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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
At last they left the milk house in the cooling twilight and ran back to Meeker’s unburned house. In the agent’s office, peaceful as a church, Josie stood a moment, a tall, slender, white-faced girl of 22, her lips parted in anguished query. She was staring at Pepys’ Diary lying open on her father’s desk where he had left it, apparently, just before stepping outside to investigate the firing. Through the window she saw Utes looting the agency storehouse. She said to the others, “Let’s try to escape north while they are busy.
They went through the gate into Meeker’s wheat field. Frank Dresser ran like a deer and disappeared in the sage, but later was wounded and died before he could reach help. The Utes saw the three women and the children and came for them. Arvilla fell when a bullet grazed her thigh and lay still on the ground. A young Ute named Thompson reached her and helped her to rise. “I am sorry,” he said. “I am heap much sorry. Can you walk?”
Arvilla whispered, “Yes, sir.”
The young Ute offered her his arm politely and led her toward White River. Near the agent’s house, he asked if she had money inside.
“Please go and get money.”
She limped into the quiet house calling “Papa! Papa!” and somehow found twenty-six dollars in bills and four dollars in silver. Then Thompson helped her to walk to Douglas near his tepee and she gave him the money. Near him was Josie on a pile of blankets holding little May Price on her lap. Further away were Flora Ellen and her son.
Arvilla limped from Ute captor to captor. Where, she asked, was the agent? The Utes shrugged. As night came on she watched the great full moon yellowing in the east. She began to shiver and she spoke to Douglas about the thin dresses she and the girls were wearing. Douglas told Thompson to take her back with a horse and lantern to get some things.
Meeker’s house was burning at one end. Entering, Arvilla called, “Nathan!” but low and sorrowfully now, almost to herself. Then she loaded Thompson with warm clothes, towels, blankets, and a medicine box. She donned her hat and shawl, put a handkerchief and a needle packet in her pocket, and limped out hugging her big volume of Pilgrim’s Progress.
A hundred yards south of the house she came suddenly on a man’s dead body, startlingly white in the moonlight, and clad only in a shirt. It was Meeker. He had been shot in the side of his handsome head and a little blood trickled still from his mouth. But he lay entirely composed, straight as he had stood in life, his arms tranquil beside him as though he were about to tell Arvilla what had happened to William the Conqueror on September 29, 1066.
She cried softly and knelt to kiss him. But she did not actually kiss him. Young Thompson was beside her and she realized that he would not understand the gesture. Then she stood up and left the body, hoping that Nathan Meeker’s Utopia would be easier for him to come by in the land where he was now.
The massacre of Meeker and his eight young men by Douglas’ band, the “ambush” of Thornburgh’s soldiers by Jack’s band, and the holding of the three white women as hostages for 23 days by both bands caused as much consternation as the Custer massacre in 1876. Millions of people were especially upset when the women testified after their rescue that Josie’s person had been outraged repeatedly during their captivity, that Flora Ellen had been forced twice to submit, and that even old Douglas had insisted on “having connection” with Mrs. Meeker once.
The punishment of the alleged guilty was all the landgrabbers could have asked. The two White River bands were branded as criminals en masse by a political commission without any judicial powers whatever. Though only twenty White River Utes had staged the massacre, all 700 were penalized in that money owed to them by the government was paid instead to relatives of victims. Chief Ouray’s Uncompahgre Utes, who had had nothing to do with the massacre or the “ambush,” were held equally responsible. The 1868 treaty rights of all three bands were canceled. Their rights to be Americans as set forth in the Fourteenth Amendment were ignored. Title to their ancient Colorado homeland was extinguished and they were moved at gun point to barren lands in Utah. By these means the last and largest chunk of desirable Indian real estate was thrown open to white settlement.
And still, the year 1879 marked a happier turning point. It was the beginning of the end of indefensible white attitudes toward red men. Interior Secretary Carl Schurz was only one of many people who probed beneath the surface causes of the White River tragedy and then had the courage to say, and to keep on saying, that it would not have happened if the Utes had lived under the same laws as other Americans.