Tales from the Tread: Milk Creek Battlefield Park dedication

Candice Bannister
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
The Milk Creek Battlefield Park memorializes the battlefield where many Ute Indian Tribe members and U.S. soldiers lost their lives.
File photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Sept. 28, the Rio Blanco County Historical Society, in collaboration with the Ute Tribes of Colorado and Utah, hosted the 140th anniversary commemoration of the 1879 Battle at Milk Creek at the Milk Creek Battlefield Park outside of Meeker.

This site is most known as the place where Major Thomas T. Thornburgh was killed along with other U.S. soldiers in a battle with the Ute Indians from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, 1879. What is less known is the circumstances that led to this battle and the catastrophic losses sustained by the Ute people that went far beyond the tragic deaths during those infamous days.

I applaud the Rio Blanco County Historical Society for their leadership and efforts to develop the Milk Creek Battlefield Park over the past 30 years and for organizing the dedication ceremony.

The purpose of their efforts is to commemorate the site of one of the last battles of the American Indian Wars when, according to the Historical Society, “the United States Calvary crossed the boundary of the Ute Reservation with what could only be interpreted as hostile intent. The Utes, as a last resort, resisted the invasion of the military and held the troops in this location for five days with minimal loss of life.” 

A monument has long stood to represent the U.S. soldiers killed in the battle, and particularly Thornburgh. A monument was also erected at the park by the Ute tribe to represent the Ute loss of the life and livelihood. The Ute monument reads: “Let us not forget the Whiteriver Utes who gave their lives and those who were wounded in the battle at Milk Creek on September 29, 1879. Nathan Meeker, Indian Agent, did not understand the Utes and knew very little about their traditions and culture. Resentment toward Meeker’s policy of farming resulted in a fight between ‘Johnson,’ a Ute, and Agent Meeker. This was the beginning of the problems that ensued. Because of the battles at Whiteriver and Meeker, CO, the Whiterivers and Uncompahgres were forced by gun-point to the reservation in Utah, leaving behind their beautiful land in Colorado. However, the Uncompahgres had nothing to do with those events. Under the 14th amendment, their rights were ignored.”

The dedication ceremony on Sept. 28 included a wide array of historians, authors, Ute tribal members, elders and leaders, state dignitaries and the local community, who came together in peace and unity to remember the historical events of 1879. 

I had the good fortune of attending the dedication event when it was held at the site in 2015, when Peter Decker, esteemed historian and author of “The Utes Must Go!” spoke: 

“…the Army’s invasion into the reservation on September 29, 1879 (is a) day that shall live in infamy for the Ute, a day like the Sand Creek massacre for the Cheyenne and Arapahoe, and a day like 9/11 for a larger tribe of whites.

“For the Ute to lose almost sixteen million acres of their guaranteed reservation and homeland in Colorado, and then to be forced at gun point to move to Utah, or in other cases, required to squeeze into a sliver of land along the New Mexico border, seemed then, as it does now, to be ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment for a tribe who wanted only to be left alone to care for and live off their sacred land … home to at least three centuries of ancestors and helpful spirits. … It was, and remains so to this day, nothing but a land grab by the State of Colorado in conjunction with the U.S. Congress, enforced by the Army, and in violation of three separate treaties.”

Northern Utes and their ancestors inhabited mountainous Colorado and Utah for centuries. White settlers in the Colorado Territory brought competition and conflict for the land. The Ute Reservation and Agency at White River were established by the treaty of 1868. Settlers violated the treaty encroaching onto Ute lands. Utes and local traders previously engaged in a friendly buckskin economy through trading posts along the Yampa and Little Snake Rivers.

In 1878, White River Indian Agent Nathan Meeker imposed a mandatory lifestyle conversion upon the traditionally nomadic Utes to agriculture which was resented and resisted. Finally, Meeker ordered the plowing of the Ute horse racing track which resulted in a quarrel that put fear into Meeker. When Meeker requested military assistance, Thornburgh and troops were dispatched to aid Meeker, and crossed Milk Creek onto reservation land, where they were engaged by the Utes in a fierce battle Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, 1879. Thornburgh, many soldiers and Utes were slain. Concurrently, at the Indian Agency, Utes attacked and killed Meeker and all the male employees.

A military cantonment was subsequently established in the present site of downtown Meeker. By 1883, Congress ordered the eviction of all Utes from their beloved homeland onto reservations in Eastern Utah and Southern Colorado where they remain today. When the U.S. Cavalry received orders to leave, the buildings were sold, and the town of Meeker began its own chapter of history.

Candice Bannister is the executive director of Tread of Pioneers Museum.

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