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The Bloody End Of Meeker’s Utopia

May 2024
18min read

Even when death struck suddenly, the starry-eyed Indian agent was still dreaming of turning his Ute wards into white men overnight.

On September 29, 1879, a small band of Ute Indians went wild on the Western Slope of Colorado and murdered their Indian agent and all his employees at the remote Ute Agency on White River. A few hours earlier, another small Ute band ambushed a relief force of soldiers at Milk Creek 25 miles away. All told, the White River Utes, who had never hurt anybody before, killed 30 white men and wounded 44 more.

The murdered agent, Nathan Meeker, did not resemble the average second-rater sent out by the Indian Office as a political favor. Meeker was a newspaper editor and a writer of wide repute, and his violent death in the romantic Rocky Mountain wilderness shocked and thrilled the whole nation. In addition, the White River massacre gave Coloradans the pretext they had sought for a decade to take from the Utes their vast hunting paradise of 12,000,000 acres.

The hideous climax of Meeker’s career derived from starry-eyed idealism, which he had cultivated all his life. He was born in 1817 on a breezy Ohio homestead overlooking Lake Erie. At seventeen he ran away from home to become a poet, starved a while as a young intellectual on MacDougal Street in New York and returned prosaically to Ohio to run a general store. He married a sea captain’s gray-eyed daughter, Arvilla Delight Smith, who bore him three daughters and two sons. She was a plain, pious girl, always a little embarrassed about her fecundity and apprehensive about her husband who theorized brilliantly but disliked manual labor and talked of Jesus Christ as though He were a fairly sound but not entirely respectable neighbor down the street.

Meeker was often broke and twice bankrupt during the first twenty nomadic years of their marriage. In Ohio, and later in Illinois, Arvilla and the children often tended his store while he dabbled in Fourier socialism, Phalangist economics, planned parenthood, Brook Farm Transcendentalism, a Buddhist sort of Christianity, and the practice of nibbling carrots for better vision at night.

His yearning to improve the world expressed itself at last in his first novel, The Adventures of Captain Armstrong, the hero of which was tall, handsome, cool-headed, plausible, and indestructibly hopeful like himself. The captain was shipwrecked on a Polynesian atoll and in jig time created among the naked savages a co-operative Utopia of modern industries and crafts. Meeker was a great admirer of Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune. He mailed his novel to Greeley, who found a publisher for it. Later, Greeley made Meeker his war correspondent to cover for the Tribune Grant’s Mississippi campaign. Then he brought him to New York to be his agricultural editor.

Meeker was a persuasive columnist and he became a national oracle on farm problems. But in 1869 his Utopian dreams crystallized in a plan for a co-operative farm colony near Denver in semi-arid Colorado Territory. Horace Greeley approved the plan and gave him free space in the Tribune to promote it. Members of this Union Colony (Meeker called his new town “Greeley”) had to be temperate, industrious, moral, and tolerant in their religious outlook.

The founder visited the Cache la Poudre region northeast of Denver and chose a flat, wind-swept tract which was to become the most successful co-operative venture in the Rockies. The tract, like the rest of the Great Plains, had no rainfall to speak of. Meeker’s colonists watered their new farms by an elaborate system of ditches which distributed the snow water flowing down from the mountains seventy miles away. Their irrigation methods were copied widely. Their success made it possible to grow crops and livestock in quantity on small acreages. Colorado villages began expanding into cities, the mining districts swarmed with new people, and homesteaders poured into Colorado Territory, enabling it to win statehood in 1876.

Meanwhile the fates conspired to destroy Meeker. He was not a good executor of his own theories (his first irrigation ditch at Greeley cost Union Colony $25,000 and watered less than 200 acres, including the basements of several business establishments). He frittered away his small capital on his Utopia and on his newspaper, the Greeley Tribune. He went deeply in debt to Horace Greeley, himself, before the great editor died in 1872. By degrees, his colonists watered down his idealistic aims and eased him out of power. As his frustrations accumulated, he grew brusque and opinionated. He denounced traveling theatricals and dancing and picking wildflowers. He blackballed from membership in the Greeley Farmers’ Club all those who opposed his views.

