(Editor’s note: This is the second in a four part series on the Native Americans who inhabited Western Colorado).
By John Hoffmann
Special to The Sopris Sun
The year is 1879 and Indian agent Nathan Meeker, a renowned national authority on agriculture, is becoming frustrated by the slowing progress of the civilizing of the Indians. The volunteer Ute plowmen and ditch diggers that Chief Douglas (Quinkent) had organized were not showing up, so Meeker requested a budget from Gov. Pitkin to hire white people to plow up the winter range of the Nünt’z at a faster rate. Gov. Pitkin had campaigned with the slogan “the Ute’s must go!” and the money to hire white workers came quickly.
Meeker had given a few of the chiefs land parcels on a surveyed grid for a town he had laid out on their winter range. This was to entice them to cooperate and now he was plowing that up in an effort to consolidate the fencing necessary to keep Indian horses out of the irrigated fields. Meeker even plowed up the racetrack where horses raced during the great Bear Dance gathering in the spring.
Resentment built among the people and as it glowed hotter, Meeker used threats of the U.S. Army sending bad people to prison to live in chains without the sun. This fanned more resentment and fear now grew among the last of the free Nütpartka. Many people were camped there that fall because this was the season that the presents Washington promised usually arrived at the Whitewater Agency, just west of the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon on the Smoking Earth River (aka White River) near the present day town of Meeker.
One day, agent Meeker sent a man to plow the field of Cana’vish, the “m’sut t’quigat” or “healer” for the people. Cana’vish went to Meeker to ask why his field was being plowed. He told Meeker that he did not want his field plowed, reminding Meeker that he had given it to him. As they talked, the people, waiting for the late presents, gathered around to listen. Cana’vish pressed his point resolutely that he did not wish his field plowed; Meeker retorted that the Indian Council two days before had agreed that he and Washington could plow anything he wanted. Meeker was backing up to get space between the people until he backed into a log on the ground and fell over. He heard a chorus of laughter from the people, tuned by hardship to love a joke. The next day the plowman felt a shot fired past him from 200 feet away. He packed and left the following day.
Meeker had been humiliated. Now fearful, he wrote the governor on Sept. 10 1879 about the “assaults,” asking for soldiers to be sent. The request, bolstered by Gov. Pitkin and the speed of the telegraph, flew up the chain of command to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior due to the importance of the lands involved to coal mining interests. On Sept. 29 a detachment of 190 soldiers led by Major Thornburgh pressed out of Rawlins, Wyoming to enter Indian Land to the south.
The Utes had never had soldiers on their land, but Nicaagat could speak to soldiers. He was raised from infancy by Mormons until he left them in anger as a 13-year-old to join the Smoking Earth River Band of Yampartka many years before. Nicaagat knew what had happened to the Cheyenne and Sioux when he acted as a guide for the Army on those campaigns. Nicaagat was inspired by the thought of peace and rode out and tell the soldiers not to cross the Milk River onto their land; young men, hot and roused, decided to follow.
(Next installment: A shot is fired, battle begins).