The Valley of Opportunity: A History of West-Central Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter III:

"This Ute reservation includes mines which will pay $100 per day to the man, grasses which are luxuriant and inexhaustible and soil richer and more fruitful than any other in the territory."

—Colorado Territorial Governor Edward McCook

The Ute watched the progression of Anglo-Americans into west-central Colorado with little reaction. Trappers and traders did little to disturb the Indian way of life other than introducing new goods to the Native Americans. The explorers were less of an intrusion because they simply passed through the area. No doubt the major reason for lack of Ute hostilities to these Euro-Americans was based on the fact that such Americans did not come to settle or stay on the land. This situation remained relatively unchanged until the late sixties and the Cherry Creek gold rush. Once the yellow metal had been found and the prospectors spread out into the mountains, the Ute experienced increasing pressures on their lands.

During the period 1820 to 1860, Indian-European relations were friendly for the most part. In 1822, the Ute invited American trader Thomas James to come into central Colorado to trade furs and buckskins for the European's cloth and iron products. [1] This started a long and mutually beneficial commercial relationship that continued in west-central Colorado until 1844. Europeans liked to trade with the mountain tribe because they were friendly and receptive to the barter system. [2] The only recorded interruption of this trade took place in 1827, when the Ute forcibly closed the central Rockies to Anglo-Americans for a year. [3]

The construction of Fort Robidoux (Uncompahgre) led to increased commerce and inter-racial contacts. The post trade impacted the Ute more than any other early Anglo-American presence. At the fort the Native Americans traded beaver pelts, buffalo robes, and buckskins for iron tools, guns and ammunition, textiles, beads, and importantly, liquor. Alcohol debilitated the Ute. Trade also led to inter-racial relations and marriages. The second episode of Native American violence against Euro-American traders occurred in 1844, when the Ute burned the post, probably because of the whiskey trade. [4]

The Western Slope was in a state of flux by the late 1840s. John C. Fremont reported a buffalo shortage in the area in 1845. [5] The next year Brigham Young led his Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to their new home on the Great Salt Lake and as the settlements grew, the "Saints" looked to eastern Utah for land to colonize. When Mormon numbers in that region grew, the Ute were driven from the Great Basin back into western Colorado. [6]

At the same time Young was leading his followers to their Zion, the United States entered into a war with Mexico, the result of which was the acquisition of the Southwest for the nation. The Ute, thereby, came under Federal jurisdiction. While the exchange of land title did not have an immediate impact on the Native Americans, it did lay the foundation for eventual Ute removal from west-central Colorado. [7] In 1849, the year after the treaty ending the war with Mexico was signed, the United States government entered into an agreement with the Ute. James S. Calhoun, Indian Agent at Taos, New Mexico, negotiated the pact with Quiziachgate and 27 other Ute. The document, known as the Calhoun Treaty, called for continued friendship and peace, allowed Americans right of safe passage and permission to build military posts on Ute lands while it guaranteed to the Ute, control of their "customary territories." [8] To strengthen American claims, the U.S. Army built Fort Massachusetts near LaVeta Pass to safeguard all western Colorado and to control the Native Americans. The post proved to be a qualified success at best. [9]

The 1859 gold rush into Colorado marked the beginning of the second and final phase of American-Ute contact in west-central Colorado. With the arrival of Euro-Americans along the eastern slope the natives experienced new pressures from the front range to the east along with the continued presence of the Mormons in the west. [10] To establish a status quo, Territorial Governor John Evans, as Indian Agent for the newly created Territory of Colorado, proposed a new treaty to the Ute in 1863. This pact re-confirmed friendship between the races and established informal boundaries for the natives giving them land from the front range west or roughly the western one-third of the territory. [11] Details of the agreement were worked out between Lafayette Head, an Indian Agent, and Ouray, Chief of the Uncompahgre Utes. [12]

Ouray, translated "the Arrow," became the single most influential Ute in Colorado during the 1860s and 1870s. His father was an Uncompahgre Ute and his mother was a Jicarilla Apache. [13] Ouray was born in 1836 at Taos, New Mexico, where as a youth he worked as a sheep herder for Mexican ranchers. [14] The Arrow learned the language and ways of American citizens through contacts with traders both before and after the Mexican War. When the time came that the Ute needed a diplomat to deal with the Europeans in the 1860s, he was a natural choice. Anglo-American negotiators found Ouray amiable and honest; as a result he was "duly elected" headman. [15] He proved to be an astute leader for his people. Ouray realized the futility of resistance and adopted a policy of guarded cooperation toward the Euro-Americans. [16]

