Ouray (1833–80), whose name means “Arrow” in the Ute language, was a leader of the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) band of Ute Indians in Colorado during the late nineteenth century. Even though Ouray had no ultimate authority over Colorado’s Utes and spoke little English, the US government assigned him the title of Chief of all Utes in Colorado and made him the primary contact for treaty negotiations.
As a promoter of peace and the lead representative to the government, Ouray negotiated a series of agreements that resulted in the loss of Ute territory and, eventually, the removal of the White River and Uncompahgre Utes from Colorado. Today, Ouray’s legacy is reflected in that series of agreements as well as by place names in Colorado, including Ouray County and the town of Ouray. The Ute Indian Museum in Montrose lies just northwest of land that once belonged to Ouray and his wife, Chipeta.
Ouray was born in 1833 in Abiquiú, New Mexico, to a Jicarilla Apache father and a Tabeguache Ute mother. When Ouray and his brother, Quenche, were young, their parents sent them to Taos, New Mexico, as criados—indentured servants to wealthy landowners.
In Taos, Ouray and his brother were servants to the wealthy and powerful Padre Martínez; the Martínez clan was the largest and most powerful landowner in the region. In the seven years they worked for the Martínez family, Ouray and Quenche became familiar with high culture, elite individuals, and how the ruling classes conducted business. In 1850 Ouray returned to his hometown of Abiquiú to work for Martínez relatives. Already fluent in Apache, Ouray is believed to have developed the ability to speak Ute, Spanish, and some English in this decade. His ability to communicate with the various communities in northern New Mexico, coupled with his introduction to high-profile people, would soon change his position in society.
In 1851 Ouray moved to Colorado and married his first wife, an Apache named Black Mare. In 1857 the couple celebrated the birth of their first child, a son named Paron (Pahlone). That same year, Black Mare died suddenly for unknown reasons. Two years later, Ouray married Chipeta, his second and much younger wife.
Chipeta was an Apache by birth but had been raised by the Ute tribe. She had originally been chosen to care for Pahlone after the death of Ouray’s first wife. Chipeta became famous for her hospitality, negotiation skills, and beauty. Pahlone historians believe that Lakota kidnapped Ouray’s son in 1862, but the circumstances of his life after capture are still subject to debate. The year 1863 would prove to be a pivotal year for Ouray and Chipeta, as their various skills and multiethnic backgrounds would place them in high esteem among both the Ute people and US government officials.
Ouray and the US Government
Ouray’s relationship with the US government began on October 3, 1863, when he helped complete a treaty at Conejos in the San Luis Valley. At the meeting, Ouray served as a representative of the Tabeguache, but a few members of other Ute bands had agreed to attend. As a result, Ouray was the prominent signer of a treaty that relinquished all Ute land east of the Continental Divide, as well as the area of Middle Park, to the United States. It was essentially an agreement that formally gave up all Ute land already occupied by white miners and homesteaders. Historians often refer to this treaty as the Treaty of 1864, as Congress affirmed the treaty that year and approved the monetary and property payments to be made to the Ute Nation. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the forced removal of many Utes from Colorado.
On March 2, 1868, Ouray helped negotiate another treaty that removed the Utes from the San Luis Valley and created a massive reservation on the Western Slope for all Colorado Utes. This meeting was better attended by different Ute bands but still did not reflect the interests of all Utes in the territory. Representatives of seven Ute bands, along with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Nathaniel G. Taylor, Alexander Hunt, Kit Carson, and others, met in Washington, DC, to draft the treaty. The Western Slope reservation was to have two Indian agencies: one for the three bands of Northern Utes near the current town of Meeker and one for Southern Utes on the Los Piños River near present-day Durango. This was a pivotal moment for Ouray, as the United States officially named him the chief of all Ute Indians at the meeting.
The Utes’ new reservation on the Western Slope covered some 20 million acres, but it didn’t take long before the US government again met with Ouray to acquire more Ute land. The San Juan Mountains were largely ignored during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59, but by the early 1870s, prospectors had found promising deposits of gold and silver there and sought to claim the riches. Initially, the government ordered the miners out of Ute territory, citing the 1868 treaty, but when they refused to leave, state and federal officials began working on a plan to annex the rugged, remote mountains to Colorado.
The government’s first attempt to acquire the San Juans from the Utes was a dismal failure from the US perspective, as Ouray and other Ute representatives unanimously refused to sell any more of their land. But soon after attending that first meeting, Felix R. Brunot, chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners, learned that Ouray’s son had been taken captive by other Indigenous groups years before. Brunot persuaded the Ute leader to agree to sell the San Juans if the government could reunite him with his son. Although the effort to find Pahlone ultimately failed, Ouray became convinced of Brunot’s sincerity and eventually helped him induce the other Ute bands to relinquish a 4-million-acre piece of the San Juans in exchange for hunting rights in the mountains, an annual payment of $25,000 to the Utes, and other deliverables.
