The last Ute war
September 4, 2009
The people of Aspen were never convinced that they wanted to market themselves as a western town like Steamboat Springs, but whenever they leaned in that direction they acknowledged that an authentic western tourist town required a Native American connection. Having been briefly named Ute City and sporting the Ute City bar, Aspen nearly qualified. There had been a time when covers of Aspen’s promotional brochures pictured an Indian chief. He was an Apache, not a Ute, but few knew the difference. The Ute Indians, split into several tribal families, totaled no more than 3,000 in the 1870s. As hunter-gatherer-raiders, they had roamed over portions of New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, an area of 30,000 square miles. Utes spent even less time in Aspen than destination tourists.
At the time of Aspen’s founding, prospectors investigating the Roaring Fork Valley were intruding into land that was promised by treaty to the Utes. William Vickers, personal secretary to Frederick Pitkin, the governor at the time, advised removing the Utes from most of the state. Vickers preferred extermination, arguing that “the Utes are actual, practical Communists and the government should be ashamed to foster and encourage them in their idleness and wanton waste of property.” The Ute murder of a reservation director (the Meeker Massacre) at the White River Agency provoked a movement to accomplish the Pitkin/Vickers goal.
Many prospectors exploring near Aspen during that summer of 1879 were scared off by rumors of an Indian uprising and some participated in military action against the Utes. It wasn’t until 1887 that Aspen had another connection with Utes, and it is tangential at best.
The year 1887 was pivotal in Aspen’s history. Since 1884, Aspen’s mines had been tied up in ownership lawsuits that retarded population growth and investment. When the railroads reached Aspen in 1887, mine owners sought compromise. Aspen then grew to a population of 5,000 and all signs pointed to prosperity.
One branch of the Utes, the Uncompahgre, had been removed to Utah in 1881 and white settlers quickly filled the void. Under Chief Colorow (actually a Comanche), frequent hunting forays continued into the White River area. As time went on there were many broken promises and Colorow’s followers frequently accused U.S. agency administrators of cheating them on rations. There was more land than people, making contact was rare, but Chief Colorow was known to barge into kitchens demanding biscuits, frightening everyone.
Two of Colorow’s band were accused of stealing horses near Rangely in summer of 1887. Garfield County had just been created and a grand jury voted an indictment. Sheriff Jim Kendall, wanting to make a name for himself, rounded up a posse of about 50 cowboys and rode off to make the arrest. They entered Colorow’s camp and were told the two were not there. One thing led to another and gunfire was exchanged, sending everyone into the hills, and Colorow back to the Utah reservation. Kendall, feeling his importance, sent couriers to spread news implying that a Ute insurrection was imminent.
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Gov. Alva Adams ordered seven National Guard brigades to the scene, making use of the trains recently connecting Western Colorado. An African-American cavalry unit reported for duty. Leadville supplied another contingent. A group of volunteers from Aspen quickly mobilized, riding the train to Glenwood to protect the city from Indian attack. The more formal Aspen Militia, about 50 men, proceeded to Rangely.
The Utes headed to their Utah reservation. Kendall and his posse attempted to prevent them from crossing into Utah, hoping for a fight. Battalions from Leadville and Aspen closed in. Near the border (Colorow thought he was already across it) a 3-hour battle raged between 100 of Colorow’s men and twice as many guardsmen. Eight Indian fatalities and two soldier deaths occurred before all of the Utes escaped to their reservation.
The Leadville paper, unhappy with the resolution of the “war” and saddened to sustain one of the two soldier casualties, characterized Colorow as, “the most treacherous and deceiving old reprobate that ever went unhung.” Aspen hailed its volunteers and continued to castigate Utes. Most Front Range cities, after hearing that Colorow and state officials came quickly to terms, viewed the whole affair as a boondoggle and railed at the $80,000 (1880 ) of state expense.
There was another “Indian uprising” in 1906, caused by agents cheating the Utah Utes again. The Utes tried to move to the Cheyenne Reservation in Wyoming, where they thought they would be treated fairly. There was no “war” and Aspen had no further use for Utes until it aspired to become an authentic western town.