In 1877 the executors of Horace Greeley’s estate demanded the money which he owed to it. Desperately Meeker sought and failed to get a postmastership. He applied for but was not accepted for duty at the Paris Exposition. Then he heard that an Indian agent was needed at the White River Ute Agency in northwest Colorado. He had no special interest in Indians as yet, but the job paid $1,500 a year. To get it, he sought the aid of old newspaper friends back East and some influential Coloradans like Senator Teller. Because of their recommendations, Carl Schurz, secretary of the interior under President Hayes, assigned him to the White River Ute Agency.

The assignment transformed the harried Utopian. He was only 61, but the bitter disappointments at Greeley had given him a defeated look. He had grown thin and stooped, as though bent by the burden of his own despair. As hope returned, his imagination resumed its extravagant soaring. His blue eyes sparkled. His stoop vanished. His shoulders swung confidently when he walked, like the swinging, confident shoulders of his fictional superman, Captain Armstrong.

As he applied his idealism to the problems of the Utes, he began telling himself that maybe he wasn’t through yet. Maybe he could achieve Captain Armstrong’s Utopia after all. And perhaps, after he had taught the wonders of modern society to these simple White River savages, a grateful President Hayes might ask him to perform the same miracle for the Sioux and Apaches and all the other suffering red men!

Leaving the Greeley Tribune in the hands of a friend, Meeker set out for his new post early in May, 1878. Arvilla and his youngest daughter Josie were to follow him there in mid-summer. The other two girls agreed to run the family home as a boarding house. The new Indian agent was hardly aware of the explosive situation into which he stepped during his five-day trek to White River. The seeds of bitter conflict over possession of Colorado’s Western Slope had been a long time sprouting. The Colorado Utes, anciently of Aztec breeding, had endured centuries of misery as pariahs until the seventeenth century, when they became among the first, if not the very first, Indians to adopt the horse from Spanish colonists on the Rio Grande. This magical creature so inspired them as to completely change their tribal personality. They developed into superb horsemen and found themselves able to hold the Colorado highlands for their exclusive use. Thereafter their reverence was boundless for the divine beast which had raised them from the depths of human degradation to great happiness, prosperity, and dignity.

Eventually some 3,500 of these Utes divided into six loosely allied Colorado bands, led by an extraordinary man named Chief Ouray. He was 45 in 1878 and had a mind as spacious as his mountains. He had risen to power in 1863 and had set his political policy then. The Utes, he decreed, must live in peace with white men. They must modify their wasteful hunting economy, sell off bits of land as required by events, and learn to prosper on the reduced acreage as white men prospered.

Ouray’s masterpiece was the Treaty of 1868 by which the U.S. Senate gave his six bands most of Colorado’s Western Slope forever (4,500 acres for each Ute man, woman, and child). In 1873 he had to release the 4,000,000-acre San Juan silver region but the Utes had a 12,000,000-acre reservation left. They were still the richest Indian landed gentry in the nation. And they were the pets of the whites, befriending settlers and doing a big buckskin business with traders.

But Ouray played a losing game. By 1878 the tenfold increase in the state’s white population had created a huge demand for more land. Politically, the demand was expressed in an outcry for the removal of the Colorado Utes and the liquidation of their vast Western Slope estate. Senator Teller and the land grabbers around him dreamed of herding them off to army-guarded desert camps. But the Teller crowd had to move with caution because of the good reputation of Ouray’s people. Their strategy was to try to destroy this reputation by accusing the Utes falsely of all kinds of outrage, arson, theft, and murder.

The Utes were deeply disturbed by the charges, the resentment being highest among the two White River bands under the aging Chief Douglas and Chief Jack. This Jack was a young, forceful leader and he reacted to the white campaign of slander by urging an end to Ouray’s peace policy. He wanted the Utes to fight for their homeland, though Ouray warned him that he was playing into Senator Teller’s hands. Ouray added that if the Utes went on the warpath, they would abrogate their treaty rights and lose all they possessed.

Chief Jack was not convinced. The government, he said, had always mistaken Ouray’s peace policy for weakness and was preparing to dispossess the Utes anyway. He stressed that Interior Secretary Schurz, had just dismissed the White River agent who had protected their rights for years. Schurz had replaced this good agent with a Teller appointee named Nathan Meeker. In Jack’s opinion, such an appointee could have but two aims: to steal Ute land and destroy the Ute way of life.

