Gateway to the Classics: Indian History for Young Folks by Francis S. Drake
Indian History for Young Folks by  Francis S. Drake

The Ute Outbreak of 1879

Turning from the peaceful Poncas, our history leads us to the more warlike tribes, whom we shall find did not tamely submit, like the Poncas, to removal from their lands. Broken treaties, dishonest Indian agents, failure of rations due the different tribes, malcontents among the Indians, lawbreaking white men—all these have been the causes of many of our Indian troubles, but by far the most disturbing force, and the cause of most of the Indian wars which disturbed the West, has been directly due to the concentration or consolidation policy adopted in 1873 as a part of the so-called "peace policy" inaugurated during President Grant's administration. The execution of this policy required that the different tribes should be gathered together as rapidly as possible on certain reservations. Resistance meant that they were to be removed by force—to be driven from their native homes and placed on undesirable lands, often far removed from the place of their birth and the graves of their fathers. This injustice was to be enacted in order to satisfy the white man's greed for their lands, although sacred treaties had been made which had provided that the Indians were to retain certain lands set apart for them on the various reservations. The Indians saw these sacred promises broken; and only too often were they on the verge of starvation by failure of the Government to grant them sufficient rations. Under such circumstances, it is not to be wondered at that they frequently evinced their dissatisfaction by leaving the hateful reservations and going on the war-path, in the course of which they committed all sorts of atrocities on the isolated settlements before they could be quelled and forced to return to the different agencies.

"These wars might have been regarded as inevitable, and therefore a sufficient number of soldiers should have been provided to meet them; but it was not done, and hence the fatal results which followed. No other nation in the world would have attempted the reduction of these wild tribes and occupation of their country with less than sixty thousand or seventy thousand men, while the whole force employed and scattered over the enormous region described never numbered fourteen thousand men, and nearly one-third of this force had been confined to the line of the Rio Grande to protect the Mexican frontier. The consequence was that every engagement was a forlorn hope and was attended with a loss of life unparalleled in warfare. No quarter was given by the savages, and the officers and men had to enter upon their duties with the most barbarous cruelties staring them in the face in case of defeat. . . . It would have been less expensive if an army of sixty thousand or seventy thousand men had been maintained; and, moreover, the blood of gallant officers, soldiers, and citizens would not have rested on our hands."


An Ambuscade.

In 1879 there was a serious outbreak among the Utes of the White River Agency in Colorado, caused by the attempt of their agent to force the Indians under his charge to become agriculturists and calling in the military to back him up in his policy. The Utes were a warlike people, strong in numbers and inclined to set authority at defiance. They had no desire to adopt the civilization of the white man, whose constant pressure at the barriers of their lands they strongly resented.

The Utes were made up of four principal tribes, as follows: the Unitahs, who occupied a reservation in north-eastern Utah, and at this time numbering four hundred and thirty souls; the Los Yinos, whose abode was in the Uncompahgre Valley, Colorado, and whose people numbered two thousand; the Southern Utes living in the south-western part of Colorado, whose tribe represented about nine hundred and thirty individuals; and the White River Utes, dwelling on the reservation in north-western Colorado, in number above eight hundred souls.

These Indian tribes in 1879 were well able to defend themselves, being strong in numbers, well supplied with arms and ammunition, possessing large numbers of horses, and warriors who were brave and skilful fighters. They were fully conscious of their strength, and when the white settlers and miners began to encroach on their lands, which were rich in minerals and included the best farming and grazing lands in the State, the Indians assumed a hostile attitude and had no disposition to yield up their native land. Their ways were not the white man's ways; they were still in the hunter stage of development, and much preferred to gain their subsistence from the products of the chase, which they could exchange at the various trading-posts off the reservations for the things they needed—guns, ammunition, and, we regret to say, whiskey.

During the year 1879 and 1880 there was a great "rush" of white settlers to the State of Colorado, where rich mineral deposits had been discovered on the reservation lands of the Indians. To these fortune-hunters from the East the sacred promises of an Indian treaty did not matter, and the Indians soon saw the new-comers establishing themselves on their lands, contrary to the treaty provisions which had reserved these lands to them forever. The Indians, however, would not cultivate the soil nor develop the mines, and, therefore, they must be removed from the path of progress.

