Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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The Utes in Southwestern Colorado: A Confrontation of Cultures

The period immediately following Army explorations in the 1850's can be characterized as one of cultural transition, the decline of one way of life, and the advance and dominance of another. For centuries prior to 1860, the Ute Indian inhabitants of southwestern Colorado maintained seasonal hunting grounds and a wandering way of life with only nominal interference from European and American explorers, trappers, traders and neighboring Indian tribes. A lack of interest in southwestern Colorado as an area for American expansion in the 1840's and 1850's limited intrusions upon the Ute domain. Yet the two decades following 1860, the period of numerous mineral rushes to Colorado, were attended by such large migrations into the territory that the Utes faced the nearly impossible task of maintaining their existence. Early mining history in southwestern Colorado and the decline of Ute Indian culture are so interwoven that they are almost the same story. [1]

The lure of mineral wealth effectively opened the gates of the southwest Colorado frontier, and with subsequent mining expeditions that penetrated the area's mountain barriers came attendant settlement. Mining in southwestern Colorado was not of the transitory placer-type that characterized early activity in the central Rockies. In order to effectively extract the mineral wealth in the mountains, lode mining techniques were essential. The result was a need for large machinery, a substantial labor force, advanced milling works, and transportation. Hence the early mining period in the region brought with it, very early, an urban situation. [2] Displaced from their ancestoral hunting grounds and restricted in their movements by a series of treaties, the Utes increasingly felt, in the 1860's and 1870's, the weight of the advancing mining frontier. The inundating forces of Anglo-American civilization came with such momentum that the domain of the Utes was quickly transformed from an isolated wilderness to one teeming with excitement and many of the attributes of the more settled Front Range. [3]

The conflict which resulted from Ute resistance to the advancing mining frontier was basically a dispute over the "proper" use of the region, rather than one determined by reasons of race. The transition in the occupation of southwestern Colorado that occurred in the years from 1860 to 1881 can be viewed as a series of events shaped by this basic antagonism. Yet to understand the transition, it is necessary to review briefly the "pre-reservation" history of the Ute Indians, and contacts with the Spanish settlements in New Mexico prior to the entrance of American mining interests into the region.

Documentary history of the Ute Indians of Colorado begins with available records of the Spanish administration in New Mexico. Initial interaction between these two cultures came as a result of a gradual movement north, from Mexico, of a Spanish colonial frontier in the years from 1540 to 1580. [4] The Utes, before this time, had made contact with the pueblo villages of New Mexico, and were accustomed to wintering in the area. Throughout the early Spanish colonial period in the southwest, the Ute, together with the Apache, were reported in Spanish chronicles as being in close vicinity to the Spanish frontier. The Ute however, unlike the Apache, did not regard the centers of Spanish influence as encroachments upon their own territorial rights, and because of this, early Ute relations with the Spanish were peaceful. [5] One aspect of these early relations greatly influences the development of Ute culture well into the "reservation" period.

The introduction of the horse into Ute culture around 1640 immeasurably altered the lives of these mountain Indians. [6] Prior to this time, individual Ute families spent each summer and fall hunting deer and elk in the mountains, and gathering nuts and berries. Usually wintering in the river valleys of western Colorado, they assembled briefly into larger bands each spring before spreading out again in search of food. [7] By the mid-seventeenth century, hunting efforts were conducted on horse back. Utes pursued buffalo on the eastern plains in the summer and early fall, and returned to the San Luis Valley or the Uncompahgre River Valley in the early winter months with more than enough meat and skins to feed and clothe their families. The creation of an economic surplus through these more efficient hunting methods made it possible for scattered families to group together in larger bands under stronger leadership. [8] Band consolidation, initially an economic function for providing food and shelter also had military implications. Increased mobility, afforded by the horse, took the Utes into the territory of the Plains Indian tribes, where contested hunting privileges often led to inter-tribal warfare. As the use of horses for hunting and raiding became widespread in the latter half of the seventeenth century, the seven bands of Utes, with which we are familiar today, were formed. The Weeminuche, Capote, and Mouache bands were centered primarily in the San Luis Valley. The Tabeguache, or Uncompahgre, band was based along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. The Grand River, Yampa, and Uintah bands were localized in northwestern Colorado.