On May 10, 1878, the new agent arrived blithesomely at the cluster of tumble-down log buildings in White River valley at the utter end of the 185-mile road south from Rawlins, Wyoming. The bleak agency setting did not resemble Captain Armstrong’s charming atoll in the South Seas, but Meeker did not care. He was abloom with love for and faith in his Utes and had high hopes of easing their presumed misery. He was not worried about the hostility which greeted him at first. He placated many Indians soon by his success in obtaining better rations and distributing annuities on time. They were pleased too with his agency staff--eight good-natured young men hand-picked by Meeker from the best families in Greeley.

The agent outlined his Utopian dream to the principal chiefs, Douglas and Jack, and to the head medicine man, Johnson, a distinguished horseman who was also Ouray’s brother-in-law. Meeker explained how he would teach them modern farming and irrigation so that they could all be rich, live in houses, ride in carriages, use privies, sleep in beds, wear underwear, and send their children to the agency school. He described plans for associated industries to raise their living standard still higher—saw mills, orchards, wool plants, coal mines, and a railroad to Rawlins.

He observed that Douglas and Johnson were mildly intrigued by his dream. But Jack had an irritating way of asking loaded questions. He asked whether or not white men would allow Utes to compete in business with them. He wanted to know if the high living standard of the whites was worth all the work and worry they had to put into it. He asked if white men enjoyed working as much as the Utes enjoyed their lordly leisure of hunting and fishing and riding their ponies about their Colorado estate.

That fall agent Meeker discovered a perfect site for his model Ute farm at Powell Park a dozen miles down White River. He was sure of its value because the Utes pastured thousands of ponies on it in winter. To Meeker’s surprise, Douglas objected heatedly to moving the agency there.

Meeker thought it over and concluded that this pony business did indeed present an obstacle to his whole bright plan for Ute salvation. The Utes, he perceived, were obsessed with these confounded ponies. They could never achieve the happiness which he held out to them as long as they had so many ponies to care for. It was a ticklish matter. And yet he was sure that Captain Armstrong had more than enough persuasive power to make the Indians see that the ponies were millstones around their necks.

And, sure enough, in the ensuing winter months, Douglas and Johnson let him have his way. The agency buildings were moved downstream to the richest part of Powell Park. Neat streets were laid out, ditches were dug, and forty acres of pony pasture were plowed, fenced, and planted to wheat. The young employees from Greeley built a nice house for Johnson and put cook stoves in the tepees of four families. Meeker’s gentle daughter Josie induced three children to attend her agency school.

But serious trouble from outside the reservation came in the spring of 1879, and Meeker watched with mounting anguish as his dream faded. Colorado’s new governor, Frederick W. Pitkin, had been elected on a Utes-Must-Go platform which he was trying hard to implement. The Denver papers were full of incendiary anti-Ute propaganda. Senator Teller forced Chief Ouray’s Uncompahgre band to sell 10,000 acres of prime farm land for $10,000—and failed to produce the promised money. It was a terribly dry spring. By mid-June the state’s forests burned in hundreds of places, and the Teller crowd charged that the Utes had deliberately set all the fires.

At White River Agency the Indians took out their anger at all this unfairness toward them by ceasing to co-operate with Meeker further. And, as his dream collapsed, the agent’s optimism faltered. His all-embracing love for his charges turned rapidly to hate. He spent much time alone nursing grudges against Douglas, against Johnson, against the ponies, even against his agency staff and his daughter Josie, who sided often with the Indians.

A particular irritation to him was the attitude of Arvilla Meeker’s Ute housemaid, Jane. To say that this tall, pretty, bilingual girl of 22 disturbed Meeker is to understate probabilities. He had done everything he could to please her, including weeding her garden for six weeks in 1878 while she was off hunting. When she had returned, she had rewarded him with a sort of smile and nine beets out of a total crop of thirty bushels. In that tense spring of 1879, Meeker decided to coddle Jane no longer. He summoned her to his office one morning and began the conversation in a gentle kindly vein:

MEEKER : Now Jane, you will be planting your garden soon. I just want to warn you that last summer’s style of gardening is played out.

JANE : Played out? How so?