Ouray's second major act as chief of all the Ute was to enter, into a new agreement with the American government in 1868. The treaty commission was made up of Nathaniel C. Taylor, then Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Alexander C. Hunt, Governor of Colorado Territory; and Christopher "Kit" Carson, famous scout, trapper, and guide. [17] The new treaty provided definite boundaries for the natives' reservations, giving them the western one-third of the Territory. [18] Also, it established two agencies, one on the White River and the other along the Los Pinos River near Ouray's home. [19]

This treaty lasted only five years because new gold and silver strikes were made, this time in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. In 1870, reports filtered out of that area about the discoveries [20] and a rush started. Almost immediately Anglo Coloradans started calling for Ute removal and in 1873, Felix Brunot was appointed to negotiate a cession of Ute land to the Federal government. Ouray again led the Ute treaty delegation. The Ute agreed to cede 6,000 square miles of the San Juan area to the Americans. This agreement allowed the chief to solidify his position within the tribe as well as earning a personal annuity of $1,000 for life. [21]

During the 1870s, as Colorado prepared for statehood, the Ute remained as a barrier to settlement in the west-central part of the territory. This fact was not lost on Coloradans such as Territorial Governor Edward McCook and others. They constantly called for removal of the mountain tribe to Utah or elsewhere. [22] Alleged Ute transgressions such as burning forests or raiding ranches for cattle, frequently were cited by Anglo-Coloradans as evidence to support their removal demands. Colorow, a renegade chief, was especially offensive to the Anglo-Americans because of his stock stealing and begging. [23] government under President U. S. Grant, launched a new policy toward all western tribes. Its goal was the acculturation of the natives to European Agrarian life. Churches were given a large responsibility as far as recommending agents and the administration of reservation educational programs. These two policies, one of accommodation and one of removal, led to direct inter-racial conflict in western Colorado by the end of the 1870s. [24]

The White River Agency, in northwestern Colorado, had been the scene of minor troubles since it was created. In 1878, a new agent, Nathan C. Meeker, was appointed and he proved to be the wrong man for the job. [25] Meeker was the first president of the Union Colony at Greeley, Colorado, before taking over the Indian agency. Upon arrival in western Colorado, the new agent set about to plow fields and lay out irrigation ditches. [26] The Ute, led by Douglass Ouray's brother-in-law, Jack, and Johnson, opposed these changes. Those three also were involved in a power struggle for the position of chief of the White River Ute which made Meeker's job even more difficult. The natives had been threatened with the construction of an Army post nearby to stop raiding. [27] Also, Meeker's reforms, especially those aimed at the reduction of the horse herds proved to be too much for the Ute.

Throughout the summer of 1879, tensions between the agent and his charges grew. The Ute did not share Meeker's vision of a paradise of fields, farms, coal mines and a thriving city, all operated by the Ute along the White River. They simply wanted their life as horse raisers and hunters left intact. [28] During June and July of 1879, while Meeker's Anglo-American assistants futilely tried to plant crops, [29] some Ute led by Colorow raided ranches in North and Middle Parks, Colorado. Cultural conflict reached a flashpoint in September when Meeker plowed up the Ute's favorite racetrack and they retaliated by assaulting him. [30] On September 10, the Indian agent sent a harried telegram to the Bureau of Indian Affairs requesting military assistance to restore order. [31] The message was received and Major Thomas Tipton Thornburgh, and a contingent of the Fourth U.S. Infantry, was dispatched from Ft. Steele, Wyoming, to assist Meeker. [32] Unknown to the Major or Meeker was the fact that the Ute were well armed with Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers. Furthermore, gun sales around the agency were brisk throughout August into September. [33]

The Thornburgh command reach Milk Creek, Colorado, near the end of September and the Major chose to camp here before proceeding on to the Agency, about two days march to the southwest. On September 29, after parlaying with the Ute the previous night, the column broke camp and headed toward the Agency. In a narrow canyon along the creek, the natives ambushed the troops. Thornburgh was killed in the first charge. [34] The Ute, under Colorow, then besieged the surviving soldiers and their supply train. Messenger Joe Rankin was sent to Wyoming to get reinforcements, arriving in Rawlins, Wyoming, in 28 hours. [35]

