William N. Byers: Contributing to a Massacre



This is an important reminder that the supporters and perpetrators of the Sand Creek Massacre maintained their false narrative, and even embellished it with undocumented "facts," well into the twentieth century. More than 30 years ago, in researching the street names of the Alamo Placita neighborhood in the Western History Department at DPL, I learned that Downing Street was named for Jacob Downing (1830-1907), a Colorado pioneer, real estate developer, and Civil War hero, who participated in the Sand Creek Massacre as Major Downing of the First Colorado Regiment. Downing believed and stated, "I think and earnestly believe the Indians to be an obstacle to civilization, and should be exterminated." Downing never publicly regretted his role in the massacre, and in fact relished his reputation as an Indian fighter to his dying day.
He actually led the first expedition against an encampment of peaceful Cheyenne Indians in May 1864 at Cedar Canyon, and embellished his account of his prowess with each telling of the story. In his official report following the Cedar Canyon expedition, Downing claimed that about 25 Indians were killed and 30 or 40 more were wounded, and that about 100 horses were captured. However, by 1895, when he was interviewed for Hall's History of the State of Colorado, he claimed that "after some hours of hard fighting, mainly in a hand-to-hand encounter, the Indians were routed with a loss of 38 killed, and a large number wounded. More than 600 ponies were captured and the village destroyed." And in 1903, when the 73-year old Downing again recounted his exploits, this time for the Denver Post, he claimed that the fight at Cedar Canyon involved between 400 and 500 Indians, of whom 116 were killed; the number of captured horses increased to 800 in this retelling.
While changing the name of Downing Street may be impractical, I hope that the intrepid staff of the Western History Department can identify a worthy historical figure of the name Downing, after whom the street can be renamed. Jacob Downing does not deserve that honor.


Byers also published anti-Chinese articles in The Rocky Mountain News that helped influence negative opinions and resulted in a race riot in 1880 that killed one man and destroyed Denver's Chinatown.


We take Downing north when we want to go downtown.
Why not make a new word from the name and make it the thing
we love to do: Downtowning.

The Denver Public Library embarked on the renaming of the Byers Branch Library in the fall of 2020 after discovering that the namesake of the branch had been a supporter of the Sand Creek massacre (as laid out in this article).

Over the last two years, Denver Public Library has been working on a new strategic framework to serve our community for the next ten years. As part of this effort, a new vision, mission, and values were developed with involvement from staff, partners, commissioners, and the community. We are guided by our core values which are: Welcoming everyone, Fostering curiosity, Strengthening connection, Challenging inequity, and Honoring public trust.

These values guide our work daily and have helped us establish our priorities during the pandemic and social unrest. As we learn more about society’s challenges, we remain curious and ask ourselves how we can be part of the necessary change to create a strong community where everyone thrives.

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