SIXTEEN

“The Utes Must Go!”

The Army conquered the Sioux. You can order them around. But we Utes have never disturbed you whites. So you must wait until we come to your ways of doing things.

—OURAY THE ARROW, CHIEF OF THE UTES

I told the officer that this was a very bad business; that it was very bad for the commissioner to give such an order. I said it was very bad; that we ought not to fight, because we were brothers, and the officer said that that didn’t make any difference; that Americans would fight even though they were born of the same mother.

—NICAAGAT (JACK) OF THE WHITE RIVER UTES

THE UTES WERE Rocky Mountain Indians, and for a generation they had watched the invading white men move into their Colorado country like endless swarms of grasshoppers. They had seen the white men drive their old enemies, the Cheyennes, from the Colorado plains. Some Ute warriors had joined the Rope Thrower, Kit Carson, in the white men’s war against the Navahos. In those times the Utes believed the white men were their allies, and they enjoyed visiting Denver to exchange buffalo hides for gaudy trade goods in the stores. But each year these strange men from the East became more numerous, invading the Utes’ mountains to dig for yellow and white metal. In 1863 the governor of Colorado Territory (John Evans) and other officials came to Conejos in the San Juan Mountains to meet with Ouray the Arrow and nine chiefs of the Utes. A treaty was signed there, giving the white men all the Colorado land east of the mountaintops (the Continental Divide), leaving the Utes all the land west of the divide. In exchange for tenthousand dollars’ worth of goods and ten thousand dollars’ worth of provisions to be distributed annually for ten years, the Utes agreed to relinquish mineral rights to all parts of their territory, and they promised not to molest any citizen of the United States who might come into their mountains to dig.

Five years later, the white men of Colorado decided they had let the Utes keep too much land. Through political pressures they persuaded the Indian Bureau that the Utes were a constant nuisance—wandering everywhere, visiting towns and mining camps, and stealing livestock from settlers. They said they wanted the Utes placed on a reservation with well-defined lines, but what they truly wanted was more Ute land. Early in 1868, with a great deal of fanfare, the Indian Bureau invited Ouray, Nicaagat (Jack), and eight other chiefs to Washington. Rope Thrower Carson accompanied them as trusted friend and adviser. In Washington they were quartered in a fine hotel, served excellent meals, and given an abundance of tobacco, candy, and medals.

When the time came for treaty making, the officials insisted that one of the visiting chiefs must accept responsibility for all seven bands represented. Ouray the Arrow was the unanimous choice for chief of all the Utes. He was half-Apache, half-Uncompahgre Ute, a handsome, round-faced, sharp-eyed Indian who could speak English and Spanish as fluently as the two Indian tongues he knew. When the land-hungry politicians tried to put him on the defensive, Ouray was sophisticated enough to present the Utes’ case to newspaper reporters. “The agreement an Indian makes to a United States treaty,” he said, “is like the agreement a buffalo makes with his hunters when pierced with arrows. All he can do is lie down and give in.” 1

The officials could not fool Ouray with their bright-tinted maps and unctuous phraseology about boundary lines. Instead of accepting a small corner of western Colorado, he held out for sixteen million acres of western slope forests and meadows, considerably less territory than his people had claimed before, but considerably more than the Colorado politicians wanted them to have. Two agencies were to be established, one at Los Pinos for the Uncompahgres and other southern bands, one on White River for the northern bands. Ouray also demanded the inclusion of certain protective clauses in the new treaty, words meant to keep miners and settlers off the Ute reservation. According to the treaty, no unauthorized white men would “ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in” the territory assigned to the Utes.

36. Ouray. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado.

In spite of this restriction, the miners continued to trespass. Among them was Frederick W. Pitkin, a New England Yankee who ventured into the San Juan Mountains and made a quick fortune mining silver. In 1872 Pitkin became a leading advocate among owners of wealthy mining interests who wanted to add the San Juan area—one-fourth of the Ute reservation—to Colorado Territory. Bowing to the miners’ wishes, the Indian Bureau sent out a special commission headed by Felix R. Brunot to negotiate with the Utes for cession of this land.