Since Congress declared in 1871 that the United States would no longer recognize the sovereignty of Indian nations, the agreement that ceded the San Juans to the United States was not a treaty; rather, it became known as the Brunot Agreement. Signed in 1873, it included an annual stipend of $1,000 for Ouray as well as land for him and Chipeta near present-day Montrose.
While white Coloradans opened mines in the San Juans, the state’s Ute populations were having difficulties adjusting to life on the reservation. The situation came to a head in the fall of 1879, when Ouray again found himself in the middle of a dispute between whites and Utes. In 1879 Nathan C. Meeker was appointed Indian agent at the White River Indian Agency, which managed the Yampa and Parianuche (Grand River) Utes. A zealous individual with little understanding of Ute culture, Meeker’s aim was to force the Utes out of their hunter-gatherer way of life into a life of farming and Christianity. But the Utes resisted these attempts at nearly every turn, and the final straw came in September 1879, when Meeker requested federal troops to safeguard the agency. The Utes saw this as a threat and rebelled, killing Meeker and ten others and taking the agent’s family captive.
The captives taken during the Meeker Incident included the families of the slain White River employees and Meeker’s wife and adult daughter, Josephine. The women and children were kept as prisoners for three weeks until their release was negotiated by US agents. They were then taken to Ouray and Chipeta’s ranch.
Historians generally agree that Meeker and his attitude toward the Utes were to blame for the violence in September 1879; nonetheless, the incident terrified white Coloradans and prompted them to call for the removal of all Utes from the state. Ouray feared white retaliation for the Meeker Massacre and worked to encourage the cessation of hostilities. But he did not offer up any new land for the taking, nor did he relent to pressure from government officials to name and deliver the Utes responsible for the murders. For his part, Ouray was ordered to deliver twelve Ute men for sentencing in Washington, DC. The Ute men were acquitted of the charges, but after the Meeker Massacre, the US government wanted the Ute Nation removed.
On March 6, 1880, nine Utes, including Ouray, signed an agreement to move the White River (Parianuche and Yampa) Utes to the Uintah Reservation in northern Utah. The government initially planned to move the Uncompahgre Utes to lands near the mouth of the Gunnison River, near present-day Grand Junction, but road builder Otto Mears knew white settlers coveted the site, which would make him a great deal more money. Additionally, Colorado governor Frederick Pitkin did not want the Uncompahgres living so close to other white settlements, so it was eventually determined that Ouray’s people would move to a 1.9-million-acre reservation in Utah near the Uintah Reservation. It was named the Ouray Reservation, after the now-famous chief.
By the summer of 1880, few Utes had agreed to relocate. As public pressure mounted on state and federal officials and the threat of forced removal became more real, Ouray made one final attempt to save his people from what he thought would be certain annihilation. In August 1880, at the age of forty-seven, he traveled to southwest Colorado to meet the defiant Southern Ute leader Ignacio, hoping to enlist his help in collecting signatures for the new peace agreement. But this journey proved too much for Ouray; he had been suffering from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment associated with high blood pressure, for at least five years. He fell terribly ill while on the Southern Ute reservation and died there on August 24, 1880. In 1925 Ouray’s friends recovered his body from a secret burial site and reburied the chief in the Ute Cemetery near Ignacio, just across the Los Piños River from the place where he died.
In the end, the Uncompahgre Utes were reluctant to leave their Colorado homelands for the reservation named after their fallen chief; when they finally did agree to leave the Uncompahgre valley, more than 1,000 US troops hovered behind them, ushering them along the 350-mile journey to the new reservation. The Southern Utes were allowed to stay in Colorado.
Chipeta’s Final Years
Chipeta survived Ouray for thirty-four years, living in near poverty for the remainder of her life. The federal government never fully compensated Chipeta or finished the beautiful home she had been promised in the 1880 agreement. She died on August 12, 1924, at age eighty-one. She was buried in a traditional shallow grave. In 1925 Chipeta’s body was exhumed by members of her tribe and moved to a mausoleum at the Ouray Memorial Park in Montrose.
Like many other Indian leaders who lived to see their people pushed off their lands by whites, Ouray leaves a complicated legacy. His early life experiences in New Mexico, as well as his proximity to the Mexican-American War, gave him deep knowledge of how landed elites operated and an appreciation for US military power. That knowledge would help him when he reluctantly became the US government’s designated negotiator for agreements with all Utes. In that capacity, Ouray often faced the unenviable task of deciding between protecting his people’s land or making a dangerous stand that might get many Utes killed. For the most part, Ouray deftly applied the knowledge gained in his early life in these situations, remaining skillfully defiant when he saw no threat to his people but capitulating to white interests when he perceived no other path but warfare and death.
Some Utes and historians have blamed Ouray for the forced removal of Colorado’s Northern Utes to Utah, while others believe he acted in the Utes’ best interest because voluntary relocation—even if the army encouraged it—spared them from a violent alternative, possibly even genocide. For better or worse, Ouray is remembered as a leader who unfailingly opted for peace in an otherwise violent and turbulent time.
Today, the experiences and legacies of Ouray and Chipeta are chronicled in exhibits at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose and in the minds and stories of the Ute people who live on the reservation bearing his name.