Connections to the Yampa Valley remain long after Utes forced out

The Ute powwow in Steamboat Springs in 2019 included colorful regalia and other items that represent the Ute people's customs and culture including these ceremonial feathers.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was a time when the Ute Nation stretched across the Rocky Mountain region and included the southern part of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and even parts of Kansas.

Those days are gone, but Northern Ute Tribe member Betsy Chapoose said the Ute people still have a presence in places like the Yampa Valley.

“They had a vast area, and what was born from that was their cultural values and their language that all came from those landscapes,” said Chapoose, who is the Northern Ute cultural rights and protection director. “We were thriving. We wouldn’t be here this many thousands of years later if we were just surviving. We weren’t just getting by — we were living.”

She said the tribal bands, including those that came to the Yampa Valley, moved with the seasons. The Utes followed game into the higher elevations in the summer, they visited the many hot springs in the area, and when winter arrived, they moved to lower elevations.

Then in the 1880s the 12 tribal bands that called this area home were forced by the U.S. government to relocate to reservations. The huge expanse that had once been the Ute Nation shrank to three reservations in southern Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. But the Ute people’s connection to the Yampa Valley remains, Chapoose said.

“Just because we are not living there anymore, just because we’ve been removed from that area and put on the reservation, doesn’t mean that we value that area any less,” Chapoose said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t still have that connection there.”

The Ute story

The Ute people’s history can be traced back thousands of years, long before the first white settlers came.

“We don’t have a migration story. Our stories tell us that we were placed here by Sinauf,” Chapoose said. “We did not migrate from someplace else, and so for that very reason, we have that connection. We were created from these lands, in a sense.”

Chapoose said the Ute people’s connection to the environment makes them whole and is expressed in their spirituality.

“They did seasonal rounds in order to collect what they needed,” Chapoose said of her ancestors. “Then they would move to another area, so they didn’t decimate the land by over-collecting.”

The Spaniards had the first contact with the Ute people in the early 1600s and formed a relationship based on trade. The Spaniards introduced the horse to the Utes who became accomplished horsemen.

But as European settlers began leading expeditions into Colorado and the Salt Lake Valley, those relationships started to change. Trappers and fur traders arrived in the 1820s, and soon after, settlers began establishing trading posts and forts, including Fort Kit Carson, which was established in 1833 near where the community of Ouray now sits, and Fort Uncompahgre, which was established on the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers.

This westward push created conflicts between Ute warriors and western settlers who were driven by Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century doctrine that the expansion of the United States throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.

Tension in Colorado

In the years that followed, tensions between settlers and Native Americans remained high, and the desire to remove the Ute people from Colorado became a platform for political leaders like Frederick Walker Pitkin, who was elected governor in 1979, a few years after Colorado became a state. He campaigned on the platform, “The Utes Must Go.”

Pitkin and other local politicians and settlers made exaggerated claims against the Ute people, building a case to remove then and gain the rich land that belonged to them according to a treaty established in 1867.

In 1879, a pivotal event occurred when Nathan Meeker and 10 members of his staff at the White River Indian Agency were killed near Milk Creek along with 17 soldiers who had been called to northern Colorado from Fort Steele in Wyoming to settle a disagreement between Meeker and the Utes. Pitkin used the event in his push to move the Utes to reservations.

“Immediately upon receiving news of this outbreak, I dispatched couriers to all the frontier mining camps near the reservation to notify the settlers of the condition of affairs, in order that they might guard against possible dangers,” Pitkin wrote in his 1881 inaugural address after winning his second term as governor. “The alarm, which was felt throughout the west­ern half of the state, on the receipt of the news of these Indian atrocities, was intense and widespread.”

Sequiah Tallbird performs the fancy shawl dance during the Ute Indian Powwow dance performance and presentation in the auditorium at the Steamboat Springs High School in 2019.
John F. Russell

Tipping point

In fact, it may have been Meeker’s actions at the White River Indian Agency that sparked the uprising.

After arriving in 1878, Meeker decided to move the agency to an area that had been used as a horse pasture where the Utes also raced horses. That, combined with his desire to push the Utes toward farming and Christianity, created conflict.

Meeker demanded compliance, and when his ideas were rejected, his patience waned. He withheld food rations, and he plowed horse pastures that were important to the Utes as the relationship continued to deteriorate.

Meeker wired for military assistance, and Major Thomas Thornburgh responded. The Ute leaders knew that Thornberg was coming and had made an agreement with Meeker that Thornberg and a small group of soldiers would come to the agency for talks.

