Tony Vagneur: Captain Jack’s demise ugly lesson in horrors of Manifest Destiny
Nicaagat, “one with the ring in his ear,” was a sub-chief of the Ute Indians and a highly regarded warrior. To the whites, he was known as Captain Jack and had, in 1876-77, served as a scout for Cavalry General Crook in his campaign against the Sioux.
Had the concept been known then, Captain Jack would likely have been called a “free spirit,” a man with a checkered history with the whites, intelligent and fluent in three languages, including Spanish. In his death, he became an everlasting symbol of everything that was wrong between the Utes and the whites, an enigma for the ages to reckon with.
Captain Jack, Nicaagat, was of mixed Apache-Ute blood, orphaned in Utah as a young child. At some point, he ended up as a slave in a Mormon family from whom he learned to speak fluent English, but the experience left him with a hatred of whites. Eventually, he escaped and traveled north to join up with the White River band of Utes in northern Colorado.
In the 1870s, Ute tribal land in Colorado included the northern area around Meeker and Milk Creek; east almost to the Continental Divide, to include today’s Aspen, and south to the areas around Durango and Ignacio. However, by practice and custom, Ute hunters traveled freely beyond these borders as conditions dictated.
It is sad to read copies of old treaties between Utes and white men, documents containing terms of meridians, longitudes and latitudes and other technical terms when, at the bottom of these treaties, it is abundantly clear that Utes could not sign their own names. White men wrote down the Ute names, followed by, we can only surmise, the individual X of each Indian signing the treaty. Reading those agreements, written in government legalese, makes it clear they are, first and foremost, an abomination of any realistic attempt at striking an agreement with Native Americans.
Just when Nathan Meeker, agent in charge of the White River Ute Reservation in northern Colorado, thought he was making progress in turning the Utes into farmers instead of hunters, Captain Jack would return from his travels and point out the absurdity of proud, brave Utes tending gardens and raising vegetables.
He would say Utes are hunters, not acquiescent chattel to be ordered around by a man who also wants to steal our horses. Follow me, and the Utes would go hunting, leaving Meeker frustrated and a bit hostile.
The Meeker Uprising of September 29, 1879, and the beginning of the Battle of Milk Creek on the same day sealed the Ute fate in Colorado. Their 12 million acres of Colorado land was unilaterally taken away (the 1880 Ute Removal Act) and the proud people were shunted off to a holding pen, a reservation in northeastern Utah.
Captain Jack, who had proudly claimed it was his bullet that killed Major Thomas Tipton Thornburgh in the Battle of Milk Creek, was found not guilty of any crime because that killing was committed during a battle, but thereafter he was on the cavalry radar. When he failed to show for his rations at the northern Utah reservation in 1881, fear ran through cavalry ranks that he must be out organizing a war party to make one last stand against the whites.
Eventually, he was found in Wyoming, living on the Shoshone reservation, minding his own business, but when seven cavalrymen stormed a building he was in, demanding his surrender (for being off the reservation without permission), he ran from the house, diving into a nearby teepee. When rushed, he fired back and killed one of the cavalry officers. At that point, his destiny was sealed but still he refused to surrender. Wounded in one arm, he slipped out the back of that teepee into another farther away, one filled with bales of buffalo hides, and remained totally silent.
The officers thought perhaps he had bled to death from his wound but were afraid to advance on his position. Reinforcements and a mountain howitzer (cannon) were ordered, the cannon aimed directly at Jack’s location. Such barbarism wouldn’t be tolerated today, but it was with some relief when it was ascertained that Captain Jack’s remains, his brains “scattered over four acres” and a piece of his liver stuck to a tree limb, would easily fit into a cigar box. Readers of the Laramie Sentinel were elated to learn of the murder and destruction of Captain Jack.
That’s about how much respect most U.S. leaders had for Ute Indians or other Native Americans who had lived in this land for over 700 years without help from the white settlers.
Manifest Destiny and its arrogance killed the Colorado hopes and dreams of a people whose worst crime was to fight back against annihilation by unwelcome, outside forces.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.