At Los Pinos agency in September, 1873, Brunot’s commission met Ouray and representatives of the seven Ute nations. Brunot told the chiefs that the Great Father had asked him to come and talk to them about giving up some of their reservation land. He assured them that he did not want the land for himself, and had not come to tell them what to do, but to hear what they had to say about the matter. “It is much better sometimes to do what does not please us just now,” Brunot counseled, “if we think it will be best for our children.”

The chiefs wanted to know how it would benefit their children if they gave up their land. Brunot explained that the government would set aside a large sum of money for the Utes, and each year the tribe would be paid interest from it for the ceded land.

“I do not like the interest part of the agreement,” Ouray declared. “I would rather have the money in the bank.” He then complained because the government had not kept its treaty promise to remove white men who were found trespassing on the Ute reservation.

Brunot replied frankly that if the government tried to drive the miners out, this would bring on a war, and the Utes would lose their land without receiving any pay for it. “The best thing that can be done,” he said, “if you can spare these mountains, is to sell them, and to have something coming in every year.”

“The miners care very little about the government and do not obey the laws,” Ouray agreed. “They say they do not care about the government. It is a long way off in the States, and they say the man who comes to make the treaty will go off to the States, and it will all be as they want it.”

“Suppose you sell the mountains,” Brunot continued, “and if there is no gold in them, then it would be a benefit to you. The Utes get the pay for them and the Americans would stay away. But suppose there are mines there, it will not stop the trouble. We could not keep the people away.”

“Why cannot you stop them?” Ouray demanded. “Is not the government strong enough to keep its agreements with us?”

“I would like to stop them,” Brunot said, “but Ouray knows it is hard to do.”

Ouray said he was willing to sell the mountains, but not all the fine hunting land around them. “The whites can go and take the gold and come out again. We do not want them to build houses there.”

Brunot replied that he did not believe this could be done. There was no way to force the miners to leave Ute territory once they had come and dug their mines there. “I will ask the Great Father to drive the miners away,” he promised, “but a thousand other men will tell him to let them alone. Perhaps he will do as I say, perhaps not.” 2

After seven days of discussions, the chiefs agreed to accept the government’s offer of twenty-five thousand dollars a year for the four million acres of treasure. As a bonus, Ouray was to receive a salary of one thousand dollars a year for ten years, “or so long as he shall remain head chief of the Utes and at peace with the United States.” Thus did Ouray become a part of the establishment, motivated to preserve the status quo.

Living in a paradise of magnificent meadows and forests abundant with wild game, berries, and nuts, the Utes were self-supporting and could have existed entirely without the provisions doled out to them by their agents at Los Pinos and White River. In 1875 agent F. F. Bond at Los Pinos replied to a request for a census of his Utes: “A count is quite impossible. You might as well try to count a swarm of bees when on the wing. They travel all over the country like the deer which they hunt.” Agent E. H. Danforth at White River estimated that about nine hundred Utes used his agency as a headquarters, but he admitted that he had had no luck in inducing them to settle down in the valley around the agency. At both places, the Utes humored their agents by keeping small beef herds and planting a few rows of corn, potatoes, and turnips, but there was no real need for any of these pursuits.

The beginning of the end of freedom upon their own reservation came in the spring of 1878, when a new agent reported for duty at White River. The agent’s name was Nathan C. Meeker, former poet, novelist, newspaper correspondent, and organizer of cooperative agrarian colonies. Most of Meeker’s ventures failed, and although he sought the agency position because he needed the money, he was possessed of a missionary fervor and sincerely believed that it was his duty as a member of a superior race to “elevate and enlighten” the Utes. As he phrased it, he was determined to bring them out of savagery through the pastoral stage to the barbaric, and finally to “the enlightened, scientific, and religious stage.” Meeker was confident he could accomplish all this in “five, ten, or twenty years.” 3

In his humorless and overbearing way, Meeker set out systematically to destroy everything the Utes cherished, to make them over into his own image, as he believed he had been made in God’s image. His first unpopular action was to move the agency fifteen miles down White River, where there was fine pastureland suitable for plowing. Here Meeker planned to build a cooperative agrarian colony for Ute Indians, but he overlooked the fact that the Utes had long been using the area as a hunting ground and for pasturing their horses. The site he chose to build agency buildings on was a traditional racing strip where the Utes enjoyed their favorite sport of betting on pony races.

