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 year, 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 the wake of the Meeker Incident, the vitriol and fear of settlers throughout Colorado increased and the calls for the total removal of Ute people from the state intensified.
The 1879 uprising of Utes against the Indian Agency at White River provided the justification for state officials to push for the total removal of Utes from their traditional land base.
State and cultural institutions made the push under the rallying cry, “The Utes must go,” to drum up support for the forced relocation, which served as a continuation of past efforts to sequester the Utes to reservation lands.
The phrase, coined by then-Governor Frederick Pitkin and propped up in state newspapers, became a popular slogan for those pushing for the relocation of Utes from the mineral-rich mountains of the area.
“More than to rid themselves of the threat of Indian hostility, they saw an opportunity to gain access to potentially valuable land held by the Ute people,” reads an excerpt from “Frontier in transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado” explaining the political motivations behind the calls for Ute removal.
In this political and economic context, a contingent of Ute leaders again traveled to Washington D.C. to negotiate a new treaty in 1880, a little over five months after the uprising against the White River Agency.
The treaty eliminated most of the land then in Ute possession as established by previous treaties, and revoked land that had been granted to various Ute bands in perpetuity.
Previously established reservation lands, while vast, made up only a fraction of the Utes’ traditional territories pre-colonization. After the treaty of 1880, the only lands designated for Ute use were a narrow strip along the Colorado-New Mexico border, a small reservation to its west, and a larger parcel in northeastern Utah.
The treaty required that the Northern and Uncompahgre Utes in Colorado be relocated to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah.
In 1881, the U.S. Army mobilized in Colorado and enforced the relocation as stipulated in the 1880 Ute Removal Act ratified by congress.
A total of approximately 1,465 Ute people from various bands across what is now considered Colorado were removed to reservations west of their range.
In the span of roughly 70 years from when Anglo settlers first arrived in Ute territory, the traditional lands of the region’s oldest inhabitants had been reduced to a small portion of the territory they once occupied.
Through a decades-long process of treaty negotiations, military campaigns and relocation, colonial forces occupied historically Ute lands, leaving a legacy of violence and displacement that has effects to this day.
In future installments of this series, the Herald will explore the conditions imposed on Utes after relocation.