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.
After representatives from several Ute bands signed the first treaty between Ute people and the U.S. Government, which acknowledged the new authority of the U.S. over Ute lands in 1849, incursion into Indigenous lands throughout the Rocky Mountains increased, as did tensions between the settlers and Indigenous people.
Representatives from several Ute bands began meeting with the governor of New Mexico territory David Meriwether in the early 1850s. In an effort to continue the once largely peaceful relations, the Ute people sought to ensure recognition of their ancestral territories, food rations and protection from Arapaho raids. Meriwether agreed to the terms.
Soon after the agreement was reached, however, Fort Massachusetts, later to become Fort Garland, was established in the San Luis Valley in 1852. The placement of a fort in Ute territory inflamed tensions and progressed settlement in the area.
From “The Southern Utes: A Tribal History,” “The Utes did not like either the military post in the midst of their territory or the presence of the settlers, whose farming and ranching began to drive out the game upon which the Utes depended for part of their food supply.”
The placement of Fort Massachusetts within Ute territory and the failure of the territorial government to live up to its promises of protection and food rations eroded much of the previously friendly relationships between the Ute and U.S. government.
In addition to the unfulfilled promises, the territorial government began encouraging settlement along the Arkansas River and in the San Luis Valley. The increased settlement in these areas added to the hardships imposed on the Ute as a result of colonization.
In 1854, the Ute leaders who had met with Meriwether in years before arranged another meeting. It would be the last of its kind.
Meriwether presented the Ute leaders with decorated coats as gifts at the meeting. On the return trip, each of the Ute leaders became sick with smallpox and died. Not only did this kill many of the Ute leaders interested in peaceful negotiations with U.S. authorities, but it also promulgated the spread of the disease among Ute people more generally.
The sickness, starvation and displacement of the Ute led to a crisis. Cattle theft and clashes between individual settlers and Ute people increased.
In 1854, what would come to be known as the Ute War started with an attack by Moache Utes under the leadership of Tierra Blanco.
On the morning of December 24, Tierra Blanco and a band of Ute warriors attacked the structure at El Pueblo Trading Post on the Arkansas River, where the city of Pueblo exists today. The trading post, established in 1842, marked one of the early establishments of settlers near Ute territory.
The attack left everyone at the trading post dead save for two children and one woman taken as captives, and marked the beginning of nearly a year of aggression against colonizers and their establishments in Ute lands throughout the region.
Several attacks against settlements in the San Luis Valley followed, and the territorial government responded by deploying troops.
The Ute and government troops first met near Salida in March of 1855. The Ute retreated after recognizing they were under-powered to meet the force of the soldiers.
The retreat led to a running battle between Salida and Cochetopa Pass on the western edge of the San Luis Valley. A band of Utes, separate from the retreating party, ,was caught off guard by the passing battle, and about 40 Ute people were killed by soldiers on April 19 1855.
Eventually, after almost a year of skirmishes brought on by increasing illness, starvation, displacement, and mistrust of settlers and the government said to represent them, the Ute brokered a peace treaty between the warring factions.
The treaty, again negotiated at Abiquiu, was signed in August 1855, but never ratified by the U.S. government. It was effective in ending the battles, but did not secure the protections originally sought in negotiations at the beginning of that decade.
After the Ute War, the Arkansas River Valley remained largely uninhabited by colonizers until the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859.
In future installments of this series, the Herald will discuss the incursion of white settlers farther into Ute lands in the hunt for land and mineral resources.