Indian Agencies were established by the US government as part of the formal relationship with Indigenous nations as it acquired lands from them. Indian Agents were individuals responsible for cultivating relationships with Indigenous people and extending government policies. As treaties and agreements were negotiated and reservations were established, these relationships became increasingly complex and controversial.
Early Territorial Period
Initial management of Indigenous affairs in what would become Colorado was a result of acquisition of Mexican territory during the Mexican-American War (1846–48). In 1846 General Stephen Watts Kearney occupied New Mexico, and government interaction with Native Americans was largely to ensure peaceful relations and regulate trade. That year, Kearney appointed Charles Bent as civilian governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the newly acquired land. Bent’s experience with numerous Native American groups through his affiliation with Bent’s Fort and with Fort St. Vrain and through his store in Taos made him a natural choice, but he spent only a few months at the post before he was killed during the Taos Revolt in January 1847.
Subsequent governors followed Bent in the role as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico, as was the case with later territorial governors. The Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory were formally organized in 1850. The Utah Territory extended eastward over the entire western third of Colorado to the Continental Divide, and the New Mexico Territory included the southern portion of Colorado east of the mountains. The Kansas and Nebraska territories were established in 1854, with the Kansas Territory covering the central portion of Colorado east of the mountains and Nebraska Territory covering northern Colorado east of the mountains.
Agents were appointed to assist the territorial governors or superintendents of Indian Affairs on a somewhat regional basis that conformed to areas occupied by one or more Indigenous nations. The agents were posted to communities or forts that were in relatively close proximity to the Native American groups they were to serve. In these early years, agents often had some direct contact with the Indigenous people in their jurisdiction, with most of their time spent attempting to ascertain which groups were present, their numbers, their modes of life and habits, and their ranges, as well as controlling illicit trade by whites or Hispanos.
In the Utah Territory, the first agent seems to have been John Wilson, who was stationed at Fort Bridger beginning in August 1849. His wide area covered land occupied mainly by Utes, Shoshones, and Paiutes. J. S. Calhoun was the first agent in New Mexico; he was posted at Santa Fe and negotiated the Treaty of 1849 with the Utes at Abiquiú. His jurisdiction covered lands occupied or entered by Apache, Comanche, Navajo, Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and various Puebloan groups. In Kansas, former trapper Thomas Fitzpatrick was assigned the area of the upper Arkansas and Platte Rivers by 1847 and was mostly concerned with the safety of travelers along the Santa Fé Trail and South Platte River.
In an effort to protect emigrants traveling through the region on their way to California and Oregon, the US government signed a treaty known as the Treaty of Fort Laramie with Indigeneous nations on the Great Plains in 1851. Part of the treaty assigned territories for the various Plains Indian groups. Among these, the Arapaho and Cheyenne were jointly assigned to the area east of the Rockies between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Annuity goods were distributed to them at Bent’s Fort, and the agent for the Upper Arkansas Agency was stationed there beginning in 1858. Annuity goods were useful items—such as clothing, tools, cookware, decorative items, hunting and fishing supplies, and canvases for tipis—that were distributed to Indigenous people as stipulated by a signed treaty.
In 1855 two treaties were negotiated with two Ute bands in the New Mexico Territory. With the assistance of Lorenzo Labadi, who served as the agent for both bands at Abiquiú, Territorial Governor David Merriwether finalized treaties with the Capote Utes on August 8, 1855, and with the Mouache Utes on September 11. Reservations were proposed for the Capote along the Animas River and for the Mouache along the Rio Grande, both extending into present-day Colorado. Though Congress failed to ratify either treaty, the treaties were the first in a series that followed national policy of attempting to have Native American groups cede a large portion of their territories for small reservations in return for money, goods, and services.
Fort Wise/Fort Lyon Agency
On February 15, 1861, within two weeks of the establishment of the Colorado Territory the Cheyenne and Arapaho signed the Fort Wise Treaty of 1861, which was deemed necessary because of increased conflict between the two tribes and the influx of miners and settlers to the area after the discovery of gold along the Front Range in 1858. Discussions with the Native Americans had been initiated in 1860. The Cheyenne and Arapaho agreed to cede most of their traditional lands for a smaller reservation that took up a considerable amount of southeastern Colorado and was bound on the north by Sand Creek and on the south by the boundary between the New Mexico and Colorado Territories. The western portion of the reservation was to be occupied by the Arapaho and the eastern portion by the Cheyenne.
