As nation debates statues, Colorado park’s controversial memorial remains
Author: Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick, The Gazette - September 4, 2018 - Updated: September 4, 2018
Amid national debate over Confederate statues, some have been toppled, vandalized and removed. But a controversial monument in a little Colorado Springs park remains undisturbed.
A plaque tucked into a boulder at Boulder Crescent Park commemorates the murders of three pioneer boys by Arapaho Indians, an event that happened 150 years ago Monday. The plaque calls it “the last massacre, in the Pikes Peak region, of whites by Indians.”
Like monuments across the nation, the plaque is controversial, with some historians saying it lacks context.
“What happened to the young man and little boys was really a direct result of Sand Creek,” said historian Celinda Kaelin.
In the Sand Creek Massacre four years earlier, a 675-man Army force attacked and destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado, brutally killing and mutilating about 500 Indians, mostly women and children.
This spurred many Arapaho and Cheyenne men to the warpath, said Kaelin, an adjunct professor at Colorado College for 20 years, president of the Pikes Peak Historical Society for 26 years and author of “American Indians of the Pikes Peak Region.”
Without context, she said, the plaque gives the wrong impression about Native American and pioneer relationships at the time.
“This visual icon says, ‘These early pioneers really had to fight Indians, and the Indians were barbaric, killing young boys.’ And they won’t know about the babies cut from stomachs in Sand Creek,” Kaelin said.
She doesn’t advocate for the plaque’s removal but would like more historical markers to fully inform people.
“If we’re honoring the dead, I think we need to be egalitarian,” Kaelin said.
She said she is working on a U.S. history cultural center for CC and a monument for six unarmed Ute men murdered in 1864 near Ute Park.
Across Colorado, efforts have been made to contextualize local history. The University of Colorado at Boulder renamed a freshman dormitory to Cheyenne Arapaho in 1989, as its original namesake, David Nichols, participated in the Sand Creek Massacre. In 2014, Colorado State University officially names its Mountain Campus, to disassociate from its unofficial name, Pingree Park. George Pingree also took part in the Sand Creek massacre.
Jeannie Spring, recording secretary for the El Paso County Pioneers’ Association, which erected the plaque in 1913, said it was created to commemorate “the tragic deaths of three boys.”
“The brutal, senseless murders of children cannot be justified by any standard,” Spring said.
She said the plaque serves today as an interesting look into the past. “You can think of that as one moment in history encapsulated.”
“History encapsulated” hasn’t been debated in the city since the 1950s, city documents show.
In 1956, the plaque was the park’s only feature. James W. Taylor, then city Parks and Recreation director, argued that the park could be “alive and sparkling” through renovations. His plan included a colorful playground, benches and moving the “massacre” marker to a less central location.
The city’s Parks Commission approved the changes. But when the plaque, not its boulder, was moved to the park’s south end, Colorado Springs socialites protested. L.E. Ellinwood of the Pikes Peak Historical Society argued that the plaque should be back in its boulder, noting that “the children of this day should be aware of the hardships and dangers which our pioneers suffered.” The parks board agreed and moved the plaque and its rock to the park’s north end. The park no longer has a playground.
Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, speculates that the Pioneers’ Association erected the marker to try to preserve the area’s pioneer history.
“Are both sides reflected on that marker? Probably not,” Mayberry said. “That’s the nature of a historian. You look at artifacts, and that can give you clues as to the values at the time.”