Editor’s note: The second part of our three-part series on the removal of the Ute people from western Colorado begins on the first day of the six-day Milk Creek stalemate, which provoked the killings of Nathan Meeker and others at the White River Indian Agency, 17 miles southwest of the battle. Part One traced events leading to the Northern Utes’ historic Battle of Milk Creek against U. S. troops. Part Three will explore the concluding aftermath of the resulting “Colorow War.”

As the first hours of battle at Milk Creek erupted between the surrounded U.S. troops and the Utes, and before Col. Wesley Merritt’s arrival seven days later with reinforcements, a Ute messenger galloped 17 miles south to Nathan Meeker’s White River Indian Agency, reporting to Chief Quinkent — whom the whites had named Douglass — that U.S. troops were coming to arrest the chiefs, the Dec. 3, 1879, edition of the Rocky Mountain News recounted. 

Angered because the troops had illegally entered the reservation and agent Meeker had lied about requesting them, Quinkent compelled Meeker to send a last-minute messenger to ask Maj. Thomas Thornburgh, the detachment commander, to negotiate. Unbeknown to those at the agency, Thornburgh was already dead, shot from his horse, and wounded Capt. J. S. Payne had assumed command. While waiting for word back from the dispatched rider, Quinkent sat down to a meal in the main house with the Meeker family.

Years later, on July 4, 1908, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported the death of a Ute woman, “Red Jacket Jane,” on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. And in an old Navajo woman’s recollections about her friend Jane — both of whom were sold to whites as child slaves — the March 10, 1988, edition of the Steamboat Pilot wrote in a historical account that Jane was at Meeker’s agency on that day, Sept. 29, 1879. 

Jane learned English as a child from her white captors and became the Meeker family’s main-house domestic, helping also in Josephine Meeker’s schoolhouse. Called the “Ute spy,” Jane overheard Meeker say that he telegraphed for military backup, and she told the chiefs. When confronted, Meeker infuriated the chiefs, claiming he had never asked for troops. This — on top of plowing up their land, asking them to kill off excess horses, spreading hyperbole to the newspapers and the approaching troops — incited their rebellion.

Nevertheless, on the afternoon of Sept. 29, after Quinkent and Meeker had lunch together, a group of warriors fresh from the ongoing Milk Creek battlefront stormed the agency. The mix of Utes at the agency joined in self-defense, if not vindictively, and fired upon the workers, even while Meeker’s last-minute peace envoy, Harry Dresser, was en route to negotiate with the command at Milk Creek. The employees at the agency returned fire but were brutally overcome, while the women and children ran and hid before being taken captive.

In the differing versions of the saga, newspapers interpreted details and timelines from the official post-event deposition testimony of the White River Ute Investigation (WRUI), archived today at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. 

Conducted between Nov. 12, 1879, and Jan. 7, 1880, at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, near today’s Montrose, and sanctioned by head Chief Ouray and Interior Secretary Karl Schurz (called “Big Eyes” by the Utes), the WRUI heard testimony from Mrs. Meeker, the Meekers’ daughter Miss Josephine Meeker and Mrs. Shadruck Price, whose blacksmith husband died at the agency, as well as Quinkent, Canavish (whom the whites had named Johnson), and other Utes. Lead investigator Gen. Charles Adams asked questions.

An odd twist arose in Josephine Meeker’s detailed testimony. The Indians, she attested, found violent sketches of the imagined deaths of the white agency residents on Thornburgh’s body, hours before the agency was attacked. The pictures’ existence was corroborated by other Utes during Josephine’s captivity, she further testified. Those sketches could have been officially sent in a dispatch from Meeker to exaggerate urgency; perhaps he had drawn the pictures during an opium indulgence, a habit noted by the Colorado Encyclopedia. Yet, Thornburgh was known to be honest and sympathetic to the Indians. Bringing the pictures could have been a tactic to confront Meeker. 

