The Ute Treaty of 1868, also known as the “Kit Carson Treaty,” was negotiated between agents of the US government, including Kit Carson, and leaders of seven bands of Nuche (Ute people) living in Colorado and Utah. The treaty created for the Utes a massive reservation on Colorado’s Western Slope in exchange for ceding the Central Rockies to the United States.
The treaty proved immensely important to the white population of Colorado, as it opened a huge portion of the mineral-rich Rocky Mountains to development. For the Utes, however, it proved to be a major step toward their eventual expulsion from the state. The US government failed to fulfill the treaty’s obligations, and its coercive attempts to assimilate the Utes led to the bloody Meeker Incident of 1879 and the removal of most of Colorado’s Utes in the early 1880s.
By 1800 Ute people had lived in Colorado’s mountains for more than 500 years. By the 1860s, American mining camps and towns had been established on Ute land across the Colorado Front Range as a result of the Gold Rush of 1858–59, and the United States officially claimed the Ute homeland when it established Colorado Territory in 1861. After the passage of the first Homestead Act in 1862 and the end of the Civil War three years later, many more whites came to the new territory.
In general, the Utes viewed the invaders with tolerant suspicion, only occasionally raiding or driving them off. As immigration increased, however, white Coloradans pressured the federal government to solve their local version of the nation’s so-called "Indian problem." The first treaty with Utes had been made in 1849 at Abiquiú, New Mexico, but it failed to encompass the lands that white Coloradans coveted—and had already begun occupying—in the 1860s. With mining and homesteading interests booming, the government brokered two major deals with the Utes to acquire Colorado’s mineral-rich peaks and lush mountain pastures.
The first treaty, signed in 1863 at Conejos and approved by Congress in 1864, was made with just one band of Utes, the Tabeguache under Ouray. It secured lands east of the Continental Divide and Middle Park for the United States. Among others, this included places such as Grand Lake, Hot Sulphur Springs, South Park, Buena Vista, and Salida. Having secured these lands, the government now turned its attention to Colorado’s other Ute bands, many of which had far less experience with white Americans than the Tabeguache.
Signing the Treaty
In early 1868, the US government convened a treaty delegation in Washington, DC. On hand were Colorado territorial governor Alexander Hunt, Kit Carson’ Lafayette Head, Ouray, and representatives of six other Ute bands, including the Uintah band from Utah. Although Ouray represented only the Tabeguache, the government had recognized him as the de facto leader of all Utes during the 1863 negotiations, so he was again treated as such.
In the treaty, the US government agreed to create a reservation for all six bands of Colorado’s Ute people that encompassed nearly 16.5 million acres, or a third of the territory. Its boundaries ran between the White and Yampa Rivers in the north, the 107th meridian in the east, the Utah border in the west, and the New Mexico border in the south. The Uintah Utes would get their own reservation in northeast Utah. The government would set up one Indian Agency in Utah and two in Colorado—one on the White River and another along the Los Piños River. There, agents would distribute annuities—deliveries of food and supplies—to the Utes, as well as farming equipment and animals for each family. Non-Natives could not enter, reside on, or cross the reservation.
To keep receiving annuities, Utes would have to send their children to white schools and turn over any Ute who “commit[s] a wrong or depredation” to US authorities for punishment. The treaty also guaranteed a 160-acre allotment and farming equipment to any Ute who chose to take up farming.
Leaders of the Capote, Grand River, Muache, Tabeguache, Weeminuche, and Yampa Ute bands all signed the treaty, though some signatures were later disputed. Back in Colorado, many Utes resented Ouray and other leaders for signing the treaty, and it soon became clear that most would not accept its “civilizing” dictums.
Trouble at the Agencies
Establishing the agencies proved more difficult than laid out in the treaty. The Los Piños Agency, for instance, was never actually established on the Los Piños River (in today’s La Plata County); first it was moved to Saguache, an upstart town in the San Luis Valley that was already a trading hub for Indigenous people and whites. Saguache, however, was off the reservation, so the agency was soon moved to the frozen heights of Cochetopa Pass, south of Gunnison. This location proved to be too far from other Ute bands, so finally government officials settled on a site in the Uncompahgre Valley, south of present-day Montrose, for the reservation’s southern agency.
Meanwhile, the White River Agency farther north was established as per the treaty, but it was plagued with other problems. For one, it was in an extremely remote part of northwest Colorado, making travel and communication difficult. Annuities that were supposed to be delivered to both agencies under the treaty frequently arrived late or not at all, meaning that the Utes often did not have enough food or warm clothing.
The White River Agency experienced rapid turnover, and in 1879 Union Colony founder Nathan Meeker was appointed to lead it. A devout zealot committed to “civilizing” the Utes, Meeker took a heavy-handed approach. He requested federal troops to keep Utes from leaving the reservation to hunt, and he deliberately plowed pastures and sought to destroy the Utes’ centuries-long relationship with the horse. Meeker’s treatment of the Utes culminated in the 1879 Meeker Incident, during which Utes killed Meeker and the agency’s staff. After an investigation into the matter, a new agreement was drawn up in 1880 that would remove all of Colorado’s Utes except the Muache, Capote, and Weeminuche, who were deemed not to be culpable in the incident.
Ouray refused to sign the 1880 Treaty, and he died before it was ratified and forced upon his people. Many Utes refused to abandon their homelands. In 1881 the US Army force-marched them onto a new reservation in northeast Utah, leaving the 110-mile strip of the Southern Ute Reservation as the only remaining Ute land in Colorado.
In the national context, the Ute Treaty of 1868 was one of many treaties between the United States and Native Americans that year, including those with the Navajo and Lakota. At the time, these significant treaties were hailed as milestones in US-Indigenous relations. President Andrew Johnson gave silver peace medals to each Ute at the 1868 meetings. Yet no matter what the government promised in treaties, leverage remained with the United States and its superior military force.
While Indigenous leaders often considered treaties to be binding agreements, the US government more or less considered them conditional arrangements, good only until the growing nation needed more land. For example, in 1871 Congress created a workaround to the 1868 Treaty by passing the Indian Appropriations Act. Invalidating an 1832 Supreme Court decision, the act declared that Indigenous people did not belong to “sovereign nations” and thus could not enter treaties. This development made it easier to negotiate more land away from the Utes, such as in the 1873 Brunot Agreement.
Still, without the 1868 treaty, white homesteaders and miners may have incited more violence against Ute people, and without leaders like Ouray, the Utes may have bled themselves out fighting a better-armed foe. In the end, the treaty might best be remembered as both a valiant attempt at peace on the part of Ute leaders and a pragmatic ploy by the US government to separate a people from their ancient homelands.