The Bloody End Of Meeker’s Utopia


The assignment transformed the harried Utopian. He was only 61, but the bitter disappointments at Greeley had given him a defeated look. He had grown thin and stooped, as though bent by the burden of his own despair. As hope returned, his imagination resumed its extravagant soaring. His blue eyes sparkled. His stoop vanished. His shoulders swung confidently when he walked, like the swinging, confident shoulders of his fictional superman, Captain Armstrong.

As he applied his idealism to the problems of the Utes, he began telling himself that maybe he wasn’t through yet. Maybe he could achieve Captain Armstrong’s Utopia after all. And perhaps, after he had taught the wonders of modern society to these simple White River savages, a grateful President Hayes might ask him to perform the same miracle for the Sioux and Apaches and all the other suffering red men!

Leaving the Greeley Tribune in the hands of a friend, Meeker set out for his new post early in May, 1878. Arvilla and his youngest daughter Josie were to follow him there in mid-summer. The other two girls agreed to run the family home as a boarding house. The new Indian agent was hardly aware of the explosive situation into which he stepped during his five-day trek to White River. The seeds of bitter conflict over possession of Colorado’s Western Slope had been a long time sprouting. The Colorado Utes, anciently of Aztec breeding, had endured centuries of misery as pariahs until the seventeenth century, when they became among the first, if not the very first, Indians to adopt the horse from Spanish colonists on the Rio Grande. This magical creature so inspired them as to completely change their tribal personality. They developed into superb horsemen and found themselves able to hold the Colorado highlands for their exclusive use. Thereafter their reverence was boundless for the divine beast which had raised them from the depths of human degradation to great happiness, prosperity, and dignity.

Eventually some 3,500 of these Utes divided into six loosely allied Colorado bands, led by an extraordinary man named Chief Ouray. He was 45 in 1878 and had a mind as spacious as his mountains. He had risen to power in 1863 and had set his political policy then. The Utes, he decreed, must live in peace with white men. They must modify their wasteful hunting economy, sell off bits of land as required by events, and learn to prosper on the reduced acreage as white men prospered.

Ouray’s masterpiece was the Treaty of 1868 by which the U.S. Senate gave his six bands most of Colorado’s Western Slope forever (4,500 acres for each Ute man, woman, and child). In 1873 he had to release the 4,000,000-acre San Juan silver region but the Utes had a 12,000,000-acre reservation left. They were still the richest Indian landed gentry in the nation. And they were the pets of the whites, befriending settlers and doing a big buckskin business with traders.

But Ouray played a losing game. By 1878 the tenfold increase in the state’s white population had created a huge demand for more land. Politically, the demand was expressed in an outcry for the removal of the Colorado Utes and the liquidation of their vast Western Slope estate. Senator Teller and the land grabbers around him dreamed of herding them off to army-guarded desert camps. But the Teller crowd had to move with caution because of the good reputation of Ouray’s people. Their strategy was to try to destroy this reputation by accusing the Utes falsely of all kinds of outrage, arson, theft, and murder.

The Utes were deeply disturbed by the charges, the resentment being highest among the two White River bands under the aging Chief Douglas and Chief Jack. This Jack was a young, forceful leader and he reacted to the white campaign of slander by urging an end to Ouray’s peace policy. He wanted the Utes to fight for their homeland, though Ouray warned him that he was playing into Senator Teller’s hands. Ouray added that if the Utes went on the warpath, they would abrogate their treaty rights and lose all they possessed.

Chief Jack was not convinced. The government, he said, had always mistaken Ouray’s peace policy for weakness and was preparing to dispossess the Utes anyway. He stressed that Interior Secretary Schurz, had just dismissed the White River agent who had protected their rights for years. Schurz had replaced this good agent with a Teller appointee named Nathan Meeker. In Jack’s opinion, such an appointee could have but two aims: to steal Ute land and destroy the Ute way of life.

On May 10, 1878, the new agent arrived blithesomely at the cluster of tumble-down log buildings in White River valley at the utter end of the 185-mile road south from Rawlins, Wyoming. The bleak agency setting did not resemble Captain Armstrong’s charming atoll in the South Seas, but Meeker did not care. He was abloom with love for and faith in his Utes and had high hopes of easing their presumed misery. He was not worried about the hostility which greeted him at first. He placated many Indians soon by his success in obtaining better rations and distributing annuities on time. They were pleased too with his agency staff--eight good-natured young men hand-picked by Meeker from the best families in Greeley.