With the treaty and establishment of the Colorado Territory, A. G. Boone was made the agent at Fort Wise (soon renamed Fort Lyon), to be succeeded by Samuel G. Colley in 1862. The Kiowa and Comanche residing in southern Colorado were also attached to the agency at Fort Lyon, though a treaty had not been made with them. The Cheyenne and Arapaho never really occupied the reservation, mostly because the buffalo that they depended on were no longer present and only minimal improvements had been made for the agency. The Sand Creek Massacre, which took place on the reservation in 1864, resulted in widespread warfare. The Treaty of 1865 resulted in removal of the Cheyenne and Arapaho from Colorado to reservation lands in Kansas and Oklahoma, and the Upper Arkansas Agency was terminated.
Middle Park and Conejos Agencies
With the establishment of Colorado Territory on February 10, 1861, the Colorado territorial governor became the local superintendent of Indian affairs. Two agencies were established in Colorado. The Conejos Agency had already been established in 1860 in the San Luis Valley to administer to the Tabeguache Utes, who had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Taos Agency under Kit Carson as early as 1856. Prior to its official establishment, the Conejos ranch of Lafayette Head had been where annuity goods for the Tabeguache and Mouache Utes were distributed beginning in 1858. Head became the first agent at the Conejos Agency. The Middle Park Agency was established in 1862 for the Grand River, Uinta, and Yampa Utes. Simeon Whiteley was appointed the first agent for the Middle Park Agency in 1862. The agency had no real headquarters, though its business was carried out at Hot Sulphur Springs, Breckenridge, Empire, and Denver.
Responsibilities for Native Americans under Treaties
The Treaty of 1868 resulted in Colorado’s Utes ceding much of their traditional homeland, including the San Luis Valley and the most heavily mined areas in the Colorado Rockies. The eastern boundary was at 107 degrees latitude, which was mostly west of the Continental Divide. The treaty stipulated that two new agencies would be established on the reservation. The Conejos Agency was replaced by the Los Pinos Agency west of Cochetopa Pass, and the Middle Park Agency was replaced by the White River Agency along the White River in northwestern Colorado; both were established in 1869. In order to satisfy treaty stipulations, the agent became the manager of several employees—typically a farmer, blacksmith, and schoolteacher, but often including cattle herders and sawmill operators. A full complement of buildings was constructed, including residences, shops, barns, school houses, and warehouses.
Employees were to teach Indigenous people their respective skills. The agent ordered and distributed annuity goods and rations, made sure the agency was well supplied; hired, fired, and managed employees; and completed arduous financial accounting tasks. In addition, he was to enforce ever-changing government policies and respond to crises between Native Americans and whites. Despite the best intentions of most of agents, they were subject to accusations of malfeasance by Indigenous people as well as encroaching whites, and to removal for political reasons.
Federal Policy and Selection of Agents
Under President Ulysses S. Grant, Christian reformers were included in developing and implementing Native American policy. This resulted in the Board of Indian Commissioners being established in 1869 and Christian evangelism being incorporated into Indigenous policy. With these changes, tribal traditions were discouraged; the treaty system was revised so that it was no longer a nation-to-nation agreement; monetary annuities were discouraged in favor of goods, agency improvements, and services; and Indigenous people were considered wards of the government for their protection. With proper oversight, it was thought that Native Americans could be educated in industry, civilization, and Christianity so they could eventually attain US citizenship and become self-supporting.
Indigenous people were initially to be placed on small reservations, with the goal being that when ready, they would be granted exclusive ownership of land in parcels of 160 acres or less. This was designed to teach them the values of land ownership and enable them to earn a living from their labor on their land. All of these goals were made without Indigenous input, ran contrary to Native American customs, and were demoralizing. Under the new policy, candidates for agents were to be put forward by Christian religious groups. Inadequate candidates were immediately available. For example, the initial agents for the Los Piños and White River agencies were former military officers who were available as a result of the reduction of military force following the Civil War. Congress rejected this approach of appointing former military officers as public servants to fill civil positions in July 1870, so the American Unitarian Union began nominating candidates as agents for the two Indian Agencies in Colorado.
White River Agency
At the Middle Park Agency at White River, Daniel C. Oakes, successor to Simeon Whiteley, selected the agency location and began construction of the buildings. Lieutenant W. W. Parry, who was completely unprepared for the job, replaced Oakes in June 1869. Governor Edward M. McCook appointed several ineffective military officers as agents thereafter. More successful were agents John S. Littlefield and Edward H. Danforth, both nominated by the Unitarians and serving as agents from 1871 to 1878. Danforth was followed by Nathan C. Meeker. Meeker was not a Unitarian but was highly religious and brought utopian ideals from the agricultural colony of Greeley to the agency. After moving the agency to a new location a few miles downstream along the White River, Meeker’s rigidity and zealotry precipitated a Ute uprising known as the Meeker Incident in late September 1879. Utes killed Meeker and ten others, including most of the agency’s employees, and the US troops sent to assist Meeker were defeated at the Battle of Milk Creek. The incident prompted the eventual removal of most of the Utes from western Colorado.
