Meeker History

In 1868, Major John Wesley Powell, his wife, and about 20 others came to the valley and established winter quarters in this wide-open space, now called Powell Park. The first Indian Agency was established here a year later, nine miles east of the present town.

Nathan Meeker arrived as the Indian agent in 1878, determined to convert the resident Ute Indians from “primitive savages” to hard-working, God-fearing farmers (see story below). When Meeker plowed up the Indian’s racetrack, it was the final insult. The Indians attacked in what has become the last major Indian uprising in the United States. Meeker and the 10 men employed by the agency were killed, the agency burned to the ground and the women and children captured and held hostage for 24 days.

The Army arrived quickly and established the Camp on the White River, banishing the Indians to a reservation in eastern Utah. The army moved out in 1883, selling all the buildings to those settlers eager to take the land and build a town named after the slain Indian Agent. Four of these buildings still stand on their original locations.

The first Fourth of July celebration was held in 1884, and Meeker was incorporated a year later. For the next twenty years, Meeker was the only incorporated town in northwestern Colorado.

The Last Major Indian Uprising

A different, but authentic version of one of the Last Major Uprisings of the West – taken from the past publications of the Range Call, an informative booklet advertising the annual Range Call Rodeo at Meeker, Colorado. Reprinted from Volume III of This Is What I Remember, with permission from the Rio Blanco County Historical Society.

“While other sections of our country had more important and better known historical episodes, Rio Blanco County has had a full history as interesting and colorful as any to be found in America. This was the Ute war of 1887.

This episode in local history, while significant as being the last major conflict with the Ute Indians, was unique in its musical comedy characteristics. Occurring just three years before the start of that period which we term the gay nineties when America was permeated with the spirit of romanticism it was inevitable that our last Indian war should have all the gay trappings of a comic opera, however, with tragic implications.

Plaque commemorating the Ute Indian participation in the Meeker conflictOf the chief participants of the Ute War of 1879, only Chipeta and Colorow were alive. Ouray, the great compromiser, had died before the exile. His widow, Chipeta, acclaimed all over America as a red heroine, had gone with her people to the Reservation. Ute Jack, the war chief during the Meeker Massacre, had been shot by a detachment of soldiers on the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming, but Colorow, his chief lieutenant, had gone to the Reservation and assumed the Indian leadership in the war of 1887. Unlike Ute Jack, however, Colorow knew that any fight with the whites would be a losing one, and as a result he counseled moderation and caution, but in spite of his efforts, hostilities broke out in August, 1887. When the trouble started, the Indians were in camp at the forks of the White River. Nearly all the bucks and squaws were out picking berries, and only a few old men and several women and children remained at the camp. Without provocation or warning, a posse of settlers invaded the camp. Two settlers, seized an Indian boy, Whishe-e-up. The boy’s father tried to stop them, but was shot for interfering.

The posse relinquished the boy and opened fire on the Indians, wounding three of them. The Indians immediately abandoned the camp, leaving their sheep and goats, and set out in a panic for the Reservation. In the meantime, Chipeta, with a number of other squaws, was camped on the Yellowjacket Pass near the white man, and famous throughout America for having saved the survivors of the Meeker Massacre, even she was subjected to insults and indignities from the posse of white men, whom, one suspects, had imbibed too freely of firewater. On the advice of a friendly white settler, Chipeta gathered up her companions and left her camp, together with 300 sheep and goats in the hands of the white men as she fled, the posse burned her teepees, and their random shots fired at the retreating women, killed an Indian boy, Whoosh-ant, by name. It speaks well for the bravery of the young boys who were with Chipeta, for they returned their fire, which was instrumental [in] forcing the white men to withdraw.

Somewhere north of Meeker, the various Indian groups converged and set out post-haste for the safety of the Reservation. In the meantime, several of the Chiefs had held a pow-wow with responsible white men in the office of the Meeker Herald, and they gave assurance that all of the Utes would return to the Reservation. However, Governor Adams of Colorado, had called out the Militia, and the latter was now in Meeker and definitely on the warpath. They had come a long way for the purpose of fighting Indians and they weren’t going home until their intentions were realized. By retreating, the Indians had played them a dirty trick and every man-jack of them resented it. Therefore, against the wishes of the responsible pioneers, a detachment of the Militia went north to try to head off the Indians so that the main body of soldiers could reach them before they got out of the state.

