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A costly Colorado confrontation

Last week we described how, in 1879, Northern Utes pinned down a sizable military unit commanded by Major Thornburgh just north of Mill Creek; about 30 miles north of Meeker, Col. Thornburgh had been killed in the initial ambush. When Company D of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment rode to the rescue, they were soon pinned down. Company D, consisting of black soldiers known by the Indians as Buffalo Soldiers, soon found themselves in the same life-threatening situation as the remains of Thornburgh’s command.

A scout from Thornburgh’s force named Joe Rankin rode non-stop to Rawlins, Wyoming, covering the 150 miles in 27 hours. A large force under General Wesley Merritt from Rawlkins finally relieved the soldiers pinned down near Milk Creek, who had been confined to their trenches for six days, had lost at least 148 horses, and at least 25 men dead.

One of the black soldiers under Capt. Dodge later was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in getting water from Mill Creek while under heavy Indian fire.

When the Utes learned of Merritt’s approach with a large number of troops, they silently disappeared into the wilderness.

Merritt’s troops continued on to the Reservation headquarters at Meeker, where they found all of the men, including Agent Meeker dead, and all of the women missing. After some debate on what to do and how to obtain release of the women, it was decided to obtain the services of Ouray, a leader of the Tabaguache Utes, a band of Utes who originally called the area around Montrose home. As we have reported earlier, Ouray was one-half Tabaguache Ute and one-half Jicarilla Apache. His wife’s name was Chipeta.

Ouray obtained the release of all of the white women, but when the negotiations ended the Northern Utes were removed from Colorado and placed on a reservation in northeastern Utah. Probably because of Ouray’s role in saving the white women and perhaps preventing the Southern Utes from joining the Northern Utes in the warfare, the Southern Ute reservations in southwestern Colorado and near Montrose were preserved.

The so-called Meeker Massacre, also called the Milk Creek Massacre, was probably the costliest white-Indian confrontation in Colorado when measured by the number of lives lost.

It also may be true that Ouray’s interest in preventing further bloodshed was heightened by the fact that more than 1,000 white troops soon moved into Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs and the Animas City area on what is now the northern part of Durango.

No major military battles between whites and Utes were fought in Colorado following the 1879 Meeker conflagration.

There were quite a number of minor conflicts in the badlands of southwest Utah involving small bands of Utes, mostly from the Mountain Ute Reservation Weminuche Utes. The most intense of these conflicts resulted in a small group of these Utes being pursued into the La Sal Mountains of Utah where most of the Utes involved were killed. These kinds of uprisings in that area continued into the 1920s. Eventually, a small piece of land just across the Utah border from Cortez, Colorado, was recognized as their reservation. Most of that particular area is occupied by Navajos on their own reservation.