In order to extend the range of hunting, the Ute bands sought to obtain horses through trade with Taos and Santa Fe. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Utes developed peaceful relations with the New Mexican settlements, despite the growth of Spanish military power on the boundary of the Ute domain. In 1675, New Mexico's Governor Miguel Otermin entered into a treaty with the southern Ute bands to fight the traditionally hostile Apache; in the years following, they were used to quell recurring Pueblo disorders. Still later, the Uter served the same function as allies in the Spanish wars against the Commanche. Peaceful barter, especially for horses, paved the way for these alliances.

The process of Ute Indian band consolidation and extended hunting patterns on the eastern plains intensified around the turn of the seventeenth century with the appearance of the Commanche in the region of west Texas. As a result of the Commanche migration, new incentives drew the Ute further onto the plains.

The Commanche were rich in horses. With mobility among the Utes increased, a new supply of horses could be obtained more cheaply than through trade with the Spanish. The years 1727 through 1786 were attended by constant warfare between the Ute and Commanche. Throughout this period, as well, the Spanish-Ute alliance was strengthened.

The eighteenth century was, for the Utes, one of territorial expansion and band consolidation, and peaceful contacts with Spanish and New Mexican traders. Yet at the time when the Utes were expanding their hunting territory to the south and east from southwestern Colorado, they found themselves hemmed in because of massive movements of Commanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho along the eastern plains.

What had been a period of expansion and consolidation in the eighteenth century changed dramatically by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The gradual shrinkage of the Ute domain through the large movements of other tribes, and the increase of Spanish military power in New Mexico served to impede band mobility and limited the utilization of natural resources, such as the buffalo on the eastern plains. That the Spanish perceived a growing threat to their New World holdings in the southwest at this time, as a result of her European rivals' intentions is significant. Content to maintain rather than extend their northern borderland, the Spanish left control of the southwestern Colorado frontier to its native inhabitants.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, while Spanish and Mexican authority in the southwest diminished, the extent of Ute territorial hunting grounds declined as well. The process of territorial loss, for the Utes, was well established by the beginnings of the Anglo-American contact period. At the time of the acquisition of the southwest by the United States, following the Mexican War in 1848, the area of Ute Indian occupation closely resembled the present outlines of the state of Colorado and the eastern half of Utah.

The American conquest of New Mexico did not, at first, involve any change in the peaceful disposition of the Ute toward their Anglo neighbors, but this attitude was more the result of inferior military strength than any desire to welcome American domination. [9] Within a month after the Army's entrance into New Mexico, in 1846, William Gilpin, who fifteen years later became Colorado's first Territorial Governor, was sent north from Santa Fe to quell Navajo disturbances in the San Juan River area and to confer with the neighboring Utes. [10] On December 30, 1849, the first official treaty between the Utes and the United States was negotiated at Abiquiu, New Mexico by James S. Calhoun, the first Indian Agent for New Mexico. [11] An agency was opened at Taos the following year. By this treaty the Utes recognized the sovereignty of the United States, and agreed not to depart from their accustomed area without permission. By 1853, with Kit Carson as agent, the Taos agency served the Mouache and Capote bands. The Weeminuche band was highly individualistic however, and did not fall under effective control. The Tabeguache Utes heard of rations being allotted to their relatives and went to Taos in 1856. Agent Carson recommended that an agency for the Tabeguache be set up closer to their lands but his request was not acted on by the United States for several years. During the early period of United States relations with the Utes of Colorado, the chief objective of the federal government and the Army was to insure peace in the newly acquired areas, especially as it concerned the raiding Apache and Navajo. The Treaty of 1849 developed from this attitude, yet no boundaries were set that would limit the range of the Ute territory. Colorado remained after all, according to the Army exploration reports of Captain Gunnison, a territory unsuitable for Anglo-American settlement; and reservation control of the Indian inhabitants was not deemed appropriate.

