Treaties with Indigenous people played a major role in the conquest and formation of Colorado. Backed by the constant threat of military force, the series of treaties and agreements signed between the federal government and various Indigenous groups between 1849 and 1880 separated Indigenous people from their land, allowing for the American development of the state. The government rarely delivered on promises made in treaties, meaning that many resulted not only in dispossession and displacement, but also starvation, desperation, cultural erasure, and death among Indigenous nations.
What Is a Treaty?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a treaty as a “contract in writing between two or more political authorities,” implying equal power relationships between the parties. In the context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the US National Archives defines Indigenous treaties as “agreements between individual sovereign Indigenous nations and the US,” again indicating that each signer recognized the other as a self-governing entity. This was akin to the United States’ treaties with other nations; for example, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 was as much about Britain recognizing the United States’ sovereignty as it was about ending the war.
An additional feature of a treaty is that it does not take immediate effect once signed; instead, it must be approved by some authoritative body of the respective nations, such as Congress or Parliament. However, the United States generally did not think treaties had to be approved by Indigenous governing bodies.
History of Indigenous Treaties
The US government’s first treaty with an Indigenous nation was made with the Delaware during the Revolutionary War and was ratified by Congress in 1778. After the war, President George Washington set the precedent of continuing to deal with Indigenous people as sovereign nations using the treaty-making authority provided to the president in the Constitution. In 1832, when the state of Georgia sought to expel the Cherokee, the Supreme Court upheld Indigenous sovereignty when it ruled that the Cherokee Nation was “a distinct community occupying its own territory.” Then-president Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling, but future presidents followed it, dispatching dozens of treaty commissions into Indigenous territories over the ensuing decades.
Throughout the nineteenth century, however, many politicians and capitalists seriously challenged the idea that Indigenous people belonged to independent nations. They argued that Native Americans were backward people standing in the way of national expansion and progress. These attitudes were often reflected in treaty language, such as when the government ordered the Ute people to stop “their roving and rambling ways” in the Treaty of Abiquiú, or when the Cheyenne and Arapaho were asked to allow the construction of railroads across their land in the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Congress finally nullified Indigenous sovereignty in 1871 via the Indian Appropriations Act. Thereafter, the government no longer signed “treaties” with Indigenous nations—only “agreements,” which held far less legal and diplomatic weight, since they were not acknowledged to be made by equal parties. Indigenous Americans regained a measure of autonomy in 1934 under the Indian Reorganization Act, but today many tribes still consider nineteenth-century treaties to be legally binding and are working to reclaim unfulfilled rights and promises made in those treaties.
Treaties in Colorado
The need for treaties in what became Colorado arose from the US government’s desire to protect whites traveling west and secure a peaceful environment for them in newly acquired territories. For instance, the 1849 Treaty of Abiquiú, the government’s first treaty with the Ute people, was part of a larger effort to pacify the provisional territory of New Mexico, which had been acquired as a result of the Mexican-American War (1846–48).
In 1850, when New Mexico Territory was established, most of present-day Colorado was occupied by three Indigenous Nations: the Ute in the mountains and canyonlands, and the Arapaho and Cheyenne on the Great Plains. The territory of these three groups overlapped, especially their hunting or wintering sites along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Bands of Comanche, Lakota, and Kiowa also lived and hunted within the present boundaries of the state.
At the same time, thousands of whites were crossing what is now northern Colorado in wagon trains bound for Oregon or California. They had to respect the sovereignty of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who often let wagon trains pass in exchange for food or gifts. As immigration increased, however, whites began competing for the same resources—bison, timber, grass—as Indigenous people, and disease outbreaks decimated Indigenous populations. In response, some Indigenous people began attacking wagon trains, and the US government acted to protect them. The resulting Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1851, acknowledged Native American sovereignty along the wagon routes and promised annuities to offset Indigenous people's diminishing food base—as long as they gave travelers free passage across their lands.
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought even more whites to the region, further straining the resource base of local Indigenous people. The establishment and growth of Colorado Territory during the 1860s and 1870s produced a series of conflicts between whites and Indigenous people that were only briefly abated by new treaties and agreements, each of which took more land from the state’s original inhabitants; discussion of these conflicts follow.
