Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
A clear and bright, warm fall day, it was not the type of weather that spells tragedy, but the galloping hoof beats of two different groups, miles apart, were bringing down the last curtain on a centuries-old way of life in Colorado. Clearly, something of that magnitude doesn’t happen in one day, but it’s usually the blowup of long-festering incompatibility on the last day that tells the story.
North of the Milk River, near Craig, a contingent of 150 U.S. cavalry troops, led by Civil War veteran Maj. Tipton Thornburgh, thundered casually toward the White River Indian Reserve, trying not to get too far ahead of its supply train. Thornburgh had been summoned by a distraught Nathan Meeker, who feared for his safety after an intense argument with Ute leaders about the plowing of their horse pasture.
Coming up from the south, with a well-concealed desperation in their chests, rode four or five Ute Indians led by Nicaagat (“one with earring”), wondering what business the troops had in coming toward their land. Thornburgh promised Nicaagat that he would enter the reservation with only four or five of his officers, leaving the soldiers behind. After all, the latest treaty with the government promised that no cavalry troops could enter Ute lands.
Two disparate views of the world, hurtling toward disaster, were attempting to communicate without any understanding of the other’s life philosophy. In the middle sat seemingly manic-depressive White River agent Meeker. The Utes had lived with absolute independence for centuries and could not comprehend a religion-based agrarian society or its hierarchy of intervention. Utes feared that giving up their hunting culture would mean a loss of their natural identity. Typical of the Western settler’s view of the time was the slogan “The only good Ute is a dead Ute.”
Meeker, naively trying to enforce his own convoluted philosophy of socialism, religion and pastoralism upon the Utes, found his influence to be sorely lacking. Meeker resorted to lies and the withholding of provisions in an attempt to coerce the Utes into compliance and finally concluded his only chance of gaining their conformance was to destroy their allegiance to their horses. He made bizarre threats, claiming that if the Utes didn’t start farming, the government would take away their land or would put them in chains and send them to Oklahoma. “Not according to the treaty,” the Utes replied, knowing in their hearts that Meeker lied.
Nicaagat knew well the stories of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, during which Col. John Chivington and 700 men, without provocation, attacked an already-surrendered village of Southern Cheyenne and Arapahos, killing around 200 defenseless women and children. Was Thornburgh’s march signaling a repeat? On the way home, Nicaagat stopped at the trading post in Craig and bought 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The next day, Sept. 29, 1879, Thornburgh and his entire troop erringly lumbered across the Milk River into Ute lands, still unsure of what they might accomplish. Nicaagat and other Utes were out in force, unsure themselves what to expect and the two sides came to a standoff, with the Utes on a rim above the soldiers, exposed on the valley floor.
In the usual way, and no one can say who, someone fired a shot and the battle was on. Given their poor position, Thornburgh’s troops were immediately pinned down, and remained so for the length of a week. Thornburgh was killed at the outset as were about 15 of his men. Ute casualties remain unknown.
Meanwhile, at the agency, a few other Utes decided it was time Meeker pay for his lies and particularly his egregious error of plowing up the Ute’s race track and horse pasture. To this end, he was shot, along with 10 of his employees, the finale being a stake driven through his mouth, pinning his head to the ground. This symbolic act was to guarantee Meeker could not tell lies in the next world.
There’s more, lots more, but in the end, enough resentment toward the Utes surfaced that their land was taken from them and they were shuffled off to an already crowded reservation in eastern Utah. Sadly, our understanding of each other’s philosophy is about as unintelligible today as it was in 1879.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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