Josephine Meeker (1857–82) was the daughter of Nathan Meeker, the Indian agent who oversaw the White River Indian Agency during the Meeker Incident, a Ute uprising in 1879. After the revolt, Utes took Josephine, her mother, another woman, and her two children captive for nearly a month. Following her captivity, Josephine documented her experience in a book and toured eastern cities as a lecturer.
Josephine Meeker was born in Hiram Rapids, Ohio, in 1857. She was the youngest child of Arvilla and Nathan Meeker. Records of her early life are sparse. After the Civil War, Nathan Meeker traveled west. He was impressed with the climate and scenery of Colorado Territory and decided to move his family there. In April 1870, when Josephine was in her early teens, Meeker helped found Union Colony, the utopian agricultural community that became Greeley.
Even as a child, Josephine had a dynamic personality. She once fell while racing her horse through town, prompting the Greeley Tribune to publish an article asserting that “girls should be more careful racing their horses.” She also had an affinity for adventure. According to one story, in 1874 she climbed Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in northern Colorado. In addition to her spirited nature, Josephine had a sharp intellect. In 1877 she enrolled in Denver Business College, where she excelled. There she gained the training to assist her father in his new position as an Indian agent.
White River Agency
In 1878 Nathan Meeker obtained a post to oversee Colorado’s White River Indian Agency, a federal outpost established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1868. Located in a valley near what is now Meeker, the White River Agency was built to assimilate into white society the Utes who were living on a large reservation encompassing most of western Colorado.
In July 1878, two months after her parents arrived at the agency, twenty-one-year-old Josephine joined them. Nathan offered Josephine employment because he needed help keeping the agency’s books, but the young woman’s duties were not limited to accounting. She also worked as a physician and a teacher. Shortly after she arrived, Josephine established a school for Ute children. Three pupils enrolled, and the agency began to build a schoolhouse in June 1879. Before the building was complete, two of Josephine’s pupils left the school when their parents withdrew them to protest Nathan Meeker’s unpopular policies.
Unrest at the Agency
At the White River Agency, Nathan Meeker aspired to “civilize” the Utes, whose traditional subsistence was based largely on hunting. Meeker pressured the Utes to plant fields, dig ditches, live in houses, and adopt Christianity. Nathan Meeker saw that horses were a key aspect of the tribe’s nomadic culture, so he plowed pastures and sought other means to sever the Utes’ ties to their horses. He decreed that each Ute family could collect weekly rations only if the head of the household was present. This rule forced Ute men to remain close to the agency, interfering with their hunting practices. The conflict escalated when Meeker issued an order to plow land where the Utes had grown crops to feed their racing horses. This was the final straw. A local Ute leader named Johnson shoved Meeker, who sustained a minor injury and sent for federal troops.
Revolt and Captivity
On September 29, 1879, as the requested troops approached the reservation boundary at Milk Creek, Utes opened fire on them. When news of the battle got back to the agency, Ute men there began to fire on agency employees. Josephine and her mother fled with another agency woman, Flora Price, and Price’s two young children. The group took shelter in the agency’s milk house. When they began to smell smoke, they left in fear that their shelter might burn. By the time the women made their way into the juniper woods around the agency, Nathan Meeker and all nine of his male employees were dead. Ute men spotted Josephine and her companions as they left the milk house. Josephine’s mother had been wounded and the children were too young to run on their own, so the Utes easily captured the group. They held the three women and two children captive for twenty-three days, traveling over a vast stretch of western Colorado.
During and after their time in captivity, Josephine and her companions captured the imagination of the US population. Newspapers indulged public curiosity with a wide range of conflicting accounts. Reports claiming the women had been raped or had willingly engaged in sexual acts with the Utes were especially popular. According to one story in the Sacramento Daily Union, “the women were forced, under THREATS OF TORTURE AND SLOW DEATH, to yield to the lust of their hideous captors.” A later narrative, written in 1914, claimed that Josephine, her mother, and Flora Price were all “the willing consorts of braves of the Ute tribe; . . . Josephine Meeker had fairly to be torn away from her dusky lover, Chief Persune.”
Josephine did not mention rape or any of its nineteenth-century equivalents, such as “outrage,” in her official narrative of the ordeal. Victorian social norms might have deterred her from publicizing such treatment out of fear of appearing dishonored. Flora Price and Josephine were teenagers at the time, writes historian Brandi Denison and so “had their social clout at stake.” In her published account, Josephine said that Persune, the Ute man who took her captive, “treated [her] with respect and considerable kindness.” She also described Persune’s wife as “a kind hearted woman.”
In a more private deposition, however, Josephine claimed that she and the other women had been subject to “outrageous treatment at night.” When asked if she had been forced against her will, Josephine replied, “Yes.” Arvilla Meeker corroborated this account when she published an article in the Colorado Chieftain to counter accusations that she and the other women were protecting their former captors. The women may well have been subjected to sexual abuse, though some contemporary observers accused them of offering the revised stories in attempts to sway public opinion against the Utes. Whether the women were sexually assaulted in captivity remains a point of dispute, but Denison argues that the debate is a distraction that “obscures the subsequent ethnic cleansing” carried out by the government against the Utes.
Josephine’s public narrative is in accord with her reputation as someone who had spent a great deal of time at the agency building relationships with the Utes. According to some accounts, the Utes had taught her some of their language and had even included her in healing ceremonies. Because she already had a rapport with members of the band, she did not have to work as strenuously in captivity as her mother or Flora Price. Josephine also claimed to have developed a relationship with Shawsheen, a sister of the prominent Ute leader Ouray. According to Josephine, this relationship played an important role in her captivity because the Ute woman treated her and the other captives kindly and made good shoes for Flora Price’s children to wear.
According to Josephine’s published account of her captivity, federal troops pursued the party the entire way, and the Utes often stopped to debate their next move. On October 21, 1879, Charles Adams, a former Indian agent and special agent of the US Post Office, guided a US cavalry detachment to the place where the Utes were camped, freed the captives, and took them on a six-day journey to Ouray’s home. There, they rested for a night before continuing to Alamosa.
After Josephine and her fellow captives were freed, many whites used their captivity to argue that the Utes should be forced out of Colorado. Josephine did not call for removal, but her written and oral testimonies fueled public outrage. In 1880 she spoke before a congressional commission. She also delivered a series of lectures. With the help of her brother, Ralph Meeker, Josephine published a number of newspaper articles about her captivity, and several months after the massacre, a Denver press released a book detailing Josephine’s account. The story of the massacre and the women’s captivity narratives provided powerful images that advocates of Ute removal eagerly deployed. In 1881 the US Army forcibly moved the White River and Uncompahgre Utes from their ancestral homeland to small reservations in eastern Utah, where many of their descendants live today.
At some point between her release in 1879 and her death three years later, Josephine Meeker obtained a position at the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, as an assistant private secretary in the office of the secretary of the interior. She died of a pulmonary infection on December 20, 1882, at the age of twenty-five. She was buried in the Meeker family plot at Linn Grove Cemetery in Greeley.