Signed in October 1863 at Conejos in the San Luis Valley, the Conejos Treaty was an agreement between the US government and the Tabeguache band of Nuche (Ute people). It granted the United States the rights to all land in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains east of the Continental Divide, as well as Middle Park. The Conejos Treaty is also known as the “Treaty with the Utah-Tabeguache Band,” as well as the “Treaty of 1864,” the year it was ratified.
The treaty was an attempt to end hostilities that resulted when white immigrants occupied Ute lands during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 and after the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The government had hoped that more of Colorado’s Ute bands would sign the treaty, but only the Tabeguache were willing to attend the negotiations in any significant number. From that moment on, the US government considered the Tabeguache leader Ouray to be the de facto leader of all Utes, even though he was not recognized as such by Colorado’s other Ute bands. Five years later, in an attempt to avoid bloodshed, Ouray helped recruit other Ute leaders to sign another treaty that pushed the Utes even farther west.
The first treaty between the US government and Ute people, signed at Abiquiú, New Mexico, in 1849, accomplished little for either side. It failed to award decisive control of the region to the United States, and it failed to give the Utes the reliable food supply they had sought through diplomacy. Perhaps most important, it failed to quell the violence that wracked the Colorado–New Mexico borderlands at the time.
Roughly a decade later, the Colorado Gold Rush brought thousands of white immigrants to the Front Range of the Rockies. Gold seekers set up mining camps in Central City and Black Hawk, Idaho Springs, Fairplay, and other places in the mountains west of Denver. The Utes, who had lived in Colorado’s mountains for more than four centuries, generally viewed these newcomers with tolerant suspicion. But tensions increased as whites brought disease and competed with the Utes for game and other resources.
The Utes felt a brief reprieve in the early 1860s, when many of the Front Range’s richest surface gold deposits were panned out and disgruntled prospectors headed back east. However, the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 drew even more whites westward, seeking to set up farms and ranches on land wrested from the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other indigenous people. As would-be homesteaders increasingly moved into favorite Ute campsites in Middle Park and the upper Arkansas Valley, the Utes increasingly found themselves without peaceful recourse.
Some Ute leaders, such as Colorow, made a habit of driving off white intruders, while others, including Ouray, were more hospitable. Overall, however, growing tensions and sporadic outbreaks of violence, as well as the opportunity for resource development, convinced the government that the Utes should be made to give up their lands.
Signing the Treaty
Anticipating treaty negotiations that year, Lafayette Head, agent at the Conejos Indian Agency in the San Luis Valley, attempted to impress the Utes by bringing a delegation of them to Washington, DC, in February 1863. Leaders from each of Colorado’s Ute bands, including the Tabeguache leaders Shavano and Ouray, rode a train to the nation’s capital and visited New York City.
Believing the Indians to be sufficiently impressed, Colorado territorial governor John Evans convened a treaty council at Conejos in October 1863, joining Head and other government officials for the parley. However, most Ute leaders declined to make the trip. Ultimately, Ouray’s Tabeguache, numbering about 1,500, was the only band present in sufficient numbers to legitimize an agreement.
Frustrated but undeterred, government officials had the Tabeguache leaders sign over their claims to most of the lands already occupied by white squatters. This included all of the Rocky Mountains east of the Continental Divide, as well as Middle Park, which was targeted for development by influential Front Rangers William N. Byers and Ed Berthoud. The treaty also gave the United States rights to build military posts and roads on all “unceded” land. This clause proved especially troublesome, as the Tabeguache were essentially granting permission for US citizens to trespass on land belonging to other Utes who did not agree to the treaty.
In exchange, the Tabeguache Utes were confined to a region that stretched from the Uncompahgre Valley in the west to the Sawatch Range in the east, and from the Colorado River valley in the north to the Gunnison River valley in the south. Per the revised treaty, the Utes would also receive $10,000 worth of annuities—food and provisions—each year for ten years, as well as a few stallions to improve their horse stock. This was in contrast to the earlier, Abiquiú Treaty, which directed the Utes to abandon their “roving and rambling” ways, of which the horse was an important part.
Among the ten Ute signatories were Ouray and Colorow, but it soon became apparent that the rest of Colorado’s Ute bands would not agree to the treaty terms. Five years later, with Ouray’s reluctant support, the government would try again to get Colorado’s disparate Ute bands to sign a treaty that would take more of their ancestral mountain homelands.
The Conejos Treaty did little to improve United States–Ute relations, largely because the majority of Colorado’s Utes had not agreed to allow miners, soldiers, and homesteaders to trespass or build on their land. This alone provoked the same kind of violence that the treaty sought to avoid; it also gave white immigrants a false sense of entitlement to Ute land, which they desired even more as the mining industry revived in the mid-1860s.
In addition, as with most other Indian treaties, the government failed to provide the promised annuities; in 1865, just one year after the treaty was ratified, Governor Evans was already complaining about a delay in annuity shipments.
Finally, the Conejos Treaty solidified Ouray as the de facto Ute ambassador to the United States, a role that earned him considerable enmity, as well as begrudging respect, among his Ute peers. Ouray reluctantly accepted the role, using his high diplomatic status to continually seek the most peaceful outcome for his people.