In 1858, just five years after the fateful Gunnison expedition, gold was discovered near the present site of Denver, and with that find hordes of treasure seekers entered the central region of Colorado. The emigrant-miner population increased so rapidly that the Territory of Colorado was organized in 1861. Territorial Governor, William Gilpin, was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs within the Territory, and thus, the Utes came under local control. In 1861, an agency was opened at Conejos, Colorado, under agent Lafayette Head for the Tabeguache Utes, while the agency at Taos continued to operate for the Capotes, Mouaches, and Weeminuches. As friction increased between the advancing mining frontier and the Utes, a conference was convened by a federal commission at the Conejos Agency on October 1, 1863, whose aim it was to move the Utes out of the path of oncoming miners and settlers. The Treaty of 1863, concluded primarily between the commission and Tabeguache leaders, defined a set of boundaries for a Ute reservation. In the agreement, the Tabeguache gave up claim to much of the land in the central Rockies already occupied by miners and settlers in return for promises of livestock and rations for the following ten years. Implementation of the agreement never took place, however. The United States government failed to supply the Tabeguache with the rations promised in the treaty, and the Utes continued to live in their accustomed places. The Utes maintained their established custom of hunting and raiding, while settlers clamored for effective government intervention. The newly arrived Coloradans could not understand why the Utes required so much land, and the Indians regarded the newcomers as interlopers and trespassers. [12]

The Ute Domain (Delaney, 1974) (click on image for a PDF version)

Determined to remove the Utes from the areas of Anglo-American occupation in Colorado, especially in the farming region of the San Luis Valley, Territorial Governor A. C. Hunt negotiated a new treaty at Conejos on March 2, 1868. [13] By this treaty, a single reservation was provided for all seven Ute bands, of which the outer limits ran northward from Colorado's southern boundary past the present day towns of Pagosa Springs, Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Basalt to a point ten or twelve miles south of where Steamboat Springs now stands, and then west to the Utah line. [14] The future townsites of Gunnison and Crested Butte lay a little to the east of the reservation line.

The Treaty of 1868, besides securing more land for Colorado settlers by removing the Utes to the unsettled western slope, also set a precedent for future government dealings with the entire Ute tribe. Realizing the futility of trying to negotiate with each of the seven Ute bands separately, an experience that proved inadequate in 1863, the federal government insisted that all talks be carried on through one supreme chief. By 1868, a 35 year old Tabeguache Ute had become that spokesman for all the Ute bands. [15] The appointment of Ouray as tribal chief was a significant event, for this reknown chief not only had the capacity to communicate effectively with government negotiators, but had an uncanny if not an overtly militaristic control over his own people. Through Chief Ouray, Anglo-Americans would most effectively deal when attempting to negotiate further land cessions, and his judgment would determine the tribe's ultimate fate as Colorado residents.

Seeking to control the movements of the Utes in western Colorado, federal authorities agreed to establish two agencies on the newly located reservation. One post was located on the White River, near the present town of Meeker, for the use of the northern Utes. The other, in the south, was to be located on the Los Pinos River, which would serve the southern and Tabeguache Utes. In return for land cessions, the agencies would disburse to the bands annual gifts of clothing, food, and supplies. Problems with the administration of the treaty however, began almost immediately. As the Tabeguache Utes advanced westward toward the site of their new agency in the summer of 1868, they halted at a branch of Cochetopa Creek, 75 miles south and slightly east of present Gunnison and refused to go any further. To avoid trouble, the officer in charge directed that the agency be built where the band wanted it, and so it was that the Los Pinos Agency was placed off the reservation boundary and not on the Los Pinos River, deep in the San Juan country. To avoid confusion and to conform to the name of the stream designated in the treaty, the tributary of the Cochetopa Creek was named Los Pinos Creek.

