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  • Peter McGuire

The Peopling of Colorado: Steamboat Springs Part 2 of 6

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

See part 1 for the springs and geology of Northwestern Colorado. Read on for the anthropology and early history of the Ute.

The most recent ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, which presents a puzzle for America. It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists broadly agreed that the single point of human origin lay in Africa. At that time, anthropologists and geologists agreed that humans could not have crossed from Siberia to Alaska before 10,000 years ago, although some fossils uncomfortably suggested an arrival a millennium before that.

The first arrival of humanity in the Americas is still hotly debated. The question of what constitutes evidence of human habitation continues to evolve with ongoing research. That date has recently taken a big jump backward with the discovery of human footprints in southern New Mexico from 23,000 years ago.

We suspect that humans crossed from Asia to Alaska when the water level was much lower. Up until 7,000 or so years ago, they could have simply walked across. This landscape would have been very cold indeed during the ice age, only supporting bare subsistence for humans. People on the edge of survival would not have crossed the dozen or so completely frozen mountain ranges between Alaska and the rest of the continent.

It seems clear that humans traveled along the Pacific Coast all the way down the Americas. This is still an unproven hypothesis, but most evidence that could support it is most likely lost (or, at least, inaccessible without more advanced underwater anthropology techniques.) Their settlements would all be about 400 feet underwater today.

These first Americans found a world teeming with some animals still common to the rest of the world and others that had long since disappeared everywhere. One by one, they hunted these animals to extinction. It was a brutal lesson we are in the midst of learning again. Humans have immense power to disrupt fragile environments.

Larger animals tend to have a hard time adjusting to environmental changes. They live too long and reproduce too slowly to make fast genetic adjustments. Evolution, like geology, is very slow. Sometimes climate change can outpace it and you end up with mass extinctions like we’re seeing today. Slower generations generally mean even slower evolution. In this case, the environmental change was the arrival of a completely new, incredibly successful predator. Life simply didn’t have time to adapt to this spear-throwing ape from Africa suddenly roaming the plains. That said, extinction, like adaptation, was slow. Already pushed to the edge of survival by global warming (ice sheets that covered North America were melting and carving many of the river valleys we see today) animals could not adapt quickly enough to this new predator. This first wave of human-caused extinction foreshadowed recent times, during which humans have eliminated living species at 100 to 1000 times the normal rate of evolution.

The Giant Ground Sloth must have made for a feast

We know that by 23,000 years ago there were humans living in New Mexico (and certainly earlier). It took American populations at least 10,000 years to eat the last cheetah. The American lion and the ground sloth followed. Then went the mammoth, a large species of bison, the mastodon, the jaguar, the stout-legged llama, the horse, and an assortment of cats, wolves, and bears followed. We can only wonder how history may have played out differently if some of these, most notably the horse, had survived in some form (like the cats, wolves, bears, and bison did). Instead, Native Americans had far fewer animals to domesticate, which accounted for some of the great lifestyle differences between Europe and the Americas.

As in the rest of the world, human technology and social development spread up and down the Americas but, crucially, not between that supercontinent and Afro-Eurasia. Americans created entirely new ecosystems with their plants. Corn is so unique that its exact origin and development are still hotly debated. As I’ve discussed a few times, domestication of plant life and careful management transformed the forests of North and South America. The triple-crop bundle of potatoes, corn, and beans created a surplus that fed vast cities across the Americas. Perhaps most incredibly, in most places, at most times, the combination of hunting, gathering, farming, and ranching used by the inhabitants of the Americas was sustainable, even for large cities, something that could not be said for cities in other parts of the world. In most cases, the humans of the Americas joined the apex predators of the ecosystems rather than completely retooling them, as in the case when forests are cleared for farmland.

When I brought up the sustainability of American Indian lifeways to Candice Bannister of the Tread of the Pioneers Museum in Steamboat, she noted, “I know if you look at climate change, there’s a movement coming from native tribes to let them and their ways—their traditions—lead the movement to combat climate change. Because they did live in harmony with the earth and cared for the Earth first, and that’s something to be modeled even today.

Mountain ecosystems can be particularly fragile. Life tends to adapt to drier, higher, colder climates by using less energy, eating less, moving less, and reproducing slower. This survival strategy makes mountain life fragile in the same way large animals are fragile. A major and successful strategy for preserving these ecosystems was remaining transient. People rarely stayed at high elevation during the winter, and hunted lightly when moving through these sparse environments. You can probably guess why I’m lingering on this detail.

This low-impact mountain lifestyle continued for millennia. Different peoples with different languages and cultures no doubt inhabited the Colorado Rockies over the intervening centuries and left little trace. Most of their material culture was made of wood and skins which weathered away.

To the south, a large and vibrant civilization blossomed in the canyons of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. The ancient Pueblo culture created incredible cities carved into the rock from the 700s to the 1140s but, in the end, most were abandoned, probably due to changing climate making the area more arid.

Where do the Ute come from?

