Grant secured to preserve site of Meeker Massacre
Eleven died of gunshots fired by a handful of White River Utes near the town of Meeker 134 years ago, but an entire people was exiled for the crime.
The Meeker incident, called a “massacre” by those who traded on its infamy, stirs controversy among historians and the Ute people to this day.
The Sept. 29, 1879, attack on the White River Agency and the Milk Creek Battle that precipitated it exploded the tenuous relationship between Indians and white settlers.
“It was a clash between two very different peoples,” said CJ Brafford, director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose.
In the wake of the incident, Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin demanded the federal government forcibly remove all of the Utes from Colorado. Otherwise, Pitkin said he would raise a militia of 25,000 volunteers and “exterminate” the tribe, wrote Bob Silbernagel, author of “Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of the Utes from Colorado.”
“It was one of the last major confrontations between American Indians and a ceaselessly expanding white population,” wrote Silbernagel, also the editorial page editor of The Daily Sentinel.
Seven generations hence, negotiations are underway to conserve the site where the killings took place.
Late last year, Great Outdoors Colorado approved a $1.85 million grant to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to purchase conservation easements on four ranches near Meeker.
One of the ranches, the Cross L, is a working ranch that contains the site of the conflict that ultimately resulted in the White River Utes’ forced removal to reservations in Utah.
Under the plan, the Cross L will convey an easement for property that includes the site in exchange for cash and tax credits, said Carolyn Aspelin, the trust’s director of conservation transactions.
Terms of the deal were not complete. Negotiations are so sensitive, owners of the Cross L declined to be interviewed for this story and would not allow photographs of the site to be published, Aspelin said.
The grant will be used to conserve five miles of riparian corridor along the White River, said Todd Cohen, spokesman for Great Outdoors Colorado.
In addition to the site of the Meeker incident, the properties include significant bald eagle, big game, greater sage-grouse, and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse habitat, Cohen said.
Conservation easements are voluntary agreements between landowners and qualified conservation organizations like the trust that permanently restrict development and subdivision of the property, Aspelin said.
The easements are used to forever preserve open space, wildlife habitat, agricultural lands, scenic vistas, and historic properties, she said.
While conservation easements restrict development, they do not require the landowner to grant public access, the agricultural land trust website said.
Landowners can continue to use the land for crop production, grazing, hunting, fishing, and other traditional uses.
The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs was unaware of the proposed easement and had not consulted with tribal leaders about it as of last week, said Ernest House, Jr., executive director of the commission.
“Obviously (the site) has a particular historic element and importance with regards to the reservation-based community in Colorado,” House said.
“We hear from the tribal leaders quite often and it’s an honor for the (commission), as a state entity under the guidance and direction of Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, to stress the importance of our state agencies continuing to collaborate and communicate with the tribal nations.”
A member of the Ute Mountain band, House said he believes had a state commission that advocated for Indian interests existed during the late-1800s, tragedies like the Meeker affair could have been avoided.
“I believe it would have prevented a lot of the atrocities and some of the issues we’ve had historically in the state with early settlers and different tribal nations.”
The easements on nearly 3,100 acres around Meeker are part of a conservation initiative launched by the land trust several years ago.
“The White River Valley Conservation Initiative has been in the works since our first workshop in 2007,” Aspelin said. “We are so pleased that the landowners in the area east of Meeker known as Agency Park and the area west of Meeker known as Powell Park have been so receptive to the idea of conservation easements.”
The $1.85 million grant received by the trust was the second given by Great Outdoors Colorado for land trust projects in the Meeker area, she said.
In addition to Great Outdoors Colorado, other funders like the NRCS Farm and Ranchland Protection Program and the Packard Foundation have contributed to the effort.
“We have been able to put together something really special up there,” Aspelin said.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust was formed in 1995 by members of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to help the state’s ranchers and farmers protect their agricultural lands and encourage continuing agricultural production.