Ultimately, review of the circumstances by the WRUI — communication failures notwithstanding — deemed the concurrent Milk Creek battle a fair fight, but the plundering at Meeker’s White River agency in Powell Park sparked controversy for years to come. The WRUI deemed the events at the agency “willful murder” and didn’t view the agency killings as part of the whole conflict, beginning when U.S. troops first crossed the reservation border at Milk Creek. 

Site of the Sept. 29, 1879 Meeker incident. The actual destruction and fire where 10 white employees plus Meeker were killed by Utes is below in the large meadow behind the sign, now a hay field on private property. Beneath the sign is a stone monument placed in 1927 citing the 10 employees’ names. Credit: Photo by Tim Cooney

Retribution at the agency 

Merritt’s cleanup at the six-day Milk Creek battle site included packing Thornburgh’s body in mud for transport. Ultimately, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. With the last Ute resistance having dispersed at the sight of Merritt’s multiplying reinforcements, Merritt arrived at the agency Saturday, Oct. 11, 12 days after the rebellion, to discover the decaying carnage there. 

As history has shown, violent practices in a particular culture have a kinetic script of their own. Between Indian tribes, honorable acts and horrific violence over enemies after victory  had been a practice before the genocidal Europeans arrived. The Oct. 14, 1879, edition of the Rocky Mountain News ran a story headlined “A scene of slaughter” and reported the details.

Although there was no sign of the women and children, who were presumed captives, Merritt found Nathan Meeker with a chain around his neck, having been dragged about and burned. His head was smashed, and a barrel stave through his throat staked him to the ground —  done, by some interpretations, so he couldn’t lie in the afterlife. With 11 dead, including Meeker, most of the other men, some scattered beyond the agency, had been stripped naked and set to fleeing before being shot, mutilated and burned. One corpse had been partially eaten by wolves.

Merritt’s men also found an undelivered dispatch that might have changed history, on the body of Harry Dresser from the agency, who had been sent by Meeker at Quinkent’s insistence upon first learning that Thornburgh’s troops had crossed the Milk Creek reservation line. He left not knowing that the Milk Creek battle had already started, and was killed just before reaching there. The message requested a peace rendezvous with Thornburgh. 

Dresser was found in a coal mine near Milk Creek where he had crawled in after being fatally shot, Robert Emmitt wrote in “The Last War Trail.” The undelivered message he carried read, “Sept. 29, 1 o’clock p.m. I will come with Chief Douglass (Quinkent) and meet you tomorrow. Douglass is flying the U.S. flag. Not that we know of any trouble but for fear there might be. Nathan Meeker.”

Josephine Meeker, daughter of Nathan Meeker, Indian agent at the White River Indian Agency. During the hostilities at the agency on Sept. 29, 1879, she was taken captive and later released. Circa 1878. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Miss Josephine Meeker’s story

But history was written. As the official WRUI questioned Miss Josephine Meeker, 22, about what happened at the agency following the rebellion — before and after being taken captive for 23 days and held at Grand Mesa, near today’s Powderhorn ski area — events gained a chronology. 

By Josephine’s account, the three women and two children were in the main house when they heard shooting and yelling outside. About 20 warriors from the Milk Creek battle arrived and began shooting the windows out. Then the house was set afire, yet they slipped out and hid for four hours in the milk house, which was then burned. From there they ran into the chaparral, chased by Utes “as bullets whistled and struck all about.” The elder Mrs. Meeker received a wound above her knee. They did not witness the scorching of the agency grounds nor the killings, which happened during the milk-house interim. Later, Mrs. Meeker recounted glimpsing her dead husband burned and staked to the ground just as they fled.

The Nov. 6, 1879, edition of the Fort Collins Courier reported on a public retelling by Josephine, before the WRUI commenced, on the Sept. 29 abduction of the women and children. While wearing only calico dresses, two of the women rode government mules many miles to Grand Mesa on bareback blankets with their feet tied under the animals’ bellies, gripping short halter ropes, not bridles. Josephine rode with Mrs. Price’s 3-year-old daughter — “little May” — tied behind her, Mrs. Price rode with her swaddled baby, Johnny, and Mrs. Meeker rode behind Canavish on his horse. At times, they traveled separately and slept in different tepees. 