Meeker found Quinkent (Douglas) to be the most amiable of the chiefs at White River. He was a Yampa Ute about sixty years old, his hair still dark, his pendant moustaches turning-white. Douglas owned more than a hundred ponies, which made him rich by Ute standards, but he had lost most of his following among the younger men to Nicaagat (Jack).

Like Ouray, Jack was a half-blood Apache. As a boy he had learned to speak a few words of English while living with a Mormon family, and he had served as a scout for General Crook during the Sioux wars. When he first met Meeker, Jack was wearing his scout uniform—frontier buckskins, Army boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. He always wore the silver medal given him by the Great Father when he went to Washington with Ouray in 1868.

Jack and his people were away on a buffalo hunt during the period that Meeker moved the agency, and when they came back to the original site they found everything gone. They made camp there, and after a few days Meeker came up to order Jack to move to the new site.

“I told him [Meeker] that the site of the old agency had been settled by treaty,” Jack said afterward, “and that I knew of no law or treaty that made mention of the new site. Then the agent told me that we had better all move down below, and that if we did not we should be obliged to; that for that they had soldiers.” 4 Meeker tried to placate Jack by promising to obtain milk cows for his band, but Jack replied that Utes had no need for either cows or milk.

Colorow was the third chief of importance, a Muache Ute in his sixties. For a few years after the treaty of 1868, Colorow and his people lived on a small temporary reservation adjoining Denver. When it pleased them they roamed freely through the town, dining in restaurants, attending theaters, and clowning for the white citizens. In 1875 the reservation was closed, and Colorow took his Muaches up to White River to join Jack’s people. They missed the excitement of Denver, but enjoyed the fine hunting in the White River country. The Muaches were not interested in Meeker’s agrarian society, and they visited the agency only when they wanted a few sacks of flour or some coffee and sugar.

Canalla (Johnson) was the chief medicine man, a brother-in-law of Ouray, and the operator of the pony-racing track where Meeker wanted to build the new agency houses. Johnson liked to wear a plugged hat which he had obtained in Denver. For some reason Meeker chose Johnson as the most likely man to help him lead the Utes out of savagery.

Also to assist him in his great crusade, Meeker brought his wife, Arvilla, and his daughter, Josie, to the agency. He employed seven white workmen, including a surveyor, to lay out an irrigation canal, a lumberman, a bridge builder, a carpenter, and a mason. These men were expected to teach the Utes their trades while they were building the new agrarian paradise.

It was Meeker’s fancy to have the Utes address him as Father Meeker (in their savage state he looked upon them as children), but most of them called him “Nick,” much to his displeasure.

By the spring of 1879 Meeker had a few agency buildings under construction and forty acres of land plowed. Most of the work was done by his white employees, who were paid money for their efforts. Meeker could not understand why the Utes also expected money for building their very own cooperative agrarian community, but in order to get his irrigation ditches dug, he agreed to pay money to thirty Utes. They were willing workers until Meeker’s funds were exhausted; then they went away to hunt or attend pony races. “Their needs are so few that they do not wish to adopt civilized habits,” Meeker complained to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “What we call conveniences and comforts are not sufficiently valued by them to cause them to undertake to obtain them by their own efforts … the great majority look upon the white man’s ways with indifference and contempt.” He proposed a course of action to correct this barbaric condition: first, take away the Utes’ hundreds of ponies so that they could not roam and hunt, replace the ponies with a few draft horses for plowing and hauling, and then as soon as the Utes were thus forced to abandon the hunt and remain near the agency, he would issue no more rations to those who would not work. “I shall cut every Indian down to the bare starvation point,” he wrote Colorado’s Senator Henry M. Teller, “if he will not work.” 5