Sometime after 1000, a Numic-speaking people migrated from Southeastern California up the Colorado River. They inhabited the ancient pueblos left behind and eventually reached the four-corners area by 1500. I’m reminded of Herodotus passing through the great ruins of Ninevah in 400BC and realizing just how ancient civilization is. American nations encountered the same phenomenon. By 1600, this group occupied most of Colorado. We call them the Ute. They call themselves the Nuche. Like many of the American Indian names used by outsiders, Ute was a name given by a different American Indian nation.

The Ute believe they were chosen to live in the mountains. Their origin myth tells of how Coyote was given a bag of sticks by the Creator, who instructed him to carry the bag far away and not open it until he got there. Coyote, being young and foolish, couldn’t wait and peeked inside.

“Yakovich [Coyote] is a trickster for many tribes. Yokivich always used to create chaos and problems. So the creator, Sinawav, gets tired and says ‘piu-wi’, I’m tired. He decides to go take a rest and who do you think is watching while he does this? Yakovich.

Yakovich is very curious. ‘What’s in the bag? What’s in the bag’ And he hears all kinds of noises coming from the bag. So now he’s really curious: ‘What’s in the bag? What’s in the bag?’

So he has a stone knife and he cuts the bag. How many of you have stepped on an anthill? What happens? All the people started coming out! Coyote tried to put them back in the bag but there were so many people. He freaks out and runs away.

Well, Sinawav came back and seeing his bag was empty, he know who had done what. He was bummed. He reaches inside the bag and there’s only one more group of people: the Ute people. So he says ‘You are Ute people. You are strong. You will be able to defeat all the rest. So I’m going to put you high over in the Rocky Mountains, high in the Uinta mountains, and high in the Wasatch mountains.’ And that’s how we became known as mountain people”

The Ute Way of Life

Like all people, the Ute named the landscape and it became the landscape of their mythology and religion. Pikes Peak was Tavakiev, the Sun Mountain, a holy site and a major gathering place. The Garden of the Gods appears to have been a major meeting place for bison hunts. The ubiquitous mountain springs represented the springing forth of life, be that ancestral or the life force of the land. The Ute believe that all things that survive on water are made out of water and earth, created from Mother Earth, animated by breath.

A lesser-known but cherished spring was located high in the Yampa valley, too cold to visit in winter, but a spot of relaxation in the summer. There, Ute Indians bathed in the tepid, stinky sulfur springs and watched a geyser spray jet after jet of subterranean water into the river, glug-glug-glugging as it filled up each time.

The Ute lived in wickiups, a structure of wood covered in grass and brush, which kept them cool during the hot Southwestern summers. In colder months, they retreated from the higher mountains to wickiups insulated with bark and hides. In the 1700s, they began to adopt tepees from the plains Indians.

The Ute believe that human life is just one part of nature, not something distinct, as their European counterparts did. Everything from the rocks and grass to the water and sky are alive and animated with spirit. They believe life is best when lived in alignment with the movements of the universe. They favor the right hand, and the right side of the body, as the sun-wise direction. They have a gendered division of labor that historically included a third gender for those assigned male at birth that lived in female roles.

For the better part of two centuries, the Ute were unperturbed by the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The first major change to their way of life was the adoption of horses, which began in 1640 through trade with the Spanish and taming the descendants of feral Spanish horses known as mustangs. They thrived on the great plain, where the Equus scotti, the American horse, roamed 10,000 years before.

Always semi-nomadic, the Ute now traveled much farther in the average year and carried around more stuff. As a result, they could create more complex textiles and jewelry and accumulate more of them. As horses became the common currency of the American plain, the Ute engaged in horse raids with the Plains Indians: the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pueblo, Comanche, Kiowa, and Navajo. They continued to spread their culture north and west into Utah (hence the name) but did not project power onto the plains.

White Settlement of Ute Lands

By the 1820s, white Americans increasingly arrived in the Rockies to trap and trade. By the 1840s, beaver became endangered in Colorado. Their disappearance drained unique ecosystems that once dotted Colorado: beaver ponds. Beaver ponds provided much-needed food for animals all up and down the food chain, including humanity. Also in the 1840s, Colorado and most of the western United States became American territory with the conclusion of the Mexican-American war. While the Spanish and Mexican governments had rarely made incursions into Ute land, Americans had every intention to farm, mine, inhabit, and terraform the West. One of the first acts of the U.S. Army after capturing Santa Fe was to send raiding parties to harass the Ute of New Mexico.

Utes soon came in conflict with American settlers as large parties of a strange religious sect from Upstate New York began arriving in the Salt Lake Basin. Only now did the Ute contract the Eurasian diseases that had so ravaged the Americas.

