Nathan Meeker was the Agent at the White River Agency. In an attempt to ease the Ute into peaceful co-existence with the invading Americans, Meeker pushed farming skills. His lack of understanding and sympathy for Ute sensibilities escalated into an incident over his destruction of a Ute horse racing track. Meeker called for military support, but gathering Ute forces ordered the small company of soldiers responding to Meeker’s aid to stop. When the soldiers continued to advance, the Ute attacked and stopped the military expedition. Meanwhile, Nathan Meeker and all other male employees of the White River Agency were attacked and killed. While the female captives were later released at the warning of Ute Chief Ouray, the Meeker Incident of 1879 provided the final excuse to seize valuable Ute mining territory. The treaty of 1880 restricted all Ute who were not already on a reservation in southern Colorado to the Uintah Reservation in Utah in 1881.
Among all the mighty tribes of early inhabitants, the Ute Nation is unique in the relative peace with which it gave up
How Prospectin’ Opened-up Southwest Colorado
As long as there have been people, they have found and used precious metals. The first immigrants to the North American continent were no different. Asiatic peoples immigrated from the west, Nordic tribes immigrated from the east. These two genetic groups combined as they roamed across this vast land. Their hybrid descendents have been erroneously labeled “Native Americans”, but they were simply the offspring of the first immigrants. And, they were the first to discover and use the precious metal resources of this rich land.
With the later arrival of European Nations searching for gold, precious metals, and trade goods, prospecting became an obsession in the "New World". In their conquest for gold, Spain laid claim to the southwest and what would become California. The Old Spanish Trail would spring up along old Indian trails to connect their vast empire. (Click for more on the Old Spanish Trail). After the War for Independence, the young United States of America would push westward seeking a place for it’s sprawling, independent, and aggressive peoples. After the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, (Click for more on the Louisiana Purchase), the young Republic pushed westward. However, fur trappers, and later prospectors, had little regard for boundaries when in pursuit of gain. In fact, much of human history can be attributed to a complete disregard for the rights of others in the pursuit of personal or national ambition. The foibles of human nature aside, conquest opened southwest Colorado to American expansionism. The Mexican War, ending in 1848, (For details of the War With Mexico, click here), put an end to Mexican control of the area, and allowed the United States to begin dealing with the inhabitants of this newly acquired country. The fierce Ute Tribes had long held much of current day Colorado and Utah, along with portions of Arizona and New Mexico, from all comers, (For a complete history of the Ute Nation, click here). Mountain Men often co-existed peaceably with the Ute and the first treaty between the United States and the Ute was signed in 1849 in Abiquiu. Kit Carson claimed the Ute to be among the finest horsemen in the world, and the quality of their buckskins unequalled by any. However, the Ute were hostile to all other tribes and defended and dominated their area with such ferocity, that to this day, the Comanche aren’t known by their own name for themselves, but by the Ute word for “Enemy”, kumachi.
In 1853, Kit Carson took the job of Indian Agent to the Ute, operating out of Taos. By 1855, the Ute nation as a whole was peaceable with the United States government. The Brunot Agreement of 1873 began the final erosion of the Ute domination of Colorado. Mining pressures caused the government to treaty with the Ute for the San Juan mining district. The Ute thought they were signing away the worthless rock mountain peaks to the miners, with a few roads to service them. However, once the miners invaded their country, there was no turning back.
Spurred-on by the desire for trade with the Southwest, the Santa Fe Trail was beaten-down through the plains, starting in 1821. (Click to learn more about the Santa Fe Trail). Beginning in the Franklin and Arrow Rock area of Missouri, the Santa Fe Trail stretched across the plains and through the mountain passes on it’s way to Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Trail was the beginning of the way west for many adventurous souls. One young saddle-making apprentice by the name of Kit Carson, began his own legend with his trip down the fabled trail, hired-on to tend the livestock, (Click for more on Kit Carson). Carson would go on to become one of the most famous mountain men, guides, and soldiers of the west. From 1833 to 1848, nearly every American expedition into the southwest passed through, or was organized at Bent’s Old Fort along the Arkansas River, (For more on Bent's Fort, click here). Bent’s Fort is perfectly located near the junction of the Old Spanish Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. In fact, the present-day town of La Junta, Colorado, translates from the Spanish as, “The Junction”, (Click for La Junta Chamer of Commerce).
It is here that I want to start my story of how the search for gold opened up southwest Colorado to United States occupation and settlement. American fur trappers, like Carson, based much of their operations out of Taos, in what is now New Mexico. Much of the American fur trapping business in the southwest went on as a black-market enterprise because the Spanish, and then the Mexican governments, tightly regulated, taxed, and prosecuted illegal foreign trade in their territories.
Dear Ol' Kit, later in life.
Bent's Old Fort, along the Arkansas River.
A roving Mountain Man checks out a mountain stream. A first-phase Navajo Chief's blanket can be seen rolled on his back. Trade for Navajo blankets was a primary commodidy for the Santa Fe Trail market.
Danger was the constant companion of the Mountain Man.
This intrepid explorer is armed with a single-shot muzzleloading flintlock. The 1820s Hawken-style, .54 caliber, full-stocked rifle, could only be fired once before re-loading down the muzzle.
His only other weapons are a small hand axe hung at the back of his shootin' pouch, used for chopping small firewood and settin' trap stakes, and a slim hand-forged knife tucked under his belt.
When faced with imminent danger, flight was often the prudent and best defense.
Early prospectors in Ute tribal lands diverted streams, hunted game and wasted firewood on large fires. They were a pesky people.
This treaty, and the removal of the Ute to reservations, opened up southwest Colorado once and for all to inhabitation by Americans. The 1880s were a time of rapid development and mining. These were the wild-and-wooly boom-times of the southwest goldfields, where it was reported by a local paper, “In Durango, every bullet kills two men!” Ultimately, the lure of gold opened up southwest Colorado to American pioneers, forever changing the landscape.
The Studebaker Wheelbarrow was a standard feature among prospectors everywhere.
The Rocker Box, or Gold Cradle, was developed in the goldfields of northern Georgia during the Georgia Gold Rush of 1829. It has been a fixture in every goldfield to this day.
it's ancestral homelands for the restrictions of the reservation. This was due primarily to far-sighted and wise Ute Chiefs like Buckskin Charlie, Ouray, Ignacio and others, who saw the futility in resisting the "White Tide". It is also a testament to men like Otto Mears, who also knew the inevitable, and tried to save the Ute from annihilation. And individuals like Kit Carson, who literally grew up on the surging frontier. A man who went from fabled Indian Fighter, to a tireless warrior, fighting to save the Ute way of life. Kit Carson expended his life in service to the Ute Nation, attempting to salvage the best deal possible in an impossible situation.
This prospector of the early 1880s comes heavily armed with a Remington 1858 cap 'n ball revolver, converted to handle the .45 caliber Colt cartridge. His long-arm, (never far from reach), is an 1852 linen cartridge Sharps carbine, converted to chamber .45-70 Government. In the lonely high-country, you can never go wrong with too much fire-power.