Updated 4:08 p.m.
A monument at the Colorado state Capitol remembering the 1st Colorado Cavalry who fought and died in the Civil War was torn down early Thursday morning.
The Colorado State Patrol said it happened around 1:30 a.m. The pedestal that supported the statue of a Union cavalryman was also defaced with graffiti. It's been subject to similar graffiti and defacement in the last few weeks as protests over racism and police brutality took place on the statehouse grounds.
Protesters have defaced and torn down statues of historic figures during recent demonstrations against racial injustice in cities across the nation. Most of those pieces have explicit ties to colonialism, slavery and the Confederacy, including imagery of Christopher Columbus and former U.S. presidents who owned slaves.
The statue on the west side of the statehouse in Denver was designed by Capt. Jack Howland, a member of the cavalry, and is intended to honor state soldiers who fought and died for the Union in the Civil War. However, members of the unit also took part in the Sand Creek Massacre on Nov. 29, 1864 — a shameful episode that the state has long struggled to reconcile.
“The soldier that sat there on the Capitol Hill was completely insulting to the Cheyenne-Arapaho people,” said Herb Welsh, a member of the Northern Arapaho. “Not only to us. To our ancestors.”
Welsh was part of a group that traveled from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming several years ago to lobby for the addition of a memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre on Colorado’s Capitol grounds.
Welsh said he was overwhelmed to hear the statue had come down.
“Some people will call it vandalism. Some people will call it criminal. But it had an effect,” Welsh said, noting that coverage of the statue’s toppling will lead to more people learning about the events at Sand Creek.
On November 29, 1864, soldiers, led by Col. John Chivington, killed more than 160 Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. The attack was condemned even in its own time. A congressional-level investigation found that Chivington “surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand Creek.” Many social media posts claim the statue is of Chivington, though this is not the case.
Territorial Gov. John Evans, the founder of the University of Denver and for whom Mount Evans is named, is considered to share a lot of the blame for what transpired.
The monument, which was erected in 1909 and paid for by the Pioneers’ Association and state funds, lists Sand Creek among battles fought by the Colorado cavalry.
In 1999, the state legislature added a bronze plaque authorized by a joint resolution to correct the whitewashing of what happened at Sand Creek. Instead of altering the original monument, they added a bronze marker that reads in part: “By designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument's designers mischaracterized the actual events.”
In 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre, then Gov. John Hickenlooper apologized.
“On behalf of the good, peaceful, loving people of Colorado, I want to say we are sorry for the atrocity that our government and its agents visited upon your ancestors,” Hickenlooper said to the Native American tribal members who had gathered to mark the anniversary.
For now, the statue will stay in storage until the Capitol Building Advisory Committee meets to decide what happens next.
State Sen. Dominick Moreno, who sits on the committee, noted the statue isn't a Confederate statue, like others that have come down in other parts of the nation. And yet, “the story behind this particular statute is a little bit more complex.”
The pulling down of the statue was brought quick condemnation.
“The tearing down and desecrating of a memorial primarily dedicated to those who fought and died on behalf of the Union and for the abolition of slavery should be disturbing to any Coloradan and any American,” said Sage Naumann, spokesman for state Senate Republicans. On Twitter, he called the damage ‘ridiculous.’
In a statement, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis was equally “outraged at the damage to a statue that commemorates the Union heroes of the Civil War."
“This statue will be repaired, and we will use every tool at our disposal to work with Denver Police and to hold accountable those responsible for the damage whether they are hooligans, white supremacists, confederate sympathizers, or drunk teenagers,” the governor's statement said.
The Associated Press, CPR's Andrew Villegas, Bente Birkeland, Megan Verlee and Jim Hill contributed to this report.