Despite decades of attempts by the government to fence them in and keep them out, the Ute never stopped living in Colorado.
Editor's note: This article was adapted by the author for The Colorado Magazine from an essay submitted to the Emerging Historians Contest.
Sheriff Henry Clay Jessup uneasily watched the hills surrounding him. He trundled along Douglas Creek, eyes roving for his quarry: a horse thief named George Brandon. The valleys had emptied their spring runoff into the creeks, slowing his pursuit. The piñon pine and juniper dotting the hills hid game and outlaws alike. As he traveled along, he spied bands of Indians cresting in the tree line and on the ridgetops. To him, these “remnants of a once famous tribe” simply sat on the landscape and did little as they “lazily put in their time.” Jessup eventually caught up to his quarry and hauled him back to civilization, leaving the wilderness to the outlaws and the Indians.
This story evokes so many narratives of the Wild West. A sheriff pursues a criminal into the wilderness and brings him to justice, dodging brigands and “Indians” the entire time. Mix in a shoot-out and this could be an episode of Gunsmoke. However, this was not the 1800s and Jessup wasn’t a frontier lawman. This was 1914. Jessup made the journey from Glenwood in an automobile, bouncing 320 miles out and home again in only five days. A deputy game warden even accompanied Jessup for part of the journey to count deer. Jessup did not throw Brandon into the wooden one-room jail cell many of us imagine from old western days, and Brandon was arraigned before a judge the very same day as his arrest. In fact every part of that day would seem familiar to most folks living in the twenty-first century. Among these emblems of everyday life, only one thing remains unexpected: the Indians hiding out in the wilderness in the age of the automobile.
To Sheriff Jessup, seeing the Utes in Colorado was a view into some kind of bygone age. He and other white Coloradans of his time believed the Utes to be banished, confined to reservations far to the south or in other states entirely. Modern scholarship often echoes this belief, with many authors assuming or implying that the 1881 removal of the Utes was a hard turning point in Ute history, one that saw them stop living in Western Colorado in their traditional ways. Both Jessup’s contemporaries and modern scholars have made assumptions that simplify Ute history, removing its twists and turns to smooth out the narrative or obscure complicity in the unjust removals of the Ute peoples from their homes. These assumptions, however, miss something important: Even long after the 1881 removal of most Ute bands to Utah, the Utes continued to live in Western Colorado and preserve traditional ways. In fact, many of them still do.
Despite Anglo-American settlers’ wishes, the Utes did not vanish from the mountains and canyons of Western Colorado overnight. Many refused to leave Colorado initially, and lived as residents, moving freely from Utah to Colorado and using the land as they had for generations. Over time, however, legal and military action forced some of Colorado’s original peoples to become visitors, as Colorado officials and the reservation system attempted to discourage them. This transition and eventual conformity to reservation life was a nuanced and complicated path as the Utes refused to transition to reservations on the government’s schedule. Ultimately, understanding this change allows us to better acknowledge the deeper presence of Indigenous history in the state, a presence that continues to this day. Sheriff Jessup may have brushed past the presence of “Indians” in those “untamed hills”, but we cannot ignore this key period of transition in Ute history.
In 1872, John Le Fevre and his party moved through the mountains, loaded with prospecting equipment. North Park was technically Ute land by treaty, but Le Fevre and his ten companions could not resist the potential of mountain wealth. The area was rich with game, and they scored an antelope on a hunt. Their trespass, however, did not go unnoticed. Fifty Utes, led by the fiery chief Colorow, confronted the successful hunters, claiming that the prospectors were slaughtering the game. Le Fevre, clearly outnumbered, quickly assured Colorow that the party only killed one to feed themselves. Colorow was unmoved. He told the prospectors that they had until the next day to leave, or Colorow would scalp them all. Le Fevre, along with one other, likely fled that very night. The others, however, thought the payout was worth Colorow’s wrath. Several years later, nine skeletons found in the area showed their fate. Colorow kept true to his word and showed that he would not suffer outsiders trespassing on Ute land. This determination continued even after 1881, as Colorow and many other Utes refused to accede to the flood of settlers trespassing on their lands.
In 1879, tensions created by Indian Agent Nathan Meeker’s treatment of the White River Utes ignited with the crossing of the US army into the Ute reservation then in northwestern Colorado, and resulted in the Battle of Milk Creek, the destruction of the White River Agency, the death of Meeker and ten of his male workers, and the kidnapping of the Meeker family. The hostages were eventually returned and the widespread Ute uprising that some of the White River Utes hoped for was avoided. The damage was done, however, with public opinion turned against all Utes, not just the White River Utes. In 1881, the Utes were removed from Colorado to a previously existing reservation in Utah, the Uintah reservation.
Following the 1881 removal effort, federal agents in Utah quickly realized that not all the Utes had made the trip. Colorow was one such who remained. In August of 1883, the Uintah agent Elisha Davis reported to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that Colorow and “his little band of followers” expressed interest in coming to the reservation and settling permanently. Whether Colorow actually said as much, or if Davis merely inferred it, is unknown. What is known, however, is that he certainly did not stay permanently. The Fairplay Flume reported his group hunting in Colorado again in August of 1884, proving the reservation could not stop him from coming and going as he wished.
