One of the best-known Nuche (Ute) leaders of the nineteenth century, Colorow (c. 1813–88) was involved in many significant events in Colorado history, from his first contact with white Americans during the Colorado Gold Rush to the Meeker Incident and his namesake “Colorow’s War” of 1887. Colorow’s relations with white Coloradans began amicably but soured over time as he lost a son to a sheriff’s posse and grappled with their deceit and the forced removal of his people.
Born a Comanche about 1813, the Spanish nicknamed the tall Native American “Colorado” (Red) because his skin was not as brown as the Muache Utes who had captured him as a child and raised him. Colorow did not know a time before white man arrived in the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico. As a young man, he hunted and toured throughout ancestral Ute territory, gradually working his way northward as white Americans worked their way westward. Eventually he married three sisters—Recha, Siah, and Poopa—from the Yampa (Yampirika) Ute band in northern Colorado. The family probably traded at Fort Davy Crockett in what is now Browns’ Hole in northwest Colorado and with trader Antoine Robidoux’s men at Fort Uintah and Fort Robidoux in northeast Utah.
By the time gold-seeking Americans arrived in what was western Kansas Territory in 1859, Colorow’s family—three wives and thirteen children—traveled the mountainous terrain of central Colorado, hunting pronghorn, deer, and bison. The women tanned the hides. The Nuche were renowned for their smooth and soft buckskin deer hides, which they made into clothing. They used buffalo hides for tipis and also built wickiups.
Colorow’s favorite camping and hunting spots on the Western Slope included the White River valley, the Colorado River valley at Glenwood Springs, the Yampa River Valley near Steamboat Springs, and Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park. As the buffalo population dwindled in North and Middle Parks, the northern Utes joined in buffalo hunts onto the plains with the Muache, led by Chief Kaneache, and the Tabeguache, led by Murah Guerro, father of Ouray and Quenche. Heading east over the mountains, Colorow’s group would set up camp for weeks in the Evergreen Valley and on Lookout Mountain, where four sites bear his name: Colorow Hill, Colorow Point Park, Colorow Road, and the Colorow Transmission Tower.
From Lookout Mountain, they would travel down the Apex Trail single-file with their herds of goats and horses, and congregate at what is now the Rooney Ranch along the Hogback. There, with Green Mountain keeping them out of sight of their Arapaho enemies, they bathed in the waters of the Iron Spring. The grass along Rooney Creek and on Green Mountain was plentiful and tall, easily feeding the livestock while the women tanned the hides. The women also designed elaborate patterns on their moccasins using the beads they obtained by trading buckskins.
After the Rooneys arrived in 1861, Colorow did not change his ways; he and the family returned to the Iron Spring and the pastures annually until the mid-1870s. Colorow and his chiefs often smoked the pipe with Alex Rooney. From Rooney’s Ranch, they often crossed Turkey Creek and camped at Colorow’s Cave, now called Willowbrook Event Center. Located behind the Hogback, this site was an excellent shelter that offered protection from enemies and inclement weather. The Utes arranged their camp with warriors’ tipis around the perimeter, family tipis inside the circle, and the chief’s tipis at the high point in the center.
As fall approached, Colorow’s family and other groups meandered south along the mountain front, eventually traveling through the Wet Mountain Valley and into northern New Mexico. In the spring, they wandered back north through the San Luis Valley, over Cochetopa Pass into the Gunnison Valley and from there north across the Colorado River into the Green and White River Valleys.
Relations with Whites
At first the Utes welcomed the early white explorers and gold seekers in Kansas Territory. Always friendly toward Americans, Colorow became famous for his antics—racing horses, arm wrestling, and eating biscuits. Often, Elizabeth Entriken in Bailey baked Colorow and his braves dozens and dozens of biscuits. The first time, she was puzzled as to the biscuits’ sudden disappearance. When she went outside to bid the braves and chief goodbye, she discovered that the men had stuffed the biscuits in their shirts to take to their families.
Photographers came west with the gold rush to document the newest population explosion. Knowing easterners would spend money for pictures of Native Americans, they paid Colorow and his family to pose for the camera. The first photographs with Colorow and his family members made their appearance in 1866; the last photo of the great chief was taken about 1883.
In addition to hunting, Colorow usually attended treaty meetings and subsequent signings. Such events were often photographed for the record, but the participants, other than Chipeta and her husband, Ouray, were not usually named. However, a comparison with known photographs and face recognition software allows for the identification of Colorow’s family members. Colorow’s name (often appearing as Colorado) and those of his sons appear on most signed agreements with the Utes. The treaties all stated that the Utes had the right to hunt on ceded property, a fact that settlers often were not told or managed to forget. The existing treaties did not prevent whites from encroaching further on Ute land.