At camps before Grand Mesa, Josephine recounted how the Indians held councils and that Quinkent was prone to rages, sometimes beating his wife, yet he was the kindest to the captives. Nicaagat, she said, restrained others who threatened to kill the captives. At camps along the way, Josephine baked bread and cooked beef from some agency cattle herded along with them, so “we ate well.”

Josephine never publicly accused her captors of rape or sexual abuse. However, all three women under oath during their WRUI testimony were compelled by investigator Adams to detail their treatment for the record.

Josephine testified that she had been “outraged” (a Victorian euphemism for rape) by younger warrior Pah-sone while his other wives watched. Mrs. Meeker testified that she had “connections” with Quinkent in his tepee, while Mrs. Price testified that she had been “outraged” by Canavish and another younger Ute. Their testimony leaked to the press. 

The white witnesses detailed how some of the Ute women — especially Canavish’s wife, Susan, who was Ouray’’s sister — treated them well and protected them. As the school teacher at the agency, Josephine had been sympathetic to the Utes. Perhaps because she better understood their culture after her prolonged immersion, coupled with what is termed today as Stockholm Syndrome, she appeared to carry little ill will toward her abductors after her release from captivity. Besieged by offers to lecture and write books on the life-changing event, she and her older sister Rozene, who was living in Greeley and was never part of the agency incident, took up the lecture circuit.

typical advertisement from the Colorado newspapers declaring “The Utes Must Go” in the 1880s. This one asks you to patronize the Pioneer Grocery in Denver.

Josephine filled the newly opened Tabor Opera House in Denver on Nov. 29, 1879, after speaking in Leadville and Boulder about her captivity, the Dec. 3, 1879, edition of the Rocky Mountain News reported. On Nov. 18, the Rocky Mountain News described Rozene as “Miss Rose Meeker, a petit, radical ‘spirituelle’ dressed all in somber black with a single line of white about her throat, with coal black tresses.” On the road, she firebranded how the Utes “could not be civilized” and should be “wiped out for all time and eternity.” This provoked radicals statewide, who agitated ruthless eradication beyond compromise.

At the same time, Gov. Frederick Pitkin demagogued the eager Denver newspapers, calling for statewide militias to mobilize. The papers headlined “War! War!” and “The Utes Must Go.” Even restaurant menus and storefronts in Aspen posted the latter phrase. In a letter to the town of Ouray, Pitkin wrote, “Indians off the reservation are game to be hunted and destroyed like wild beasts,” Emmitt recounted in “The Last War Trail.” 

Pitkin, who was known to have multiple silver-mining interests in the San Juans, ballyhooed that 12 million acres of land could be added to his state with the removal of all western Utes. Earlier, when rich ore was discovered in the San Juan mountains in 1869, prospectors ignored the 1868 treaty that reserved the area for the Utes. So, in 1873, the Brunot Agreement that was negotiated in Washington, D.C., sliced out 3.7 million acres of the San Juans from the Utes’ Western Slope reservation, and Pitkin, then an attorney and speculator, began accumulating his mining properties there. 

Studio portrait of Ute women in period dress. In the Ute culture, women had a strong influence on events in their culture, more than the white women of the era. Left to tight: Tachiar, A-Pat-We-Ma, and Ta-Nah; in back, L to R: Ce-Gie-Che-Ok and To-Wee. 1899. Credit: Denver Public Library

Women negotiators

While the women were in captivity on the Grand Mesa, head Chief Ouray sent word that his friend Adams was coming with soldiers for a peaceable release of the captives. Reluctant to give them up, and with some wanting to fight to the end, Canavish’s wife, Susan, convinced the chiefs that in the best interest of all Utes, the captives should be freed. 

Earlier, Ouray’s wife, Chipeta, had counseled Ouray to ease tensions at the White River agency, but with the soldiers approaching Milk Creek, volatility had already ripened. As the protracted battle unfolded at Milk Creek, Chipeta got word to Ouray in his mountain hunting camp, and he sent a message to Colorow and Nicaagat to cease fighting, just as Merritt and his first 500 men arrived, soon after reinforced by 1,100 more.

