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  • Peter McGuire

Meeker: Steamboat Springs part 4 of 6

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Nathan Meeker played an outsized role in shaping the history of Colorado and the Ute.

He is often painted as a villain because of the devastating impact his death had on American Indians. The negative image might also be his personal qualities echoing through history. Even a lavishly complimentary biography from 1890 states, “We all know, even those who knew and loved him most, that he had a curt, brusque, impatient manner that was very repellant to strangers.”

Meeker was a sometime journalist, farmer, traveling salesman, general store owner, and utopian. He, at first, seemed to me like the real villain of the story, but in fact, he was a complex and flawed person, like most people are.

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As a young man, he settled in the Trumbull Phalanx, one of many utopian communities that developed in Ohio after the opening of the Erie Canal. This and all of his subsequent business ventures failed, but Meeker never seemed to lose heart. He was that kind of Jacksonian Democrat who simply bankrupted his ventures and moved on to the next. He wrote all the while, eventually developing a reputation when his self-published articles were reprinted by Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune. Eventually, he secured himself an editorial position in agricultural reporting for the Tribune. In 1869, Greeley sent Meeker to the Colorado Territory for a story. There, Meeker fell in love with the Rockies. It would be a toxic romance.

Shortly after his arrival, Meeker put into action a dream he’d held for a long time. He secured funding from subscribers and from Horace Greeley for a new utopian community. He bought land on the Platte River far north of Denver from railroads and government claims to start his Union Colony. This colony accepted volunteers for $160 with the requirements of literacy, temperance, and high moral standards. They named themselves after their benefactor: Greeley, who visited once.

Like other utopian communities across the United States, they believed high moral standards and cohesion could inevitably create prosperity for its enlightened inhabitants. Unlike most other utopian communes, they succeeded and survived. The Union Colony proved so prosperous a site for farming and ranching that its leaders set up a similar colony a little farther north, the Fort Collins Agricultural Colony.

Within the decade, despite his prominence and that of his newspaper in the community, Meeker exhausted his goodwill with the citizens of Greeley over questions of legislating morality. He was prominently disgraced when Greeley legalized the sale of alcohol in 1871. His newspaper, despite good circulation, lost money, as did all his farming ventures. It seems like he was one of the few Greeley citizens who couldn’t turn a profit farming. By the middle of the decade, the only things he still had were his family and his connections. He used the latter to secure a paid post from the Colorado Territory, and, after statehood in 1876, managed to secure the post of United States Indian Agent at the White River Ute Reservation, an organization the Ute set up to distribute payments from the United States for land they had conceded. These payments rarely arrived and the organization was soon used by the federal government to force Ute into Western ways of living.

I have seen it said several places that Meeker was hugely unqualified and uncomprehending of Ute ways, but his letters reveal otherwise. He admired many things about Ute society. In one passage he wonders if their children are so obedient because they are spared the rod (literally) and encouraged to pursue their own desires. He mentions the Western belief that Indian women were treated as slaves in their society (a common criticism of so-called civilizations considered barbaric) and denies it in two paragraphs describing how much power and influence women had in Ute society. It appears to me, from reading his letters, that in his ten or so years living in Colorado, Meeker actually learned a lot about Ute ways of living. Understanding something, however, is not the same as respecting it.

He wonders whether it is even possible or desirable to “civilize” the Ute, and his alternative is their quiet extinction as a race. For him, violence is always an option. He writes, “If civilization is the main object it seems to me that army officers would have a great advantage in bringing the Indians into industrious habits, because they can use force, that is, if an Indian refused to plow, etc., a detachment of soldiers could bring him up to the field and set him at it.” Based on his contempt for his neighbors, I think he would have exercised that option against the lazy, sinning colonists of Greeley too if he could have.

Meeker had contempt for what he saw as the lazy ways of the Indians: that is, their refusal to irrigate new farmland at his request—and any white apologist who demanded the remaining American Indians be left alone. “I wish these sentimental scribblers could live a few months among genuine Indians, and by the time they got covered with lice and fleas and have seen how the finest land under the sun is held in contempt for the purpose for which it was made, they would get new notions.”

It is often said that Meeker plowed over a Ute meeting place either out of ignorance or mean-spiritedness. Regardless of his personal feelings towards the Ute, he writes that he was explicitly compelled by the Interior Department to force the Ute to either adopt the sedentary life of farming or give up claims on their land. The Ute, meanwhile, thought that to be sedentary in the Rockies was pointless and potentially suicidal.

