When battle broke out between the Northern Utes and whites at Meeker, Company D of the Ninth Cavalry was on patrol in North Park. They were camped at Hot Sulphur Springs about 150 miles from the White River Agency. At this time Company D commander Capt. Dodge had forty-four men in his command. It is customary that we think of a company as containing 100 men. In truth, many frontier outfits survived at about one-half strength.
Getting restless, Dodge led his men across the Gore Mountain Range to Steamboat Springs and later to the Yampa River crossing of the reservation road.. Here a mail contractor told him that things were fairly peaceful at the agency. He returned to North Park.
Meanwhile, Maj. Thomas T. Thornburg was ordered from Fort Steele, 15 miles east of Rawlings, Wyo., to take his outfit to the Meeker Agency to see what was going on. Thornburg commanded an infantry company, three cavalry units, and a supply train of eight units.
Immediately after crossing Milk Creek, about thirty miles north of the Meeker Agency, Thornburg’s command was surprised and pinned down by Ute rifle fire. The Utes waited until the troops had moved past the creek and were unable to go to the creek for water. The soldiers defended themselves by lying on the ground and firing from behind a ring of dead horses and mules.
A homesteader named Jim Dunn guessed at the route Dodge would take getting back to North Park and left a written message along the trail tied to a tall sagebrush bush. The advance guard of Dodge’s command found the message two days later. It read,’“Thornburg killed. His men in peril. Rush to their assistance.”
Abandoning their supply wagons, Dodge’s outfit rode double-time to relieve Thornburg’s imperiled troops. As his Buffalo soldiers neared the battle site, rifles ready, Dodge caused the bugle to be sounded. Hoping for relief when they heard the trumpet, what was left of Thornburg’s command held their fire while the black troops entered the circle of carnage surrounded by dead, prostrate horses. The black soldiers fed and watered the white troops and cared for their wounds as best they could.
At daybreak, Dodge suggested a charge against the sharp shooting Indians hidden in the ring of hills surrounding the beleaguered encampment and firing from above. Others convinced him such an attack would be suicide. By the second day after Dodge’s arrival, virtually all of the horses and mules were dead, 148 animals.
Scout Joe Rankin rode from the Milk Creek entrapment nonstop for twenty-seven hours, covering the one hundred fifty miles to Camp Rawlins, Wyoming, and help. A large force commanded by General Wesley Merritt set out for the White River Agency., They found the trapped Army units, including Company D, in terrible condition. They had been confined to their trenches for six days. Twenty-seven men had been killed, counting soldiers, teamsters, and Agency employees. All of the white women had been taken captive. Among these were Agent Meeker’s wife, daughter, and another white woman. Meeker, of course, had been killed at the outset of hostilities, a wooden stake driven through his heart and into the ground.
Across the State of Colorado, settlers scattered in remote locations moved together into the larger communities for safety. Everyone feared a general Ute uprising across the state. Many Pagosa pioneers congregated in town.
Anger and fear raged across the white population of Colorado and the nation. The white women were released, but the national press ballooned their capture into a towering national outrage. No more could Utes treat with whites from a position of strength. Troops poured into Pagosa Springs and Animas City and camped around the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio. White indignation did not subside until, in 1880, White River, Yampa, and Uncompahgre Utes were moved onto a reservation in the Uinta Mountains of Utah.