Colorado’s “Meeker Massacre”

( – promoted by navajo)

American government policies regarding Indians on reservations during the 1870s encouraged the total destruction of Indian cultures. The application of these policies varied from reservation to reservation according to the amount of tolerance which the Indian agent, usually designated by a Christian missionary group, exhibited toward Indian cultures. In Colorado, the rigid intolerance of one Indian agent on the Ute Reservation resulted in an Indian uprising and a brief battle called the “Meeker Massacre” by historians.  

Nathan C. Meeker was appointed as Indian agent for the Utes on the White River, Colorado reservation in 1878. As with many Indian agents of this era, Meeker had no experience with Indians. He had, however, experience in organizing a utopian religious community in 1869. With this background, his goal in working with the Utes was to convert them into hard-working, God-fearing savages.

In 1879, Meeker, complained to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about Indian horses:

“The practice of these Indians in keeping and holding horses on an extensive scale is not only discouraging to farm industry, but is working a most serious inconvenience, if not loss, to cattle interests.”

The Utes, however, prided themselves in their wealth in horses. A month later he wrote:

“It seems to me evident that the greatest obstacle to civilizing the majority of these Indians is their ownership of horses, which is proved by the fact that those who work have either few or no horses.”

Agent Nathan C. Meeker felt that a

“stern example would civilize the White River Utes.”

He pushed the people to become Christians, to build houses and fences and to farm. When he insisted on plowing the field which had been used as a race track, the Ute fired warning shots. Meeker responded by sending for the army. According to Meeker’s report:

“This is a bad lot of Indians. They have had free rations for so long and have been flattered and petted so much, that they think themselves lords of all.”

The Ute feel that calling for the army was a declaration of war. Their scouts led by Nicaagat met the army outside of the reservation and warned them that the treaty prohibited the army from entering the reservation. The soldiers continued their march in battle formation and were attacked. The army force was surrounded and held for several days until they were rescued by a troop of black cavalry.

Ute warriors also attacked the Indian agency, killing 11 men, including Indian agent Meeker. The warriors took several women captive in order to secure their own safety as they fled. Among those held captive were Meeker’s wife and daughter.

In a week-long battle, 12 soldiers were killed and 43 were wounded, while 37 Ute were killed. This short war was soon labeled the “Meeker Massacre” in honor of the heavy-handed Indian agent.

As a result of the “war,” one newspaper in Colorado launched a campaign under the banner “The Utes Must Go”. The response of the Anglos was to call for the “red devils” to be wiped out. The governor called for the removal or extermination of the Ute:

“My idea is that, unless removed by the government, they must necessarily be exterminated.”

The Ute soon surrendered. Ute leaders Ignacio, Buckskin Charlie, Severo, and Ojo Blanco traveled to Washington, D.C. where they agreed to be relocated to another reservation in Utah. Their former reservation of 12 million acres was to be opened to settlement by non-Indians.

Army officer J. Scott Payne, writing in 1880, reflected on the causes of the Ute war:

“The great trouble is to be found in the teachings of men-benevolent, but totally ignorant of the subject with which they are dealing-who, in the spirit of evangelism, desire to civilize the savage by filling his stomach with food and his heart with religion, both processes to be carried on without the constant presence of force, the only thing for which the Indian entertains respect.”

Payne’s solution:

“The truth is that by force and force alone, tempered, to be sure, by mercy, but that mercy exercised judiciously and sparingly, can his wild nature be kept under control.”

Following the “Meeker Massacre”, the army held a hearing to determine the causes of the Ute war. General Charles Adams concluded that the war was the result of a few young hotheads, but he went on to say:

“I cannot excuse the action of those cowardly dogs who went to the agency and shot from the roofs of the houses, like birds from trees, the white men who were not dreaming of danger, and who certainly had given the Indians no cause to be killed, even if you will have it so that Agent Meeker deserved death at your hands.”

General Adams then demanded that the Ute surrender to him the men involved so that they could be tried. Before the Ute leaders had finished discussing the matter, General Edward Hatch told them:

“This is the decision of the government, and if complied with will prevent the final struggle with the Indians, which must, in the end, result in their utter destruction, forfeiture of all their treaty rights, and loss of their lands.”

Ouray replied for the Ute:

“We will not give these twelve men over to you to be tried by a court of Colorado, where no justice will be shown them. We will give over these men only if they can be tried in Washington, where I know I have at least one friend.”

The army was then told to accept the surrender of the warriors to stand military trial outside of Colorado and New Mexico. However, the Indians were not to be brought to Washington, D.C. for trial, but were to be taken instead to Leavenworth, Kansas. The Ute were not advised of this plan.

A delegation of Ute chiefs then started for Washington, D.C. to meet with Congress. Chief Douglas, however, was jailed in Leavenworth to await trial.