Treaties and Agreements with Indigenous Nations of Colorado, 1849–80
1849 – Treaty of Abiquiú brokers temporary peace between whites and Ute bands in the San Luis Valley.
1851 – Treaty of Fort Laramie protects Cheyenne and Arapaho sovereignty along westward wagon roads in northern Colorado in exchange for allowing US citizens and government to travel and build forts on Indigenous land.
1861 – Colorado Territory established; Treaty of Fort Wise ends government-recognized sovereignty of Cheyenne and Arapaho, creating a reservation for them in eastern Colorado.
1863 – Conejos Treaty sees the Tabeguache band of Utes relinquish claims to the Front Range of the Rockies and Middle Park. Government designates Ouray as de facto leader of all Utes.
1865 – Little Arkansas Treaty offers reparations for the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 and reserves the right of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to hunt in the Arkansas River Valley in western Kansas and southeast Colorado.
1867 – Medicine Lodge Treaties remove the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other Plains Nations to so-called Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
1868 – Ute Treaty of 1868 creates a consolidated reservation for all of Colorado’s Ute bands on the Western Slope.
1871 – Indian Appropriations Act ends treaty making with Indigenous nations.
1873 – Brunot Agreement, the first nontreaty accord between the government and the Utes, cedes the San Juan Mountains to the United States. The southern Ute bands are given their own reservation.
1880 – After the Meeker Incident of 1879, US government forces northern Ute bands to sign an agreement removing them from the state; southern Ute bands remain on their reservation in southwest Colorado.
Treaties made with Colorado's Indigenous people bear the same hallmarks of the US government’s other treaties with Native Americans, including the elevation of “peace chiefs” over “war chiefs” within Indigenous societies; forced assimilation (cultural genocide); and unfulfilled promises such as “perpetual peace” (Treaty of Abiquiú), permanent land tenure, and material welfare.
The US Congress had to approve Indigenous treaties, but councils and other parallel bodies within Indigenous nations were not granted the same right. Instead, the US government often ignored internal Indigenous politics and chose certain leaders as de facto representatives of their people. When these chosen leaders signed a treaty, the US government took it as an indication that the entire Indigenous nation agreed to the treaty terms, which was often not the case. This discrepancy produced confusion on both sides and dissent within Indigenous nations.
In particular, treaties often pitted Indigenous leaders who preferred peace (“peace chiefs”) against those who favored armed resistance (“war chiefs”). Peace chiefs typically became wealthier and earned more prestige among their people, while war chiefs were vilified in the white press and hunted by the US military for defending their ancestral lands. For example, among the Southern Cheyenne of Colorado, Black Kettle emerged as a prominent “peace chief,” while the “war chief” Tall Bull led his Dog Soldiers on a prolonged campaign against the US military.
A similar dynamic played out among the Ute people of western Colorado, with Ouray being one of the most lauded “peace chiefs” in US history, while Colorow was seen as a “war chief.” As a result, Colorow attracted fewer followers and was despised by many whites. The division between “peace chiefs” and “war chiefs” was poorly understood by US military and political leaders, which often led to atrocities, such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.
In addition, by offering agricultural tools or Western education and medicine, most government treaties reflected, at best, a profound misunderstanding of Indigenous culture and, at worst, outright contempt for it. The presumption that Indigenous people would eventually want to live like whites was one of the reasons most treaties failed to bring about the peace and mutual benefit they aspired to.
Although many Indigenous nations were initially willing to sign treaties, the US government’s abdication or violation of those treaties produced a mutual distrust that often gave way to outright hostility to the treaty process. The government had a habit of framing every treaty with an Indigenous nation as permanent, only to come back to the same nation with more demands later on. The treaties of Abiquiú and Fort Laramie, for example, were heralded as diplomatic watersheds that would ensure lasting peace between the parties. Their failure to do so hardly stopped government officials from proffering similar optimism about future treaties. Ute leaders who signed the Treaty of 1868 received silver peace medals during a visit to Washington, DC; twelve years later, however, the military forced a large population of Utes out of the state.
Ultimately, the superior force of the US military gave the government considerable leverage during treaty negotiations; Indigenous leaders often faced the impossible choice of giving up ancestral lands or being killed. Colorado's Indigenous agreements and treaties can thus be seen as testaments to the extraordinary resiliency and pragmatism of Indigenous people.