Pagosa’s Past: Chief Ouray: chief spokesman for the Utes

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Wolf Creek Pass was opened for public use in 1916. This photo shows the work crew and kegs of dynamite at the foot of the pass.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

I have been writing about the history of the Southern Utes, our Native American neighbors to the west of Pagosa Springs. I’ve described a number of plans the U.S. government tested to find a way for pioneers and the various Indian tribes of the West to live peaceably side by side.

During the time we’re writing about, the late 1800s, the Custer and Meeker massacres had already resulted in stacks of dead bodies, white and Indian, strewn across western landscapes.

Finally, the government came out with a plan calling for Native Americans to take “Land In Severalty.” Severalty meant that instead of tribes owning land as a tribe, they owned land as individuals. For years, the government had been trying to convince the various tribes to become farmers. The idea was to teach them to support themselves. That would allow a little squeeze room so that maybe various treaty promises to feed the Indians could be ignored.

The Native American response to farming was best expressed by a tribal chief in Meeker who used the worst part of his Anglo vocabulary to describe the potato he stared at in his hand.

Throughout the first years of Pagosa Country settlement, white agitation to move the Utes to Utah or almost anywhere else persisted. The Utes liked living where they had lived for untold centuries. Ute hunting parties on the upper Piedra, San Juan and Navajo rivers alarmed the settlers living there. Soon after the Meeker Massacre, Ute faces peered down on the town from the surrounding hills. White guns were loaded and ready.

At the same time, teepees sprang up around the town of Pagosa Springs as Utes, Jicarilla Apaches and Navajos joined in Fourth of July celebrations. Cowboys and Indians won or lost money in the popular races to see who had the fastest horses. Drums throbbed through the night, fueling the chants of buckskin-clad dancers circling the hot springs.

The names of Ute leaders were household words. Ouray was the most famous. Ouray grew up near Taos, N.M. His father was Jicarilla Apache. He spoke Spanish, English, Ute and Jicarilla. He was later adopted by the Tabaguache band of Utes. Largely because of his language proficiency, he became chief spokesman for the Utes in their negotiations with the whites. He recognized that his people were vastly outnumbered by the whites and in the end would lose everything unless they could avoid open warfare. 

Ouray died in Ignacio in 1880 while negotiations were being conducted following the Meeker Massacre. The location of his grave was kept a secret until May of 1925, when the remains were moved to the Ignacio cemetery. It lies half in the Catholic and half in the Protestant portion of the agency cemetery. Ouray’s wife, Chipeta, was famous in her own right.