DU History / History / News

President Lincoln had a hand in DU’s founding

As we celebrate President’s Day on Feb. 21, it is important to remember that without President Abe Lincoln there would be no University of Denver.

Although he never set foot in Colorado, Lincoln did set in motion events that led up to the founding of the University. He was a friend of John Evans, a man who was certainly in the right place at the right time. Evans founded the Republican Party in Illinois and was an early supporter of Lincoln’s run for the presidency. Lincoln first offered him the governorship of Washington Territory, but Evans declined because of its remote location. Lincoln then offered Evans the territorial governorship of Colorado, which he accepted in March 1862.

In his book Lincoln Looks West — From the Mississippi to the Pacific (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), author Richard Etulain notes that Lincoln also had a strong connection to the Methodist Church, and Evans was a prominent Methodist and a friend of Bishop Matthew Simpson, who also knew Lincoln.

Evans was a complex man. A medical doctor who had started the first mental asylum in Illinois, Evans also was a prominent builder of railroads and a real estate developer. He founded Northwestern University near Chicago in 1851 (Evanston is named in his honor), and when he arrived in Colorado he wanted to found an institution of higher learning there, too, so future generations would not have to travel back east to attain higher education.

Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the year after Evans founded Colorado Seminary, which would later become DU. Although Evans had become embroiled in the controversy that followed the Sand Creek massacre in November 1864, Etulain notes that Lincoln never asked him to resign despite pressure on him to do so. Fellow DU trustee and Evans’ friend John Chivington had led Colorado troops into battle at Sand Creek, and when word spread of atrocities committed by the troops, Evans was blamed as well. Only after Lincoln’s death did new President Andrew Johnson ask Evans to resign as governor, which he did in July 1865.

Evans was far more successful with his venture into higher education, managing DU’s relocation from its original downtown location south to University Park in the early 1890s. He presided over the DU Board of Trustees for more than 30 years until his death in 1897.



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