In 1880, the Whiteriver Ute were relocated to the Uintah Reservation in Utah to live among the various Utah Ute bands. Under the agreement with the federal government, the bands were to have a perpetual trust fund and funds from the sale of their homelands were to be credited to their accounts. The federal government, however, made no attempt to sell the Ute lands and they remained in government possession. Thus no funds were credited to their account and no trust fund was established.

In Utah, Ute leader Ouray was disgusted by the actions of the United States against his people. He put aside his Anglo clothing and returned to wearing the traditional Ute breechclout. A sick and broken man, he died in a Ute lodge. Buckskin Charlie, designated by Ouray to become the new chief, and several others buried Ouray’s body in a rock crevice. In accordance with traditional Ute burial customs, three of Ouray’s horses were killed on the spot, and then the burial party quickly departed from the grave site.

National Parks & American Indians: Mesa Verde

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Nearly a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans (sometimes called Anasazi) began to construct pueblos in caves and under the rock hangings of the canyon cliffs in southern Colorado. Three hundred years later, these pueblos were abandoned because of a prolonged drought. Then in 1888, rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason came across the ruins of an enormous village in the cliffs of Cliff Canyon. They named the village Cliff Palace. In exploring the area, they discovered two more large ruins which they named Spruce Tree House and Square Tower House.

Cliff Palace

Spruce Tree House

Wetherill and Mason returned to the ruins and dug up a large number of artifacts which they later displayed at the Fair Building in Durango, Colorado.

While Wetherhill and Mason are commonly credited with “discovering” the Mesa Verde ruins, it is important to note that the Utes already knew about the Mesa Verde ruins. Most of ruins lay on Ute lands. The Utes avoided the ruins, which were considered to harbor spirits of the dead that would harm living people.

Cliff Palace 2

In addition, several non-Indians had also explored the area prior to Wetherhill and Mason. In 1765 Don Juan MarĂ­a de Rivera led an expedition into the area and reported seeing ancient ruins. These may have been the ruins of Mesa Verde, but the report provided no identifiable features.

In 1874, pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson was guided into Two Story House by a local miner. He took the first photographs of a cliff dwelling in the Mesa Verde region. In 1884, another prospector, S. E. Osborn, spent the winter in the area and explored Balcony House.

In 1890, Benjamin Wetherhill wrote to the Smithsonian Institution suggesting that the ruins be made into a national park so that the tourists would not destroy them.

In 1899, a group of women determined to halt the vandalism at the Mesa Verde ruins and to attract tourists to the area held a meeting on the Southern Ute reservation with Ute leaders Ignacio and Acowitz. They suggested that the Ute police the park and proposed a lease of $300 per year. Chief Ignacio demanded $9,000 at one time and the negotiations failed.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill which created Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. This was the first national park created to preserve ancient ruins. Today the park includes 4,000 known archaeological sites which include 600 cliff dwellings.

The initial Act passed by Congress included 42,000 acres of Ute land. However, because of a faulty survey almost none of the ruins were actually located in the new national park. To correct this, the bill was amended to place all unpatented prehistoric ruins on Indian or federal land within five miles of the park boundary under the custodianship of the park.

In 1911, the Indian Service sent its top negotiator, James McLaughlin, to talk with the Ute about the expansion of Mesa Verde National Park. Meeting with 48 members of the Wiminuche Band, McLaughlin explained that a number of cliff dwellings were left out of the park. The park needed just a five mile parcel and the government would give the Ute a larger piece in exchange for it.

One of the interpreters, Nathan King, pointed out to government negotiators that the Ute already owned the land that the government was trying to give them. In addition, the lands which they would be giving up contained valuable springs. The negotiators then told the Ute that the government was strong enough to take the land away from them for the park. Having no choice, the Ute agreed to the transfer. As a result, the Ute gave up an additional 10,800 acres of their land for Mesa Verde National Park and they received 20,160 acres of their own land in exchange.

In 1913, a survey found that the boundary for Mesa Verde National Park excluded Balcony House. Without bothering to notify the Ute, Congress amended legislation to transfer an additional 1,320 acres from the reservation to the park.

Balcony House

In 1978, Mesa Verde National Park was designated as a World Heritage Site.

In 1986, the Ute took advantage of a surveying error which put part of a well-traveled road in Mesa Verde National Park on tribal lands. They established a facility that offers souvenir and refreshment sales as well as helicopter tours. The National Park Service was not happy with this unregulated facility.

In 2006, 100 years after the National Park was created, 1,500 human remains and nearly 5,000 associated funerary items-pottery, beads, basketry, and other artifacts-that had been excavated from Mesa Verde National Park during the past 100 years were repatriated and reburied at an undisclosed location within the park. The 24 tribes culturally affiliated with the park appointed the Hopi to perform the reburial ceremonies. The repatriation was carried out under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). According to the Mesa Verde National Park website:

http://www.nps.gov/meve/histor…

The reburial ceremony was a result of 12 years of consultation with the park’s 24 associated tribes, and was performed by both park staff and the Hopi tribe. Due to the sensitive nature of the event, and out of respect for the tribes, the reburial was closed to the general public and took place in an undisclosed park location.