During the afternoon of September 30, while some of the Ute kept up the siege of the troops, others returned to the Agency to attack Meeker. Jack was the leader of the band that killed and then mutilated all eleven Euro-American males there. [36] They took Mrs. Meeker, her daughter Josephine, and three other women and children as hostages before firing the buildings. That evening Douglass, the captives, and a group of Ute refugees set our south toward the Grand Valley, knowing that more soldiers would come. [37]

News of the Thornburgh ambush reached the garrison at Ft. D. A. Russell, Wyoming, on October 1, 1879. The War Department ordered Colonel Wesley Merritt, with a force of cavalry and infantry, to march to the Milk River and relieve Captain Payne and the Fourth Infantry survivors. At the same time instructions were sent to Captain F. S. Dodge and his Ninth U.S. Cavalry, who were patrolling Middle Park, to move to the Milk River and give any aid he could. Dodge and his much feared Negro troops, "the buffalo soldiers", arrived at the scene on October 2, and joined the besieged force. Meanwhile, Merritt proceeded south and reached the area on October 5, only to have the Ute abandon the fight in the face of superior numbers. [38]

As the fighting on the Milk River continued during the first week of October, Douglass, his band and five captives, Mrs. Meeker, Josephine Meeker, Mrs. Shaddrack Price and her two small children, continued their flight into the Grand Valley. Only after Merritt's force broke the siege and proceeded on to the Agency was the fate of Meeker and his associates ascertained. The captivity of the women was discovered and Colonel Merritt contacted the War Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs for direction. Charles Adams, retired Ute agent at Los Pinos and trusted friend of Ouray, was chosen to negotiate return of the hostages. Ouray, himself, sent out pleas for the fighting to stop and for the prisoners' safe release. [39]

Adams was successful in his mission. On October 21, 1879, he secured the captives' release near Douglass' camp on the plateau between the present sites of DeBeque and Palisade, Colorado. The good offices of Chief Ouray greatly aided Adams' work. [40] However, the negotiation period was not without incident. In late October, Paul Humme and William B. Weir, members of Merritt's force, were killed by Utes while hunting along the southern rim of the Roan Plateau. These deaths were seen by many Anglo-Americans as further examples of Ute treachery. [41]

The press did not receive their first dispatches describing the agency massacre until October 13, when reporters with Merritt sent back their stories. Newspaper headlines sensationally described the scenes of slaughter. This news gave people, such as Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin, the excuse needed to demand Ute removal from the state to solve the problem once and for all. [42]

The citizenry of Colorado insisted that "the Utes must go," despite the fact that the Ute had been initially provoked. Their humane treatment of the captives and attempts at compromise by Ouray and Douglass were ignored. A commission was established to investigate the uprising, and see that those guilty were punished. The hearings were carried on at the Los Pinos Agency; the panel's conclusions were foregone. Douglass and some minor chiefs were eventually imprisoned at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and that was the extent of punishment for the Ute who took part in the uprising. [43]

If the hearing results did not satisfy Coloradans, the terms of a new treaty in 1880 did. This treaty commission was led by Otto Mears, San Juan mining and transportation promoter. He sought Ute removal from the state. [44] However, the final agreement allowed the natives to select forty acre allotments along the Grand River near that river's junction with the Gunnison River. They also received $60,000 in back annuities and $50,000 in new payments.

Mears took a Ute delegation into the area along the Grand River in 1881, to look at tracts for their new homes. He envisioned the valley as a prosperous agricultural area for Anglo-Americans and encouraged the natives not to accept their allotments but rather ask to be moved into Utah. The Ute leaders took Mears' suggestions and chose to relocate on the Uintah Ute reservation in northwestern Utah. [45] On September 7, 1881, after considerable stalling, the last Ute crossed the state line into Utah. [46] Ouray did not live to see this exodus, having died on the Southern Ute Reservation the year before. [47]

The Ute's forced exodus into Utah did not mark the last contact they had with west-central Colorado. Every year from 1881 to 1890, small groups of Ute returned to Glenwood Springs to bathe and use the vapor caves. There were no incidents of violence and often friendly horse races occurred around town between Utes and American cowboys. [48] The natives were generally well accepted in most areas by Euro-Americans when they visited. [49] However, relations were not always calm between the races. The first settlers in Grand Junction lived in constant fear of the Ute returning to retake their old homelands. [50] On occasion these fears, combined with isolated cases of horse stealing, led to panics in west-central Colorado. The first such instance occurred in 1886, when Colorow and his band re-appeared in Garfield County. [51]

