sister, Anne, devoted herself to arts and culture in Denver. She served on the Denver Public Library Commission, donated her own art collection to help found the Denver Art Museum, and organized the Central City Opera Association, preserving the old Central City Opera House in the process. Her nephew, William Gray’s son John II, became president of the powerful First National Bank of Denver. And Governor Evans’ son-in-law, Samuel Elbert, husband of Evans’ daughter Josephine, also served as Colorado governor. Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, is named for him.
Of this influential family, however, it is still the gray-bearded Governor Evans who is best known. Evans died in 1897 after a fall from a moving streetcar. His home, at 14th and Arapahoe downtown, no longer stands, but you can visit the Byers-Evans House Museum, where William Gray Evans and his family lived. In the home’s library you can see chandeliers and other furnishings from Governor Evans’ house.
The Colorado State Archives is home to Governor Evans’ official papers. On their website you can read a biography of the Governor and view several documents from the collection, including the letter requesting his resignation as Governor of the territory, and a letter from F.W. Seward (Assistant U.S. Secretary of State and son of U.S. Secretary of State William Seward) regarding the governor’s appointment. The State Archives also has railroad records and records on Sand Creek and the Colorado Volunteers.
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