Nathan Cook Meeker (1817–1879) was an agriculturalist, newspaper editor, and Indian agent. He founded the Union Colony at present-day Greeley as well as the city’s oldest newspaper, the Greeley Tribune. In 1878 he was appointed Indian agent of the White River Agency in northwest Colorado. He was killed at the agency in September 1879 after his poor treatment of the Utes provoked a revolt. The small community of Meeker in Rio Blanco County bears his name.
Nathan Meeker was born on July 12, 1817, in Euclid, Ohio, the third child of Enoch and Lurana Meeker. After a childhood spent working on his family’s farm, Meeker developed a passion for writing. Beginning at age seventeen, he worked for newspapers in New Orleans, Cleveland, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Meeker was an avid reader despite having only a grade-school education. He read Greek classics, the Bible, poetry, and political theory. He was also a productive writer, keeping a diary and authoring poems, articles, short stories, and novels. His newspaper articles often focused on agriculture. Like some other nineteenth-century authors, Meeker had an opium habit.
Interests, Career, and Family
The works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson introduced the young, ambitious Meeker to the idea of the utopian community. Enthralled by the idea of gradually perfecting the human experience, Meeker studied attempts at utopian communities in Oneida, New York, and in Mormon Utah. The utopia became a central part of his religious philosophy, which focused on applying God’s gift of free will toward self- and community improvement. He rejected war and capital punishment and embraced temperance.
As he endeavored to “do something of significance before I die,” Meeker came across French philosopher Charles Fournier’s theory of cooperative agriculture in the pages of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Soon, he joined Greeley, Emerson, and others in establishing collective agricultural communities across the Midwest during the 1840s.
In 1844 he married Arvilla Smith, a childhood friend from Euclid, Ohio. The pair would have five children: Ralph, George, Rozene, Mary, and Josephine.
After the failure of his utopian community in Braceville, Ohio, Meeker tried to launch his literary career with the help of Horace Greeley. Meeker’s relationship with Greeley continued into the 1850s, when Greeley helped Meeker publish a novel about an English missionary expedition to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawai’i). In the novel, Meeker’s English captain attempts to “civilize” the island’s native population, with disastrous results—an uncanny foreshadowing of Meeker’s own fate.
The novel sold poorly, and Meeker relocated his family to a farm in southern Illinois. After a brief period of success, the family was again short of money, so Meeker went back to writing agricultural articles for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and New York Tribune. Impressed by Meeker’s writing, Greeley hired him in 1861 as the Tribune’s Civil War correspondent in southern Illinois. After the war ended in 1865, Greeley made Meeker the Tribune’s agricultural editor, and the Meekers moved to New Jersey.
Greeley, the consummate booster, was obsessed with the West and its prospects for settlement and agriculture. In 1869 Greeley sent Meeker to Colorado Territory to write a series of articles, and on the way Meeker met railroad mogul William Jackson Palmer and Rocky Mountain News editor William N. Byers. They told Meeker of their plans to build railroads and communities around Denver, and Meeker began thinking of Colorado as the place where he might finally build his agrarian utopia.
In New York, Greeley and Meeker drafted the charter for an agricultural community called the Union Colony. Through Byers, Meeker purchased land near the confluence of the South Platte and Cache la Poudre Rivers. In 1870 Meeker and the first group of colonists arrived at their new townsite; the colonists wanted to name the community after Meeker, but he demurred and instead suggested Greeley, in honor of his editor and financier.
The Union Colony got off to a rough start, with the arid climate and unbroken land proving to be stubborn obstacles. Financial solvency was constantly an issue for the colony and for Meeker himself. In 1870 Meeker borrowed $1,500 from Greeley to found the Greeley Tribune. Although he delighted in publishing the paper, he was unable to repay the debt by the time Greeley died, and Greeley’s daughters eventually sued Meeker for the unpaid sum of $1,000. Compounding his hardship, Meeker’s son George died of tuberculosis in 1877. Grieving and again in financial trouble, Meeker looked for employment elsewhere.
As Meeker racked up debt at Union Colony, the federal government was having a difficult time finding a permanent Indian agent for the White River Indian Agency in northwest Colorado. Established soon after the Ute Treaty of 1868, the agency’s primary purpose was to distribute rations and other annuities to the Parianuche and Yampa Ute bands, then known as the White River Utes. On account of federal negligence, the annuities often arrived late or not at all, prompting the Utes to reject agents’ efforts to encourage farming and instead continue their seasonal hunts, both on and off the reservation.
Down on his luck, Meeker saw the salaried Indian agent job as one of several positions that might help him repay his debts and salvage his reputation. With a recommendation from Colorado senator Henry Teller, among others, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Meeker to head the White River Agency in 1878. Meeker had no experience with American Indians and knew little of the Utes beyond stereotypes when he arrived at the White River Agency in early 1879.
Appointed in part because of his agricultural experience, Meeker’s first order was to move the agency’s buildings onto land more suitable for farming and irrigation—land that happened to be a Ute horse pasture. For the Utes, it was the first of many grievances against their new agent.
While the Utes resisted farming and left the reservation to hunt, Meeker wrote articles that contradicted his belief that all people could be “reformed”—the Utes, he grumbled, were too set in their ways, imbued with an inferior intelligence and character. His frustration soon turned to cruelty, as at one point he withheld the Utes’ rations as punishment for their refusal to follow his teachings. He declared, in direct opposition to the 1868 treaty, that the reservation did not belong to the Utes but to the government; he ordered pasture after pasture to be plowed into farm fields. Where other agents might have taken a more lenient approach in exchange for cooperation, the stubborn Meeker would accept nothing but total compliance.
Meeker’s heavy-handedness began to wear on local Ute leaders, especially Johnson and Douglass. After Meeker arrived, both were willing to try a bit of farming, but as the agent’s conduct toward them worsened they grew increasingly frustrated. During one argument late in the summer of 1879, Johnson shoved Meeker and hurt the agent’s arm. Fearing for his life, Meeker wrote for federal troops to come to the agency and protect him.
As US cavalry under Major Thomas Thornburgh advanced toward the agency, the Utes warned Meeker that troops entering the reservation would be taken as an act of war. Meeker relayed the Utes’ warning to Thornburgh, but the major had already decided to proceed to the agency. On September 29, 1879, Ute warriors pinned down Thornburgh’s cavalry at Milk Creek. When Utes at the agency learned that troops had entered the reservation, they set fire to the buildings and killed all white male employees, including Meeker.
Army reinforcements finally relieved the US cavalry at Milk Creek on October 5, forcing the Utes’ surrender. The soldiers proceeded to the agency, where they found the burned buildings and the mutilated bodies of Meeker and his staff. Meeker’s head had been bludgeoned and impaled.
It is perhaps a cruel irony that Meeker met a fate similar to the one he wrote for his literary character Captain Armstrong, who was run off by the native islanders he hoped to convert and “civilize.” But it is also apparent that Meeker did not take his own story to heart, as he failed to appreciate the folly of his actions at the Indian agency.
Meeker’s body was recovered and now lies buried in Greeley’s Linn Grove Cemetery.
In 1929 Greeley residents bought Nathan Meeker’s former home at 1324 Ninth Avenue and converted it into the Meeker Home Museum. Outside of Greeley, where he is still celebrated for his role in the city’s development, Meeker is largely remembered as an overzealous Indian agent who caused his own demise. His ambition, self-belief, and determination made him a successful entrepreneur and journalist as well as an ideal government agent; however, it was those same qualities that inspired the arrogance and willful ignorance that got him killed.