Tony Vagneur: If only we could hear the whispers of the wild horses

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

To the People of the Shining Mountains, Utes, their horses were partners and accomplices in the enjoyment of life. Other than family, nothing was more important to them. The same could be said for all of the mounted Native Americans. What happened to their horses?

According to available records, just after Nathan Meeker arrived at the White River Indian Agency in 1878, there were 890 Utes of the White River band who owned at least 3,000 horses. More or less. It was difficult to get a solid count as that many horses were strung out over a very large area. That same year, the neighboring Uintah Utes of northeastern Utah had a herd of 876 horses. Any way you cut it, that’s a lot of horses, nearly 4,000.

After the Meeker Incident of 1879 — during which 10 White River Agency employee were killed, including the agent, Nathan Meeker — and Major Thornburgh of the US Cavalry and 13 of his men being killed in a nearby standoff with the Utes, the sad public relations outcome was the call of nervous Coloradoans to “Get Rid of the Utes.” Extermination was the underlying theme.

By 1882, once the White River band was removed from Colorado and forced to share reservation space in Utah with the Uintahs, their collective horse herd numbered about 2,500 to 3,000. What happened to the rest of them? The Uintah, already living on the reservation, likely didn’t lose any horses, so the population decrease was within the White River band.

“We believe the army killed many of them,” said Jonas Grant, Sr., nephew of Ouray and son of Canalla and She-towitch, Ouray’s daughter. Is this possible?

Accounts of White River Utes marching to the Utah reservation have many of them doing so on foot. These proud warriors and respected horse people weren’t accustomed to moving their camps on foot. The Army had certainly confiscated many of their horses, plus the Utes likely didn’t have time to round up all of their large herd before the government began the march to Utah.

Additionally, a force the size of Thornburgh’s (around 190 men, soldiers and civilians both) was used to traveling with a maximum number of 300 horses and mules. They were soldiers and wagon teamsters, not wranglers. Imagine the responsibility of moving 2,000-3,000 horses across the open plains of Colorado and Utah, trying to keep that bunch together. Easier to shoot them, was the predominant military thinking of the day, with the added benefit that such action would take much of the remaining resistance out of the Natives. Tragic.

Perhaps one of the most egregious destruction of horses occurred in September 1858, when Army troops under the command of Col. George Wright captured about 900 horses from several tribes living along the Spokane River in Oregon Territory. They killed the horses in a flat place along the river, known today as Horse Slaughter Park. Of the 130 that were saved from slaughter, they were later determined to be “too wild” for training as cavalry horses and were shot.

In 1868 at the Battle of Washita in Oklahoma, the US Cavalry under the command of Gen. George Custer, 250 or so Cheyenne faced off against Custer’s 689 men. The result was as expected, with 53 women and children taken captive. Also, 875 horses were captured, 650 of them killed, simply because that was Army protocol at the time.

September 1874, the Palo Duro Canyon battle in Texas signaled the end of the southern Plains Indian resistance to white invasion of their land. During the battle, 1,400 horses were captured, 340 of them given to Indian scouts, the rest shot to death.

What happened to the horses of the White River Utes is anyone’s guess. There is no documentation, but it might be a reasonably good supposition that not all of them were shot. Some of those that got away may well be ancestors of the wild horse herds around Meeker, Grand Junction, and southwest of the Uncompahgre Valley.

Additionally, white settlers followed almost immediately behind the removal of the Utes. It is not unreasonable to think that roaming Ute horses, not rounded up by hurried Utes prior to removal, were absorbed into some of the settler’s livestock.

We will never know. If the horses and their ancestral spirits could only talk …

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at