Willoughby: Silver and gold vs. Ute rights, no surprise

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A party of Utes in 1909.
Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

The Utes survived a 200-plus year experience and relationship with Europeans, mostly the Spanish, before American settlers entered Colorado.

They were allies at times against other tribes and at other times in conflict over land. The Southern Utes were in conflicts with other tribes and the Spanish from the 1740s to 1840s. The Southern Utes have a detailed chronology of the whole period:

Until 1848, a southern portion of Colorado was part of Mexico. In 1849, the Utes signed a treaty with the United States recognizing U.S. sovereignty, establishing Ute boundaries, and agreeing to peace with U.S. citizens.

Since there were no settlers then, Utes controlled much of the state. The first problem began in the late 1850s, when settlers began moving into the San Luis Valley. The interactions with Utes increased when gold miners began settling near Pikes Peak in the 1859-63 period.

The Rocky Mountain News reported an interaction in which Utes took three horses and wounded a man. It espoused, “How long will the United States Government permit our property to be stolen and our people killed, and the perpetrators of the outrages go unpunished?”

Kit Carson, at the time, was the agent for the Utes in New Mexico. He told a visitor, “Utes are the most dangerous of the mountain Indians, excellent shots with the rifle and if hostile will be likely to destroy many small prospecting parties and solitary travelers.” But other reports were mostly about battles between Cheyenne, Apache, Arapahoe, and Sioux against the Utes.

Ute Chief Ouray began negotiations in 1868, and a new treaty established the White River agency at Meeker and another in the San Juan area. But miners in the San Juan area wanted more area, so it was revised by the Brunot Treaty in 1874. It shrunk Ute boundaries, but they still controlled about one third of the state. 

The silver boom in the late 1870s put more miners and settlers on the northern edges of the Ute boundary. 1879 was the seminal year beginning with the inaugural address of Gov. Frederik Pitkin. Pitkin came to Colorado in 1874 for health reasons and opened an attorney’s office in Pueblo. He was elected as a judge and invested in mines.

He became known because he owned many mining claims in Ouray. Pitkin organized a small force of 50 men to come to Ouray to protect it from possible Ute interference and helped negotiate peace between the Utes and miners.

The Utes were not a subject during the gubernatorial campaign, but Pitkin invested a long portion of his inaugural speech on the subject. Noting that the reservation population was around 3,000 he said, “One white settler would cultivate more land than the whole tribe of Utes.” 

He went on to say, “There is in my judgement no matter of such urgent importance to our people as the immediate extinguishment of the Indian title. The westward march of the white man and of civilization began over two centuries ago on the Atlantic coast, cannot long be arrested at the boundaries of this immense tract of valuable land by the presence of a tribe of Indians too small in number to constitute a reputable village.”

He made it clear it would be a priority of his governorship to deal with it. It is worth noting that the Utes, compared to other tribes, had the least confrontation interaction history with settlers.

At the same time, Ute patience for being confined to a reservation reached a boiling point. A new agent, Nathan Meeker, took over the White River Reservation duties in May 1878. He believed the Utes needed to be Christian and farmers and not carry on their hunting culture. The final insult was when he tore up their horse racing area to plant crops.

They rebelled, killing Meeker and 10 others, burning down the buildings, and taking his wife and daughter captive. Meeker had an altercation with a Ute prior to that and feared worse would happen, so he asked for help from Fort Steele in Wyoming. The troops, over 150, were intercepted by the Utes, and the commander, Major Thornburgh, and 13 of his men were killed.

The conclusion took some time but with few confrontations. The Utes gave up more of their land, and the White River Utes were moved to Utah. There was one more incident in 1887 known as “The Ute War” that Aspen men participated in, but “war” is a misnomer. It was short lived. Casualties included seven Utes and three soldiers — all over misinformation and fear.

Aspen does not have much of a Ute history. As a reminder that this was once Ute land, the use of the name Ute City continues. The most abiding heritage is the embarrassment of having Pitkin, famous for his “the Utes must go” talk, as the namesake for our county.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at