The Beaver Creek Massacre occurred on June 19, 1885, when white cattlemen killed six Ute Mountain Utes at a camp on Beaver Creek, about sixteen miles north of Dolores in present Montezuma County. Stemming from conflicts over the federal government’s Native American policies and the Utes’ off-reservation activities, the massacre caused weeks of fear on both sides and led to new restrictions on Ute movements. It was the last major conflict between whites and Native Americans in Colorado, coming more than two decades after the Sand Creek Massacre and six years after the Meeker Incident.
Tensions between Utes and farmers and ranchers in southwestern Colorado had been building for years before the Beaver Creek Massacre. Settlers complained that Utes roaming off the reservation were killing cattle and stealing horses. Some settlers in Durango were calling for Utes to be completely confined to the reservation. The Utes, meanwhile, often had little choice but to hunt elsewhere, as repeated incursions by white railroads and livestock drove elk, deer, and other game off the reservation.
Cattlemen blamed the Utes and the federal government for their problems. Their ire toward the government was not entirely misdirected, since it was the government’s ration policy on the reservation that forced the Utes off the reservation to hunt for food. The Utes did, however, have the right to hunt for food in much of southwestern Colorado as a result of the 1873 Brunot Agreement. Federal Indian agents and the army blamed cattlemen for stirring up trouble and exaggerating Ute raids as a pretext for their removal.
In June 1885, a Ute Mountain Ute hunting party traveled off the reservation and stopped near the mouth of Beaver Creek at a site with a long history as a Ute camp. Early on the morning of June 19, disgruntled local cattlemen attacked the Ute camp, killing six and wounding two. The identity of the attackers remains unknown.
Two or three days after the massacre, Utes attacked the Genthner homestead in Montezuma Valley, apparently in retaliation. They tried to set fire to the house, shot and killed Mr. Genthner, and seriously wounded his wife, who managed to escape with the children. Many settlers fled their homes and spent several nights away; a few built a ramshackle log fort at Narraguinnep Spring, about twenty-five miles north of Dolores.
Rumors flew, and fears ran high on both sides. The commander of Fort Lewis, Colonel P. T. Swaine, increased patrols in the area. The governor of Colorado offered to send state troops to the area, but Swaine declined the assistance. Largely thanks to Swaine’s calm handling of the situation, the worst of the panic passed by early July.
By the mid-1880s, Utes were unable to contest the forces driving white settlement and faced increasingly strict regulations of their movement. Even though the Beaver Creek Massacre involved whites killing Utes, settlers’ subsequent fear of retaliation sparked new restrictions on Utes’ off-reservation activities as well as renewed calls for the removal of all Utes from Colorado. But the Utes remained, the massacre was forgotten, and hostility between whites and Utes gradually declined.
Today the site of Beaver Creek Massacre is in the Dolores Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest. The area is used in the same ways it was in the 1880s: livestock grazing, some logging, and big-game hunting in the fall. The only indication of development is a dirt forest road that passes near the site.