In 1863 a treaty had been made with the Utes by the provisions of which a part of their native lands in western Colorado was secured to them as a reservation. Five years later, in 1868, another treaty was drawn up, which set aside a larger reservation on which all the Eastern Utes were to live—this territory to be theirs forever, with a further stipulation according them the privilege of hunting outside the reservation limits. But despite these treaties—considered mere "scraps of paper" by the white invaders—the reservation lands were occupied by the whites in 1879, and the trouble that was inevitable followed. The Indians made protests to the authorities, and in response to their appeal troops were ordered to drive the intruders out. The miners, however, would not give up their camps, neither would the settlers leave their farms, on which crops had already been planted. A conflict appeared unavoidable, but this time the Indians, fortunately, wished for peace, and consented to cede a strip of their land in the San Juan country in which the mines were located. By the terms of the agreement, which was ratified by Act of Congress, April 29, 1874, it was expressly stipulated that the cession was not to include any part of the farming lands of the Uncompahgre Park. The terms of the agreement were, however, shamefully disregarded. The land was surveyed, and the Indians were deprived of their best farming lands, for which no equivalent lands were given them. President Grant, realizing that injustice had been done the red men, issued orders, August 17, 1876, that a certain portion of the land in dispute, to include the strip of the Uncompahgre Park, should be restored to the Ute Reservation. Troops were also ordered to remove the intruders, but the whites threatened to attack the Indians if the troops disturbed them in their possessions, and the authorities, fearing an Indian war, did not enforce the order. The white man needed this land and the Indians must be removed to some other location. The trouble was finally settled when the Indians, under the influence of Chief Ouray, who maintained an unvarying friendship for the whites, consented to sell the territory in dispute to the United States Government for the sum of ten thousand dollars. The Indians did not receive this money until several years later.


Major T.T. Thornburgh.

A few months after these disturbing causes, which threatened to lead to war, had been removed, a fresh cause of trouble arose among the Indians of the White River Reservation when the agent, N. C. Meeker in the summer of 1879 attempted to force the Indians under his charge to become agriculturists or starve; and when the agent asked for troops to back him up in this policy, the Indians became hostile and warned Meeker that the presence of troops on the reservation would be regarded by them as an act of war. At this time, as was their regular custom, a band of a hundred Indians had left the reservation to go on a hunting expedition, which took them into Wyoming. There happened, in the summer of 1879, to be great and destructive forest fires, most of which were caused by the carelessness of railway tiemen, but for which the Indians were blamed. Mr. Meeker joined in these complaints, and even accused some of the Utes of supplying ammunition to certain Sioux who were said to be preparing to go on the war-path, and urged that troops be employed to send the Indians back to the reservation.

In the mean time the bad feeling of the Indians on the reservation grew, and in September of that year a petty chief named Johnson assaulted Meeker in his own house, as a result of Meeker's attempt to force the Indians to plough a strip of Johnson's land. The Indians resolved that they would not plough their land; they had no taste for farming, and the feeling rapidly grew among them that Meeker was their enemy. When they learned that soldiers were coming to have the land ploughed and to arrest Johnson, they delivered an ultimatum to Meeker that the soldiers must not come unless Meeker wanted war. Meeker however, was determined that the business and industries of the Agency were not to be dictated by the Indians, and in order to force them to carry out his orders, as well as to protect himself and family and the employees of the Agency, he called upon the military stationed at Fort Russell, Wyoming Territory.



In response to Meeker's appeal for protection, Major T. T. Thornburgh, with a force of one hundred and ninety men, consisting of cavalry and infantry troops, proceeded to march to the White River Agency, over one hundred and seventy miles distant. When Thornburgh reached Bear River on his march to the Agency he was met by several prominent Utes, among whom was the notorious Colorado, who wanted to know why he was coming. When he told them that the agent had sent for troops because the Indians had been acting badly, they denied everything and begged him not to lead the soldiers to the reservation. Major Thornburgh proposed that he himself with only a few of his men would proceed to the Agency, leaving the main body of troops in camp outside of the reservation. Upon this the Indians departed, apparently in a most friendly mood.