Colorow was not alone in disregarding the new boundaries imposed on his movement. The Uintah agent reported to the Indian Commissioner in 1881 that only a “dozen lodges” were present for Commissioner Meacham’s inspection visit to pay the first annuity and that he had to send runners to assemble the rest of the band. The 1882 report claimed that the Utes have “gradually come in,” implying they took their time. Beyond these reports, population numbers also gave a picture of the White River Ute movements. In 1877, it was estimated that approximately 650 Utes visited the White River Agency exclusively. By 1883, a Uintah agent reported that “Indians on this reservation now number 965 Uintah and White River Utes—nearly half and half.” This gives an estimate of roughly 480 White River Utes on the reservation by that year, leaving nearly a quarter of the White River Utes unaccounted for, even with Ute losses at Milk Creek, a battle with the US army that ultimately led to the removal of the Utes from northwestern Colorado. In those early years, Colorow was clearly not the only Ute who refused to settle permanently in Utah.
The US government and the state of Colorado meant for the Utes to remain in Utah permanently. Many of the Utes, however, had other ideas, and settled into a yearly pattern that adapted their traditional lifestyle. The reservation became a place to congregate, trade, and collect annuities, filling the historic role of the river valleys of Colorado, and the Utes continued to hunt in their traditional Colorado lands in the fall.
Settlers in Colorado received these hunting trips with predictable opposition and hostility. In 1887, Garfield county Sheriff Kendall and his posse accused Colorow’s party of stealing horses and breaking game laws. Kendall also called for the state militia, claiming there were four to six hundred Utes present—an impossibly high number. When the Utes moved back toward the reservation, the posse attacked. Fifteen Utes were killed or injured, and only the arrival of two Buffalo Soldier companies from the reservation prevented further violence. This one-sided conflict, which came to be laden with over-exaggerated baggage and self-aggrandizement, was known as Colorow’s War, and it demonstrated the Ute unwillingness to completely give up their land, and that local settlers were equally unwilling to allow them back into Colorado.
This trend continued through the next few decades. In 1890, residents of Routt County in northern Colorado complained to Governor Job Cooper that “a large number of White River Utes” were in the county killing livestock. The governor responded with a letter to Secretary of the Interior John Noble, asking for assistance in keeping the Utes out of Colorado.
A similar incident occurred in 1899, this time with a newspaper reporting “200 Ute Indians from the Utah reservation are slaughtering game in Colorado.” While they clearly had not improved in their ability to estimate Ute numbers since 1887, game wardens attempted to force the Utes back to Utah. These Utes, the Silverite Plaindealer reported, “refuse(d) to be dictated by the wardens.” This was the typical pattern: local law enforcement lacked the resources and personnel to deal with the Utes alone, and by the time state authorities in Denver received word of an incursion, the Utes were back in Utah.
In 1901, the White River Utes invited Colorado Game Commissioner Harris to Utah to discuss their annual hunt. Harris declined, claiming a busy schedule, and even claimed the Utes were “trying to get him out of the state while they are coming in to make their usual hunt.” After all, what better time for an unauthorized hunt than when the warden is out of town? While it is unclear if the Utes were earnest or if they truly conspired to deceive Commissioner Harris, this interaction demonstrated how untrusting and unwilling to negotiate Colorado officials were to work with the original inhabitants of the land.
Over time, Colorado officials grew more resourceful and determined in their attempts to keep the Utes out. In 1904, the Colorado State Game and Fish Commissioner J. M. Woodard reached out to Captain Hall, the temporary Uintah Agent. Woodard hoped to coordinate their efforts to keep the Utes on the reservation, as he admitted “that part of the country is so isolated and so far from civilization it is very difficult matter for me to keep posted on the movement of the Indians.” He believed that Captain Hall would have the biggest impact by helping the Utes understand that Colorado game laws prevented hunting without a license, saying “if the Indians understand that they are not to come to Colorado and hunt…I am satisfied that the matter will be properly handled.” To Woodard, the Utes simply needed to be educated on the proper laws and procedures, and they would give up their hunts.
While naïve, Woodard’s communication with Captain Hall showed his true motivation. Woodard did not claim that the Utes were slaughtering Colorado’s game, even as newspaper headlines blared their alarm over Ute hunting parties taking animals in Colorado. Instead, he feared Ute hunts would inspire white settlers in northwestern Colorado to copy the practice of hunting without a permit. If Colorado allowed the Utes to hunt whenever they wished, said Woodard, “there would be no use to say that the white men could not do the same; therefore our laws would be a farce and our game would very soon be exterminated.”