Balcony House 2

Mormons and Indians in Early Utah

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In 1847, the Mormons entered what is now Utah and began to build their Kingdom of God on Earth. There are some who feel that that this was to be a kingdom that did not include the American Indian residents of Utah. Unlike American settlers in other parts of the west, the Mormons have included Indians in their religion and their entry into Utah challenged their religious attitude toward Indians. The Book of Mormon promised that the Indians would be redeemed through the influence of the gospel, but the reality of the frontier situation in Utah demanded the immediate displacement of the Indians.

According to the Book of Mormon, Indians are descendents of Israelites who came to the Americas about 600 BCE. These Israelites were the descendants from Laman, the rebellious son of Lehi. Shortly after the Israelites arrived in the Americas, they divided into two great civilizations, one which followed the true gospel and the other which followed darkness and apostasy. The Book of Mormon describes how Jesus came to the Americas following his resurrection and preached to the American Indians.  

To the Mormons, redemption of the Indians (whom they called Lamanites) was a prophecy to be fulfilled and a scripture to be vindicated. Thus Mormon ideology regarding the origin and identity of the Indians was responsible for some favorable attitudes and policies toward them.

Shortly after the arrival of the Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley, small groups of Shoshone and Ute came to trade horses for guns. The area was a buffer zone which was contested between the Ute and the Shoshone. The Shoshone told the Mormons that the Ute were interfering with their rights. Concerned about the possibility of conflict, the Mormons ceased trading guns and ammunition to the Indians. The Mormons also abandoned their earlier policy of buying or renting land from Indians and declared ownership based on divine donation and beneficial use. According to Heber Kimball:

“The land belongs to our Father in Heaven, and we calculate to plow and plant it; and no man shall have the power to sell his inheritance for he cannot remove it; it belongs to the Lord.”

The Mormons, unlike the trappers who had preceded them, intended to stay in Utah. Therefore they needed to develop a stable relationship with Native Americans. Brigham Young announced a policy of friendliness toward Indians that was designed to minimize tensions between settlers and natives. Brigham Young’s policy was to deal with the Indians fairly. Unlike other American settlers, the Mormons were not to kill Indians randomly, nor were Indians to be killed for stealing. This policy, however, was soon challenged.

In 1849, the Mormon settlers were having many horses and cattle stolen by Indians. In response, Brigham Young sent out a militia company to end the depredations. The militia surrounded the small Ute band of Little Chief and engaged in a four-hour battle in which all four warriors were killed. This engagement, carried out with determination and dispatch, shows a change in Brigham Young’s policy that Indians would not, or should not, be killed for stealing.

The following year some Shoshone warriors from Terrikee’s band rode through the grain fields and melon patches of Mormon settlers near Ogden. Fearing trouble, Terrikee sent his people away. However, he was killed by a Mormon farmer who thought that the chief was trying to steal corn. In retaliation, the Shoshones killed a Mormon settler. This incident heightened tension between Mormon settlers and the outlying Northwestern Shoshone to the north of Great Salt Lake.

In 1850, following an argument over a stolen shirt, Mormon settlers in Utah Valley killed a Ute known as Old Bishop, stuffed his stomach with rocks, and threw his body into the Provo River. When the Utes found the body, the Mormons feared retribution and asked for help from the Mormon Militia.

In response to the call for help, the Mormon militia engaged a Ute band of Big Elk which had been weakened by an epidemic. The Utes retreated with the sick and wounded, taking refuge in a nearby canyon. About 40 Utes were killed and the militia commander, who was under orders to take no prisoners, killed those who surrendered. The women and children were herded into an open stockade. Even though it was winter, they were fed slop in troughs like beasts. The captive children were distributed among the Mormons, to be brought up in the habits of a Christian life. Most escaped at their first opportunity.

By 1850 the Mormon policy with regard to Indians had changed. Reports of depredations were now followed by militia action. The best land was to be taken by Mormon settlers without payment. The Indians were to be strictly excluded from Mormon settlements. Stealing by Indians was often to bring swift punishment, including death.

Congress voted to organize the Territory of Utah in 1850. When Brigham Young announced this to the General Assembly, he also talked about the Indians:

“But habits of civilization seem not to be in accordance with their physical formation; many that have tried it, pine away, and unless returned to their former habits of living, die in a very short time. Could they be induced to live peacefully and keep herds of cattle, the conditions would very materially be ameliorated, and gradually induce a return to the habits of civilization.”

Brigham Young asked Mormon lobbyists in Washington to persuade the government to extinguish Indian title to lands in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada and to legalize Mormon settlement and land claims.

As an organized American territory, policies regarding Indians in Utah now came under the federal government. This, however, did not end the conflicts and over the next 20 years there were a number of Indian conflicts and wars.