Legacy of Nathan Meeker, killed during incident
Few would challenge the idea that Nathan Meeker was the author of his own death.
Like most European Americans who lived in the U.S. during the 19th century, Meeker generally patronized the Indians he was charged with helping when he was appointed agent of the White River Reservation in 1878, according to Bob Silbernagel, author of “Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of the Utes from Colorado.”
Meeker insisted the Utes call him “Father Meeker.”
He pushed hard to persuade the Utes to stop their traditional hunting and gathering ways, put down roots and farm the land, even withholding food to get his way.
Against the best advice of local ranchers who knew the character and proclivities of the White River band, he ordered land plowed for planting that was traditionally used for grazing and racing ponies.
White River Utes did not trust Meeker and believed he lied to them.
“He threatened to have the troops from Fort Steele at Rawlins, Wyo., ... put the Utes in chains and take them away to the Indian Territories in Oklahoma, a threat he did not have the authority to make. The Utes did not believe that he had the authority to do this and Meeker was widely accused of lying to them in this regard,” the Rio Blanco County Historical Society said.
The feeling was mutual. Meeker did not trust the Utes. He feared them even more.
ALTERCATION SPARKS BATTLE
An altercation with a Ute leader named Canalla over the plowing of the race track in early September 1879 resulted in an angry exchange of words. According to Meeker, Canalla assaulted him by shoving him out of his office. Canalla later disputed Meeker’s account.
The exchange caused Meeker to send “several urgent messages (to authorities) stating he believed his life, his family members, and the agency employees were all in danger,” Silbernagel wrote.
In response, Maj. Thomas T. Thornburgh, commander of Fort Steele, was ordered to the White River Agency to protect Meeker and his employees and arrest any Utes who were causing problems.
Thornburgh arrived at Milk Creek, considered a reservation boundary, with 180 men on Sept. 29, 1879.
Despite warnings from Ute leader Nicaagat, Thornburgh crossed the creek and proceeded into the reservation, where shots were fired and a battle joined. Thornburgh was killed and many soldiers and Ute warriors also died in the battle.
While the battle raged, a small group of Utes attacked the White River Agency, killing 11, including Meeker himself.
Hostages were taken, including: Meeker’s wife, Arvilla; daughter Josephine; the wife of a farmer, Flora Ellen Price; and her two children, Johnny and May.
The Utes rode south from the agency with their captives and managed to avoid the soldiers in pursuit for 23 days.
A meeting was arranged near present day Mesa, about 30 miles from Grand Junction, where the captives were finally turned over to the U.S. Army.
Only three of the Utes involved in the attack on the White River Agency actually served time for the shooting, but the Meeker affair accelerated calls for all of the Utes to be forced out of Colorado.
“Clearly the Utes, like every other Indian tribe, were getting impacted by people of European descent,” Silbernagel said. “When Colorado became a state in 1876, it was believed to have a white population of 100,000. The Utes, who numbered about 4,000, weren’t going to keep everything they had, there’s no question about it.”
There was a chance for the White River and Uncompahgre bands to maintain reservations inside Colorado, but the Meeker affair provided the catalyst that many in Colorado used to push the bulk of the Utes out of state, Silbernagel said.
The forced relocation of the White River Utes, who numbered about 550 at the time, was completed in 1881.
“After the Meeker affair, White River Utes were just pushed onto the same reservation with the Uinta Utes,” Silbernagel said. The tribal government for the Uinta reservation meets at Fort Duchesne in northeastern Utah.
Currently, two reservations for the Utes remain in Colorado:
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation is located near Towaoc, Colorado.
The Southern Ute Indian Reservation is located in southwestern Colorado, with its capital at Ignacio.
SOME ATTITUDES PERSIST
Though seven generations have passed, some of the same attitudes that estranged the Ute and white populations in the past persist to this day, said Jonas Grant Sr., a member of the Ute Indian Tribe at Fort Duchesne. Grant is a direct descendant of Chief Ouray.
“I hear and see too many hateful things against our people,” Grant said.
“I don’t let it bother me. I figure they’re ignorant and it’s not part of my belief (system) to denigrate them. I just turn the other way and let them do what they want.”
“We think of them as these people who existed in the 19th century,” Silbernagel said. “They got screwed by us and we’re sorry about it, but we don’t think of them as modern, and they are.
“They’re able to think for themselves,” he said. “They don’t need us to figure out how they can survive. They’re just as smart as anybody. So I think (the prejudice that exists today) is kind of dismissing them as a relic of the past.”