State Historian William Convery describes the complex personality of Nathan Meeker and his ill-fated interaction with the Northern Ute Tribe in September 1879. Convery spoke Friday to 80 people attending the Tread of Pioneers brown bag luncheon.

Photo by Tom Ross

State Historian William Convery describes the complex personality of Nathan Meeker and his ill-fated interaction with the Northern Ute Tribe in September 1879. Convery spoke Friday to 80 people attending the Tread of Pioneers brown bag luncheon.

Tom Ross: Nathan Meeker and the Northern Utes

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Most residents of Northwest Colorado would tell you they know something about Nathan C. Meeker, the ill-suited Indian agent who played a pivotal role in the bloody conflict that sealed the fate of the Northern Ute tribe.

But most of us don't know as much as we think we do.

State Historian William Convery told a Steamboat audience Friday that Meeker was a mysterious person in many ways, a "paradox wrapped in an enigma."

For example, Meeker, who came west to Colorado in 1870 from his position as the agriculture editor of Horace Greeley's widely read New York Tribune, preached temperance when it came to alcohol. And yet, he confessed in his own diaries that he was tormented by his hopeless addiction to over-the-counter opiates.

Convery was speaking to about 80 people gathered for the Tread of Pioneers Museum's weekly brown bag lunch. He took the occasion to praise the programs of the Tread and the White River Museum in Meeker.

Nathan Meeker, who previously had experimented with utopian communes, Convery said, used the newspaper, with Greeley's blessing, to recruit struggling farmers and workers from upstate New York and Pennsylvania to travel west by railroad, where they would create a new settlement: the Union colony on the South Platte River. Today, of course, the settlement is known as the city of Greeley.

Meeker, a frustrated novelist, was an abject failure at business management and was fired by the colonists.

Deeply in debt to the descendants of Horace Greeley, Meeker cast about for steady employment and used his influence to land a job as the government agent at the White River Indian Agency, where his predecessor was despised by the native residents of Western Colorado.

Meeker probably saw his assignment to the White River Agency as an opportunity to carry out among the Utes some of his deeply held convictions, about building agrarian communities united toward the common good. But that hope wasn't out of concern for the Utes.

During his time at the Union colony, he wrote articles that pointed out the intellectual inferiority of the Native Americans, Convery said.

When he arrived on the White River, Meeker insisted that the Utes address him as "father." They had been trading with Spanish colonialists for centuries and were not as unsophisticated as he imagined. Meeker knew only that it was his mission to persuade the Utes to abandon their nomadic hunting ways and depend solely on agriculture.

The Utes weren't about to give up hunting for deer, elk and bison.

His general disregard for the culture of his neighbors came to a peak when Meeker directed his white employees at the agency to plow up the Ute's horse pasture and race track in Powell Park.

The Indian agent saw only unproductive use of potential cropland where the Utes engaged in gambling.

"He never understood the centrality of (the) horse to the Ute culture and economy," Convery said.

Ever since they first traded with the Spaniards, the Utes understood that whoever had the fastest horse would be the best hunter.

Destroying the horse track led to a heated exchange that caused Meeker to panic and send for the cavalry to come from Evanston, Wyo. The Utes, mindful of the Sand Creek Massacre, panicked in turn. The resulting bloodshed allowed Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin to act on his long-held belief that Ute land-use practices were inefficient and squandered opportunities presented by the Rocky Mountains' rich natural resources.

The resulting removal of the Utes from Northwest Colorado was nothing short of ethnic cleansing, Convery said.

You can read a blow-by-blow account of the White River Incident, often referred to as the Meeker Massacre, at www.meekercolorado.com/HSociety.htm. Also, the Colorado Historical Society has just published a brief history of the Utes, Convery said.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the entire Nathan Meeker story is the plot of the single novel he published during his career as a writer, "The Adventures of Captain Jack Armstrong."

Although poorly written, Convery said, it is fascinating for the way it foreshadows Meeker's disastrous course of action at the White River Agency.

In the book, an idealistic sea captain sails to the South Pacific on a ship loaded with Bibles and farm implements. He encounters unspoiled native peoples living in an idyllic setting.

The fictitious Captain Jack Armstrong endeavors to instill the values of hard work among the natives, but their entire civilization collapses under the weight of Western civilization.

Realizing that he has made a tremendous error in judgment, the novel's protagonist returns to his ship and leaves the island for good.

Inexplicably, Meeker's novel, written decades before he moved to Colorado, foretells the course of his tragic engagements with the Northern Utes - engagements that altered the course of history in the place you and I now call home.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today.

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