After initial armed conflicts, in 1849, the Ute signed their first pact of friendship with the United States. It called for the protection of American settlers in Ute lands, the establishment of American military posts, free passage for Americans, and an insistence that the Ute “cease the roving and rambling habits which have hitherto marked them as a people.” In return, they were to receive unspecified “donations, presents, and implements.” This was an extension of a long-standing American policy to use American Indian gift-giving culture to obligate them into unequal treaties under the guise of sharing. In reality, Americans had proven again and again that “land sharing” always became a pretext for enough white settlers to move into an area to make traditional American Indian lifestyles impossible.

The new power structure became painfully relevant when a wealthy Irish baronet, Lord St. George Gore, led forty friends and servants into what is now northwestern Colorado. Over the next 3 years, they killed 2,000 bison, 1,600 deer or elk, and 105 bears. It’s estimated he wasted somewhere around a million pounds of meat, a shocking act that the Ute considered a form of warfare, although they refrained from directly harassing Gore’s party. Gore doesn't appear to have considered at any point his crushing impact on the ecosystem or the Ute. The Gore mountain range is named for him, despite evidence that he never laid eyes upon it. Attempts to change the name have faltered so far.

The Founding of Denver and Auraria

In 1849, panners from California found gold in the Platte River, setting off a new wave of colonization. In 1858, a group of prospectors from Georgia set up camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River and named their camp after their hometown of Auraria. Later that year, General William Larimer staked a claim on the other side of Cherry Creek, intending to speculate the land, not pan the rivers. He named his town Denver to try and impress the governor of the territory, James Denver, who, unbeknownst to Larimer, had already resigned his office. Denver doesn’t seem to have had much affection for his namesake city, even when it became the Capitol of the state in 1876. He lived the rest of his life as a lawyer and politician in D.C.

Gold in the Platte River led prospectors upstream to a sacred mountain, then called Tavakiev meaning “Sun Mountain”. White miners renamed the mountain after Zebulon Pike, a general and early explorer of Colorado. Within a few years the mining camps of Boulder, St. Charles, Central City, Black Hawk, Georgetown, Leadville, and Idaho Springs were all established. Americans now had a commercial interest in the southern Rockies and the existing treaties with the Ute did not protect their intensive mining operations.

By the 1860s, American negotiators had picked Chief Ouray to become the negotiator for the Ute confederation. Even though he only represented his group of Ute, American negotiators considered treaties signed with Ouray to apply to all Ute. Ouray was bilingual and an outspoken advocate of peace with the Americans, believing that warfare would never stem the flow of whites into Ute lands. After a series of flattering tours to D.C., he signed a treaty giving up Ute land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. President Lincoln’s personal secretary bragged “By its provisions the Indian title is extinguished to one of the largest tracks of land ever ceded to the United States in a single treaty.”

It was just the beginning of the land concessions. Increasingly brutal fighting broke out between Mormons and Ute. The Ute found it more and more difficult to live on land that Mormons were converting to farm and ranchland. When whites would harvest excess wood from the forests or graze a grassland clean, the Ute would demand repayment. The Mormons, considering the land theirs to do with what they pleased, often refused, and cycles of punitive raids began. Things came to a head in 1865, when a Ute warband under Chief Nuch (called “Black Hawk” by Brigham Young as a joke) began intensely raiding Mormon cattle and selling them to Americans further east. Many of these raids escalated into skirmishes, and the war remains the deadliest conflict in Utah’s history. Despite requests from the Mormons, the American government didn’t send troops for seven years because they considered Mormons to be rebels (at best) and had engaged in open battles with them prior to the Civil War. In 1872, the federal troops finally arrived and the Ute accepted a much-diminished territory. The provisions of the treaty restricting Ute hunting and gathering were strictly enforced while provisions restricting white appropriation of lands went unenforced.

The sixth Governor of the territory of Colorado, Samuel Hitt Elbert, facilitated this treaty, which gave 3 million acres to Americans to mine. In return, he too got a fourteener named in his honor.

He’s not the only Indian remover we honor in our names for the landscape. Back in 1864, the Second Territorial Governor of Colorado, John Evans, issued the following proclamation:

John Evans, of 14-er fame

“I, John Evans, governor of Colorado Territory, do issue this my proclamation, authorizing all citizens of Colorado…, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains…, to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.”

It’s thought that this order led directly to the Sand Creek massacre and Evans was forced to resign afterward. Sand Creek was a slaughter so horrific that even frontier Americans of the 1860s couldn’t stomach it. Evans also has a fourteener named in his honor. It would be exhausting to run down all the atrocities related to Colorado place names, but rest assured that Gore, Evans, and Elbert are only the most prominent.

By now, the writing was on the wall. As white Americans moved into the remotest corners of the Rockies, they considered Indian removal to be an inevitability. The Boulder News announced that

“an Indian has no more right to stand in the way of civilization and progress than a wolf or a bear.”

It is here that the story of Steamboat Springs begins.

The next episode arrives 7/4. Sign up below to get notified.

Unlikely Explanations acknowledges the Indigenous people of the Denver area. We honor and acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories and ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations. This area was also the site of trade, hunting, gathering, and healing for many other Native Nations: The Lakota, Ute, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Shoshone, and others.

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