These women’s roles in bringing peace highlights how the fight for women’s rights in America was informed by the experience of native women, who, while relegated to gender roles, nonetheless held positions of influence and power in their communities in ways that exceeded what was typically available to white women of the time. 

Contemporary Mohawk filmmaker Katsitsionni Fox, at the Ute Shining Mountain Film Festival in Aspen in October, presented this premise in an award-winning PBS documentary, “Without a Whisper.” Fox’s film shows how the matriarchal culture of the Iroquois influenced white suffragists in upstate New York, leading up to the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, when women lacked even the most basic rights.

An idyllic diorama at the Meeker County Historical Society museum of Nathan Meeker’s White River Indian Agency as it was before the Meeker incident on Sept. 29, 1879. Note the Utes’ horseracing track and the teepees on the right. Credit: Photo by Tim Cooney

No witnesses

Still, the crux of the WRUI investigation was to find out who killed the white men at the agency. The Utes who testified all said they didn’t know exactly who killed Meeker because many fired upon them at the same time, and it was impossible to know who shot whom. None of the Utes who testified at the investigation were asked about alleged sexual abuse of the women; Victorian reticence to further embarrass women when viewed through today’s tell-all lens is difficult to grasp. On top of that, Ouray had vetted the Utes’ testimony before their questioning. Yet, the deliberate killings at the agency and subsequent abuse of the female captives were ruled to be criminal under the U.S. legal system, which began mobilizing against the alleged perpetrators.

After sifting through testimonies, Gen. Edward Hatch, head of the commission, demanded from Chief Ouray that chiefs Quinkent and Canavish and 10 other Utes deemed involved in the killings at the agency be handed over for trial. But the wanted Utes were never surrendered nor directly implicated by evidence. Canavish testified that he left the agency with his family when the first shots were fired and didn’t participate in nor witness the killings. He said his wife had already packed up his lodge and belongings to go. 

Yet, Adams countered to Canavish how in a meeting at Quinkent’s camp — with other chiefs as witnesses, after the women were first released and before the WRUI had commenced — that Nicaagat (whom the whites had named Jack) said: “The chief who was riding around on a white horse, commanding the Indians [at the agency], was Chief Johnson (Canavish).” Then Adams followed up: “Was that true or false?” And Cavanish answered: “It is not true.”

Quinkent testified that a group of warriors fresh from the Milk Creek fight and others there jointly fired on the agency personnel, but that he had gone to his house without witnessing the killings to prepare to leave as well. 

According to “The Last War Trail,” after not producing the suspects, Ouray then held a council with the chiefs at Los Pinos. There, he stabbed a knife in the ground, threatening, “We go back to the mountains and fight the 40 million people,” because he felt there could be no fair trial in Colorado where sentiment after the Meeker events called for Ute extermination.

But Ouray, while in poor health from nephritis, prompted again by Chipeta, reconsidered. In 1880, months before his death, he and Chipeta traveled by train to Washington, D.C., where he met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, followed by Ouray’s signing a document — not a treaty — for the final surrender of all Utes. This capitulation relegated all Northern Utes — the Uncompahgre and White River bands — to the Uintah and Ouray reservations (combined as one in 1886), in northeast Utah. Resigned to protecting the Nuchu (“the mountain people,” in the native Ute tongue), Quinkent and others accompanied Ouray. 

Along the way, in Kansas City, Quinkent was abruptly taken off the train and imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., but never charged. Accounts say there was no direct evidence of who committed the agency killings, and sexual abuse charges would be too lurid and upsetting for the captive women. Imprisoning Quinkent was speculated to be a token redress. Why the other Utes wanted for trial were never captured or charged is not clear.  

