Vagneur : Milk Creek still haunts the Utes |

Vagneur : Milk Creek still haunts the Utes

It’s old hat now, the story of the September 1879 Meeker Massacre and the eventual expulsion of the Ute Indians from the Western Slope of Colorado. Never mind that it was hardly a massacre and more rightly should have been called the Battle of Milk Creek, but such is the way history is written.

What is seldom mentioned is that because of this battle, the Utes almost became our neighbors on a reservation “at or adjacent to” Grand Junction and near the town of Delta, where the Uncompahgre joins the Gunnison, creating an alluvial plain of excellent, fertile land.

In a world where the Utes had absolutely no chance of maintaining their sovereignty, political machinations and death of a noted chief conspired to speed up their demise, wresting away any and all ties they had to Colorado. This was done in a dishonest and cruel manner that almost destroyed the wild, carefree soul of the Utes. Maybe it did.

After the Battle of Milk Creek, the U.S. plan was to move the Utes from their White River lands in northern Colorado to the area around Grand Junction, an attempt to appease the saber-rattling of Colorado residents who wanted the Utes out of Colorado, period. The neighboring Uncompahgre River band, totally innocent in the battle, was to be moved, as well. But to do that the U.S. government, by prior treaty, had to get approval of the Utes to give up their White River and Uncompahgre lands and move to the Grand Junction reservation by an affirmative vote of three-fourths of the affected natives.

The Utes, having been lied to before, wisely were suspicious of the white man’s use of the words “adjacent to” Grand Junction, and feared it meant they would be moved far away from their homeland. They refused to sign. (Strange, isn’t it, how we fully expected the Utes to comprehend the nuances of the English language and our own tortuous interpretations of it.)

Enter evil behind the curtain in the guise of a man named Otto Mears, a shameless frontier hustler who, if he lived today, well might be an Aspen developer. Facing the recalcitrance of the Utes to approve the new agreement giving up their White River and Uncompahgre lands, Mears, of his own volition and greed, offered $2 to each Ute who would vote to ratify the new treaty. Mears, as a member of the Ute Commission appointed to see about creating the new reservation, had traveled the area around Grand Junction and realized that it was potentially very valuable to the white man. Thus he headed north, looking for dry, unproductive land, eventually deciding on the current Ute reservation, in northeastern Utah.

While all this was taking place, James Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes (sympathetic to the Utes) as U.S. President. Garfield, who likely was one of the first presidents to support African-American civil rights, ironically felt that the “Indians must go” and appointed as his secretary of the interior a man of similar thought, Samuel J. Kirkwood. Ute Chief Ouray, who might have prevented the vote-buying scam, had died of natural causes in the midst of this skirmish.

For his role in buying the Ute vote, Otto Mears was charged with bribery and stood trial in Washington, D.C., on a charge of the same before Kirkwood. The panel, two U.S. senators and Kirkwood, astonishingly determined that Mears had done the correct thing and ordered the U.S. Treasury to reimburse him for the $2,800 it had cost to throw the election.

Now the time had come to move the Utes, and by Mears and Kirkwood’s interpretation of the word “adjacent” in the new treaty, it was clear that “adjacent to Grand Junction” meant “adjacent territory,” (sounds like Washington, doesn’t it?) and the push was on to herd the Utes to Utah. It was now September, and Oct. 15, 1881 had been chosen as the “drop dead” date for the complete removal of the Utes from Colorado.

The Utes, still believing at this late date that they were to stay in Colorado, didn’t understand the orders to pack up and leave. An unsympathetic cavalryman, General Ranald MacKenzie, acting on a midnight order signed by only two of the five Ute commissioners (Mears and another man), surrounded the Ute encampment and gave them two hours to get on the trail.

Behind a mournful bugle call, confused and scared Ute Indians were forced to give up ancient burial grounds, prime hunting land and generations of mountain living, mostly because they were woefully misunderstood and treated as chattel rather than the sovereign human beings they are. The price they paid for their role in the Battle of Milk Creek, however huge, continues still.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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