Woodard’s efforts were unsuccessful. The Utes continued their hunts, and Colorado officials continued their attempts to stop them. Colorado state officials reached out to anyone they could think of who might have the authority to force Ute people to do anything, and one commissioner even sent a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. But while Roosevelt did respond and promised to “communicate” with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, their efforts remained fruitless because they did not engage with the fundamental issues of hunger and loss of traditions and traditional lands that pushed Ute hunters back into Colorado.
In 1909, George Weir wound his way across northwest Colorado’s countryside. Like Sheriff Jessup five years later, Weir traveled to enforce the law. He prowled across the hills and valleys, no doubt hoping that he would find his lawbreakers before the snow fell. Weir found his quarry: a Ute hunting expedition camped on Douglas Creek, hoping for the snow to drive the deer down out of the high country for an easier hunt. It was here “in the heart of wild country,” that deputy game warden Weir confronted this party of Ute hunters. He ordered them to return home, but they outright refused. According to Weir, they told him if he valued his life, he would “get back to civilization.” Weir left. The hunting party Weir confronted was made up of young Utes. This was not Colorow’s generation, returning to the lands in which they had freely hunted for most of their lives. This was a hunting expedition nearly thirty years after the so-called “removal” of the Utes to reservations. These men continued the tradition, despite many, if not all, of them likely having been born in Utah.
However, communication had advanced significantly over the decades. In years past, the remoteness of northwestern Colorado allowed the Utes to hunt for longer and in larger numbers, as news of their arrival traveled slowly to state authorities on the other side of the mountains. By 1909, however, only a phone call separated the Game Commissioner and a local sheriff.
Things came to a head in June of 1915, when a group of fifty to seventy-five Utes entered Colorado. As with past expeditions, Coloradans noticed this party soon after it crossed the border. This time, however, Rio Blanco residents seemed accustomed to this tradition. Rather than complain of trespassers slaughtering game, they instead reported “no trouble and think that the Indians merely invaded the country to lay in a supply of deer and elk.” These were likely the same Utes described by The Craig Empire, which stated a party of Utes passed through town on their way to a fair in Hayden. The short piece had no alarm, only a comment that “They had a string of racehorses that looked like winners.” By this point, this group of Utes had camped in Colorado for over three months, and yet the locals of northwestern Colorado seemed quite ready to accept them, if only as a temporary curiosity. For what appears to be the first time, a Ute hunting trip into Western Colorado did not have the locals up in arms. How ironic it is, then, that this time the Utes made it clear they were here to stay.
The group camped at the confluence of Douglas Creek and the White River where they reclaimed their land. They held a Bear Dance, one of the most important rituals in Ute culture, and said they were willing to use the money held in trust by the government to pay for the land. They were not, however, willing to return to Utah, a place they claimed had “too many fences.” Instead, they wished to live traditional lives.
This was the culmination of over three decades of Ute resistance and struggle against unjust laws, and it was very near the site where the state militia and local posse had confronted Colorow and his followers in 1887. Conflict seemed inevitable.
Only, there was no battle. Nor was there any sale of land. Instead, the Utes returned to Utah when, over a year after their claim to the land, the Ute leader Captain Jenks died unexpectedly. When Game Warden Charles Hobbs and several deputies from Grand Junction arrived, they found that “peace pipes had been substituted for war paints and feathers.” The party found their leader’s death an ill omen and returned to the reservation after proper mourning. The hopes for a traditional lifestyle on traditional lands, it would seem, died with Captain Jenks.
The 1916 excursion was the last of note, though it is very likely that smaller hunting trips continued for a time. Contemporaneous newspapers, the bulk of the evidence up to this point, did not report further expeditions. There are several possible explanations for this, and they are not all mutually exclusive.
One compelling reason is the erosion of the Ute land and lifestyle in general. The US government sold Ute land without their consent in 1904, depriving the White River Utes alone of over 100,000 acres. The Uintah/Ouray Reservation, together with the Southern Ute Reservation, shrank by ninety percent. Utah advertised this land as far more richly abundant than it truly was, and government agents received requests for information on the land from as far abroad as Oregon, Sonora Mexico, and West Virginia.
Sanitation and healthcare was poor, disease was rampant, and sources suggest that death from tuberculosis was seventeen percent times the national average in some areas of the reservation. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 only made things worse. The decline in population caused by disease contributed strongly to the erosion of the traditional Ute way of life.
On top of all of this, in 1920 construction began on a highway connecting Rangely to the city of Grand Junction. This road bisected the traditional lands of the White River Utes and likely discouraged hunting trips.
But despite the gradual end of traditional hunting, it seems obvious that Ute history in Colorado did not end in 1881. Viewing removal as a lengthy process rather than a sudden break highlights the deep attachments Utes held—and still hold—to the place that is today Colorado. It requires us to recognize their continued presence in the state in the twenty-first century and to recognize the legitimacy of their historical claim of the land and culture of Colorado. When Jessup saw Utes in the hills in 1922, it was not an isolated incident. It was the continuation of a longstanding tradition in which the Ute consciously chose to resist reservation life and live as they had for centuries. Today, they endure both as a people and as a part of Colorado.