Travel to the Los Pinos Agency from Saguache, Colorado, 70 miles southeast of Gunnison and the nearest supply center, was difficult. Eleven days, even under the best conditions were needed to supply the agency, and often that schedule could not be met. The transportation problem led to the establishment of a supply point or "cow camp" in 1871, located just west of Gunnison near the juncture of the Gunnison River and Tomichi Creek. Josiah White, aided by James Kelley, took charge of the camp, which became the first location for cattle and sheep ranching in the area, the first stock numbering 640 head of cattle and 1,160 sheep. [16]

Despite the fact that by 1868, all the land in southwestern Colorado had been established as part of the Ute Indian Reservation, miners and prospectors continued to enter the region. When minerals were located in the San Juans, and in the Gunnison country, near what was to become the Tin Cup mining district, the Los Pinos Agency actually became a way-station for these acts of trespass. By 1872, the federal government directed troops to maintain the terms of the 1868 Treaty, but the tide of miners and new settlers could not be stemmed. As a result of persistent mineral locations in southwestern Colorado, Coloradans pushed for a revision of the 1868 Treaty.

Felix Brunot, United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Adams, United States Indian Agent, with interpreter Otto Mears, a man who further opened the southwest Colorado frontier at this time through the construction of a network of toll roads, finalized negotiations for another Ute land cession on September 13, 1873. [17] The Brunot Treaty or the San Juan Cession as it was often called, removed 4,000,000 acres of land in the San Juan country from the Ute Reservation. The valley lands were retained by the Utes as part of the treaty agreement. The Brunot Treaty was of ultimate historic significance, for with the Utes gone from this rich region, thousands of miners and settlers rushed into the San Juan Mountains and established Silverton, Lake City, Rico, Ouray, and dozens of other camps in every promising gulch and mountain valley. [18] The result was the opening of southwestern Colorado's silver-laden San Juan country to permanent settlement. With the excitement and the building of permanent communities, it was not long before these early prospectors and entrepreneurs set their sights on the surrounding territory with the thought that only the Indian stood between them and potential wealth.

Colorado-Utah map illustrating the stages of Ute removal from southwestern Colorado (Delaney, 1974) (click on image for a PDF version)

By the summer of 1875, as a result of increased settlements near the Los Pinos Agency and with a threat of hostility, orders came from Washington, D. C. to remove the Utes under that agency's supervision farther west, to the Uncompahgre River Valley where the second Los Pinos Agency was established, near the present village of Colona, Colorado, twelve miles south of modern day Montrose. [19] The 1,200 head of government cattle were herded from the Taylor Park region to where Cow Creek flows into the Uncompahgre River, about seven miles to the south of the new agency site. Transfer of equipment from the Los Pinos Agency to the Uncompahgre River site over seventy-five miles of rugged terrain was no easy matter. It took twelve men, four wagons, nine yoke of oxen, and one mule team three weeks to remove the sawmill. Hundreds of Indian ponies, heavily loaded with belongings, took part in the evacuation. The final removal to the Uncompahgre Agency was completed by November, 1875. [20]

Thought to have reconciled Colorado miners and adequately compensated the Utes, the Brunot Treaty served only to compound the disputes over territorial rights. The ceded land, due to its desirability, and adjacent Ute reservation land, were trespassed time and again by Indians and Anglo-Coloradans alike. The Utes, reluctant to give up their established hunting and gathering grounds, continued to roam at will throughout the San Juan country even after the implementation of the Brunot Treaty. They became increasingly hostile as the number of settlers multiplied and more of the rich valley lands were taken up. In the mountains where farms were not practical, settlers brought in cattle to graze on the rich, abundant grass lands. The cattle competed with wild game, and diminished one source of the Utes' food supply. Coloradans violated the Treaty of 1873 as well, by trespassing on reservation lands along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Southern Utes reacted bitterly as herds of cattle were driven from both north and south across the reservation, eating most of the sparse pasture. In order to prevent open warfare, a military post was built near present Pagosa Springs in 1878. Fort Lewis, garrisoned on October 17, 1878, with about one hundred men in order to safeguard the terms of the Brunot Treaty, was positioned where the Indian and military trails crossed the San Juan River. [21] Realizing the threat of hostility, plans were underway to restructure the southern portion of the reservation in order to ensure a more tranquil co-existence between Utes and Coloradans. Before any such plans could be implemented however, events at the White River Agency in northwestern Colorado, on September 30, 1879, determined a more significant reconstruction of the Ute Reservation boundaries.

