I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending the Milk Creek Battlefield Park dedication Sept. 26 in Meeker. This site is best known as the place where Maj. Thomas T. Thornburgh was killed along with other soldiers in a battle with the Ute Indians from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, 1879. Less known is the circumstances that led to this battle and the catastrophic losses sustained by the Ute people, losses that went far beyond the tragic deaths during those infamous days.
Tales from the Tread
Tales from the Tread columns publish the first and third Wednesdays in the Steamboat Today.
If you go
What: “The Utes Lose Their Homeland” with author and historian Peter Decker
When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 10
Where: Bud Werner Memorial Library, Library Hall
I applaud the Rio Blanco County Historical Society and particularly, Joe Sullivan, chair of the Milk Creek Battlefield Park Committee, for its leadership and efforts to develop the Milk Creek Battlefield Park over the past 25 years and for organizing the dedication ceremony event.
The purpose of their efforts is to commemorate the site of one of the last battles of the American Indian Wars when, according to RBCHS, “the United States Cavalry crossed the boundary of the Ute Reservation with what could only be interpreted as hostile intent. The Utes, as a last resort, resisted the invasion of the military and held the troops in this location for five days with minimal loss of life.”
A monument has long stood to represent the U.S. soldiers killed in the battle, particularly, Thornburgh. A monument was also erected at the park by the Ute tribe to represent the Ute loss of the life and livelihood. The Ute monument reads: “Let us not forget the Whiteriver Utes who gave their lives and those who were wounded in the battle at Milk Creek on Sept. 29, 1879.
Nathan Meeker, Indian agent, did not understand the Utes and knew very little about their traditions and culture. Resentment toward Meeker’s policy of farming resulted in a fight between “Johnson,” a Ute, and Meeker. This was the beginning of the problems that ensued. Because of the battles at Whiteriver and Meeker, the Whiterivers and Uncompahgres were forced by gun-point to the reservation in Utah, leaving behind their beautiful land in Colorado. However, the Uncompahgres had nothing to do with those events. Under the 14th amendment, their rights were ignored.”
The Sept. 26 dedication ceremony included a wide array of historians, authors, Ute tribal members, elders and leaders, state dignitaries and the local community, all of whom came together in peace and unity to remember the historical events of 1879.
One of these speakers, Peter Decker, esteemed historian and author of “The Utes Must Go!” said, “ … on this occasion, let us be clear about the outcome of the battle. The Ute braves may have won the battle, but the tribe was powerless to gain a fair and just peace … not the first time for North American Indians and certainly not the last. It was, and remains so to this day, nothing but a land grab by the state of Colorado in conjunction with the U.S. Congress, enforced by the Army, and in violation of three separate treaties.
“…the Army’s invasion into the reservation on Sept. 29, 1879 (is a) day that shall live in infamy for the Ute, a day like the Sand Creek massacre for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe, and a day like 9/11 for a larger tribe of whites.
“For the Ute to lose almost 16 million acres of their guaranteed reservation and homeland in Colorado and then to be forced at gunpoint to move to Utah, or in other cases, required to squeeze into a sliver of land along the New Mexico border, seemed then, as it does now, to be ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment for a tribe who wanted only to be left alone to care for and live off their sacred land … home to at least three centuries of ancestors and helpful spirits.”
As a witness to this dedication event and these speakers, it is apparent to me the Utes had tried to adapt to the new ways and restrictions enforced in the new Colorado territory and only wanted peace until they were simply pushed too far. It seems they hardly had a chance.
The Ute sentiment can be summarized by their leader, Chief Ouray, in his statement to Colorado’s territorial governor, Samuel Hitt Elbert, five years before the battle at Milk Creek: “My part, is to protect (my tribe) and yours (the whites) as far as I can from the violence and bloodshed while I live, and to bring both into friendly relations, so that (both Ute) and Coloradans may be at peace with one another.”
To shed more light on this pivotal part of our history, the Tread of Pioneers Museum and the Bud Werner Memorial Library will host author and historian Peter Decker for a talk titled “The Utes Lose Their Homeland” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Bud Werner Memorial Library Library Hall. Signed copies of Decker’s books will be available for purchase. To learn more about the Milk Creek Battlefield Park, visit rioblancocounty.org/historic-sites/milk-creek-battlefield-park/. For more on Peter Decker, visit westernslopepress.com/about/.
Candice Bannister is executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.