After the Treaty of 1868, the Los Piños Indian Agency became the center of governmental authority for the Uncompahgre Utes on the Ute Indian Reservation in western Colorado. While largely forgotten after its abandonment in 1881, the site of the second iteration of the agency is now under archaeological study and provides a window into one of the darker periods in the history of Colorado’s Ute people.
The Ute Indians occupied the mountainous regions of what would become Colorado at the time of the 1859 gold rush. The gold rush encouraged Euro-American miners to start pushing into the Ute heartland and led to conflict. Until the American Civil War ended in 1865, the US government was too involved to put much money or diplomatic energy into resolving conflicts between the Utes and Anglo-Americans. But with the end of the war, miners and settlers poured into the Colorado Territory, and the government had no choice but to begin dealing with the Ute issues. The American people were deeply divided on how best to treat American Indians. On the one hand, it was evident that the white man wanted their lands. On the other hand, it was equally evident that the Indians were not willing to readily give up their territories without a fight.
The government’s Indian policies were split into two camps. There were people, including many in the military, who believed it would be best to destroy the Indian tribes through warfare. Many Colorado politicians held such a belief. Others believed that the Indians could be led to give up their nomadic hunting and gathering life style and be taught to farm, learn trades, and follow the ways of the white man. Followers of both lines of thinking were deeply divided and passionate in their views.
Fighting Indians was hard, costly, and bloody work, but much of the military establishment still wished to do it, even though the nation had just fought the long, costly, and bloody Civil War. Others in government realized that it would cost far less in money and blood to feed and teach the Indians rather than fight them. After the Civil War, advocates of this peaceful approach prevailed in government, and the United States began to follow what became known as the Peace Policy. This policy led to the establishment of many Indian reservations and associated Indian agencies under the purview of the Office of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior.
If the US government was going to feed the Indians and teach them “useful pursuits” under the Peace Policy, it had to gather the individual tribes onto reservations. Indian agencies were administrative centers where rations were distributed and Indians received instruction on the aforementioned “useful pursuits,” such as farming. The agencies also served to tether the Indians to the government. Most of these agencies were poorly constructed at minimal cost because the government believed them to be temporary agencies that would no longer be needed after the Indians were made to relinquish their lands.
Despite implementation of the Peace Policy, the government never abandoned its goal of acquiring Indian land. By confining them to reservations, the government shattered the Indians’ traditional hunting and gathering economies. This made the Indian people wards of the government and dependent on it for their basic sustenance, greatly reducing their political autonomy and making it easier for the government to wring land concessions from them. There was a great deal of fraud and malfeasance involved in the administration of the agency and reservation system, and the Indians were frequently starving when rations and annuities—gifts promised via treaties—did not arrive in a timely fashion.
First Los Piños Agency
It was in this political context that the Los Piños (the Pines) Ute Indian Agency was established soon after the Civil War. Some Utes, including Chief Ouray, agreed to the Treaty of 1868. This founded a reservation that covered nearly all of Colorado west of the Continental Divide. Under provisions of the 1868 treaty, an agency was to be established by the Office of Indian Affairs on the Los Piños River in extreme southern Colorado to serve some of the Ute bands.
For various reasons the agency could not be constructed on the river. Instead, it was established in the high mountains near Cochetopa Pass south of Gunnison, which was close to the eastern boundary of the new reservation. This poorly constructed facility (eventually known as the first Los Piños Agency) was so high in the mountains that it could not be easily supplied and the surrounding land was unsuitable for growing crops. The facility’s primary purpose was to serve the combined Uncompahgre (earlier known as Sabuagana) and Tabeguache Ute bands. By the late 1860s these two bands had merged, largely because the Uncompahgres had been severely reduced in numbers by disease and warfare. For a number of years this combined band was simply known as the Tabeguaches.
Second Los Piños Agency
By the early 1870s miners and settlers were encroaching on the eastern boundary of the reservation, and the authorities deemed it prudent to move the Los Piños Agency westward, farther away from the white settlements around Gunnison. In 1875 the agency was moved to the Uncompahgre Valley, roughly 100 miles from the old agency. This was the very heart of the Ute reservation, some of their prime hunting grounds, and the homeland of what was by then one of the last free Indian tribes in the United States. The Utes had an immense reservation in Colorado that was coveted by white miners and settlers. If the agency could be established in this area, it would be a simple matter to bring the Tabeguaches into fully dependent status and ultimately remove them from Colorado.
By 1876 what became known as the second Los Piños Agency was in operation, and now that it was located on the Uncompahgre River, it also became known as the Uncompahgre Agency. Facilities were constructed of cheap adobe, stone, and wood-frame buildings. Located at the modern community of Colona, some nine miles south of present-day Montrose, it primarily served the combined Uncompahgre and Tabeguache bands.
The agency’s history is filled with despair for the combined remnants of the Uncompahgres and Tabeguaches. The San Juan Mountains to the south had been ceded away by the Utes in the Brunot Agreement of 1873, and trespassers began pushing hard against the southern boundary of the reservation from there as well as from Gunnison on the east. Fraud and deceit characterized much of the Indian agents’ administration, though there were some bright, thoughtful moments under the administration of others.
In 1880 Chief Ouray, who had well served to keep the Utes at peace with the government and settlers, died. The Uncompahgre-Tabeguaches lost their principal, most able spokesman. Left without their adept leader and facing the ire of many Colorado whites after the Meeker Incident in 1879, many Utes agreed to relinquish their western Colorado reservation and move to another reservation in either Colorado or Utah. In the fall of 1881 the US Army rounded up all remaining members of these old bands that it could find and drove them to a new reservation in Utah. The second Los Piños Agency was abruptly abandoned, and all government property at the short-lived facility was sold. The old agency soon passed into history and was largely forgotten.
In recent years the Uncompahgre Valley Ute Project has relocated the old agency and conducted extensive archaeological studies at the site. Today, US Highway 550 South passes directly through the center of the old agency on the north boundary of the community of Colona in Ouray County. There are, however, no commemorative monuments marking the location of the old agency, and many Utes today see it only as a reminder of a dark and unhappy chapter in their history.