Novel inspires author to look at her past, repay Utes for something taken long ago | SteamboatToday.com

Novel inspires author to look at her past, repay Utes for something taken long ago

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Somewhere woven between the many names that paved the way to the Yampa Valley's rich and gritty history, author Christine Sleeter's great-grandfather has a place.

His legacy, like so many others of that time, tells the story of a man who came to Northwest Colorado seeking fortune. He arrived in 1881 — just a few years after James Crawford and family had taken up residence in Steamboat Springs — in search of gold.

"He came in March not realizing that it was all going to be snowy," Sleeter said of her great-grandfather, Oliver Wilson "O.W." McCaslin. "One of the guys stayed, but my great-grandfather left and went back to Tennessee. But what he discovered is that the Ute people had just been pushed into Utah, so he realized that he could homestead."

A short time later, McCaslin and his new bride, Celesta Florimel Harris McCaslin, returned and homesteaded 5 miles east of Craig. That led to a series of purchases that would forever tie Sleeter's family to our area and end with repaying the Ute tribe for land that was acquired by McCaslin generations ago.

In her new fictional novel, “The Inheritance,” Sleeter confronted many of her own moral issues while researching her family history. She discovered that she could trace part of an inheritance to land that belonged to the Utes in Northwest Colorado in 1881. It’s a conversation she is hoping will start to address the many ethical issues that go back generations.

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"It had belonged to the Utes until they were dispossessed of the land," Sleeter said of her great-grandfather's homestead and property he later purchased in Steamboat Springs. "He bought it from the federal government and not the Utes. But it was all land the belonged to the Utes before they were forced to leave."

McCaslin lived on the land for several years before selling his homestead. He used the money from the sale to buy about 21 lots in Steamboat, where he lived from 1889 to 1900.

Sleeter said that McCaslin lived on Pine Street and he worked as the manager of the bath house, ran a pool hall with his brother-in-law James Norvell and was a representative for the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company. He left for California in 1900 and later put the property in the name of his wife. Through the years, the money from the sale of the properties he held in Steamboat was passed from one generation to the next with little thought of where the money came from.

"I sort of wondered, in the back of my mind, where my grandmother (who was born near Steamboat Springs) got the money for the trust because she never held a job, as far as I knew," Sleeter said.

Sleeter, a retired college professor, has done a lot of academic writing through her career and is beginning to dabble in fiction.

“The Inheritance,” her second novel, is based on her own struggles with her family history and the discovery that part of the trust fund that was set up by her grandmother came from the proceeds of land that actually belonged to the Utes.

"Once I saw where this inheritance came from, I had to ask myself, 'What am I going to do about that?’" she said. “There are not many models of the descendants of the colonizers giving back to indigenous people.”

She said once she decided what the right path was, it took her time to connect with the tribal leaders, and to find the best way to give the money back. In September 2017, she traveled to meet with the leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah. At that time she gave $250,000 to the tribe to make amends for the land she feels her great-grandfather stole from the Utes.

"It wasn't the right path," Sleeter said of just going on with her life. "Once you realize that you have inherited something that was stolen from somebody else, ethically what do you do about that?," Sleeter said. "I just couldn't forget about it."

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966