Meeker’s inveterate itch for writing down his ideas and observations, and then sending them off to be put into print, eventually brought him to a complete breaking point with the Utes. During the spring of 1879 he wrote an imaginary dialogue with one of the Ute women, attempting to show how the Indians could not comprehend the joys of work or the value of material goods. During the course of his dialogue, Meeker declared that the reservation land belonged to the government and was only assigned to the Utes for their use. “If you don’t use it and won’t work,” he warned, “white men away off will come in and by and by you will have nothing.” 6

37. Nicaagat (Jack). From a group photograph taken around 1874. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado.

This little composition was first published in the Greeley (Colorado) Tribune, where it was seen by William B. Vickers, a Denver editor-politician who despised all Indians, especially Utes. Vickers at that time was serving as secretary to Frederick Pitkin, the wealthy miner who in 1873 had been the leader in separating the San Juan Mountains from Ute ownership. Pitkin had used his power to become governor of Colorado when it became a state in 1876. After the end of the Sioux wars in 1877, Pitkin and Vickers began drumming up a propaganda campaign to have all the Utes exiled to Indian Territory, thus leaving an immense amount of valuable land free for the taking. Vickers seized upon Nathan Meeker’s newspaper essay as a fine argument for removing the Utes from Colorado, and he wrote an article about it for the Denver Tribune:

The Utes are actual, practical Communists and the government should be ashamed to foster and encourage them in their idleness and wanton waste of property. Living off the bounty of a paternal but idiotic Indian Bureau, they actually become too lazy to draw their rations in the regular way but insist on taking what they want wherever they find it. Removed to Indian Territory, the Utes could be fed and clothed for about one half what it now costs the government.

Honorable N. C. Meeker, the well-known Superintendent of the White River agency, was formerly a fast friend and ardent admirer of the Indians. He went to the agency in the firm belief that he could manage the Indians successfully by kind treatment, patient precept and good example. But utter failure marked his efforts and at last he reluctantly accepted the truth of the border truism that the only truly good Indians are dead ones.7

Vickers wrote considerably more, and his article was reprinted across Colorado under the title “The Utes Must Go!” By late summer of 1879, most of the white orators who abounded in frontier Colorado were uttering the applause-producing cry The Utes Must Go! whenever they were called upon to speak in public places.

In various ways the Utes learned that “Nick” Meeker had betrayed them in print. They were especially angry because their agent had said the reservation land did not belong to them, and they delivered a sort of official protest to him through the agency interpreter. Meeker reiterated his statement, and added that he had the right to plow any of the reservation he chose because it was government land and he was the agent of the government.

Meanwhile, William Vickers was accelerating his “Utes Must Go” campaign by manufacturing stories of Indian crimes and outrages. He even blamed the numerous forest fires of that unprecedented drought year on the Utes. On July 5 Vickers prepared a telegram to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Governor Pitkin’s signature:

Reports reach me daily that a band of White River Utes are off their reservation, destroying forests. … They have already burned millions of dollars of timber and are intimidating settlers and miners. … I am satisfied there is an organized effort on the part of Indians to destroy the timber of Colorado. These savages should be removed to Indian Territory where they can no longer destroy the finest forests in this state. 8

The commissioner replied with a promise to the governor to take action, and then sent a warning to Meeker to keep his Utes on the reservation. When Meeker sent for the chiefs, he discovered they were holding an indignation meeting. They had already heard about the governor’s false charges and his threats to send them to Indian Territory. A white friend named Peck who operated a supply store on Bear River north of the reservation had read the story in a Denver newspaper and told it to Nicaagat (Jack).

According to the news report, the Utes had set fires along Bear River and burned down a house belonging to James B. Thompson, a former Ute agent. Jack was much disturbed by the account, and Peck agreed to go with him to Denver to see Governor Pitkin to tell him that it was not true. They chose a route which would take them by the Thompson house. “We passed by there,” Jack said afterward, “and we saw Thompson’s house standing; it was not burned.”

