ECW Weekender: History Colorado Center

The History Colorado Center in downtown Denver isn’t exactly a Civil War museum, but it is a museum largely about history that’s inextricably linked to the Civil War. 

The most prominent piece of Civil War history in the museum is On Guard, a monument to the Colorado Volunteers who served during the war. Today it’s located just past the entrance lobby; you really can’t miss it as you head toward any of the exhibits. Until it was torn down during protests in 2020, the monument was on a pedestal outside of the Colorado State Capitol, just a couple of blocks away. 

“On Guard”, a monument to Colorado Volunteers who served during the Civil War. Photo by author.

The primary objection to the monument was that it listed the Sand Creek Massacre as a battle, on par with engagements like Glorieta, effectively glorifying a one-sided slaughter of Native women and children. After the protests, History Colorado volunteered to house the monument going forward. 

The current presentation offers context from a range of different perspectives, including a Civil War author, a veteran, and a tribal historian. The exhibit also asks the community to engage themselves by answering the questions, “Do we need monuments? What do you think their purposes should be?”

Visitors to the History Colorado Center are encouraged to weigh in on the ongoing debate over the role monuments. Photo by author.

Not every answer is profound, but I appreciated that the overall exhibit – which was put together on short notice in 2020 – does a concise yet thorough job of conveying a deeply complicated and divisive issue. Moreover, it’s been done in a way that’s grounded in historical facts, and that invites the visitor to consider a range of perspectives.

A much more in-depth consideration of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre can be found on the 4th Floor of the museum. This is told largely from a Native American perspective, while highlighting the stories of Colorado Volunteers like Capt. Silas Soule, who refused to participate in the massacre and later testified against his commanding officer.

Excerpt from a letter Capt. Silas Soule sent shortly after the Sand Creek Massacre. Photo by author.

Soule served in the 1st Colorado, which was the heart of the Union army at the battle of Glorieta in 1862. Their flag – now full of holes from Confederate grapeshot – is on prominent display as one of 100 objections that defined Colorado history. This is representative of the degree to which the museum, throughout its exhibits, conveys the idea that Colorado was “born in the midst of the Civil War.”

The flag of the 1st Colorado Volunteers, which they carried into battle at Glorieta in 1862. Much of the damage is from Confederate grapeshot. Curators have mounted it backwards for preservation reasons. Photo by author.

Other Civil War-adjacent exhibits include a section dedicated to Bent’s Fort, an early trading post on the Colorado plains. It was a staging ground for Kearny’s Mexican War expedition, and the one-time employer of future Union officer Kit Carson, before the United States Army took it over. The Army built Fort Wise nearby, which was named for the then-governor of Virginia. After Virginia seceded, it was renamed Fort Lyon for the hero of Wilson’s Creek, and the fort was a staging ground for Colorado volunteers before both the battle of Glorieta and the nearby Sand Creek Massacre.

Similarly, a large portion of one floor is devoted to the Borderlands of Southern Colorado. While that isn’t explicitly about the Civil War, it touches on the fluid political situation, porous borders, and multicultural makeup of the mid-19th century Southwest. When I visited, there was a temporary display of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo – which ended the Mexican War, and ceded huge swaths of territory to the United States, prompting a vicious and divisive debate over the future of slavery.

The signature page from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was temporarily on display in the History Colorado Center. I was particularly struck by the wax seals, which I haven’t seen often on American historical documents. Photo by author.

This exhibit also offers a follow-up “syllabus”; I enjoyed this invitation to learn more if a topic had caught the visitor’s attention, and my own (already endless) reading list is now a little bit longer.

On balance, the museum embodies the idea that Colorado – founded as a Territory in 1861 – is inextricably linked to the Civil War. It doesn’t shy away from difficult history, and I never felt like I was being presented with a simplistic or one-dimensional portrayal of complicated events. Even as someone who has studied parts of Colorado’s history in detail, I felt like I was drinking in new information from a firehose, even about my own neighborhood. 

The History Colorado Center is located in the heart of downtown Denver, easily accessible by public transit and near several other museums and historic sites. Tickets are $15 for adults and free for kids.

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