Considered to be the first official treaty between the United States and the Ute people of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Treaty of Abiquiú was made in 1849 with the intention of establishing peaceful relations between the two groups. Signed in the northern New Mexico village of Abiquiú, the treaty came at the end of a violent decade in present-day New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Although it did little to quell the violence in a hotly contested region, the treaty laid the groundwork for future Ute-American relations and granted the US government a foothold in the San Luis Valley, northern New Mexico, and other indigenous-controlled territories it claimed after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.
By the early 1840s, a violent situation was brewing along today’s New Mexico–Colorado border. Indigenous people—including the Apache, Arapaho, Navajo, and Ute—fought each other for access to hunting grounds and trade networks. At the same time, they found their ancestral lands increasingly traversed by European and American fur traders, Mexican ranchers and wagon trains along the Santa Fé Trail and other trading routes. In response to this growing threat, Indigenous people raided New Mexican towns, drove off would-be colonists on Mexican land grants, and attacked wagon trains.
Regional violence escalated after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Moving relatively unopposed down the Santa Fé Trail, the US Army quickly captured New Mexico, and President James Polk installed Charles Bent, an American trader, as governor of the unorganized territory. Apaches, Navajos, Utes, and other Indigenous nations continued their defensive campaign against the foreign invaders, increasing raids on New Mexican communities such as Las Vegas and Taos. In response, the US Army embarked on several campaigns to punish Indigenous nations, including one in 1848 that fought a combined Ute-Apache force near Cumbres Pass in the San Juan Mountains.
After the war ended in 1848, New Mexicans (now American citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) began expanding their claims in New Mexico and the San Luis Valley. This prompted more reprisals from Indigenous people. Finally, in March 1849, the US Army’s swift destruction of fifty Ute lodges in New Mexico convinced Ute leaders that peace was a wiser course. Not only would it spare them losses against a superior fighting force, but it would also give them time to deal with their own political crises and food shortage, both of which stemmed from the ongoing defense of their lands.
A “Perpetual Peace”
New Mexico governor James S. Calhoun also came to believe that peace with the Utes was necessary if the United States hoped to populate its new territories. Like other American observers, Calhoun considered the Utes to be key in making this peace, as they were believed to hold “influence over the [other] wild tribes.” In late December 1849, in his capacity as Indian Agent, Calhoun brought together Ute leaders—mostly from the Capote and Muache bands—and American officials at Abiquiú, a village along the Chama River in northern New Mexico. The subsequent agreement, signed by twenty-eight leaders of the “Utah tribe of Indians,” placed the Utes “lawfully and exclusively under the jurisdiction of the [US] government” in “perpetual peace and amity.”
The treaty provided for “free passage” of American citizens through Ute territory, as well as for the construction of “military posts,” Indian agencies, and “trading houses” on Ute lands. In return, it promised to protect Utes against depredations by American citizens, as well as provide “such donations, presents, and implements” deemed necessary for the Utes to “support themselves by their own industry.” These “donations” would come in the form of annuities—annual deliveries of food and supplies.
From the Ute perspective, the most problematic section of the treaty called for Utes to “cultivate the soil,” to “cease the roving and rambling habits which have hitherto marked them as a people,” and to “confine themselves strictly” within American-imposed territorial limits.
These clauses reflected a common misunderstanding in many treaties between the United States and Indigenous nations during the nineteenth century. To the Utes, many of whom had only a cursory understanding of the treaty’s contents, the agreement was merely a pragmatic parley that would bolster their chances of survival in a new geopolitical reality. Determined to remain on their land, they did not imagine the treaty as restricting their traditional migratory rounds, nor did they see it as erasing their sovereignty. To the government officials who penned it, however, the treaty was viewed as the Utes’ total surrender to American authority, the first step toward their eventual “civilization” and the acquisition of their land.
The Treaty of Abiquiú was ratified by Congress on September 24, 1850, just weeks after the establishment of New Mexico Territory.
Despite the treaty’s hopes for “peace and amity,” regional violence continued immediately after its signing, revealing the vast gulf between how the two parties understood the agreement. Not even a week later, Utes killed a group of Mexicans along the Chama River and stole their livestock. The Utes viewed the violence as necessary. Although the treaty promised annuities that would ease their starvation, they still needed food in the interim, and they decided to take what they needed from people they continued to consider trespassers.
As months went by and annuities still did not arrive—Calhoun’s agency was simply too large and underfunded to fulfill the treaty obligations—Utes continued to take livestock from Americans and Mexicans in New Mexico and Colorado. The US Army’s establishment of Fort Massachusetts (later Fort Garland) in the San Luis Valley in 1852 did little to stop the raids. American officials sought to curb the violence by regulating American and Mexican traders, who were the Utes’ chief suppliers of weapons and ammunition.
The new rules only made the Utes angrier, especially since similar regulations were not imposed on Plains traders who provided arms and ammunition to their enemies, the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Overall, the presence of white immigrants and military units, combined with the US government’s inability to fulfill its treaty obligations, exacerbated regional power struggles between indigenous peoples, precipitating a plague of violence across southern Colorado and northern New Mexico throughout the 1850s. Then the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of American immigrants to Colorado, decisively shifting the regional balance of power toward the United States.
Even though it did not bring “perpetual peace” to New Mexico and southern Colorado, the Treaty of Abiquiú established a precedent of treaty making between the United States and Ute leaders that lasted until the 1870s. From the American perspective, this made the Utes reliable, if reluctant, partners, confirming many officials’ belief that the Utes were one of the “good” Indigenous nations.
For the Utes, this status was a double-edged sword, for as much as it often put them in the good graces of a decidedly superior military force, it also paved the way for their continued acquiescence to US demands, especially the cession of their lands. By 1881, thirty-two years after Ute leaders marked their “x” at Abiquiú, many of the Ute bands had been removed from Colorado, and the remaining bands held only a small strip of land in the state.