MEEKER : Well, I’ll tell you. After the things are planted, it will not do for you to run off and leave me to plow, hoe and pull weeds. You or some of your family must stay here all three moons and work your crops, for no one will touch them, and in that case you will have nothing. Or they will be given to some other Indian to work and he will have all.

JANE : You say we must stay three moons? What for? Hoeing the things once is enough.

MEEKER : You must hoe them three or four times, and must keep watch of them and you need not undertake to tell me how the work is to be done.

JANE : But we never done so before and we had heaps.

MEEKER (warming up): But I tell you the thing is played out. If you get anything you must work for it.

JANE : Why can’t white men do the work as before? They understand it. We don’t.

MEEKER : It won’t do. Now I worked your garden last year. I carried hundreds of pails of water to it. You had a nice garden and got lots of money. But this year we have a big ditch and plenty of water. You must attend to things yourself.

JANE (sweetly): But, Mr. Meeker, ain’t you paid for working?

MEEKER : No. Not to work for you.

JANE : Well, what are you paid money for if not to work for us?

MEEKER (momentarily stumped): Yes, I see how it is. … I’ll put it this way. I am paid to show you how to work.

JANE : But the Utes have a heap of money. What is the money for if it is not to have work done for us?

MEEKER (coming to a boil): I’ll tell you, Jane. This money is to hire me and the rest of us to teach you to help yourselves so that you can be like white folks and get rich as they are rich—by work. You are not to be waited upon and supported in idleness all your lives. You have got to take hold and support yourselves or you will have trouble.

JANE (black eyes wide): Ain’t all these cattle ours, and all this land?

MEEKER : The cattle, yes. The land, no.

JANE : Well, whose land is it, and whose is the money?

MEEKER (almost yelling): The land belongs to the government and is for your use, if you use it. If you won’t use it and won’t work, and if you expect me to weed your garden for you, white men away off will come in and by and by you will have nothing. This thing can’t go on forever. As to money, it is to be used to make you helpful. It is time you turn to and take care of yourselves and have houses and stoves and chairs and beds and crockery and heaps of things. Do you understand?

JANE (very quiet): Yes. But I can’t tell you, Mr. Meeker, how bad you make me feel.

She left the office and Meeker watched her straight proud form as she walked across the office porch, past his hitching rack and down the street which ended at Douglas’ lodge on White River. She walked stiffly and rapidly, keeping her handsome head straight ahead.

We may guess that the agent was aware that he had said too much. He had asserted not only that the Utes didn’t own White River valley, but that they couldn’t even stay there if they didn’t do what Meeker ordered them to do. And to make matters still worse, Meeker sat down now and wrote out the entire conversation verbatim for publication in the next issue of the Greeley Tribune .

Tension at the agency became so unbearable by early September that Meeker feared for the safety of Arvilla and Josie Meeker. But he would not call for troops from Fort Steele in Wyoming 200 miles away. The agent knew that to ask for soldiers would be to accept final defeat.

On the morning of September 8 he mailed a list of complaints to the Indian Office. Also, he called in the medicine man Johnson and accused him of stealing water for his ponies from Josie’s school water barrel. Ponies! Always the ponies! Meeker was becoming psychopathic about them. Johnson denied stealing any water and left Meeker’s office muttering. After lunch he returned and stood before the agent talking fast and loud. Meeker leaned easily back in his office chair, his pale blue eyes cold and a set smile on his weary face. He did not catch all that Johnson said, but it seemed to concern the plowing up of pony pasture and his suspicion that the agent was sending lies about the Utes to Washington.

Suddenly Meeker decided that he had heard enough. He raised an imperious hand and said, very deliberately, “The trouble is this, Johnson. You have too many ponies. You had better shoot some of them.”

Johnson stared at the agent for a long moment, utterly dumfounded. Then his brown eyes blazed with the fire of a reasonable man who had just heard the consummation of blasphemy. He moved slowly toward Meeker, grasped his shoulders, lifted his long spare body from the chair and hustled him across the office and on to the porch. There, two employees ran up and grabbed Johnson as he flung Meeker hard against the hitching rack.

