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 Utes in New Mexico Territory were removed to southwest Colorado and subsequently refused removal farther north, separate Ute bands to the north (who came to be called the White River bands) faced increased pressure from the Indian Agency in the area. Indian Agencies were established to manage relationships between the U.S. government and Indigenous communities.
The Ute treaty of 1868 stipulated that the U.S. government was to provide the Utes food and supplies, part of the compromise that required the Ute to remain within newly established reservation boundaries. The reservation boundaries imposed a shift to a stationary agricultural way of life.
The demand to stay in place and adopt agriculture as a way of life was fundamentally at odds with Ute culture. As Ute oral histories, as well as ethnographic and historical documents show, Ute bands traditionally occupied large swathes of land and migrated seasonally for subsistence and cultural practices.
This imposed shift was felt acutely among the Yampa, Grand River and Uintah Ute bands of northern Colorado, who were consolidated into the White River band and placed under the jurisdiction of the White River Indian Agency.
Nathan Meeker had arrived in northern Colorado in 1869 as a settler from Ohio. With funding from newspaper magnate Horace Greeley, Meeker sought to establish Union Colony, later to become the town of Greeley, under principals similar to utopian communities he had previously participated in, but with more emphasis on Christian doctrine and a strong reliance on agriculture.
The attempt at a western religious utopia was eventually abandoned, and in the process of its creation, Meeker accrued debts he was unable to repay. Simultaneously, the federal government was seeking an agent for the White River Agency.
Seeing the paid government position as an avenue to stabilize his finances, Meeker applied and was appointed as the Indian agent for the White River Agency in May 1878, bringing with him his ideals and beliefs.
Meeker, who expressed contempt for Indigenous people, was largely ill-suited for the role, acording to research on the formation of Union Colony in Jhelene Shaw’s “Yours for Colorado: Applicants to the 1870 Union Colony at Greeley.”
In 1869, Meeker wrote in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper, “The extension of a fine nervous organization is impossible in the Indian, because he is without brain to originate and support it.”
As the new agent, Meeker enforced a sedentary way of life on the White River Utes through coercion and punishment, namely by withholding provisions and forcing agriculture on the traditionally nomadic Utes.
“I propose to cut every Indian down to the bare starvation point if he will not work,” Meeker wrote in a letter to Henry Teller, a Colorado senator who had endorsed Meeker for the role.
In addition to withholding their annuities, Meeker targeted the Utes’ ownership of horses, seeing their long-standing culture of horse use as an obstacle to civilization.
In his 1879 report on the agency, Meeker wrote that he would like “to take away their horses, then give word that if they would not work they should have no rations.”
Meeker’s policies promptly angered the Utes he was assigned to oversee. In August of 1879, a delegation of Utes under the White River Agency petitioned Governor Frederick Pitkin to remove Meeker from the position to avert trouble. Their appeal went unheeded.
In an effort to make good on his plans, Meeker moved the agency’s structures to an area more suited for agriculture, and in the process began plowing a pasture that the Utes used to graze and race horses.
This spurred a confrontation between Canalla, a prominent White River Ute man, and Meeker.
Canalla, who was angered by Meeker’s insistence on plowing the field he used to stage his horses, confronted Meeker at an agency building and shoved him.
The confrontation acted as a tipping point for boiling anger the White River Utes felt under Meeker’s rule.
The White River Utes’ unwillingness to succumb to Meeker’s orders, the confrontation between Canalla and Meeker and the shifting attitudes of white settlers against Indigenous people in the Rocky Mountain region culminated in the Meeker Incident.
In the next installment of this series, the Herald will detail the fallout resulting from Meeker’s impositions and the military conflict that followed and set the stage for the next phase of Ute removal from Colorado.