The Bloody End Of Meeker’s Utopia


On September 29, 1879, a small band of Ute Indians went wild on the Western Slope of Colorado and murdered their Indian agent and all his employees at the remote Ute Agency on White River. A few hours earlier, another small Ute band ambushed a relief force of soldiers at Milk Creek 25 miles away. All told, the White River Utes, who had never hurt anybody before, killed 30 white men and wounded 44 more.

The murdered agent, Nathan Meeker, did not resemble the average second-rater sent out by the Indian Office as a political favor. Meeker was a newspaper editor and a writer of wide repute, and his violent death in the romantic Rocky Mountain wilderness shocked and thrilled the whole nation. In addition, the White River massacre gave Coloradans the pretext they had sought for a decade to take from the Utes their vast hunting paradise of 12,000,000 acres.

The hideous climax of Meeker’s career derived from starry-eyed idealism, which he had cultivated all his life. He was born in 1817 on a breezy Ohio homestead overlooking Lake Erie. At seventeen he ran away from home to become a poet, starved a while as a young intellectual on MacDougal Street in New York and returned prosaically to Ohio to run a general store. He married a sea captain’s gray-eyed daughter, Arvilla Delight Smith, who bore him three daughters and two sons. She was a plain, pious girl, always a little embarrassed about her fecundity and apprehensive about her husband who theorized brilliantly but disliked manual labor and talked of Jesus Christ as though He were a fairly sound but not entirely respectable neighbor down the street.

Meeker was often broke and twice bankrupt during the first twenty nomadic years of their marriage. In Ohio, and later in Illinois, Arvilla and the children often tended his store while he dabbled in Fourier socialism, Phalangist economics, planned parenthood, Brook Farm Transcendentalism, a Buddhist sort of Christianity, and the practice of nibbling carrots for better vision at night.

His yearning to improve the world expressed itself at last in his first novel, The Adventures of Captain Armstrong, the hero of which was tall, handsome, cool-headed, plausible, and indestructibly hopeful like himself. The captain was shipwrecked on a Polynesian atoll and in jig time created among the naked savages a co-operative Utopia of modern industries and crafts. Meeker was a great admirer of Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune. He mailed his novel to Greeley, who found a publisher for it. Later, Greeley made Meeker his war correspondent to cover for the Tribune Grant’s Mississippi campaign. Then he brought him to New York to be his agricultural editor.

Meeker was a persuasive columnist and he became a national oracle on farm problems. But in 1869 his Utopian dreams crystallized in a plan for a co-operative farm colony near Denver in semi-arid Colorado Territory. Horace Greeley approved the plan and gave him free space in the Tribune to promote it. Members of this Union Colony (Meeker called his new town “Greeley”) had to be temperate, industrious, moral, and tolerant in their religious outlook.

The founder visited the Cache la Poudre region northeast of Denver and chose a flat, wind-swept tract which was to become the most successful co-operative venture in the Rockies. The tract, like the rest of the Great Plains, had no rainfall to speak of. Meeker’s colonists watered their new farms by an elaborate system of ditches which distributed the snow water flowing down from the mountains seventy miles away. Their irrigation methods were copied widely. Their success made it possible to grow crops and livestock in quantity on small acreages. Colorado villages began expanding into cities, the mining districts swarmed with new people, and homesteaders poured into Colorado Territory, enabling it to win statehood in 1876.

Meanwhile the fates conspired to destroy Meeker. He was not a good executor of his own theories (his first irrigation ditch at Greeley cost Union Colony $25,000 and watered less than 200 acres, including the basements of several business establishments). He frittered away his small capital on his Utopia and on his newspaper, the Greeley Tribune. He went deeply in debt to Horace Greeley, himself, before the great editor died in 1872. By degrees, his colonists watered down his idealistic aims and eased him out of power. As his frustrations accumulated, he grew brusque and opinionated. He denounced traveling theatricals and dancing and picking wildflowers. He blackballed from membership in the Greeley Farmers’ Club all those who opposed his views.

In 1877 the executors of Horace Greeley’s estate demanded the money which he owed to it. Desperately Meeker sought and failed to get a postmastership. He applied for but was not accepted for duty at the Paris Exposition. Then he heard that an Indian agent was needed at the White River Ute Agency in northwest Colorado. He had no special interest in Indians as yet, but the job paid $1,500 a year. To get it, he sought the aid of old newspaper friends back East and some influential Coloradans like Senator Teller. Because of their recommendations, Carl Schurz, secretary of the interior under President Hayes, assigned him to the White River Ute Agency.