The Meeker Incident (September 29–October 5, 1879) was a Ute uprising at the White River Indian Agency on the Ute Reservation in present-day Rio Blanco County. Tension had been building on the reservation for months as Indian Agent Nathan Meeker attempted to force the Utes to change their traditional ways of life. On September 29, the Utes revolted, killing Meeker and ten others, and taking Meeker’s family hostage. The violence ended on October 5, when reinforcements relieved US cavalry pinned down by Ute gunfire at nearby Milk Creek.
The Meeker Incident was the most violent episode in Ute-white relations, and it became the catalyst for the Utes’ expulsion from Colorado. Newspapers across the state quickly labeled it a “massacre,” ignoring the circumstances that provoked the revolt. “The Utes Must Go!” became the rallying cry of Colorado’s white population, and the federal government complied, forcing most Utes from the state in the early 1880s.
By the 1860s, Colorado’s Ute people had lived in the Rocky Mountains for about 500 years. They had managed to avoid major conflict with whites thanks to earlier treaties and the fact that most of their land still lay beyond white settlements. The end of the Civil War, however, brought more whites to Colorado’s mountains looking to mine for gold or set up homesteads. In 1868 leaders representing six bands of Colorado’s Ute people signed a treaty agreeing that they would cede Colorado’s eastern Rockies to the United States and live on a huge reservation on the Western Slope.
The White River lay near the northern boundary of the new reservation, which stretched from the Utah border in the west to the 107th meridian in the east and the New Mexico border in the south. The US government set up two Indian Agencies on the reservation—one on the White River and one farther south—to distribute food and supplies as promised in the treaty.
Throughout the 1870s, Utes on the Colorado reservation, especially at the remote White River Agency, became increasingly hungry and agitated. Shipments of food and supplies were delayed or not delivered at all, and Utes often left the reservation to hunt and take supplies from white settlements.
As tensions in western Colorado heated up in the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant began turning over administration of the nation’s Indian Agencies to Christian missionaries. In keeping with the government’s doctrine of assimilation, which aimed to “civilize” Indigenous people, these new agents sought to convert Native Americans to Christianity, place their children in boarding schools, and force them to adopt farming, Western dress, and other non-Native ways of life.
Nathan Meeker, a zealous Christian and founding member of the Union Colony at present-day Greeley, fit this new agent profile perfectly. In spring 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Meeker to head the White River Agency, and early the next year the sixty-one-year-old former newspaper editor arrived on the reservation.
Meeker’s appointment was partly due to his experience with irrigated farming in Greeley, and he quickly noticed that the agency buildings were on land ill suited for irrigation. His first order was to move the agency downstream on the White River, directly onto a pasture where the Utes grazed and raced horses.
Tensions only escalated from there. Meeker became frustrated when the majority of Utes refused to take up farming or cow milking and instead left on hunts that lasted for days. He wrote articles condemning the Utes’ resistance to his teachings and insulting their intelligence and character. Where previous agents might have been satisfied with the Utes’ partial embrace of farming, Meeker would accept nothing but total compliance; he even withheld food and supplies as punishment for their resistance.
For their part, the Utes resented Meeker’s paternalistic attitude, evident in his declaration that the reservation did not belong to them, and his heavy-handedness, as indicated by his request for federal troops to keep the Utes on the reservation. That summer, the US Ninth Cavalry was dispatched to patrol traditional Ute hunting grounds in Middle Park, and troops under Major Thomas Thornburg were stationed nearby in Wyoming. Desperate, the White River Utes sought help from Ouray, hoping he might lobby his government contacts to replace Meeker, but to no avail.
By late summer, tensions at the White River Agency were reaching a climax. The breaking point was a feud that erupted between Meeker and Johnson (Canavish), one of the local Ute leaders. Initially, Johnson had curried Meeker’s favor by doing a bit of farming, and the agent had rewarded him with a house. Then, Johnson tricked Meeker into breaking horses for him by saying they would be used for farming when he actually intended to race them.
When Meeker found out that Johnson was raising crops to feed his racing horses, Meeker ordered the field plowed up. Then, as an agency employee plowed Johnson’s field, Johnson’s son shot at him, driving him off. After a brief truce, Johnson and Meeker met at the agent’s home. They argued, and Johnson assaulted Meeker, who immediately requested troops to protect him and the rest of the agency.
As Thornburgh’s troops advanced from Wyoming in late September, they ran into a Ute party led by Jack and Colorow. They spread news of Thornburgh’s approach back to Utes at the agency, who warned Meeker that troops entering the reservation would be seen as a declaration of war. The Utes sent their women and children away and began holding war dances.
Despite Meeker’s request that only Thornburgh and a handful of soldiers visit the agency, the major continued his advance. On September 29, near the reservation’s boundary at Milk Creek, Utes opened fire on Thornburgh’s men from nearby heights. The major was quickly killed, and the Utes kept his soldiers pinned down until October 5, when the Ninth Cavalry arrived to force the Utes’ surrender. The drawn-out battle claimed the lives of fourteen US soldiers, three army teamsters, and twenty-three Ute warriors.