This conference took place at a distance of more than one hundred miles from the Agency. Major Thornburgh intended to discontinue his march, and so sent word to Meeker, saying that he would come on to the Agency with five men. It was on September 26 that Colorado and the other Ute chiefs had held the parley with Major Thornburgh, following which the troops proceeded on their march in the direction of the Agency. On the morning of September 29 the advance guard discovered a strong force of Utes ambushed along a mountain pass, which was about twenty-five miles from the Agency and within the reservation limits. Major Thornburgh still hoped to avoid hostilities, but his attempt to hold a parley with the Indians was met by a volley from the guns of the ambushed savages. The Indians were well armed and greatly outnumbered the force under Thornburgh, whose command was soon entirely surrounded by the hostiles. The well-disciplined troops immediately replied to the fire of the Indians, at the same time retreating in good order to the line of the wagon-train. While this movement was taking place Major Thornburgh was shot and instantly killed. Desperate fighting followed and the troops suffered a loss of thirteen men killed and forty-three wounded, including two officers and the surgeon of the command.

Captain Payne, who had been only slightly wounded, now assumed command, and at once prepared to fortify his position by throwing up hasty intrenchments, using the horses killed in the action as a temporary shelter while the soldiers plied the picks and shovels to make the protection more secure. The Indians, balked of their prey, now fired the dry grass and brush, the flames from which the rising wind soon carried close to the wagon-train behind which the desperate troops had taken their stand. No water was within reach, but the troops succeeded in smothering the flames with blankets and canvas obtained from the supply-wagons. The soldiers had soon dug themselves in, and thus protected, the bullets which the Indians poured in upon them did no material damage.

Couriers were despatched to Fort Russell with news of the disaster, and reinforcements under Colonel Merrit were soon on the way to relieve the beleaguered troops, who had succeeded in holding off the Indians during five long days and nights, Colonel Merrit, with a force of two hundred cavalry and one hundred and fifty infantry, reaching the besieged men on the morning of October 5. They found the little force in good condition, no further loss having been suffered by the troops since the first day's fighting. The Indians, who were in strong force and occupied a commanding position, began preparations to attack Colonel Merrit. No doubt a serious Indian war would have developed had not Chief Ouray, who was noted for his unwavering friendship for the whites, taken a firm stand and imposed restraint upon his people. Hearing of the outbreak while on a hunting expedition with his band, he immediately returned to Los Pinos, reporting there to the agent. The agent prepared a letter addressed to the White River chiefs and signed by Ouray, ordering them to stop fighting. Upon the receipt of this letter the Indians agreed to obey Chief Ouray's directions and Colonel Merrit was informed that the White River Utes would fight no more and that the Southern Utes, who had been preparing to join in the hostilities, would keep the peace.


Chief Ouray.

Leaving a sufficient force to watch the hostile camp, Colonel Merrit, on October 11, advanced to the White River Agency. All along the road to the Agency he found bloody evidences of the atrocities that the Indians had been guilty of. At the Agency, the bodies of seven of the employees, badly mutilated, were found, while the Agency itself was a scene of desolation, all but one of its buildings having been rifled and burned. No sign of life was to be seen. The body of Agent Meeker was found, entirely naked, a short distance from the ruins of his house. He had been shot through the brain and his skull had been crushed with a club. All these indignities visited on the murdered agent's body clearly indicated the hatred the Indians had felt towards him. Having murdered all the male inhabitants of the Agency, the Indians carried off as captives the women inmates, including Mrs. Meeker and her daughter.

After the outbreak had been checked by Chief Ouray a special agent of the Indian Department, under an escort of friendly Utes, proceeded from Los Pinos to the camp of the hostiles to demand the release of the women. For a time some of the malcontents of the tribe were against giving up the captives and ready to go on with the war, but again the influence of Chief Ouray prevailed and the captives were given up and brought to Colonel Merrit's camp, whence they were conveyed to Los Pinos. Chief Ouray's good offices in maintaining peace were rewarded by the grant of an annuity of one thousand dollars, which he was to receive as long as he remained chief of the Utes. He did not, however, long enjoy his annuity, as he died on August 24, 1880, at which time he was living in comfort on a farm which he owned.