But when Thornberg arrived and led troops onto the reservation, they were met by Ute warriors, and the Battle of Milk Creek ensued. Back at the agency, the Utes received word of the battle and felt they had been misled by Meeker. The Utes killed Meeker and his entire staff and took women and children hostage.  

Buffalo Soldiers from the Ninth Calvary near Steamboat Springs arrived, after a 75-mile march, to help the besieged troops at Milk Creek. They were not able to turn the tide but extended the battle another four days until Colonel Wesley Merritt arrived from Rawlins, Wyoming, with 450 additional soldiers and forced the Ute Warriors to surrender.

Investigations into the Meeker incident failed to identify or punish the Utes who killed Meeker, and the Battle of Milk Creek was considered a legitimate engagement since the Army had trespassed on the reservations.

The State Legislature ultimately passed a Ute removal declaration, which resulted in the White River and Uncompahgre Utes being forced to relocate on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in northeastern Utah.

Learn more

Ute Indian Museum
17253 Chipeta Road, Montrose
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Tread of Pioneers Museum
800 Oak St. Steamboat Springs

Important tales

The Meeker incident is often cited as the reason the Ute people were removed to reservations, but looking back on history, it is clear the conflicts were part of a movement to remove the Ute people, which started years before.

Candice Bannister, executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat, believes telling those stories and the history of the Ute culture in Colorado and the Yampa Valley is vitally important. She has worked for years to create contacts with the Northern Ute Tribe on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation and bring tribal leaders like Roland McCook to town to share stories of the Ute people.

“Our exhibits at the museum talk about how the Utes believe their creator placed them in the Rocky Mountains, their ancestral home,” Bannister said. “Written records indicate specific Ute presence in the Yampa Valley since the late 1500s, and linguistic evidence indicates the 1300s,” Bannister said.  “The Ute primarily came here in the summer — hunting game, gathering food and soaking in the curative waters of the local mineral springs.”

Exhibits at the museum also reflect the arrival of James Crawford in 1876 and his relationships with the Utes.

“I think it’s important to point out that early diaries and recollections from the first settlers to the area, like the Crawfords, depict nearly 100 members of the Yampatica, or Yamparica, Tribe in the Yampa Valley, and though the whites and the Utes generally kept to themselves, written accounts by the Crawford family describe the Utes as friendly and non confrontational,” Bannister said.

As more settlers arrived and demands on land increased, conflicts increased.

“You had a hunter gatherer society needing to come and go and follow game, and then you had the settlers coming in putting up fences,” Bannister said. “Those ideologies just totally conflicted.”

I would just say take care of my land, because I may be back.”


Moving forward

Others in Steamboat are also looking for ways to honor the area’s Ute history.

Twenty years ago, Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs invited leaders from the Northern Ute Tribe to visit their ancestral lands in Steamboat. The event, and those that followed, provide opportunities for students and the community to understand the heritage and legacy of the tribe in Yampa Valley.  

Pam Burwell, who was CMC’s comparative religions and history professor at the time, spearheaded the communication and collaboration with the tribe, which resulted in the Ute tuition agreement, which was approved by the trustees. 

The program drew about 20 students to the campus, but at the time, resources and lack of minority support both on campus and in the community made it difficult for these students to thrive, and the program suffered.

But faculty member Patrick Staib and librarian Kevin Williams want to see a return of the program.

“Kevin and I are co-chairs of CMC-Steamboat’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) committee,” Staib said. “Part of our work is reinvigorating the Ute Tribal Tuition Program at CMC.”

He said the program was not utilized to its full potential, and there were other concerns that prevented students from taking advantage of the program.

“Our newly proposed form of the Ute Tribal Tuition Program would offer alternative housing, advisory council oversight and guided pathways curricula,” Staib said.

In 2019, the Steamboat campus hosted a Ute tribal visit day, and the college has been visiting Uinta River High School’s career and college fair.

Bannister also continues her work to build connections with Ute tribal members on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation to create exhibits and connections she hopes will continue to provide a glimpse into the Ute culture.

Chapoose is a strong proponent of educational outreach and she said working with young people in Ute and non-Ute communities brings understanding.

“We work with a lot of federal agencies, and we do a lot of student programs,” Chapoose said. “One of the things we want to teach is respect for the environment and respect for the lands we once held. We want the values that we have and that type of eco-responsibility we feel is so important to also be imparted into non-tribal kids.

“We call it culture, we call it tradition, but these are values that we have,” Chapoose explained. “We are not simply saying this is the way we do it. It’s the why behind it.”

And the message she gives to communities in regions that were once part of the Ute Nation is simple.

“I would just say take care of my land, because I may be back,” Chapoose said with a wholehearted laugh.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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