After a great deal of difficulty, Jack secured admittance to Governor Pitkin’s office. “The governor asked me how things were in my country, on White River, saying that the papers were saying a great deal about us. I told him I thought so myself, and for that reason I had come to Denver. I said I did not understand why this business was in such a state. … He then said, ‘Here is a letter from your Indian agent.’ I told him that, as the Indian agent [Meeker] could write, he had written that letter; but that I, not being able to write, had come to see him in person and answer it. That much we talked; and then I told him I did not wish him to believe what was written in that letter. … He asked me if it was true that Thompson’s house was burned. I told him that I had seen the house—that it was not burned. I then talked to the governor about the Indian agent, and told him it would be well for him to write to Washington and recommend that some other agent be put in his place, and he promised to write the next day.” 9

Pitkin, of course, had no intention of recommending a replacement for Meeker. From the governor’s viewpoint, everything was moving in the right direction. All he had to do was wait for a showdown between Meeker and the Utes, and then perhaps—“The Utes Must Go!”

About this same time, Meeker was preparing his monthly report for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He wrote that he was planning to establish a police force among the Utes. “They are in a bad humor,” he added, yet only a few days later he initiated actions which he surely must have known would make the Utes even more belligerent. Although there is no direct evidence that Meeker sympathized with Governor Pitkin’s “Utes Must Go” program, almost every step he took seemed designed to arouse the Indians to revolt.

Meeker may not have wanted the Utes to go, but he certainly wanted their ponies banished. Early in September he ordered one of his white workmen, Shadrach Price, to begin plowing a section of grassland on which the Utes pastured their ponies. Some of the Utes protested immediately, asking Meeker why he did not plow somewhere else; they needed the grass for their ponies. West of the pasture was a section of sageland, which Quinkent (Douglas) offered to clear for plowing, but Meeker stubbornly insisted upon plowing up the grass. The Utes’ next move was to send out a few young men with rifles. They approached the plowman and ordered him to stop. Shadrach Price obeyed, but when he reported the threat to Meeker, the agent sent him back to finish his work. This time the Utes fired warning shots above Price’s head, and the plowman hurriedly unhitched his horses and left the pasture.

Meeker was furious. He composed an indignant letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “This is a bad lot of Indians,” he wrote; “they have had free rations so long, and have been flattered and petted so much, that they think themselves lords of all.” 10

That afternoon the medicine man, Canalla (Johnson), came to the agency office to see Meeker. He told Meeker that the land being plowed had been assigned to him for pasturing his ponies. Now that the plowing was stopped, he did not want it started again.

Meeker interrupted Johnson’s impassioned speech. “The trouble is this, Johnson. You have too many ponies. You had better kill some of them.” 11

For a moment Johnson stared at Meeker in disbelief. Suddenly he moved toward the agent, caught him by the shoulders, pushed him out on the porch, and shoved him against the hitching rail. Without saying a word, Johnson then stalked away.

Johnson afterward related his version of the incident: “I told the agent that it was not right that he should order the men to plow my land. The agent told me I was always a troublesome man, and that it was likely I might come to the calaboose. I told him that I did not know why I should go to prison. I told the agent that it would be better for another agent to come, who was a good man, and was not talking such things. I then took the agent by the shoulder and told him it was better that he should go. Without doing anything else to him—striking him or anything else—I just took him by the shoulder. I was not mad at him. Then I went to my house.” 12

Before Meeker took further action, he summoned Nicaagat (Jack) to his office for a talk. Jack later recalled the meeting: “Meeker told me that Johnson had been mistreating him. I told Meeker that it was nothing, that it was a small matter and he had better let it drop. Meeker said it didn’t make any difference; that he would mind it and complain about it. I still told him that it would be a very bad business to make so much fuss about nothing. Meeker said he didn’t like to have a young man take hold of him, that he was an old man and had no strength to retaliate, and he didn’t want to have a young man take hold of him in that way; he said that he was an old man and Johnson had mistreated him and he would not say any more to him; that he was going to ask the commissioner for soldiers and that he would drive the Utes from their lands. Then I told him it would be very bad to do that. Meeker said that anyhow the land did not belong to the Utes. I answered that the land did belong to the Utes, and that was the reason why the government had the agencies there, because it was the Utes’ land, and I told him again that the trouble between him and Johnson was a very small matter and he had better let it drop and not make so much fuss about it.” 13

For another day and night Meeker brooded over his deteriorating relations with the Utes, and then he finally made up his mind that he must teach them a lesson. He dispatched two telegrams, one to Governor Pitkin asking for military protection, another to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

I have been assaulted by a leading chief, Johnson, forced out of my own house, and injured badly. It is now revealed that Johnson originated all the trouble. … His son shot at the plowman, and the opposition to plowing is wide. Plowing stops; life of self, family, and employees not safe; want protection immediately; have asked Governor Pitkin to confer with General Pope.