Two Indian Commissions were now appointed by President Hayes to adjust the difficulties between the Indians and the white inhabitants of Colorado. Although certain Indians were surrendered to the authorities, no direct evidence could be obtained to implicate them as the leaders in the attack on Major Thornburgh and the Agency. The ringleaders, including the several Ute chiefs, all took oath that they did not instigate the uprising. Some swore that they were not present, and those who admitted their presence with the hostiles declared that they did everything to preserve peace. The upshot of the matter was that none of the Indians received the punishment they so richly deserved. The whites coveted the reservation lands and the Indians realized that they would have to bow to the authority of the white man. The work of the Commission, now that Chief Ouray was dead, encountered many difficulties in their negotiation with the Indians, but a final adjustment was made, satisfactory to both parties, in March, 1880, when the Utes voluntarily surrendered their large reservation in Colorado and agreed to hold the land in individual titles. This was the first time in the history of the United States that an Indian nation had given up its tribal existence and agreed to live as individuals under the laws of the United States. The White River Utes were sent to the Unitah Reservation; the Southern Utes received land allotments in severalty in southern Colorado, while the Los Pinos Indians took up their abode on a new reservation east of the position occupied by the White River Indians on the Unitah Reservation.


The relief of Captain Payne's command.—the trumpet signal.

It is the opinion of many authorities that a serious mistake was made in allowing these Indians to escape punishment for the crimes they committed in 1879. A proper respect for law and order was not instilled into their minds, and they have continued to be a cause of frequent trouble to the Government, and even to this day they remain shiftless and unruly.

In the summer of 1906 a band of some four hundred of the White River Utes, becoming tired of living as civilized men, suddenly left their homes on the Unitah Reservation in Utah. Their objective was the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where they intended to once again return to their former communal life. Their journey took them through Wyoming. Although they did not commit any depredations, still, their presence struck terror into the settlers, who, fearing attacks and outrages, called upon the Government to have them returned to the reservation. Only a few, however, could be persuaded to return to Utah, and the rest of the band continued on their roaming expedition. Soon, complaints poured in from the settlers that the Indians were driving off cattle from the Wyoming ranches. The local authorities were in doubt as to their legal right to interfere with these Indians, who had been enfranchised when the lands had been allotted to them in severalty in 1879. The Indians themselves, however, had no feeling of the responsibility of citizenship; indeed, they had no disposition to live the life of the white man.

Something had to be done, however, to avoid an outbreak and a renewal of Indian atrocities, and despite the doubt of the Federal Government as to its legal right to interfere with these Indian citizens, it was finally decided to send troops to Wyoming, whose duty it should be to return the Indians to their homes in Utah.


Southern Utes.

Accordingly, troops were ordered to find the Indians and, if necessary, to force them to return to civilized life. The Indians were located encamped on the Powder River in Montana just across the Wyoming border. Persuasion was successful and the Indians went peacefully to Fort Meade, South Dakota, where they remained for the winter. Before consenting to give up their nomadic habits they insisted that a delegation of these chiefs should visit Washington, where their grievances should be considered. Such a delegation did visit Washington in January, 1907, but the Indians remained obdurate and refused to consider their return to the Unitah Reservation. Finally, the Government assigned them in the spring of 1907 to certain locations on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, and thus solved the difficulty. The land for this purpose was acquired by lease and the funds were obtained from the Ute annuities, the payments to be made for a period of five years. The Indians began their occupancy of the leased lands in June, 1907. But they soon became restless and discontented, and before a year had passed they wanted a change. They felt that they would be better off on their own lands which had been allotted to them in severalty, and the Government was only too glad to arrange for their return to the land of their fathers in Utah. Here they arrived in October, 1908; they are still there, but remain restless and discontented and as much averse as ever to live the life of the white man.

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