Chipeta (1843–1924) was a Ute woman known for her intelligence, judgment, empathy, bravery, and quiet strength, all of which made her the only woman of her time allowed on the Ute council. She was also the wife of Ouray, whom the United States recognized as the de facto Ute leader in the late nineteenth century. This meant that, like her husband, she was caught in the middle of two colliding worlds. As an influential indigenous person during the period when Colorado was incorporated into the United States, her commitment to peace helped shape the state, even as it resulted in the removal of her people from their ancestral homelands.
Little is known about Chipeta’s life before age fifteen. Oral history indicates that when Chipeta was a toddler, a Ute band found her as the sole survivor of a neighboring camp that had been attacked. The identity of her own camp is debated; oral traditions say she was Jicarilla Apache. After being found, she was adopted by a Ute leader and raised in the Utes’ ancestral homelands in the Rocky Mountains and adjacent high plains, learning traditional Ute female duties including beading, leatherwork, and cooking.
When she was fifteen years old, Chipeta began caring for her sister, Black Mare. When her sister died in 1859, Chipeta began raising her nephew and also took on domestic duties caring for Black Mare’s widower, Ouray. Twenty-six-year-old Ouray was a respected hunter and leader among the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) Utes. He soon found that Chipeta was not only capable as a mother but also a good friend and confidant. They were soon married and began their life together in 1859, when Chipeta was sixteen.
After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the land the Utes had called home for generations—what is now Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and Western Slope, as well as much of present-day Utah—had become the nominal property of the United States. By 1858–59 the Colorado Gold Rush was bringing thousands of immigrants from the eastern United States to the Rocky Mountains. They began to compete with the Utes for land and resources. The invasion of their homeland by settlement-minded newcomers meant that the traditional ways of the Ute people faced drastic change.
Role in Diplomacy
In 1863 Ouray, representing the Tabeguache Utes, was one of the few Ute leaders to attend treaty negotiations with the US government in Washington, DC. Thereafter, the United States viewed Ouray as the representative of all Utes in Colorado, even though he represented only one band. From this difficult position, Ouray and Chipeta tried to maintain peace between the many different Ute peoples and the US government by negotiating treaties. Chipeta accompanied Ouray when he made rounds to tell all the Ute men about new treaty provisions. She talked to the women and helped convince them of the treaty’s benefits. At the time, few women anywhere in North America had as much of a voice in political affairs as Chipeta.
Ouray’s political views were unpopular with Utes who did not appreciate his willingness to compromise with the US government as well as with those who became jealous of the material possessions he acquired from his diplomatic status. Despite other Ute leaders’ skepticism of Ouray, they retained great respect for Chipeta. Her close ties with other Ute bands proved invaluable for Ouray. Once, Chipeta even saved her husband’s life by pointing out a would-be assassin in the brush. Ouray promptly dispatched the Ute man with an arrow through the neck.
After 1868 most of Colorado’s Northern Ute bands lived on a vast reservation on the Western Slope. They reported to various Indian agencies to collect annuities—payments in cash or supplies as outlined in treaties. Yet even within this framework, Ouray and Chipeta found it increasingly difficult to maintain peace. First, in 1871 Congress ceased to recognize indigenous people as belonging to sovereign nations, instead declaring them all to be wards of the government. Although the government had often failed to live up to its end of treaties before 1871, the end of native sovereignty officially removed the impetus for equal terms in future agreements. Thus when miners illegally entered the San Juan Mountains in 1872, violating the Treaty of 1868, Ouray and Chipeta had little recourse. Ouray tried in vain to keep hold of the land but eventually agreed to sell it via the 1873 Brunot Agreement, which angered many Utes.
