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.
In last week’s installment, the Herald recounted the Ute people’s relationship with the Spanish as established through trade, expeditions, conflict and alliances. The prevalence of Spanish colonialism was soon to fade as the newly founded United States reached the edges of Ute lands.
In 1806, Zebulon Pike reached the eastern edge of Ute territory on an expedition that would mark the first United States government sanctioned explorations of the Indigenous group’s territory, and the beginnings of U.S citizens’ contact with the Ute people.
Pike traveled to the San Luis Valley, land that had been on the periphery of Ute territory and contested throughout the Spanish occupation of the region. Spanish colonizers had claimed portions of land in the valley, and were often rebuffed by Ute people in defense of its location and resources.
Pike entered the San Luis Valley in December of 1806, where he was met by Spanish soldiers who had been alerted of the approaching group after commissioning Mouache Utes to investigate the party’s travels in exchange for goods. Pike and his party were soon confronted on the Conejos River and taken into Spanish custody at Santa Fe.
Pike’s entry into Ute territory came on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase, the borders of which were still unclear. The Pike expedition marked the beginnings of the shift from Spanish colonial rule over the area to U.S. expansionism that would seek to extract resources from Ute territory in the decades to follow.
The first such resource was fur. As aristocratic fashion sensibilities in Europe coincided with the westward expansion of the U.S., trappers began to take interest in beavers, whose pelts were used in expensive garments sought by Europeans.
United States trappers sought the furs to sell to the European-dominated transatlantic fur trade. According to data analyzed by Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis in their study entitled “The Economic History of the Fur Trade: 1670 to 1870,” fur prices increased into the early 1800s, and much of the supply was provided to U.S. traders by Indigenous communities.
This held true in Ute lands, where beaver, though scientific data concerning their numbers at the time is sparse, were described by trappers as plentiful throughout the waterways of the Rocky Mountains. As land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase became more accessible and economic interests grew, U.S. citizens’ presence in the region increased.
The Ute people engaged in the transatlantic fur trade that, by most accounts, seemed mutually beneficial for a time. Ute people traded trapped pelts for manufactured goods, including guns.
After several years of open trade between the new settlers and Ute people, the first trading post specifically designed for trade in Ute territory was constructed along the Western Slope.
In 1828, Fort Uncompahgre was established by Antoine Robidoux, who had been a trapper based out of Santa Fe. This marked the first permanent U.S. settlement in the Ute lands of present-day Colorado.
Mexican settlement of the San Luis Valley increased at the same time as the fur trade expanded. In response to an attack on a New Mexican frontier settlement by Dineh (Navajo) people, the settlers retaliated, in a misguided revenge attempt, against Ute people they encountered as they moved north. This sparked a series of confrontations between Ute people and settlers, mostly those from Mexico which had recently gained its independence.
As the confrontations moved north, Fort Uncompahgre was burned by Ute people in 1843, and many goods were stolen. In the same year, the New Mexican settlement at present-day Antonito was burned by Utes who saw the encroachment as a sign of permanent presence in their previously uncolonized territory.
While the conflict continued, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had turned authority of the region over to the U.S. government, and the Ute people living within the newly acquired territory would soon have new issues to confront under a different colonial government.
In future installments of this series, the Herald will examine the establishment of treaties signed between the newly encroaching U.S. authorities and Ute people, the U.S. discovery of mineral resources within Ute territory, and the efforts made by state and federal governments to subdue and remove Ute people from what would become Colorado.