During the following week, the ponderous machineries of the Interior and War departments slowly moved into action. On September 15 Meeker received notice that orders were being transmitted to cavalry units to march to White River; the agent was authorized to arrest “leaders in the late disturbance.” 14

The War Department dispatched orders to Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, commanding at Fort Fred Steele, “to move with a sufficient number of troops to the White River Ute agency, Colorado, under special instructions.” Because Thornburgh was on an elk hunt, the orders were delayed in reaching him, and he did not move out until September 21. For the 150-mile march to White River, he outfitted about two hundred cavalrymen and mounted infantrymen. 15

On September 25 Thornburgh reached Fortification Creek. The column was about halfway to the White River agency, and the major decided to send one of his guides ahead to notify Meeker that he could reach the agency in four more days; he asked Meeker to inform him of the current situation there. On that same day, Colorow and Nicaagat (Jack) learned of the approaching soldiers; the Ute chiefs were moving with their people toward Milk River for the customary autumn hunts.

Jack rode north to Bear River and met the troops there. “What is the matter?” he asked them. “What are you coming for? We do not want to fight with the soldiers. We have the same father over us. We do not want to fight them.”

Thornburgh and his officers told Jack that they had received a telegram to go to the agency; that the Indians were burning up the forests around there and had burned Mr. Thompson’s cabin. Jack replied that it was a lie; the Utes had not burned any forests or cabins. “You leave your soldiers here,” he said to Thornburgh. “I am a good man. I am Nicaagat. Leave your soldiers here, and we will go down to the agency.” Thornburgh replied that he had orders to march his soldiers to the agency. Unless he received word from agent Meeker to halt the column, he would have to take the soldiers on to White River. 16

Jack again insisted that the Utes did not want to fight. He said it was not good that soldiers were coming into their reservation. Then he left Thornburgh and hurried back to the agency to warn “Nick” Meeker that bad things would happen if he let the soldiers come to White River.

On the way to Meeker’s office, Jack stopped to see Quinkent (Douglas). They were rival chiefs, but now that all the White River Utes were in danger, Jack felt that the leaders must not be divided. The young Utes had heard too much talk about the white men sending them off to Indian Territory; some said they had heard Meeker boast that the soldiers were bringing a wagonload of handcuffs and shackles and ropes and that several bad Utes would be hanged and others taken as prisoners. If they believed the soldiers were coming to take them away from their homeland, they would fight them to the death, and not even the chiefs could stop them from fighting. Douglas said that he wanted nothing to do with it. After Jack left, he put his American flag on a pole and mounted it above his lodge. (Perhaps he had not heard that Black Kettle of the Cheyennes was flying an American flag at Sand Creek in 1864.)

“I told the agent [Meeker] that the soldiers were coming,” Jack said, “and that I hoped he would do something to stop their coming to the agency. He said it was none of his business; he would have nothing to do with it. I then said to the agent I would like he and I to go where the soldiers were, to meet them. The agent said that I was all the time molesting him; he would not go. This he told me in his office; and after finally speaking he got up and went into another room, and shut and locked the door. That was the last time I ever saw him.” 17

Later in the day, Meeker evidently changed his mind and decided to heed Jack’s advice. He sent a message to Major Thornburgh, suggesting that he halt his column and then come to the agency with an escort of five soldiers. “The Indians seem to consider the advance of the troops as a declaration of real war,” he wrote. 18

On the following day (September 28), when the message reached Thornburgh’s camp on Deer Creek, Colorow also arrived there to try to convince the major that he should proceed no farther. “I told him I did not know at all why the troops had come,” Colorow said afterward, “or why there should be war.” 19 The column was then only thirty-five miles from White River agency.

