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The Ultimate Compromise

March 2023
1min read

The story of the singularly inept ghouls who attempted to snatch Lincoln’s body (page 76) is a bizarre one, but he was not the only celebrated nineteenth-century American to have his rest disturbed. This other tale was passed along to us by Professor MeI Griffiths of Ouray, Colorado: “The Ute Indian Cemetery on the eastern outskirts of Ignacio, Colorado, contains, close to its center, two whitewashed, cobblestone pyramids, one of which marks the graveyard’s most illustrious occupant: Chief Ouray.

“Ouray was probably born about 1833 near Taos, New Mexico. He spent eighteen years as a sheepherder on Mexican ranches in the Rio Grande valley, and because he spoke Ute, Spanish, and passable English, the U.S. government designated him the spokesman for all seven mutually suspicious Ute bands during the 1868 Ute treaty negotiations. He remained the paramount Ute chief for the rest of his life, devoted always to steering a middle course between the inexorable growth of white power and the legitimate claims of his own people. He took a major hand in negotiating the Ute treaties of 1863, 1868, and 1880. With the help of his wife, Chipeta, he induced the renegade Northern Utes who had precipitated the Meeker massacre in 1879 to give up their women hostages; he then refused to turn over the twelve ringleaders to local or state courts because he knew they could not receive a fair trial.

“Ouray died near Ignacio in 1880. To capture the honor of burying him themselves, one band of Utes snatched his remains, wrapped them in a blanket, and secreted them under a large boulder on a butte south of Ignacio. In August of 1924 the body of his wife, who had been exiled with her fellow tribesmen to a reservation in Utah by the Treaty of 1880, was brought back for burial at Ouray’s old homestead near Montrose, Colorado. Montrose leaders importuned the Ignacio Utes to disclose the whereabouts of Ouray’s bones so that they could be buried beside those of his wife. The Indians would not hear of it, and after almost a year of wrangling, the Southern Utes disinterred Ouray’s remains and reburied them in the Ute Cemetery at Ignacio, on May 24, 1925—a sort of quid pro quo for Chipeta’s burial at Montrose.

“A curious misunderstanding arose during the preparations for Ouray’s reburial. Catholic and Protestant factions each wished to have the chief buried in their half of the cemetery. Unable to resolve their differences, they finally removed a section of the fence that divided the cemetery and placed the grave astride the center line. The fence posts still remain as a curious ecumenical monument.

“Even in death, Ouray was subjected to compromise.”

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