Then, on the heels of Ouray’s cession of the San Juans, the Meeker Incident exacerbated tensions between Utes and whites. In 1878 Nathan Meeker was appointed Indian agent of the White River Indian Agency, near present-day Meeker. An ambitious man, Meeker attempted to force the Utes to abandon their traditional way of life, which involved deliberate seasonal migrations from the mountains to the plains, and instead become settled Christian farmers. This resulted in a series of conflicts that came to a head in September 1879. The Ute leader Johnson, husband of Ouray’s sister, assaulted Meeker, who requested federal troops for protection. When the troops crossed onto the Ute reservation, Utes at the agency revolted, killing Meeker and ten others. They also took Meeker’s family and several others hostage for twenty-three days.
After US agents negotiated the captives’ release, the hostages were taken to Ouray and Chipeta’s home, where Chipeta cared for them. When the women and children returned to the East Coast, they recounted their experiences with Chipeta and Ouray. One hostage, Flora Ellen Price, gushed that “Mrs. Ouray wept for our hardships and her motherly face, dusky but beautiful, with sweetness and compassion, was wet with tears. We left her crying.” These stories spread and endeared Chipeta to the society attempting to take her homeland, but they ultimately did nothing to stop the spread of Euro-American immigrants. In the years after the Meeker Incident, the US government forced the Tabeguache and most of the other Colorado Ute bands onto a reservation in eastern Utah.
In 1880 Chipeta again traveled with Ouray to Washington. The media portrayed the visit as a celebratory event and referred to Chipeta as “Queen of the Utes,” but the visit was a time of great sadness and anxiety for her. Ouray’s health was declining, and the Utes would soon be moved to the Utah reservation. All the hard work she and her husband had done to keep their sacred lands had failed, and Ouray seemed to be losing all the fight he had left. He died in Colorado in August 1880, before his tribe was forced to move to Utah. Chipeta mourned the loss of her husband by cutting her hair short, and she kept it cut short for the rest of her life. In September 1881, the US government forcibly marched the Utes to Utah.
Stories differ as to how Chipeta spent the remaining forty-four years of her life, but all agree that she retained the bravery and quiet strength for which she had long been known. In 1887, for example, when all the men were away from camp, Chipeta and a group of Ute women were accosted by a group of Euro-American men. The Euro-American men made lewd comments and gestures. Although the Ute women had not been physically harmed, they were upset and scared. When they attempted to leave the camp, the Euro-American men returned and chased them. Chipeta helped the women escape and then quietly returned to watch as the men burned the entire camp. This was not an uncommon occurrence on the Ute Reservation; women faced a special kind of torment because of their ethnicity and gender. Chipeta continued to be denigrated by white culture after she remarried a man named Accumooquats, whom white newspaper articles gave the derogatory moniker “Toomuchagut.” Chipeta handled this mistreatment with her trademark quiet grace.
The Utes’ oral tradition records that Chipeta continued to be an influential woman on the reservation. She spent the remainder of her life living with family, especially her little brother, who became a sheepherder. Some stories maintain that she continued to take care of orphaned children and even took in girls to teach them leatherworking and beading skills. She maintained some of her friendships with whites, but most of her life was focused on being with her people and helping Ute children. In 1916 Chipeta gave her final interview through an interpreter, and her words carried the weight of her sadness. She told the reporter, “I desire nothing. What is good enough for my people is good enough for me. I expect to die soon.”
Death and Legacy
Despite all Chipeta and Ouray’s efforts, they could not protect the Utes from the painful consequences of forcible relocation. The relocation’s deleterious effects on the Utes’ culture and subsistence as well as on their spiritual beliefs and customs hung heavy on Chipeta’s heart until she died on August 17, 1924. Less than a year after her death, on May 24, 1925, Chipeta was reburied near the house she had shared with Ouray near Montrose, Colorado. This has since become a memorial site built in 1939, a public park, and the Ute Indian Museum, which opened in 1956 and is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the history of Colorado’s Ute people.
Chipeta is remembered as a woman who worked tirelessly for her people, even as she took part in political events that separated them from their ancestral homeland. The love she had for her people, for Ouray, for her children, and for peace continually fed the quiet strength that sustained her in the face of drastic change and repeated injustice.