After reading Meeker’s message, Thornburgh told Colorow that he would move his troops down to the Milk River boundary of the Ute reservation; there he would camp his soldiers, and then he and five men would go on to the agency to confer with Meeker.

Not long after Colorow and his braves left Thornburgh’s camp, the major held an officers’ meeting, during which he decided to change his plans. Instead of halting on the edge of the reservation, the column would march on through Coal Creek Canyon. This was a military necessity, Thornburgh explained, because Colorow’s and Jack’s camps were just below it. If the troops halted on Milk River, and the Utes decided to block the canyon, they could keep the soldiers from reaching the agency. From the south end of the canyon, however, only a few miles of open country would lie between them and White River.

38. Quinkent, or Douglas. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado.

Riding ahead of the column, Colorow arrived at his camp about nine o’clock on the morning of the twenty-ninth. He found his people very much excited over the approach of the soldiers. “I saw several start out in the direction toward the road where the soldiers were,” he said. “Afterward I left also and came up to where the first ones who went out had gathered.” There he met Jack and about sixty of his warriors. The two chiefs exchanged information, Jack telling Colorow about his unsatisfactory meeting with Meeker, and Colorow telling Jack that Major Thornburgh had promised to halt his soldiers at Milk River. “I then told Jack I thought it would be well for him to advise the young men not to make any warlike demonstrations at all, and he said it would be better to move them a piece off from the road. As yet we saw no soldiers from where we were, and we retired some distance from the road. Jack then said that when the soldiers should have arrived at Milk River [the line of the reservation] he would go down and see them.”20

Neither Colorow nor Jack knew that Thornburgh’s column had already passed Milk River. After watering his horses there, Thornburgh decided to send the wagons along the canyon road with one escort troop while he took the remainder of the cavalry over a more direct route across a high ridge. By an irony of chance this would bring them directly upon the angry Utes that Jack had drawn away from the road in order to avoid any possible encounter.

About this time, a young Ute who had gone ahead to reconnoiter came galloping back. “The troops are not stopping where they promised to stop yesterday, but are coming on,” he told Jack.

Very much concerned now, Jack started up the ridge with his small band of warriors. In a few minutes he could see the soldiers’ wagons strung out along the road that twisted through the sagebrush toward the canyon. “I stood up on the hill with twenty or thirty of my men, and all at once I saw thirty or forty soldiers in my front, and just as soon as they saw me they deployed off one after another. I was with General Crook the year before, fighting the Sioux, and I knew in a minute that as soon as this officer deployed his men out in that way it meant fight; so I told my men to deploy also.”

39. Colorow. Possibly a William H. Jackson photograph. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado.

The officer commanding the advance cavalry troop was Lieutenant Samuel Cherry. After ordering his men to deploy, Cherry halted them at the base of the ridge and waited for Major Thornburgh to come forward. Thornburgh rode out a few yards and waved his hat to the Indians watching from the ridge. Several waved back.

For four or five minutes Jack waited for one of the officers to signal for a council, but they held their positions as though expecting the Utes to make the first move. “Then,” Jack said afterward, “I and another Indian went out to meet them.” Lieutenant Cherry dismounted and started walking toward the Utes. After taking a few steps, he waved his hat. A second later a single rifle shot broke the silence. “While we were still some distance apart, between the skirmish lines,” Jack said, “a shot was fired. I don’t know from which side, and in a second so many shots were fired, that I knew I could not stop the fight, although I swung my hat to my men and shouted, ‘Don’t fire; we only want to talk’; but they understood me to be encouraging them to fight.” 21

While the fighting grew in intensity, spreading to the wagon train, which went into a corral defense, news of the encounter reached Quinkent (Douglas) on the agency. He immediately went to “Nick” Meeker’s office and told him that soldiers had come inside the reservation. Douglas was sure the Ute warriors would fight them. Meeker replied that he did not believe there would be any trouble, and then he asked Douglas to go with him the following morning to meet the soldiers.

By early afternoon all the Utes at White River had heard that the soldiers were fighting their people at Milk River. About a dozen of them took their rifles and went out among the agency buildings shooting at every white workman in sight. Before the day ended they killed Nathan Meeker and all his white male employees. They made captives of the three white women, and then fled toward an old Ute camp on Piceance Creek. Along the way each of the three white women was raped.