That was all. Johnson did not touch Meeker again. The agent tottered back to his chair, felt himself over and found that he was not badly hurt. Next day, he penned a telegraphic request to Washington for troops, stating that his life and those of his employees were in danger. As his courier rode north toward the Western Union office in Rawlins, Meeker must have known that his life’s dream went with him.

In Washington the Indian Office passed Meeker’s wire on to General Sherman who ordered a force of 153 soldiers and 25 civilians under Major Thomas T. Thornburgh to go to White River from Rawlins. Presumably the Major did not care for the task. As an army officer he detested the Indian Office and all its works. The Ute Agency was not even in his military department. He had no decent maps, no proper guides. He had had fighting experience only with Plains Indians. He knew nothing about these Utes, with whom he tended to sympathize.

The Major took his time. On Monday morning, September 29, his force reached the Ute Reservation line at Milk Creek, 25 miles north of White River. Thornburgh had exchanged messages earlier with Meeker and had agreed to ride alone over Yellowjacket Pass to the agency for talks with Douglas and Jack, leaving his soldiers outside the reservation. But he found that Milk Creek was almost dry because of the record drought. He had to have fresh water for his men and for his 400 animals. Therefore he ordered his force to move some miles into the reservation to a spot where water was available.

From the sage ridges above Milk Creek valley, Chief Jack and his band watched this unexpected movement with enraged astonishment. Suddenly the soldiers spied the Indians. Someone fired a gun. Then everyone was firing. Men began falling to earth. After some minutes Jack’s courier leaped on his pony and galloped southward to bring the awful news to Douglas’ band at the agency. Before noon Major Thornburgh, eleven of his troopers, and many Utes lay dead. Forty-odd white men were wounded. Nearly 300 army horses and mules were out of action. Without the use of these animals, the army survivors were completely trapped. They forted up behind their wagons and dead horses and barely managed to hold Jack’s warriors off until relief troops arrived from Rawlins six days later.

On that same fateful Monday morning, everything seemed peaceful at White River Agency. The tension of recent weeks was as bad as ever, but the boys from Greeley and Douglas’ men and the white women did their best to ignore it. Several young Utes loitered about begging biscuits at the big agency kitchen which Josie Meeker ran for the nine employees. She was helped by Flora Ellen Price, the plump, blond, teenaged wife of Meeker’s plowman. The agent, preoccupied and wan, spent all morning describing his difficulties in his September report. Soon after lunch he appeared at Josie’s kitchen window to get from her the key to the government gun closet. He walked with a stoop again as in his unhappiest Greeley days. There was a grim smile on his strained face. And still he retained enough of his old spirit to ask Josie if she knew what day September 29 was. When she shook her head, he said jauntily: “On this day in 1066, William the Conqueror landed in England!”

At 1:30 P.M. Josie, Arvilla, and Flora Ellen were still in the kitchen, washing and wiping the dinner dishes in the Indian summer heat. A small Ute boy stopped to borrow matches, announcing proudly, “Now I go smoke.” Flora Ellen stepped outside to fetch her two small children. She saw some Greeley boys spreading dirt on the roof of a new building. Beyond them, on the street down to White River, she saw Douglas and a dozen of his men. Then she saw an Indian on a sweat-flecked pony galloping up to Douglas from the direction of Milk Creek.

The Indian said something to the old chief and immediately after that, Flora Ellen saw doom come. It came without signal, like the spontaneous firing at Milk Creek. Some of Douglas’ men simply raised their Winchesters and began shooting at their white friends, the unarmed Greeley boys. Flora Ellen watched one boy fall from the new roof. She watched another as he begged the Utes not to shoot him. She saw her husband collapse holding his stomach. She snatched her crying children, joined the other women, and went with them and Frank Dresser, a Greeley boy, to the adobe milk house while the Indians fired some of the log buildings.

The three women, two children, and Dresser sat in the milk house for four hours, too stunned, too helpless, too hopeless to entirely comprehend the horror which was upon them. Arvilla Meeker picked at her faded calico dress, wept and stopped weeping, and prayed for her husband’s safety. Josie was mixed sorrow and gentle compassion for the Utes, whom she had learned to understand. Flora Ellen was pure terror, dying the deaths of all the Indian-ravished heroines she had met in fiction.

