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. To this end, 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.
The subjugation of the White River Utes under Nathan Meeker came to a head in late September 1879, when Canalla, a prominent Ute man among the White River bands confronted Meeker and, by some accounts, shoved him.
Meeker, shaken by the incident, claimed fear for his life in a telegraph sent to Governor Frederick Pitkin and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He requested military support in retaliation.
Other correspondence from employees at the agency before the hostilities reached a boiling point contradict Meeker’s life-threatening account, and anticipated the inevitable conflict that would arise between the Utes and Meeker.
“Don’t know how it will turn out, but you can bet if they touch anybody it will be the agent first,” Fred Shepard, an employee at the agency, wrote of Meeker in a letter to his mother shortly before the uprising’s violent climax.
Following the scuffle, Utes at the White River Agency learned of the impending arrival of troops at Meeker’s request, and communicated to the agency that, should soldiers cross the reservation boundary at Milk Creek and enter Ute reservation lands, it would be considered an act of war.
Utes stationed atop a hill overlooking Milk Creek prepared for the arrival of the military. In the span of five days, an uprising unfolded that would permanently change Ute sovereignty on their traditional land base.
On September 29, Thomas Thornburgh led 178 soldiers and militiamen toward the reservation boundary at Milk Creek where they were met with fire from the Utes upon crossing the creek.
The soldiers took shelter behind their wagons and remained pinned down under fire for the next several days, only finding relief upon the arrival of reinforcements.
On the same day that the troops crossed onto reservation land, they met Ute opposition. The agency at White River came under attack by the Indigenous peoples determined to assert their sovereignty against the U.S. Government.
Much of the documentation that explains what happened at the White River Agency between Meeker’s summoning of military aid and the arrival of troops at the agency is contained in the oral traditions of the Utes.
A transcribed interview with Ute elder Larry Cesspooch described the uprising at the agency, in which he explained the need for Utes to take action against Meeker and the agency as a result of his forcing the White River Utes into a settled, agricultural way of life.
When government agents arrived at the White River Agency, they found the buildings burned, Meeker and all of the agency’s employees dead and Meeker’s wife and child missing. His wife and daughter were held in captivity for 23 days before being returned.
The Meeker incident took place against a backdrop of increasing hostility from white settlers, institutionally and individually, as evidenced and encouraged by governmental action targeting the newly formed state’s Indigenous people.
Then-governor John Evans, in 1864, issued dual proclomations that sought to deliniate between “friendly” and “hostile” “Indians”, the latter of which being subject to state-sanctioned vigilante violence that permited volunteer militias to “to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.”
“Even early on and when there was evidence to the contrary, Evans was attached to the idea that a general Indian war was on its way, and his reactions to this terrifying specter created an environment in which it became likely,” reads an exceprt from a 2014 report issued by the John Evans Study Committee at the University of Denver discussing the results of these proclomations on the region’s Indigenous communities.
Edward McCook, territorial governor in the years just before the Meeker Incident, summed up the governmental position toward the Utes in Colorado preceding Meeker’s tenure as Indian agent — a sentiment that would grow in the following years.
“One-third of the territory of Colorado is turned over to the Utes who will not work and will not let others work. This great and rich country is set aside for the exclusive use of savages,” McCook wrote of the Utes in Colorado in an 1870 letter to Indian commissioner Ely Parker.
In the years between McCook writing that letter and the Meeker incident, settlers’ fear of Indigenous people grew, and was exacerbated by events like the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the conflict at the White River Agency. The uprising would ultimately serve as the justification needed to push for the complete removal of Utes from most of Colorado.
In future installments of this series, the Herald will look at the fallout resulting from the Meeker Incident and the resulting mass relocation of the Utes from Colorado to Utah.