Meeker’s first act as Indian Agent was to relocate his office deep in Ute land so he could manage them directly. He set about organizing a Ute labor force to create a model farm in the White River valley. He despised the above-market wages he had to pay to garner Ute interest in the project. Tensions came to a head when Meeker informed his Ute workforce that the land they had been working at his direction all summer would not belong to them. It would instead be a government farm run for their benefit, he insisted. This seemed to be a betrayal thrice over: of their labor, their land, and their way of life. Many Ute who participated were disgraced in the eyes of their community for being tricked out of their land.

In the summer of 1879, Meeker came back to his town of Greeley one last time, apparently deeply dispirited about the farming project, before returning to his post near what is today the town of Meeker. He notes among the settlements he has been tasked with protecting is one on the upper Bear River, which can only be Steamboat Springs. That summer, as fires raged through the Rockies, the Ute ran into about 140 federal troops riding south from Wyoming at Meeker’s request. Meeker had called in the brigade after what he saw as an unprovoked physical confrontation with a young Ute man a few weeks earlier. I suspect he was tired of bargaining with the Ute and thought he could control them by force. The Ute, shocked at the invasion of federal troops, wasted little time crafting their response.

On September 29th, Major Thomas Thornburgh and his 140 troops entered the Ute reservation. On this day, a band of Ute killed Meeker and ten of his men and took their wives and children hostages. Rumor had it that Yarmonite protected the Crawfords from a similar attack.

That same day, another Ute division, under Chief Colorow (a leader well known to the Crawfords) attacked the cavalry division on their reservation. They killed 13 American soldiers and wounded another 28 at Milk Creek, a valley 18 miles northeast of the town of Meeker. Thornburgh was one of the first to die.

Surviving American troops held out for two days until a division of Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Lewis evened the battle. They fought for another four days before another 450 soldiers arrived from Wyoming. In the end, 17 American soldiers were killed and 44 were wounded while 24 Ute soldiers lay dead. A federal investigation into the events deemed the Battle of Milk Creek a legitimate engagement, not an Indian raid because the army had trespassed on a reservation.

In the negotiations that followed, it became clear that the hostages, including Meeker’s wife and daughter, were the only bargaining chip keeping Ute from total extermination of their nation. They ultimately relinquished the hostages after 23 days and agreed to join Ouray’s group, which had already begun their relocation to the Uintah Reservation, a small strip of desert in Utah, a territory that, back in 1850, had been named after its inhabitants: the Ute. Around 150 of the three or four thousand Ute participated in the attacks that summer. Nevertheless, Ute unrelated to the conflict were relocated to a strip of desert on the border between Colorado and New Mexico. This marked the end of the last large continuous reservation of Indian land in the United States. The last American Indian nation had fallen.

The White River Utes, finding it impossible to survive on the arid land, fled back to Colorado in 1882, where they were tracked down and killed by the U.S. Army. The Ute continued to protest their meager conditions through the end of the century, claiming the poverty of the new land was intolerable and forced them into complete reliance on government assistance, which often never arrived. These objections were rendered irrelevant in 1903, when the U.S. Supreme court ruled in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock that treaties made with Native American nations could be dismissed unilaterally by the power of the U.S. Congress. With Congress now essentially negotiating with itself, Indian nations were left to the whims of the federal government and the destructive paternalism that characterized American policy throughout the 20th Century.

As starvation, poverty, and their attendant woes overtook the much-diminished Ute population, the government continued to whittle down their lands. Today, the federal government, not the Ute reservation, collects the profits from recreational activities carried out on the majority of land promised to the Ute in that final treaty. It’s worth noting that most land west of the Rockies still belongs to the federal government, not the states, and it could be returned to the various Indian nations with the stroke of a pen. Following Teddy Rosevelt’s vision, most of it remains a playground for Americans in the form of national parks.

With this in mind, we can see settlements on the edge of Ute lands like Steamboat Springs as part of the flywheel of colonization. White settlers move into disputed lands, the federal government sends troops to protect them, violence breaks out, American Indians are resettled to more barren lands.

I think a major reason Meeker is painted as such an ignorant villain in this story is because it’s easier for us to understand and distance ourselves from evil when it is the actions of an evil person, not a process. By scapegoating Meeker, we are making a statement about ourselves, that we would never have treated the American Indians in such a way. But, in fact, we know that Meeker was acting on orders from the government, and the government was protecting Americans living on disputed lands. As such, Meeker was just a face of the larger process of colonizing Colorado that dispossessed American Indians and keeps them living on the margins of society—in deserts on the edge of the fertile lands they hunted and farmed for centuries. It’s a process that continues today as the federal government and the states of Utah and Colorado consistently deny Ute requests to reoccupy or profit off of their traditional lands.

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