The Thornburgh ambush on Milk Creek, the murder of Agent Nathan Meeker and ten other males at the White River Agency, and the kidnapping of five females, including Mrs. Meeker and her daughter was seen as a foreshadowing of a general Ute uprising in western Colorado. However, appeals made by Chief Ouray to Ute warriors to lay down their arms, and the dispersal of Army troops to the agency and surrounding posts immediately returned a semblance of order. Following the massacre, General Phillip Sheridan ordered one thousand troops to the White River Agency on October 11, 1879; and six companies, under the command of Colonel R. S. Mackenzie, were directed north, from Texas, to Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley. [22] Earlier, on October 8, 450 men under Colonel Edward Hatch, commissioner of the United States Indian Bureau, reinforced the garrison at Fort Lewis. Acting on reports that southern Ute tribes would attempt to join the rebellion in northwestern Colorado, Hatch's command immediately departed from Fort Lewis with orders to occupy Animas City. [23]

The Meeker Massacre, while it illustrated the height of Ute-Anglo hostility, symbolized the incompatibility of the two cultures in western Colorado. The advancing mining frontier and the accustomed Ute way of life simply could not co-exist. Coloradans viewed potential mineral and agricultural resources going to waste as Ute hunting or reservation lands. The Denver Times put it bluntly: "Either they [the Utes] or we must go, and we are not going. Humanitarianism is an idea, Western Empire is an inexorable fact." [24] Thus, the Meeker Massacre became the pretext on which Coloradans sought the removal of the Utes from their ancestoral hunting grounds on the western slope. More than to rid themselves of the threat of Indian hostility, they saw an opportunity to gain access to potentially valuable land held by the Ute people.

Photograph of Fort Crawford, "The Cantonment on the Uncompahgre", showing the camp's bakery, hospital, and guard house. Denver Public Library, Western History Department

Early in 1880, a delegation of Utes, headed by Ouray, was escorted to Washington D. C., and on March 6, 1880, yet another treaty was put together. By the terms of this agreement, arrived at after long negotiations with the Utes and internal squabbles amongst the appointed commissioners, the Northern and Uncompahgre Utes were to be removed west to the Utah territory on the Uintah and Ouray reservations respectively. In May of 1880, in order to affect the removal of the Uncompahgre Utes from Colorado, Colonel Mackenzie was ordered to move the nine companies of infantry and six companies of cavalry under his command north from Fort Garland to the Uncompahgre Valley. While maintaining a temporary camp near the agency site, Mackenzie's men were directed to survey for a more permanent post. This site was established on July 21, 1880 on the west bank of the Uncompahgre River, about four miles north of the agency and eight miles south of present Montrose. Anticipating no trouble during the winter, Mackenzie withdrew his cavalry and four companies of infantry to Fort Garland, leaving the remaining soldiers to begin construction of the new post. [25] The "Cantonment on the Uncompahgre", to be renamed Fort Crawford in 1886, was completed by the summer of 1881, just prior to the final removal of the Utes from Colorado.

