The last indigenous people to inhabit Western Colorado before Europeans and Americans arrived were the Ute Indians. Their territory encompassed the majority of Colorado and Utah, with hunting grounds that stretched into Texas and Oklahoma. For them, the later part of the 19th Century was dominated by the relinquishment of territory, marking the swift decline of one way of life and the rapid rise of another. Fundamental differences in belief systems between the Utes and the newcomers quickly proved to be a formidable barrier. For centuries, prior to 1860, the Utes of Colorado lived with very little interference from the outside. However, within the two decades that followed the discovery of mineral deposits in Colorado, they would yield to a drastic forced migration.
The first evidence of the Utes as a distinct people appeared around AD 1000 in the Great Basin area of eastern California. By 1300 they had migrated as far as the Four Corners area and continued to spread throughout the Rocky Mountains. It is believed that they numbered close to 10,000 and their tribe consisted of twelve distinct bands throughout Colorado and Utah. They maintained an irrigated farming economy for centuries until their lifestyle was suddenly transformed by the introduction of horses by the Spanish. The Utes were one of the first indigenous groups to master the horse and they quickly became an integral part of Ute culture.
Horses were a symbol of wealth and pride. Through trade, theft, and controlled breeding, they amassed large herds. This immediately shifted the balance with neighboring tribes, especially on the contested hunting grounds of the eastern plains. Hunting and raiding often lead to intertribal warfare. The Utes rode bareback but sometimes used short stirrups that hung from the horse’s manes and allowed riders to hang over one side and shoot from underneath during battles. The acquisition of horses allowed them to expand their territory like never before. Their transition to a lifestyle focused on hunting, through seasonal movements, also allowed for more trade opportunities with the incoming European explorers.
The earliest European contact was with Maria de Rivera in 1765. A decade later, the Dominguez-Escalante expedition passed through the area. In 1828, Antoine Robidoux, a trader based out of Santa Fe, constructed Fort Uncompahgre near the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. This was the first outpost on the Western Slope and connected a trade route, between the northern Mexicans and California, that became known as the Spanish Trail. Much of the trail was actually made up of routes that the Utes had used for centuries. The tribe encouraged this presence in their territory because they were able to trade for goods, including firearms. By 1841 however, several developments, including the opening of the Oregon Trail, upset the economics of trade.
Tensions between the Utes and the trading posts grew thin and in 1843, hostilities broke out between the Mexicans of Santa Fe and the Utes who felt they were being taken advantage of. The conflict spread into Colorado through the San Luis Valley and eventually to Fort Uncompahgre. Several of the Mexicans, who staffed the fort, were killed in a raid. The attacking band sent a message to Robidoux that his furs, hides, and buildings were left intact as their fight was with the Mexicans, not with the Americans or the French. However, Robidoux never returned to the fort and a few years later it was destroyed.
With the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848 came the inevitable western expansion of settlers. The Utes were faced with drastic encroachments on their territory. In the next decade, they would see a series of treaties that restricted them to ever shrinking territories. Following the discovery of gold and other mineral deposits on the Front Range, and in the mountains of Colorado, a new treaty confined the Utes to the Western Slope by 1868. Meanwhile, settlers were already entering the area and squatting on Ute lands.
Hostilities took a turn for the worse with an unfortunate incident known as the Meeker Massacre. Nathan Meeker was a financially troubled Indian agent who was determined to turn the Utes from hunters into Christian farmers despite his all too apparent disdain for them, calling them a “race with no traditional history”. After several Utes refused to re-adapt to farming near the White River outpost, Meeker denied food rations and plowed under their prized horse racing track. Meeker sent a telegram to Washington DC accusing Chief Douglas of insulting and assaulting him and the army sent a delegation, although it is rumored that their intention was to remove Meeker. However, the troop was ambushed by a band of Utes, led by Douglas. Meeker was killed and his wife and daughters were taken hostage.
The situation was only resolved through the interceding actions of Chief Ouray. Ouray was known as an ever peaceful advocate for his people. He was friends with Kit Carson and possessed an early understanding of both the political agendas and the inevitable intrusion of white settlers. The Meeker incident became the ultimate pretext to finally remove the Utes from the Western Slope by capitalizing on the settler’s growing fears and justifying the notion of manifest destiny. The Denver Times stated: “Either they or we must go, and we are not going. Humanitarianism is an idea, Western Empire is an inexorable fact.”
Ouray was later appointed as tribal chief. With his wife, Chipeta, and several other delegates, he traveled to Washington in order to sign yet another treaty. After long negotiations and infighting on both sides, the treaty was signed and the Northern and Uncompahgre Utes were removed to the small Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah. By 1881, a relatively small strip of sparse pasture and dry land in the southwestern corner of the state became the last remaining Indian reservation in Colorado for the Southern Utes.
Meanwhile, two years prior to their removal, the McGranahan Brothers had already erected their store in the settlement of Uncompahgre. In 1880, the same year that the final treaty was signed, Enos Hotchkiss had already scouted the townsite of Hotchkiss on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Shortly after that, the Uncompahgre Town Site was officially established and the name was changed to Delta. Later that year, in 1882, the narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived and hastened the development of the West. On the eastern end of the North Fork Valley a few years later, the town of Paonia was founded by Samuel Wade and William Clark.
Today, it is estimated that there are 7000 Ute decedents living on their reservations. Tribal members often returned to Delta during the Council Tree Pow Wow that was held for several years, but the cultural festival has not taken place since 2011 and the 250-year-old Council Tree, known as “Grandfather” to the Utes, was taken down as it presented a danger to the neighborhood where it resided. The incident did not pass without some controversy. In 2014 the county commissioners of San Miguel County, to the south, approved a measure to issue a formal apology to the Utes for their removal from the area and dedicated a plaque to them in Placerville Park.
The Ute Indian Museum in south Montrose provides opportunities for a better understanding of the people, the past, and the Utes of today. The museum is a trove of information, artifacts and photographs. The grounds include Chief Ouray memorial park, Chipeta’s gravesite and a native plant garden. It offers a chance to celebrate both the history and the living culture of the people of Colorado who lived along the Uncompahgre Valley, and beyond, for more than 700 years. Though their former plains and valleys are now lined with highways and cities, there is one constant message that resounds throughout the museum: “We are still here.”