Renegade Roads

Following 19th-Century Ute Trails

From Pueblo, Colorado, to Price, Utah.

From Pueblo, Colorado, to Price, Utah.

Click image above for larger view

Nathan Meeker raised a crop of distrust, anger and resentment among the Utes that led to disaster.

In one of his first acts as agent, Meeker relocated the White River Agency to a place known as Powell Meadow or Powell Bottom, named for Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell. Meeker paid little heed to the fact that it was the area where the Utes grazed their horses and where they had a track for horse racing events. He started plowing the meadow in anticipation of planting crops. As if that wasn’t enough, he angered the Utes even more by suggesting they had too many horses and ought to kill some of them.

Meeker’s agrarian aims would fuel one of the West’s most violent Indian uprisings protesting reservation life.

 

No More Blue Sky

The Utes once roamed across most of Colorado and Utah, with some spending time in New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming.

Known as Yutas, Utahs and Blue Sky People, the collective nation had divided into seven distinct bands by the late 1700s. The Utes raided into lands surrounding their homes, skirmishing with the other tribes. Yet they had few conflicts with outsiders.

The Uintah primarily lived in Utah’s Uintah Basin. The Yampa Utes occupied lands in the Yampa River Valley of northwest Colorado, while the Grand Utes made their homes along the Grand (later known as the Colorado) River. These bands became known as the Whiteriver Utes and along with the Uintah and Uncompahgre (formerly Tabeguache) bands, they make up the Northern Utes, who now live on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, headquartered at Fort Duchesne.

The Capote and Mouache Utes lived in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, north central New Mexico and the Eastern Slope of Colorado, occasionally traveling and living as far south as Santa Fe. The Weeminuche Utes had territory in southwest Colorado along the San Juan, Las Animas, Mancos and La Plata river valleys. Those three bands, Capote, Mouache and Weeminuche (Ute Mountain Utes), comprise the Southern Ute nation with a reservation in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, headquartered at Towaoc, Colorado.

By 1854, the Utes had recognized a graver enemy encroaching their territory. That year, the eastern bands participated in a raid on the new settlement at Pueblo, where we will begin our trip across some of the traditional Ute lands.

 

At the River’s Bend

In Pueblo, Colorado, I visit the re-created El Pueblo, an early trading center. The El Pueblo History Museum shares the story of the Ute raid in 1854 that drove out the original settlers. I stroll along the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk, once a lively scene of traders exchanging goods, and enjoy its park-like setting and tour boats on the river.

From Pueblo, my route is west along highway 50 through Canon City, where the road parallels the Arkansas River and skirts along the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas, a defile cut by eons of cascading water. The Royal Gorge is a thousand-foot canyon that can be viewed from above on the Royal Gorge Bridge, or from below by taking a ride on the Royal Gorge Railroad. But I stay on U.S. 50 to Salida and Poncha Springs, and then turn southwest along U.S. 285 to the small town of Saguache.

The Utes roamed this region until 1862, a year after the Colorado Territory was established, when tribal representatives met in Denver with Indian agent Lafayette Head, who ran the agency at Conejos. In Denver, the tribal representatives told Territorial Gov. John Evans they would live in harmony with the newly arriving settlers so long as the Utes could retain their own lands in Colorado and, by extension, in Utah. Subsequently, in the spring of 1863, a Ute contingent traveled to Washington, D.C., met with President Abraham Lincoln and ultimately ceded a portion of their lands, including the San Luis Valley and mountain areas where miners had already staked claims.

After the Ute Treaty in 1868 that established one reservation for all seven bands, the Utes had one agency on Los Pinos Creek some 50 miles northwest of Saguache on the west side of Cochetopa Pass, and another in northwest Colorado on the White River near the present-day town of Meeker.

 

Ouray’s Uncompahgre Utes

Despite the treaty, the Utes remained near Saguache and the agency on Los Pinos Creek until mining activity escalated in the San Juan Mountains to the west. This led to the Brunot Treaty of 1873 that further concentrated the Utes in the western part of Colorado Territory by closing...

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