South Routt historian Paul Bonnifield discusses the social forces that led to the removal of the Northern Utes from the White and Yampa river valleys Friday at the 
Tread of Pioneers Museum.

Photo by Tom Ross

South Routt historian Paul Bonnifield discusses the social forces that led to the removal of the Northern Utes from the White and Yampa river valleys Friday at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

Tom Ross: Utes destined to be horse ranchers?

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

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Read the authoritative account of the outbreak of violence between the whites and the Utes, and the role of the rescuing buffalo soldiers, at the Meeker Historical Society. Visit www.meekercolorado.com and click on “White River Museum,” then scroll to the bottom of the page and click on “Last Major Indian Uprising.”

— Imagine Northwest Colorado with the members of the native Ute tribe operating respected horse ranches in the Yampa and White river valleys. Sound far-fetched?

South Routt historian Paul Bonnifield told an audience of about 20 people here Friday that in the 1860s, three different treaties anticipated that the Utes would be assimilated into white society as a culture that raised livestock for a living.

“Under the treaties of 1863, ’66 and ’68, the (U.S. government) envisioned that they would become a stock-growing nation,” Bonnifield said. “The Utes had a very strong sense of their own property and their own trading style.”

Bonnifield shared his insights gleaned from the Congressional record during one of the summer’s weekly Brown Bag Lecture Series events at Tread of Pioneers Museum.

The native people who hunted and worked with horses in the region have been gone from the landscape of this part of Colorado for more than a century, and Bonnifield said there is dramatic testimony, given before Congress, from the Utes themselves, that fills in gaps from most modern historical accounts of the September 1879 armed conflict between the Utes and the U.S. Cavalry near the White River Agency close to the present-day town of Meeker.

Building tension among the Utes and Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, exacerbated by powerful development interests in Denver and Washington, D.C., led to bloodshed.

Meeker and nine other agency employees were killed, and 13 members of a cavalry detachment on its way from Rawlings, Wyo., also lost their lives. Certainly, there was loss of life on the Ute side, too, though it’s more difficult to find a historical record of their casualties.

To understand the cultural conflicts that led to the removal of the Northern Utes from Colorado by 1991, Bonnifield said, it’s important to appreciate diverse factors such as the history of Utes being enslaved, their well-established horse trading business that took them as far away from home as California, and European settlers’ determination to establish a railroad route through Ute country.

The outbreak of violence surrounding events at the White River Agency historically has been referred to as The Meeker Massacre. During introductory remarks Friday, museum curator Katie Adams said the formal name for the event now is the The White River Incident.

Bonnifield said he prefers to refer to the conflict as the Ute War in Colorado.

Two key figures in the relationship between the Utes and the government were a chief named Captain Jack (Nicaagat), and an influential woman known only as Jane. Both had been raised as slaves in white households in Utah before returning to their people, Bonnifield said. And both were fluent English speakers who worked for peace at the same time they stood up for the best interests of their people.

Bonnifield described the Utes traveling throughout the region where the modern states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah come together in a “T.”

But the different Ute bands also had been traveling the Old Spanish Trail to California since the 1820s to buy and steal horses. Through this well-established commerce, they developed their own sense of property rights. And when they signed a series of treaties with the whites in the 1860s, their perception was that they had sold land in exchange for something of value.

“To them, it was a real estate deal,” Bonnifield said.

When gold was discovered in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies in 1858, government leaders began pushing to establish stagecoach routes west through the Rockies and Ute lands — routes that could later be converted to railroads through the heart of Ute country.

Into this expansionism stepped a man from Ohio named Meeker, who had worked as an agricultural writer for a newspaper and later established the Utopian community of Greeley. He sought the role as Indian agent to act on his conviction that the native peoples could be converted to agriculture, even in the White River Valley, which always has had marginal ability to support food crops, Bonnifield said.

Meeker was an idealist who expected to bend powerful men like Captain Jack to his will. In order to change the Utes’ way of life, he conspired to remove horses from their lives to discourage hunting. He went as far as withholding their government rations in an attempt to starve them into taking up farming.

Jane bested Meeker in an ongoing confrontation about who would control a vegetable garden. And Captain Jack consistently out-maneuvered him in their verbal exchanges.

Ultimately, it was Meeker’s impulsive decision to plow up Jane’s best horse pasture that set the two cultures on an irreversible course.

Claiming his life was being threatened, Meeker called on Army troops to come to the agency and arrest his antagonists to bring the Utes under control.

The Utes resisted and the results changed the cultural landscape of Northwest Colorado.

“When it came to their home, when it came to their grazing land, that was theirs,” Bonnifield said about the Utes. “The whites never understood it that way.”

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