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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
That was all. Johnson did not touch Meeker again. The agent tottered back to his chair, felt himself over and found that he was not badly hurt. Next day, he penned a telegraphic request to Washington for troops, stating that his life and those of his employees were in danger. As his courier rode north toward the Western Union office in Rawlins, Meeker must have known that his life’s dream went with him.
In Washington the Indian Office passed Meeker’s wire on to General Sherman who ordered a force of 153 soldiers and 25 civilians under Major Thomas T. Thornburgh to go to White River from Rawlins. Presumably the Major did not care for the task. As an army officer he detested the Indian Office and all its works. The Ute Agency was not even in his military department. He had no decent maps, no proper guides. He had had fighting experience only with Plains Indians. He knew nothing about these Utes, with whom he tended to sympathize.
The Major took his time. On Monday morning, September 29, his force reached the Ute Reservation line at Milk Creek, 25 miles north of White River. Thornburgh had exchanged messages earlier with Meeker and had agreed to ride alone over Yellowjacket Pass to the agency for talks with Douglas and Jack, leaving his soldiers outside the reservation. But he found that Milk Creek was almost dry because of the record drought. He had to have fresh water for his men and for his 400 animals. Therefore he ordered his force to move some miles into the reservation to a spot where water was available.
From the sage ridges above Milk Creek valley, Chief Jack and his band watched this unexpected movement with enraged astonishment. Suddenly the soldiers spied the Indians. Someone fired a gun. Then everyone was firing. Men began falling to earth. After some minutes Jack’s courier leaped on his pony and galloped southward to bring the awful news to Douglas’ band at the agency. Before noon Major Thornburgh, eleven of his troopers, and many Utes lay dead. Forty-odd white men were wounded. Nearly 300 army horses and mules were out of action. Without the use of these animals, the army survivors were completely trapped. They forted up behind their wagons and dead horses and barely managed to hold Jack’s warriors off until relief troops arrived from Rawlins six days later.
On that same fateful Monday morning, everything seemed peaceful at White River Agency. The tension of recent weeks was as bad as ever, but the boys from Greeley and Douglas’ men and the white women did their best to ignore it. Several young Utes loitered about begging biscuits at the big agency kitchen which Josie Meeker ran for the nine employees. She was helped by Flora Ellen Price, the plump, blond, teenaged wife of Meeker’s plowman. The agent, preoccupied and wan, spent all morning describing his difficulties in his September report. Soon after lunch he appeared at Josie’s kitchen window to get from her the key to the government gun closet. He walked with a stoop again as in his unhappiest Greeley days. There was a grim smile on his strained face. And still he retained enough of his old spirit to ask Josie if she knew what day September 29 was. When she shook her head, he said jauntily: “On this day in 1066, William the Conqueror landed in England!”
At 1:30 P.M. Josie, Arvilla, and Flora Ellen were still in the kitchen, washing and wiping the dinner dishes in the Indian summer heat. A small Ute boy stopped to borrow matches, announcing proudly, “Now I go smoke.” Flora Ellen stepped outside to fetch her two small children. She saw some Greeley boys spreading dirt on the roof of a new building. Beyond them, on the street down to White River, she saw Douglas and a dozen of his men. Then she saw an Indian on a sweat-flecked pony galloping up to Douglas from the direction of Milk Creek.
The Indian said something to the old chief and immediately after that, Flora Ellen saw doom come. It came without signal, like the spontaneous firing at Milk Creek. Some of Douglas’ men simply raised their Winchesters and began shooting at their white friends, the unarmed Greeley boys. Flora Ellen watched one boy fall from the new roof. She watched another as he begged the Utes not to shoot him. She saw her husband collapse holding his stomach. She snatched her crying children, joined the other women, and went with them and Frank Dresser, a Greeley boy, to the adobe milk house while the Indians fired some of the log buildings.
The three women, two children, and Dresser sat in the milk house for four hours, too stunned, too helpless, too hopeless to entirely comprehend the horror which was upon them. Arvilla Meeker picked at her faded calico dress, wept and stopped weeping, and prayed for her husband’s safety. Josie was mixed sorrow and gentle compassion for the Utes, whom she had learned to understand. Flora Ellen was pure terror, dying the deaths of all the Indian-ravished heroines she had met in fiction.