The next year Colorow again returned to Garfield County and precipitated a major fight. During August, some members of his band stole a number of horses from a ranch near Rifle, Colorado. Sheriff Kendall reacted by declaring a state of emergency and [i]n an affair rivaling the finest melodrama, or comic opera, 10,000 troops mobilized to defeat the Ute and teach them a lesson. Finally at Cedar Hill, north of Rifle, the two sides met and exchanged threats and gunfire before Colorow surrendered. He and his people were escorted back to the reservation. The Coloradans suffered two casualties; Lt. Frank Folsom, militia member from Aspen and Garfield County Under-sheriff Jack Ward of New Castle were killed. [52] While the Cedar Hill fight became the last incident of bloodshed, as late as 1897 a rumored Ute uprising could scare towns throughout western Colorado. [53]

Not all Europeans feared the Utes after 1881. In 1886, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to locate an Indian school on Colorado's Western Slope and the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce actively sought the facility. The town donated 160 acres of land and the school, known as the Teller Institute named in honor of Colorado U.S. Senator Henry M. Teller, was opened that year. By 1899, the school had 300 students enrolled in courses from home economics to manual arts, as well as the "3-Rs." In 1907, the Bureau of Indian Affairs suspended operations at the institute and turned the facility over to the state. The last students left in 1911, and the Teller Institute remained idle until 1920. It then became a state training home for the mentally handicapped. [54]

The Meeker Massacre and subsequent Ute removal were pivotal in the development of west-central Colorado. The causes of the tragedy were many and intricate, but the essential problem was a complete misunderstanding between two cultures. The Coloradans' land greed was the most reprehensible part of the episode. However, because of the events of 1879, west-central Colorado was thrown open to all.

Anticipation of Ute removal led to a flurry of activity around the periphery of the region as people prepared to rush onto the land as soon as the Ute were gone. The first manifestation of this was increased prospecting in the Eagle Valley and around Aspen, Colorado. When news of the White River uprising first reached these remote camps, the miners either fled to the eastern slope or those who chose to stay prepared to defend themselves. Fort Arnett was built at the junction of Turkey Creek and the Eagle River near Redcliff, Colorado, in 1879. At Ute City (Aspen) all but two of the prospectors moved to Leadville, Colorado, and those who remained constructed a fortified cabin. When the Ute threat did not materialize, the miners returned to their search for gold and silver. [55]

In 1880, as mining activity increased, new arrivals came to Aspen. Among these were Issac Cooper and B. Clark Wheeler. Once there they set about laying out new trails and towns while preparing for settlement. Their work covered the entire Roaring Fork and towns while preparing for settlement. Their work covered the entire Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to the hot springs at the junction of the Roaring Fork and Grand Rivers, well within the Ute reservation. By 1881, all was in readiness for the new settlers once they arrived. [56]

Along the Uncompahgre River Europeans impatiently awaited permission to rush to the Grand Valley during 1881. The U.S. Army stayed on the scene throughout the summer to separate the Ute from the Anglo-Americans and keep them off the reservation. [57] The prospective settlers studied Hayden's reports and Otto Mears' descriptions of the land and were anxious to stake their claims in this agrarian paradise. Governor George A. Crawford was a member of this group. He was a politician, gaining the title of Governor because he was once elected governor of Kansas but he never served. He moved to Colorado and took up town promoting as a livelihood, founding new towns such as Delta, Colorado. [58] During the summer of 1881, as "sooners" crossed the line and were thrown off the reservation by the Army, Crawford laid plans for his newest city—West Denver, [59] at the confluence of the Grand and Gunnison Rivers. Crawford hired Clayton Nichols and William McGinley to participate in the land rush on his behalf and to stake claims for the townsite.

At five o'clock in the morning on September 4, 1881, the Army bugler sounded permission to enter the reservation and the stampede was underway. By September 10, Nichols and McGinley reached the river junction and staked their plots. Twelve days later Governor Crawford arrived and officially founded West Denver. The name was soon changed to Grand Junction. [60]

While the land was opened by the Army in 1881, Congress had yet to declare the area free for homesteading. The new residents discovered this problem late that year. They formed the Grand Junction Settlers Protective Association to guard their claims from outside speculators until Washington could act. Senator N. P. Hill (Colorado) introduced the Ute Reservation Bill on January 5, 1882. This proposal provided for the land to become part of the public domain open for filing and to protect, through pre-emption, the claims already made. The bill passed Congress in July and on August 10, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the proclamation declaring the former Ute reservation public land. [61] With this final barrier removed west-central Colorado entered a boom period that lasted 40 years with only minor interruptions.

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008