On September 7, 1881, under Mackenzie's supervision, the last band of Utes left Colorado. By the Treaty of 1880 the Southern Utes, having taken no direct part in the White River hostilities, were allowed to remain on their reservation on the strip of land approximately fifteen miles wide by one hundred miles long across the southwestern corner of the state. This inhospitable country was made up of only sparse pasture and a great expanse of "drylands", a domain attractive to neither farmer nor miner. In June of 1882, Congress opened six million acres of former Ute land to public settlement, an act of legislation that proved to be of major significance for the future of southwestern Colorado. [26]

In a period of twenty years from the establishment of the Colorado Territory, the Ute Indians witnessed the rapid diminution of their domain. The removal of the Utes from the Western Slope, rather than retribution for acts perpetrated against Anglo-Coloradans, was emblematic of the crushing weight of an advancing mining frontier in southwestern Colorado. This mining frontier, fundamental as it was to the Ute removal in 1881, played an even more crucial role in the future determination of the region's development and occupation.

Chapter V: Notes

1. Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 181.

2. Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), p. 136.

3. See: Duane Smith, Rocky Mountain Mining Camps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

4. Carl Abbott, Colorado; A History of the Centennial State (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1976), p. 25.

5. For excellent background material concerning Ute culture on the southwestern United States' frontier, see: Marvin K. Opler, "The Southern Ute of Colorado", in: Acculturation in Seven American Indian Tribes (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1940).

6. For a general discussion of the importance of the horse to Ute culture see: LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado; A Story of the State and Its People (Denver: The Old West Publishing Co., 1945), p. 52.

See also: Eleanor Ritchie, "General Mano Macho of the Utes and Spanish Policy in Indian Relations", Colorado Magazine (IX, No. 4, July, 1932), p. 150.

See also: Opler, op. cit., p. 171.

See also: Abbott, op. cit., p. 27.

7. Duane Vandenbusche, Early Days in the Gunnison Country (Gunnison: B & B Printers, 1974), p. 3.

8. Abbott, op. cit., p. 27.

9. Opler, op. cit., pp. 160-175.

10. Hafen, op. cit., p. 130.

11. One of the more authoritative histories of the Indian in the American Southwest is: Edward E. Dale, The Indians of the Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949). For a discussion of early United States relations with the Utes of Colorado, see pages 47-51.

12. For an informative treatment of the history of United States-Ute treaties see: Robert W. Delaney, The Southern Ute People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1974), pp. 40-52.

13. Vandenbusche, op. cit., p. 31.

14. Wilson Rockwell, The Utes; A Forgotten People (Denver: Sage Books, 1956), p. 72.

See also: Vandenbusche, op. cit., p. 32.

15. Wilbur Fisk Stone, History of Colorado, Vol. I (Denver: S. J. Clarke and Co., 1918), p. 77.

See also: Delaney, op. cit., p. 51.

16. Vandenbusche, op. cit., pp. 32-34.

17. United States Department of the Interior, Letter From the Secretary of the Interior in Relation to an Agreement Concluded with the Ute Indians in Colorado, September 13, 1873, Ex. Doc. No. 53, January 12, 1874.

18. Vandenbusche,op. cit., p. 41.

19. Sidney Jocknick, Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado (Denver: The Carson-Harper Co., 1913), p. 82.

See also: Rockwell, op. cit., p. 106.

20. Rockwell, op. cit., p. 107.

21. Mary Ayers, "History of Fort Lewis, Colorado", Colorado Magazine (VIII, No. 3, May, 1930), p. 82.

22. Richard Ronzio, "Fort Crawford on the Uncompahgre", Denver Westerners Brand Book, 1963, pp. 256-257.

23. John Nankivell, "Fort Crawford, Colorado, 1880-1890", Colorado Magazine (XI, No. 2, March, 1934), pp. 54-64.

See also: Ronzio, op. cit., p. 256.

24. Quoted in Dudley Taylor Cornish, "The First Five Years of Colorado's Statehood", Colorado Magazine (XXV, September, 1948), p. 221.

See also: Ubbelohde, op. cit., p. 187.

25. Ronzio, op. cit., pp. 257-262.

26. Athearn, op. cit., p. 137.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008