Chief Quinkent (given the name “Douglass” by the whites) of the Northern White River Utes, head chief at the White River Indian Agency at the time of the Battle of Milk Creek and the concurrent Meeker incident. Credit: Denver Public Library

Germane to this historical uncertainty, Interior Secretary Schurz released Quinkent back to the Ute people in February 1881, “untried and unpunished,” according to the Feb. 26, 1881, edition of Lake City’s Silver World. Straddling Eastern sympathy groups and Western animosity toward Indians, the soon-retiring Schurz was widely criticized by Colorado newspapers for his leniency. In 1883, the May 16 edition of the Delta Chief and other Colorado newspapers said Quinkent had become insane, “a lunatic” roaming the northwest Meeker area. Theless June 5, 1885, edition of the Salida Mail reported: “Utes inspired by spiritual influences killed Chief Douglass a short distance from Meeker.”

And the bizarre finale of Quinkent’s story played out in the The Meeker Herald on July 16, 1887, when the paper claimed, “The only bonafide skull of Douglass has been in possession of The Herald for the last two years. Yes, the skull, tomahawk and bloody scalping knife of Douglass is among the sanguinary relics that adorn the walls of our sanctum.”

By final decree from Washington, D.C., the Southern Utes could stay on a reduced southern Colorado reservation near the New Mexico border, while the Uncompahgre near today’s Montrose and the northwest White River Utes went to the area of northeastern Utah by Fort Duchesne, a territory that the Mormons didn’t want and that Brigham Young declared so lacking that it was only there in order to hold the land together.

Many Northern Utes refused or were slow to move there. In 1880-81, with the sting of the agency killings and the Battle of Milk Creek still in the forefront, stipends in recompense and land allotments on the Utah reservation were offered to entice, the May 7, 1881, edition of the Rocky Mountain News wrote. Nicaagat and Colorow resisted with their bands, but they collected the stipends at the reservation and then continued to roam in northwest Colorado. Nicaagat became estranged from the Utes because he had cooperated with Washington. A Wikipedia account claims he was later killed in a tepee on the Shoshone reservation in Wyoming by a howitzer shot, on April 29, 1882, fired by soldiers sent to arrest him. 

Settlers, politicians and economic opportunists cared less about finding and prosecuting individual Indians involved in the Meeker agency upheaval than about securing possession of the land and natural resources. Initial zeal to find those from the agency diminished because rising Colorado sentiment wanted all the Utes punished and gone. In response, a military detachment in September 1881 herded the remaining Indians above the southern reservation some 225 miles from Colorado to the Utah reservation, Dee Brown details in “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” — much like the 1830s Trail of Tears evacuation of Native Americans from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma.

Colorow, with his own band, continued to roam between the Utah reservation and northern Colorado, precipitating the “Colorow Wars,” until finally, old and in poor health, he and the last remaining northern Utes were force marched by a mix of Colorado National Guard and volunteer Colorado militiamen in August 1887 onto the Utah reservation. 

As part of the Colorado National Guard, Aspen’s Company F, led by Captain F.H. Gosline, mustered at the original Armory Hall on Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen (not the former city hall building, built in 1891) for the weekslong campaign. Serenaded by the town band, they marched down Main Street through a cheering crowd to help clear the last of the free roaming Utes out of the Meeker area. Days later, Pitkin County  Sheriff J. D.Hooper, with 63 more volunteers, reinforced Company F in Meeker. Rumors flew that Meeker might be attacked by the Utes.

The Meeker women welcomed them with a dance and a roasted pig. The “Aspen Boys” partied, and someone caught a badger in a bag. In sporadic skirmishes, Glenwood Deputy Sheriff Jack Ward and Aspen Lt. Frank Folsom died. Three Aspen Boys were wounded. But those events are another story.

The third and final installment in this series, after the 1879 Battle of Milk Creek and the Meeker incident, will run July 7. The story of the Northern Utes picks up again in 1880. Chief Colorow and his band, the last of the free-roaming Utes, evade sheriff posses and state militias until a final showdown in 1887, when they are stripped of everything and forced back to the Utah reservation during the “Colorow War.”

This story ran in Aspen Daily News on July 2.

Tim Cooney is an Aspen freelance writer and former ski patroller. Among others, the Aspen Daily News, The Aspen Times, The Avalanche Review, Aspen Sojourner, Ski and Powder Magazine have published his...