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The Bloody End Of Meeker’s Utopia
Even when death struck suddenly, the starry-eyed Indian agent was still dreaming of turning his Ute wards into white men overnight.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
The agent outlined his Utopian dream to the principal chiefs, Douglas and Jack, and to the head medicine man, Johnson, a distinguished horseman who was also Ouray’s brother-in-law. Meeker explained how he would teach them modern farming and irrigation so that they could all be rich, live in houses, ride in carriages, use privies, sleep in beds, wear underwear, and send their children to the agency school. He described plans for associated industries to raise their living standard still higher—saw mills, orchards, wool plants, coal mines, and a railroad to Rawlins.
He observed that Douglas and Johnson were mildly intrigued by his dream. But Jack had an irritating way of asking loaded questions. He asked whether or not white men would allow Utes to compete in business with them. He wanted to know if the high living standard of the whites was worth all the work and worry they had to put into it. He asked if white men enjoyed working as much as the Utes enjoyed their lordly leisure of hunting and fishing and riding their ponies about their Colorado estate.
That fall agent Meeker discovered a perfect site for his model Ute farm at Powell Park a dozen miles down White River. He was sure of its value because the Utes pastured thousands of ponies on it in winter. To Meeker’s surprise, Douglas objected heatedly to moving the agency there.
Meeker thought it over and concluded that this pony business did indeed present an obstacle to his whole bright plan for Ute salvation. The Utes, he perceived, were obsessed with these confounded ponies. They could never achieve the happiness which he held out to them as long as they had so many ponies to care for. It was a ticklish matter. And yet he was sure that Captain Armstrong had more than enough persuasive power to make the Indians see that the ponies were millstones around their necks.
And, sure enough, in the ensuing winter months, Douglas and Johnson let him have his way. The agency buildings were moved downstream to the richest part of Powell Park. Neat streets were laid out, ditches were dug, and forty acres of pony pasture were plowed, fenced, and planted to wheat. The young employees from Greeley built a nice house for Johnson and put cook stoves in the tepees of four families. Meeker’s gentle daughter Josie induced three children to attend her agency school.
But serious trouble from outside the reservation came in the spring of 1879, and Meeker watched with mounting anguish as his dream faded. Colorado’s new governor, Frederick W. Pitkin, had been elected on a Utes-Must-Go platform which he was trying hard to implement. The Denver papers were full of incendiary anti-Ute propaganda. Senator Teller forced Chief Ouray’s Uncompahgre band to sell 10,000 acres of prime farm land for $10,000—and failed to produce the promised money. It was a terribly dry spring. By mid-June the state’s forests burned in hundreds of places, and the Teller crowd charged that the Utes had deliberately set all the fires.
At White River Agency the Indians took out their anger at all this unfairness toward them by ceasing to co-operate with Meeker further. And, as his dream collapsed, the agent’s optimism faltered. His all-embracing love for his charges turned rapidly to hate. He spent much time alone nursing grudges against Douglas, against Johnson, against the ponies, even against his agency staff and his daughter Josie, who sided often with the Indians.
A particular irritation to him was the attitude of Arvilla Meeker’s Ute housemaid, Jane. To say that this tall, pretty, bilingual girl of 22 disturbed Meeker is to understate probabilities. He had done everything he could to please her, including weeding her garden for six weeks in 1878 while she was off hunting. When she had returned, she had rewarded him with a sort of smile and nine beets out of a total crop of thirty bushels. In that tense spring of 1879, Meeker decided to coddle Jane no longer. He summoned her to his office one morning and began the conversation in a gentle kindly vein:
MEEKER : Now Jane, you will be planting your garden soon. I just want to warn you that last summer’s style of gardening is played out.
JANE : Played out? How so?
MEEKER : Well, I’ll tell you. After the things are planted, it will not do for you to run off and leave me to plow, hoe and pull weeds. You or some of your family must stay here all three moons and work your crops, for no one will touch them, and in that case you will have nothing. Or they will be given to some other Indian to work and he will have all.
JANE : You say we must stay three moons? What for? Hoeing the things once is enough.
MEEKER : You must hoe them three or four times, and must keep watch of them and you need not undertake to tell me how the work is to be done.
JANE : But we never done so before and we had heaps.