For almost a week the fighting continued at Milk River, with three hundred Ute warriors virtually surrounding the two hundred soldiers. Major Thornburgh was killed in the first skirmishing. When the fighting ended, his column had lost twelve killed, forty-three wounded. Thirty-seven Utes died in what they believed was a desperate stand to save their reservation from military seizure and to keep themselves from being taken as prisoners to Indian Territory.

At the Los Pinos agency, 150 miles to the south, Chief Ouray heard of the fighting with dismay. He knew that only immediate action could save his chieftainship and the entire Ute reservation. He dispatched a message by runner on October 2:

To the chief captains, headmen, and Utes at the White River agency:

You are hereby requested and commanded to cease hostilities against the whites, injuring no innocent persons or any others farther than to protect your own lives and property from unlawful and unauthorized combinations of horse thieves and desperados, as anything farther will ultimately end in disaster to all parties. 22

Ouray’s message and the arrival of cavalry reinforcements ended the fighting, but it was already too late to save the Utes from disaster. Governor Pitkin and William Vickers had been flooding Colorado with wild atrocity stories, many of them aimed at the innocent Uncompahgres at Los Pinos, most of whom were going peacefully about their business with no knowledge of what was happening at White River. Vickers called upon the white citizens of Colorado to rise up and “wipe out the red devils,” inspiring the frantic organization of militia units in towns and villages across the state. So many newspaper reporters arrived from the East to report this exciting new “Indian War” that Governor Pitkin decided to give them a special statement for publication:

“I think the conclusion of this affair will end the depredations in Colorado. It will be impossible for the Indians and whites to live in peace hereafter. This attack had no provocation and the whites now understand that they are liable to be attacked in any part of the state where the Indians happen to be in sufficient force.

“My idea is that, unless removed by the government, they must necessarily be exterminated. I could raise 25,000 men to protect the settlers in twenty-four hours. The state would be willing to settle the Indian trouble at its own expense. The advantages that would accrue from the throwing open of 12,000,000 acres of land to miners and settlers would more than compensate all the expenses incurred.” 23

The White River Utes surrendered their three women captives, and then the inevitable investigating commission was formed to sift the causes, fix the blame, and set the punishments. The fight at Milk River was called an ambush, which it was not, and the affair at White River agency was called a massacre, which it was. Jack and Colorow and their followers were eventually excused from punishment on the grounds that they were warriors engaged in a fair fight. Douglas and the men at the agency were judged as murderers, but there was no one who could identify the Utes who had fired the shots that killed Nathan Meeker and his employees.

Douglas testified that he was in the agency storeroom when he heard the first gunshot. “I left the storeroom and went out a little way. Then I went to my house directly from where I was. When I started and got to my house it made me cry to think into what a state my friends had fallen.” 24 But because Arvilla Meeker swore in secret hearings that Douglas had forced sexual union with her, the sixty-year-old chief was sent off to Leavenworth prison. He was not charged with or tried for any crime; a public accusation of rape would have caused embarrassment to Mrs. Meeker, and in that age of sexual reticence, the fact that the act involved an Indian made it doubly abhorrent.

Individual punishments, however, were of little interest to the miners and politicians. They wanted to punish the entire seven nations of Utes, to push them off those twelve million acres of land waiting to be dug up, dammed up, and properly deforested so that fortunes could be made in the process.

Ouray was a dying man in 1880 when the Indian Bureau brought him to Washington to defend the future of his people. Ill with nephritis, he bowed to the wishes of Big Eyes Schurz and other officials who decided “the Utes must go” to a new reservation in Utah—on land the Mormons did not want. Ouray died before the Army herded his people together in August, 1881, for the 350-mile march out of Colorado into Utah. Except for a small strip of territory along the southwest corner—where a small band of Southern Utes was allowed to live—Colorado was swept clean of Indians. Cheyenne and Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche, Jicarilla and Ute—they had all known its mountains and plains, but now no trace of them remained but their names on the white man’s land.

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