Utes ruled homeland on horseback

Chief Ignacio and his horse, taken near Durango, circa 1904. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Six Ute men on horses circa 1905, believed to have been taken in western Colorado or eastern Utah. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In 1853, Edward F. Beale was no slouch when it came to horses.

He had crossed the continent a half-dozen times on horseback, including a trip in 1848 when he brought the first gold samples from California to Washington, D.C. He raised horses in California and Virginia.

Even so, when he experienced what the Utes of western Colorado could do with their horses, he was astonished.

“Went out this morning with the Indians to hunt. They lent me a fine horse; but God forbid that I should ever hunt with such Indians again!” Beale wrote on July 12, 1853, while camped with a band of Utes in the Uncompahgre Valley. “I thought I had seen something of rough riding before; but all my experience faded before that of the feats of today.

“Some places which we ascended and descended it seemed to me that even a wild-cat could hardly have passed over,” he added, “and yet their active and thoroughly well-trained horses took them as part of the sport, and never made a misstep or blunder during the entire day.”

Beale wasn’t alone in remarking on the horsemanship of Utes.

Famed fur trader William Ashley said in the 1820s that the Utes generally had better animals than the Plains Indians to the east, and they had more horses per person than most other tribes.

One U.S. Army officer said at midcentury that the Plains Indians were terrified of the Utes in the mountains in part because of their superior horsemanship on the steep, rocky terrain.

Later in the century, two Denver journalists wrote that Ute ponies could carry a rider 100 miles in a day, climb steep mountains, swim river torrents and subsist on mountain grass, summer and winter.

That the Utes — men, women and children — became excellent equestrians is not in doubt. How and when the Utes first acquired horses is not so clear.

Those Utes living closest to Santa Fe no doubt obtained horses first. It is believed that some Utes from that region, who were captured by the Spanish in 1637, escaped from Santa Fe in 1640 and took a number of horses with them. More were acquired during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and during subsequent trading and raiding.

Frank Gilbert Roe, writing in the 1950s, argued the Utes were the first major horse culture north of New Mexico. They spread horses north through their mountain homeland to the Shoshones and Nez Pearce, and east to the Comanche, Cheyenne and Arapaho.

Others have disputed Roe’s arguments. Many archaeologists and historians believe that horse ownership spread primarily up the east side of the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and eventually to tribes to the northwest, rather than through the Utes’ homeland west of the Continental Divide.

Moreover, they say there is little evidence of the great Ute horse culture in most of Ute territory until the end of the 18th century or beginning of the 19th century.

Ute tribal history asserts the earlier dates for horse acquisition and development of horse culture.

Even so, the Utes themselves have pointed out that bands living in desert regions where there was little pasture for the animals had few horses.

The first European visitors to Ute territory left conflicting reports on the Indians’ horse culture.

When Juan Rivera traveled from New Mexico to what’s now western Colorado in 1765 and met with several different groups of Utes and Piutes, he said little about their horses. He did mention several times providing mounts for a Ute leader or guides who were to accompany his men on part of their journey.

However, 11 years later, when the Dominguez-Escalante expedition arrived in the region, the Spanish friars were impressed with the horses of the Sabaguano Utes they encountered on Grand Mesa.

Fray Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante wrote on Sept. 1, 1776, “We met about eighty Yutas all on good horses.”

Furthermore, those same Utes had enough additional good horses that they were willing to trade the Spaniards for some of their footsore mounts.

A half-century later, horses were not only a prominent part of Ute culture in western Colorado, but also for the Utes who lived south of the Great Salt Lake in the Utah Lake region. By the late 1870s, the Utes of Colorado and Utah had thousands of horses.

Horses were so important to the Utes that one early agreement between the U.S. government and the Uncompahgre Utes said the government would provide five well-bred American stallions to the Utes to help replenish and improve their herds.

Like so many other agreements between the United States and Indian tribes, the pledge was never fulfilled.

Disputes over horses and a racetrack were among the many problems that led to animosity between the White River Utes and their Indian Agent, Nathan Meeker. That animosity culminated in late September 1879 with a battle between Utes and the U.S. Army at Milk Creek, north of the White River, and the killing of Meeker and his male employees at the White River Indian Agency.

Consequently, most of the Utes in Colorado were forcibly removed to reservations in northeastern Utah.

When they left, thousands of horses that had once belonged to them disappeared.

Some may have been killed by the U.S. Army. Many were captured by white settlers.

A few ran free and formed the foundation for wild horse herds that still exist in Colorado.

Information for this chapter came from: “Central Route to the Pacific: Journal of the Expedition of E.F. Beale,” by Gwin Harris Heap; “Utes, the Mountain People,” by Jan Petite; “The Ute War,” by Thomas F. Dawson and F.J.V. Skiff; “The Indian and the Horse,” by Frank Gilbert Roe; “A History of the Ute People,” by Fred A. Conetah; “Chipeta, Queen of the Utes,” by Cynthia Becker and P. David Smith; “Troubled Trails,” by Robert Silbernagel.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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