At last they left the milk house in the cooling twilight and ran back to Meeker’s unburned house. In the agent’s office, peaceful as a church, Josie stood a moment, a tall, slender, white-faced girl of 22, her lips parted in anguished query. She was staring at Pepys’ Diary lying open on her father’s desk where he had left it, apparently, just before stepping outside to investigate the firing. Through the window she saw Utes looting the agency storehouse. She said to the others, “Let’s try to escape north while they are busy.

They went through the gate into Meeker’s wheat field. Frank Dresser ran like a deer and disappeared in the sage, but later was wounded and died before he could reach help. The Utes saw the three women and the children and came for them. Arvilla fell when a bullet grazed her thigh and lay still on the ground. A young Ute named Thompson reached her and helped her to rise. “I am sorry,” he said. “I am heap much sorry. Can you walk?”

Arvilla whispered, “Yes, sir.”

The young Ute offered her his arm politely and led her toward White River. Near the agent’s house, he asked if she had money inside.

“Very little.”

“Please go and get money.”

She limped into the quiet house calling “Papa! Papa!” and somehow found twenty-six dollars in bills and four dollars in silver. Then Thompson helped her to walk to Douglas near his tepee and she gave him the money. Near him was Josie on a pile of blankets holding little May Price on her lap. Further away were Flora Ellen and her son.

Arvilla limped from Ute captor to captor. Where, she asked, was the agent? The Utes shrugged. As night came on she watched the great full moon yellowing in the east. She began to shiver and she spoke to Douglas about the thin dresses she and the girls were wearing. Douglas told Thompson to take her back with a horse and lantern to get some things.

Meeker’s house was burning at one end. Entering, Arvilla called, “Nathan!” but low and sorrowfully now, almost to herself. Then she loaded Thompson with warm clothes, towels, blankets, and a medicine box. She donned her hat and shawl, put a handkerchief and a needle packet in her pocket, and limped out hugging her big volume of Pilgrim’s Progress.

A hundred yards south of the house she came suddenly on a man’s dead body, startlingly white in the moonlight, and clad only in a shirt. It was Meeker. He had been shot in the side of his handsome head and a little blood trickled still from his mouth. But he lay entirely composed, straight as he had stood in life, his arms tranquil beside him as though he were about to tell Arvilla what had happened to William the Conqueror on September 29, 1066.

She cried softly and knelt to kiss him. But she did not actually kiss him. Young Thompson was beside her and she realized that he would not understand the gesture. Then she stood up and left the body, hoping that Nathan Meeker’s Utopia would be easier for him to come by in the land where he was now.

The massacre of Meeker and his eight young men by Douglas’ band, the “ambush” of Thornburgh’s soldiers by Jack’s band, and the holding of the three white women as hostages for 23 days by both bands caused as much consternation as the Custer massacre in 1876. Millions of people were especially upset when the women testified after their rescue that Josie’s person had been outraged repeatedly during their captivity, that Flora Ellen had been forced twice to submit, and that even old Douglas had insisted on “having connection” with Mrs. Meeker once.

The punishment of the alleged guilty was all the landgrabbers could have asked. The two White River bands were branded as criminals en masse by a political commission without any judicial powers whatever. Though only twenty White River Utes had staged the massacre, all 700 were penalized in that money owed to them by the government was paid instead to relatives of victims. Chief Ouray’s Uncompahgre Utes, who had had nothing to do with the massacre or the “ambush,” were held equally responsible. The 1868 treaty rights of all three bands were canceled. Their rights to be Americans as set forth in the Fourteenth Amendment were ignored. Title to their ancient Colorado homeland was extinguished and they were moved at gun point to barren lands in Utah. By these means the last and largest chunk of desirable Indian real estate was thrown open to white settlement.

And still, the year 1879 marked a happier turning point. It was the beginning of the end of indefensible white attitudes toward red men. Interior Secretary Carl Schurz was only one of many people who probed beneath the surface causes of the White River tragedy and then had the courage to say, and to keep on saying, that it would not have happened if the Utes had lived under the same laws as other Americans.

This novel notion took root and the roots spread far and wide. Before another decade passed, white men generally were agreeing that perhaps Indians were human beings too. Though the living Nathan Meeker failed to build his Utopia, in dying he made a contribution of far more value to his country than persuading an outdoor people to sleep in beds.

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