Members of the Ute Tribe – Photo by Charles WeitfleCredit: Photo by Charles Weitfle

The Native American Indians have a long history of ill treatment by white settlers who came to the west.  It wasn’t uncommon for the government in Washington to appoint men who knew little about the tribes they were assigned to monitor and control.  It should then come as no surprise that it often had disastrous results.  

Overview of the History of the Ute Tribe in Colorado 

Several Ute Tribes inhabited Colorado when settlers made their way west and encroached upon the land of the Utes.  These proud people roamed the mountains and valleys of Colorado and resented and mistrusted the white man when he began to invade their homeland.  In turn, the white man resented the Ute Indians and tried to change their way of life.   

In 1876 when Colorado became a state, many people demanded that the Utes be driven from lands that could be mined, farmed or ranched.  The government acted by placing the Utes on reservations; one of which was the White Valley Ute Reserve (Reservation).  Appointed as an Indian Agent for the reservation was Nathan C. Meeker, a man who knew very little about the Indians or their culture. 

At the time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had adopted a strict policy that included the provision that if adult Indian males didn’t participate in agricultural efforts, their food would be withheld; food that was provided by the government.  However, this provision was not in the treaty between the Ute Tribe and the government and therefore, the Utes believed Meeker was lying to them.  Horses were extremely important to the White Valley Ute Tribe; they considered the ponies prized possessions; often engaging in horses races between themselves and the local ranchers.  The Utes were hunters and had no desire to farm which they considered “women’s work.”   

Meeker Reacts When Utes Continue Leaving the Indian Reservation  

The White Valley Ute Tribe continued to follow their lifestyle of extended hunts off the reservation regardless of the efforts of Meeker to keep them farming on the reservation.  He began to apply more pressure to the Tribe making threats that he would have troops from Ft. Fred Steele in Rawlings, Wyoming come and put them in chains and take them to a reservation in Oklahoma.  The Utes believed he didn’t have this authority and continued leaving the reservation to hunt and refusing to farm. Meeker followed procedures and requested help from Ft. Steele; however, governing agencies didn’t believe the situation severe enough to warrant action.    

In late summer of 1879, Meeker determined the problem was the horses the Utes raced in the valley.  He decided if he had the racetrack plowed up; the problem would be solved.  There are varying stories about what happened next.  Ultimately, one of the leader of the White Valley Tribe, Shaman Johnson came to talk with Meeker and the two argued.  Meeker had one of his employees start to plow up the racetrack; but this was halted when a shot was fired over his head.   Meeker claimed that Johnson assaulted him during the argument. 

Escalation Leads to Massacre 

Meeker sent a telegram to Washington D.C. stating he was assaulted by Johnson; he was badly injured; and it was his employees who saved him from further assault by the Ute.  He also accused Johnson of starting all the trouble and believing his life and those of his family and employees to be in danger; requested protection.  Though Meeker refused to reveal the contents of the telegram; the fact that he sent it upset the Indians. 

The government sent Major Thornburg and his troops from Ft. Steele to assess the situation.  Little Big Horn and the Sand Creek Massacre were fresh in the minds of the troops and neither they nor the Indians were happy the troops came onto the reservation.  Meeker refused to meet Thornburg at the edge of the reservation where the troops had made camp claiming if he left the agency, the trading post would be looted.   Jack, one of the other Ute Tribe leaders, met with Major Thornburg and questioned him about his actions; Thornburg continue to say he had to assess the situation before deciding upon an action.  The Utes began to have war dances in the evenings. 

On SepSoldiers Pinned Down Inside Indian Reservation – photo by Rufus Fairchild ZogbaumCredit: photo by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaumtember 29, 1879 just as soldiers advanced onto the reservation they were met by a group of Utes.  A single gunshot fired (unknown by which side) and started a gun battle that resulted in the death of Major Thornburg.  The Indians shot the horses of the soldiers and had them pinned down for several days before they were rescued by buffalo soldiers led by Captain Dodge.   

On the same day as this battle started, the agency was attacked and burned to the ground.  Meeker and his ten male employees were killed.   Meeker’s wife and daughter and another woman and her two children were taken as hostages.  They were held in a remote mountain camp on Grand Mesa.  Chipeta, the wife of Chief Ouray who was the chief over all of the tribes of the Ute Indians, sent word to her husband who was away hunting. Chief Ouray sent word to the White Valley Tribe to stop fighting; however there was still the issue of the hostages. 

Washington sent Special Agent of the Secretary, General Adams, accompanied by two men, to rescue the hostages.  The Utes were not willing to release their hostages easily.  For almost thirty days the state of Colorado was in the national news.  It was only when Ouray’s sister (who was also the wife of Johnson) convinced the Utes into releasing the hostages that they did so.  For the next two years the army stayed in Colorado to keep the peace and the White Valley Ute Tribe was moved to a reservation in Utah. 


Source: (accessed May 7, 2010) 



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