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.
Shortly after the establishment of the Colorado Territory in 1861, the Ute people were assigned to different Indian agencies established across the region by the U.S. Government. The agencies were intended as distribution points for resources from the federal government to the Indigenous people of the region.
Agencies at Conejos and Hot Sulphur Springs were created specifically for bands of Ute people outside of the existing agencies at Taos, Abiquiu and Denver. The Conejos agency, in different iterations, played host to multiple treaty negotiations in 1863 and again in 1868.
The influx of white settlers, spurred both by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the mineral resources found in Ute lands, created tensions that the U.S. government sought to quell. A meeting was called to resolve such tensions at the Conejos agency in October 1863.
Territorial and federal governments sent representatives to the Conejos meeting, as such representatives from each Ute band in the region. Reports indicate that the Northern Utes did not have sufficient representation and were therefore not included in the final language of the treaty.
The treaty defined territories for the Tabeguache and Mouache bands. It also spelled out agreements that included provisions from the U.S. government to the Ute bands and the right for the colonial governments to establish military outposts on reservation land.
While the treaty limited provisions, including livestock and food, to a maximum of 10 years following the ratification of the agreement, no time limit was placed on the articles that allowed for government and military development in Ute territory.
Under the new agreement, Tabeguache and Mouache Ute bands had a defined territory they were to remain within. The Tabeguache refused relocation within the defined area, though agreed to remain within the boundaries of the newly established reservation. The treaty, never ratified or implemented by congress, broke down.
The U.S. government failed to provide the goods, primarily food rations and livestock, promised in the 1863 treaty, and the Tabeguache largely remained in the areas they inhabitated before the agreement.Tensions between white settlers and Ute people grew.
This failure of the treaty to diffuse tensions between the original inhabitants of the region and white settlers spawned a second attempt at an agreement five years later.
A delegation of Ute leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. in March 1868 to negotiate a treaty that would ultimately create a reservation system for all Ute people in the Colorado Territory.
Under the new treaty, the Ute were to remain within the newly defined boundaries, and several new agencies were created to establish U.S. presence among the Utes.
The federal government created an agency along the Los Pinos River, intended to address the needs of the Mouache, Tabeguache, Weminuche and Capote Bands. Additionally, the White River agency was established in the northern portion of the reservation. Over a decade after the 1868 treaty’s ratification, the White River agency would become the site of a Ute uprising against the conditions imposed on them.
The 1868 treaty set aside roughly one-third of the western portion of present-day Colorado as Ute reservation land, a fraction of the area designated as Ute territory in the 1863 treaty.
The pressure for this reduction largely stemmed from miners on the heels of the gold rush several years before, according to “The Southern Utes: A Tribal History.” “After the Ute treaty of 1868 miners came in increasing numbers to find the rich minerals of this region. In direct violation of the previous Ute treaties miners trespassed on the reservation,” the text reads.
This pressure ultimately led to the Brunot agreement of 1873, wherein Ute leaders entered into another agreement with the U.S. Government. This agreement, also known as the San Juan Cession, gave up a rectangular plot of reservation land in the San Juan Mountains where miners had found rich gold and silver deposits.
In the next installment of this series, the Herald will elaborate on the impacts of the incremental reduction of Ute lands in the region and the resulting fallout between the Ute people and the U.S. Government.