Compensation for the loss of their lands usually included “annuities,” which consisted of annual supplies of trade goods, blankets, clothing, and food paid to the Utes at Indian agencies established on or near reservations. Each group was assigned to a certain agency to receive their annuities.
Colorow’s love for Americans changed when his son, Tabernash, was killed at close range by a member of a sheriff’s posse in Middle Park on September 2, 1878. By that time, the agency for the Northern Utes had moved from J. B. Thompson’s ranch near Craig to what is now Meeker. There, Indian agent Nathaniel Meeker’s mismanagement of the tribe’s affairs led to the Battle of Milk Creek and the Meeker Incident in September 1879. Colorow, along with Jack (Nicaagat) tried to prevent US Army major Thomas Thornburgh from bringing troops onto the reservation. Thornburgh, however, insisted and rode into a prelaid trap. He and twelve of his soldiers were killed during a five-day siege that was broken by soldiers coming in from Wyoming. At the same time, Utes at the agency killed Meeker and ten other men, taking the women and children hostage. The captives were later freed thanks to negotiations by Ouray.
Two months later, at the Uncompahgre Agency near present-day Montrose, Colorow testified during the government’s investigation of the battle and massacre. Knowing the investigation’s outcome would dictate the future of his people, he answered the questions very sincerely, often asking a question in return. He received no answers. As a result of the investigation, Ouray and other Ute leaders were taken to Washington, DC, to establish a new agreement. They returned to the Southern Ute Agency (now Ignacio), where they and the other Utes signed their future away.
Following a year of US martial law, the Northern Ute tribe was banished from Colorado (except to hunt), and a new reservation was established for them in desolate northeastern Utah, near the sites of the old Forts Robidoux and Uintah. Colorow took up the tail end of the exodus from Colorado, the Ute’s own “Trail of Tears.” The Native Americans established themselves on the designated lands, eking out a living from the rocky soil. Then, just two years later, the Utes were invited back to Colorado to perform at the National Mining Exposition in Denver. There, William Henry Jackson took two photos of the group, probably thinking it would be the last photos of the tribe. Most of the individuals in the photos have been identified, including Chipeta and her second husband and Colorow and his family members.
The tribe returned to Utah by train, and Colorow spent the next years traveling and hunting in Colorado, and soaking in the hot springs at what became Glenwood Springs, as allowed by the treaty. He gained a lot of weight, probably from failing kidneys, a common ailment among Native Americans.
In August of 1887, a new sheriff of Garfield County proceeded to Chipeta’s camp, southeast of Meeker, to order her away. She told him in plain English that she had a right to stay according to the treaty. Undeterred, the sheriff intimidated her to the point where she took the women, children, and old men and hid in the shrubs. The posse left, then returned, ransacking and burning her camp. This was the beginning of “Colorow’s War,” the last conflict between Native Americans and white Americans on Colorado soil.
Enny Colorow, Colorow’s fifth son and interpreter, had family staying with Chipeta and had gone back to the reservation to report for the family’s annuities. When he returned to Chipeta’s camp, he found it burned. He rode as fast as he could back to Utah and got agent Timothy Byrnes to contact the soldiers at the newly constructed Fort Duquesne. The commandant there led a battery of twelve soldiers and a large contingent of Ute men back east, where they found the sheriff’s posse firing at Colorow’s group as they were camped along the White River, just east of the reservation boundaries. The Utes in Colorow’s camp thought they were safe. On the heels of the posse were a number of Colorado volunteers whom Governor Alva Adams had ordered into action. In probably the only incident of federal troops protecting Native Americans, the US commander pulled rank over the sheriff’s posse and negotiated a truce. The fiasco cost the state of Colorado over $80,000 and an additional $31,000 when the Utes sued the federal government for compensation of their lost possessions.
Colorow was a depressed and defeated man when he died of pneumonia just over a year later on December 13, 1888. In a final interview with the tribal interpreter, the great chief, totally disappointed in Americans, told how white men had deceived him. His group killed thirty horses to take him to his happy hunting ground as he was buried in his blankets alongside the White River.
Fourteen of Colorow’s fifteen children gave birth to many descendants. Many of them are still living on one of the Ute reservations in Utah or in Colorado. They have played vital roles in tribal leadership and negotiating Ute-American tribal relations, always noting that the Americans had cheated them out of their rightful annuities and money. The American government is finally setting the record straight and compensating the Utes for monies owed; in 2016, for instance, the tribe received $4.5 million.