As soon as they got word of the fighting at Milk Creek, Utes at the agency set fire to the buildings and killed Meeker, eight employees, and two other civilians, mutilating their corpses. Ute parties led by Douglass captured Meeker’s wife, Arvilla, and daughter Josephine, as well as the wife and children of another agency employee, and headed toward Grand Mesa.
In the weeks following the incident, a volatile mixture of rage and fear gripped the white population of Colorado. The Colorado Legislature passed a resolution calling for the Utes’ removal and nearly passed a bill that would have put a twenty-five-dollar bounty on Ute scalps. Governor Fred Pitkin had called for the Utes’ removal even before Meeker’s death; afterward, he offered to have the Colorado militia help federal troops drive off the White River Utes, and he sought to punish Utes elsewhere in the state, even as far away as Silverton.
Outside the state, however, most newspapers blamed the federal government for its neglect of the Utes, as well as Colorado miners for coveting Ute land.
Meanwhile, the army was prepared to hunt down the Utes who captured Meeker’s family, but US interior secretary Carl Schurz instead sent Charles Adams, a former Ute Indian agent, to Colorado to find the Ute party and deliver an ultimatum: release the hostages and have peace, or keep them and be hunted down.
In late October, with help from other Utes as guides and interpreters, Adams found the party and negotiated the captives’ release. Arvilla Meeker had a bullet graze her thigh during the chaos at the agency; Josephine Meeker later wrote that the Utes treated them roughly and often threatened them with violence, but Johnson’s wife (Ouray’s sister) eventually persuaded the Ute men to leave their white captives unharmed.
Investigation and Ute Removal
Ignoring calls for violence, Schurz convened a three-member Peace Commission at the Los Piños Agency in late 1879. Consisting of Adams, Ouray, and Army General Edward Hatch, the commission interviewed dozens of witnesses to the agency killings and the Battle of Milk Creek. It ultimately failed in its two main goals: to secure the arrest of the Utes who killed Meeker and his staff, and to begin negotiating the Utes’ removal from Colorado. Represented by Ouray, the Utes refused to deliver or divulge the names of the killers, and they would not leave or sell any of their land.
With the failure of the Peace Commission, the government brought a Ute delegation to Washington for congressional hearings on the Meeker Incident. Johnson, whose feud with Meeker set off the incident, began the trip with Ouray and others but surrendered to the army in Kansas City, hoping it would help his people’s cause. The hearings ended in much the same way as the Peace Commission, with Utes refusing to turn over their own.
Finally, in 1880 Schurz drew up a nonnegotiable agreement that would remove the White River Utes—the Yampa and Parianuche bands—to Utah and move Ouray’s Tabeguache band to present-day Grand Junction. Ouray, however, refused to sign the new agreement, and he died later that year. Nor was the agreement good enough for Colorado senator Henry Teller, who wanted all the Utes out of the state. Eventually, Congress approved an amended declaration in June 1880 forcing the White River and Tabeguache Utes to a new, much smaller reservation in Utah. The next year, the army force-marched the remaining Utes to the new reservation.
In the late nineteenth century, many government agents and white observers believed that forcing Indigenous people to adopt Euro-American norms would provide an alternative to violence; the Meeker Incident showed that belief to be mistaken. Nevertheless, the government continued to force Indigenous people to assimilate over the next decade, breaking up reservations into private allotments, and banning traditional customs and ceremonies. As they did at the White River Agency, these policies provoked backlash and violence, such as when US cavalry massacred hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890.
In the decades after the Meeker Incident, white newspapers, officials, writers, and scholars referred to the event as a “massacre”—implying an unprovoked slaughter on par with the Sand Creek Massacre. In the 1880s, the nearby town of town of Meeker was named for the slain Indian agent.
Recent media coverage and scholarship have paid greater attention to the larger context of the incident, recognizing Nathan Meeker’s harsh treatment of the Utes and Thornburgh’s illegal invasion of the reservation as the driving factors behind the violence. The events on the White River in September 1879 are still commonly referred to as the Meeker Massacre, but the term incident is gaining support as a way of acknowledging the accurate historical context of the events. The Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado uses “Meeker Incident,” as do scholars and other writers.
The bodies of Meeker and his staff are buried in Greeley’s Linn Grove Cemetery. In 1993 the Rio Blanco Historical Society and Ute Indian Tribe agreed to have tribal members erect a monument to the fallen Ute warriors next to the monument commemorating Thornburgh and the other American soldiers killed at Milk Creek.
In July 2008, the historical society, Meeker Chamber of Commerce, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management organized the Smoking River Pow Wow, a local reconciliation event that marked the first time Ute people were officially invited to the White River Valley since their removal. An estimated 600 people attended, including Utes whose descendants were forced out in 1881.