The original peoples of the High Rockies, and Colorado more broadly, have a long and storied history that spans thousands of years and contains complex relationships with this region. This summer, the Herald is featuring a series on Indigenous histories of the High Rockies.
In this series, the Herald aims to expand readers’ knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived in the High Rockies for millennia, including their legacy of displacement and inequitable treatment following contact with European settlers.
Following the uprising against settlers along the Arkansas River and in the San Luis Valley in 1854-55 that would come to be called the Ute Wars, tensions between Ute inhabitants of the region and white settlers grew, only temporarily resolved when the second treaty at Abiquiu was negotiated and signed after the skirmishes. If this 1855 treaty had been ratified by the federal government, it would have established boundaries for the first reservation for Ute people in Colorado.
U.S. settlers were determined to maintain a presence in the Rocky Mountain region, and the surge of new settlement in the years following the treaty would lay the groundwork for a permanent occupation.
The discovery of gold in the Front Range along the eastern edge of Nuche (Ute)lands in 1858 exacerbated and accelerated the settlement of the area and fueled tensions in the years to come.
John Gunnison, five years before the discovery of gold in Colorado, had attempted to chart a suitable path for a transcontinental rail line to connect the eastern and western states after gold was discovered in California.
As retribution for the murder of Indigenous people by settlers along the route west, Gunnison and all but one of his expedition party were killed in western Colorado by Paiute people, according to reports written about the attack by U.S government agents.
The incursion had set the stage for gold seekers to move westward deeper into the Rockies after the initial boom along the Front Range.
During the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, so named after the prominent mountain that the Nuche had called Tavakiev long before white settlers renamed it, an influx of settlers seeking wealth came to the eastern edge of Ute territories.
The surge of people coming to the region focused on areas in the High Rockies near present-day Alma, Breckenridge, Como, Fairplay and South Park. This sudden and large presence of settlers seeking wealth from Ute lands pushed the original inhabitants to the central part of their territories as they sought isolation and game that had also been driven out.
By 1860, the Ute had largely adopted a policy of isolation and privacy from the settlers. “Despite the continual pressure on their valley campsites, they could still avoid most contact with the strange and dangerous new civilization by retreating into the heart of their Rocky Mountain domain,” Charles S. Marsh wrote in “The Utes of Colorado: People of the Shining Mountains.”
That same year, the discovery of gold in California Gulch would lead to thousands of prospectors crossing deeper into Ute territory, eventually founding Leadville.
The newly-settled tens of thousands of people throughout the area would eventually lead to the establishment of the Colorado Territory in 1861. Once the territory was established, the path to statehood was underway. The establishment of Colorado as a state in the union led to governing bodies seeking the control and removal of the long-standing inhabitants of land now deemed to be under the authority of the state.
Under the rallying cry, “The Utes must go,” the state and federal government would begin to implement genocidal measures such as forced relocation and the establishment of Indian boarding schools that Ute children were forced to attend. Indian agencies and the military would soon carry out government policy that sought to remove the Ute from the area in favor of settlement and economic growth.
In coming installments of this series, the Herald will detail the attempted removal of Ute people in the newly formed state and the establishment of state dominion over Ute people and their lands.