The White River Ute Agency at Meeker, Colorado was established at the same time as the first Los Piños Agency under provisions of the Treaty of 1868. The agency was intended to serve the White River Ute band as well as some of the other bands from northwestern Colorado. As the site of the Meeker Massacre and the Battle of Milk Creek, the White River Agency was the focal point of important episodes of violence between Native Americans and whites that led to the removal of many Utes from the state. These violent episodes as well as the story of the White River Agency epitomize the consequences of the US government’s nineteenth-century policy toward Native Americans, which pushed people like the Utes to the point of desperation, either through basic ineptitude or outright deceit and neglect of existing treaty terms.
The White River Agency, which consisted of a collection of cheaply constructed, primarily log buildings, was first built several miles east of present-day Meeker on mountainous terrain near the White River. The site was eventually moved to a much more promising location with lots of pasture and fertile land in Powell Park along the White River, just west of Meeker. The agency served as an administrative and logistic center that distributed rations and sponsored a school.
Nathaniel Meeker served as Indian agent for the White River Agency. It was Meeker’s incompetence as Indian agent that ultimately brought about the agency’s destruction. Rations and annuity goods often arrived late or did not arrive at all, and the Utes depending on those goods railed at the government’s many broken promises. The Utes were in near-starving condition, yet Meeker would not allow them to leave the reservation to hunt buffalo. Moreover, he attempted to destroy their long-established horse-based culture and force them to take up farming. Meeker so antagonized the Utes of his agency that hostility filled the air and threatened to envelop the facility in violence.
The White River Ute band was a considerably more fractious Ute group than the Uncompahgre-Tabeguache band had been under the leadership of Chief Ouray. In 1879 the White River Utes were restless and possibly preparing to participate in a widespread uprising to throw off the oppressive mantle of the US government. White people in Colorado justifiably feared that the White River Utes might ally with other bands and tribes and prompt a full-scale war. Meeker became fearful of his Ute charges and asked the army to send troops to help keep them on the reservation and protect whites at the agency.
When troops arrived, the Utes saw the soldiers’ presence on the reservation as an overt violation of their sovereignty and treaty rights. Utes from the White River Agency attacked the army’s relief columns at what became known as the Battle of Milk Creek, which lasted for several days. Fighters killed the commanding officer, Major Thornburg, and many other troops in what is often described as the longest-lasting single Indian battle in American history. The Utes also attacked the agency and burned most of the facility. They killed Meeker and other white male agency workers and also took Meeker’s wife, daughter, and a female employee captive.
These actions provoked white outrage throughout Colorado and the nation, leading to a concerted round of investigations and finger-pointing; while never fully resolved, the search for whom to blame reached into the highest echelons of government, including the Secretary of the Interior. In large measure, the “Meeker Affair” or Meeker Massacre, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of all of the Utes living in Colorado north of the San Juan Mountains. The Utes from the second Los Piños Agency were removed to Utah in the fall of 1881, while those attached to the White River Agency were forced into Utah the following year.
Thereafter, the remains of the old agency at White River disappeared and became used as hay pastures. Today there is little or nothing left on the ground surface to indicate the former presence of the facility. There is, however, a marker along Colorado Highway 64 just west of Meeker indicating the general location of the old agency.