Los Piños Agency
Lieutenant Calvin T. Speer was the first agent for the Los Piños Agency, beginning in 1869. He selected the agency location and initiated construction of its buildings. Speer was replaced by Unitarian Jabez Nelson Trask, the first of three Unitarian agents between 1871 and 1876. Thereafter, the agency was served by a succession of agents unaffiliated with the Unitarian Church whose rapid, near-annual turnover provided no stable leadership until the Utes associated with the agency were removed from Colorado in late 1881.
Denver Special Agency
A large number of Utes who were to be attached to the White River Agency refused to move to the reservation and desired to continue hunting buffalo on the plains, spending summers in North and Middle Parks, and wintering near Denver. Although attached to the Middle Park Agency, these Utes had become accustomed to visiting the agent in Denver, where they acquired goods and services from the government. Rather than force the Utes onto the reservation on the west side of the Rockies, James B. Thompson, personal secretary and brother-in-law of Governor McCook, continued the practice of supplying the Indigenous people in Denver in 1869. This practice was formalized through the establishment of the Denver Special Agency in 1870. It continued to serve the Utes through 1874, when they agreed to go to the reservation and be served by the White River Agency. After a brief reopening in 1875, the agency was permanently closed.
The Meeker Incident was the catalyst for removal of most of the Utes from western Colorado. The bands associated with the White River Agency were forced to the Uintah Reservation in Utah in late summer 1881. The Tabeguache Utes attached to the Los Piños Agency, under the leadership of Ouray, negotiated an agreement shortly before his death in 1880 that stipulated that they would be moved to a smaller reservation, likely at the confluence of the Grand and Gunnison Rivers in present-day Grand Junction. With this in mind, a survey of the proposed new reservation was completed that included several townships in what is known as the Ute Principal Meridian. If the land there was found unsuitable, then other lands could be considered.
The Ute Commission, following the lead of member Otto Mears, found the land at the confluence of the Grand and Gunnison Rivers unsuitable for agricultural settlement, so decided that land at the confluence of the Green and White Rivers in Utah should be the new reservation. This land was annexed to the existing Uintah Reservation, and the reservation is now known as the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Tabeguache Utes formerly attached to the Los Pinos Agency were forced to the new reservation in September 1881.
Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations and Agencies
A separate Southern Ute Agency was established for the Capote, Mouache, and Weeminuche Utes in early 1877, with Francis H. Weaver as the agent. The actual agency site selected that June was on the Los Piños River, much to the consternation of the Utes, who expected it to be placed on the Navajo River. A post office at the agency was named Ignacio when it opened in 1882. When the town of Ignacio grew nearby, the post office was moved there in 1914. Indigenous people attached to the agency were formerly served at agencies in Abiquiú and Cimarron, New Mexico.
Ignacio, leader of the Southern Utes—as the three bands came to be known—had the foresight to distance his group from Ouray during the Brunot Agreement of 1873, when the San Juan Mountains were ceded to the US government. A strip of land fifteen miles wide and south of the territory ceded in the Brunot Agreement was recognized as the domain of the Southern Utes. The Southern Utes agreed to move to this reservation along the southern border of Colorado in 1880. Because they were recognized as separate from the Utes attached to the Los Piños and White River agencies, they were allowed to remain in Colorado.
Under the agreement, the reservation was to be allotted to individual tribal members with the remaining land sold for the benefit of the tribe. Ignacio objected to the plan and desired to retain contiguous land for the Weeminuche band. An agreement in 1895 resulted in the allotment of the eastern portion of the reservation, still known as the Southern Ute Reservation, with its agency at Ignacio. The 374 allotments designated to the Utes in the eastern portion of the reservation amounted to about 60,000 acres of land, leaving 636,000 acres open for entry to other settlers beginning in May 1899.
The western portion was established as the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation for Utes who did not want to participate in the allotment program, with agency headquarters at Navajo Springs. Because of a lack of water, the agency at Navajo Springs was quickly abandoned and a new agency was constructed in about 1898 at Towaoc. Reconfiguration of Mesa Verde National Park in 1911 resulted in a land exchange that took 12,760 acres of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in exchange for 7,840 acres of land vacated from the original configuration of the park and 19,520 acres on the north side of Ute Mountain that extended to the south side of McElmo Canyon.