The Meeker Massacre

The Meeker Massacre

In March 1878, Nathan Meeker was appointed as Indian Agent of the White River Ute Reservation in Colorado. A follower of Charles Fourier, Meeker was a strong advocate of cooperative farming. In 1870 he helped form an agricultural colony in Colorado and it was hoped that Meeker would be able to pass on his knowledge on farming to the Utes.

Meeker upset the Utes by trying to force them to become farmers. In September, 1879, Meeker called in the army to deal with the troublemakers. On 29th September, 1879, Chief Douglas and a group of warriors killed Meeker and seven other members of the agency. This became known as the Meeker Massacre. The Utes also attacked Major Thomas Thornburgh and his troops heading for the White River Agency. In the fighting Thornburgh and nine of his men were killed. After the arrival of reinforcements the Utes were evicted from Colorado and placed on a reservation in Utah.

In the 1870’s during the economic depression following the Civil War, white miners and settlers in covered wagons, on horseback, and on foot, encouraged by the Homestead Act, and drawn by news of mineral wealth, again followed the long trails to gold in the Colorado mountains. By now the Union Pacific Railroad was completed and others were penetrating the Front Range of Colorado.
Miners rushed west over the high passes where they created other legendary mining towns in the areas of Summit County, Leadville and Silverton. These mining successes heavily penetrated Ute territory. The Ute Indians, who considered the whole of Colorado their home for generations, resented their diminishing hunting ground and the white men resented and distrusted the Indian.

Colorado Statehood came in 1876. Newspapers of the day demanded the removal of Utes off of land that could be mined, farmed or ranched. The attitude of many Coloradans, at the time, was, “The only good Ute was a dead Ute”.

Into this mix of tensions was injected Nathan C. Meeker who sought and was appointed Indian Agent at the White River Indian Reserve in 1878. His actions were to precipitate a cultural and military explosion.

On September 29, 1879 an unfortunate meeting between soldiers and the Utes at the crest of a ridge just after they crossed Milk Creek into the reservation was sparked into a battle by a single gun shot; by which group is unknown. Major Thornburg was killed while the soldiers were fighting their way back to the circling mule wagons near Milk River (Creek). Trenches were hurriedly dug and the soldiers were then pinned down. The Indians were killing horses to keep the soldiers from getting away and the soldiers were piling those dead horses between themselves and the bullets. Theirs was a harrowing tale for the men and for the help who arrived in the form of Captain Dodge and his few buffalo soldiers, days later.

In September 1879, word reached the infant settlement of Red Cliff that the Utes were on the "warpath".  A rumor made the rounds that a band of Indians had been seen coming up the Eagle. Supposedly, Jack Shedden arrived from the valley below with word that a French rancher had been killed by Utes and his ranch sacked and burned.  Hurriedly, the men of the town constructed a small fort of stone high on the projection of quartzite near the junction of Turkey Creek and the Eagle River. 

The fort was named Fort Arnett, after a Mr. Arnett.  In 1870, he had struck out across the range and made camp on the present site of Red Cliff.  He located the town site in the interest of a company, but the company never "put up" and he was obliged to abandon the property to the settlers.  He was here during the Indian scare of 1879 and helped to construct the fort.  The residents stayed near the fort on alert for several days.  When no Utes appeared, life returned to normal.