The Indians were not molested until they reached the mouth of Wolf Creek near Rangely. Here the advance guard of the soldiers caught up with them, and Captain Pray, of the Colorado Scouts, and Major Leslie of the First Colorado Cavalry, approached the camp for a pow-wow. Colorow and McCook, Chipeta’s brother went out to meet the soldiers. Leslie wanted the Indians to remain where they were until the next morning, but by this time the Utes were thoroughly alarmed, and continued their retreat toward Utah. When they crossed what they thought to be the Colorado-Utah line, they made camp. So implicit was confidence that they had reached safety, they turned out their ponies to graze on the adjoining hills and did not send out a single look-out runner.

The next morning, August 25th, about an hour after day-break, and while they were quietly cooking breakfast, Major Leslie’s force of scouts and soldiers surrounded the camp and opened fire on the Utes without a word of warning. The surprise was a complete one. Ali-chee, a Ute with a great deal of nerve, ran toward the attaching soldiers, shouting to them in fairly good English to hold their fire until the women and children could be removed from the camp. His answer was a volley of rifle fire and he crawled back into camp badly wounded. The braves then returned the fire and while they held off the soldiers the women and children and old men fled toward the Reservation. When the Indians considered they were at a safe distance, the defenders abandoned the camp, leaving all their property behind.

However, if the Ute trouble of 1887 proved a fiasco, the war of 1879 was a real drama. In the economic depression following the Civil War, the white settlers, in covered wagon, on horseback and on foot, followed the long trails of gold at Central City, Blackhawk, and Leadville, the settlers had rushed into Ute territory over the high passes. From the Union Pacific railroad, other settlers came and more numerous conflicts were inevitable. The Utes resented their diminishing hunting ground and the white men resented and distrusted the Indian.

This was the situation when Nathan C. Meeker became agent for the White River Utes at White River. Opposing him was Ouray, who sought to remedy the situation by peace and compromise, and Ute Jack, who felt his people could only achieve their rights by taking the war-path. Into this maze of frontier plot and counter plot, Mr. Meeker was the spark that set off the explosion.

Nathan C. Meeker was an idealist. His idea was to convert the Ute from a primitive savage to a hard-working, God-fearing farmer. Needless to say, his ideas were not popular. Finally Meeker asked for soldiers, and a detachment of Negro cavalrymen, under Captain Dodge was sent to Hot Sulphur Springs to await development.

In the meantime, Major Thornburg, commandant at Fort Steele in Wyoming, had left for the agency with three companies of cavalry and one of infantry. Approximately 20 miles northeast of Meeker, he was ambushed by a Ute attacking force. Thornburg was killed and the surviving soldiers made their way back to the wagon train which had been corralled. Trenches were hurriedly dug and the soldiers, together with the surviving horses and mules went into the wagon circle.

That night Joe Rankin, a scout, crept through the Indian lines and set out on an epic ride to Rawlins, Wyoming, 165 miles to the north. Incidentally, he changed only twice to fresh mounts and rode the entire distance in twenty-eight and a half hours! As soon as he received the news, General Wesley Merritt in command at Fort D.A. Russell, started south with 550 men.

In the meantime, Captain Dodge had come to the aid of the besieged troopers, but had only succeeded in getting himself bottled up with what was left of the Thornburg troopers.

At the agency, the situation had become more and more critical. Tom and Billy Morgan, pioneer ranchers had come to the agency to horse race with the Utes, but thinking more of their scalps than they did of a horse race, they warned Mr. Meeker and returned home. Mr. Meeker, ignoring the warning, plowed up the race track in order to avoid future danger of the Ute morals. By doing it, he signed the death warrants of himself and every male employee at the agency, for on September 30th, the second day of the Milk Creek battle, the Indians opened the impending attack. One man, Frank Dresser, escaped under a hail of bullets, only to die later of his own wounds. The women and children were captured and the agency burned.

The white captives, Mrs. Meeker, her daughter Josephine, Mrs. Price, the wife of the blacksmith, and her two children were taken south to the Colorado River. When news of the massacre reached Los Pinos, the Uncompaghre Ute agency in the valley of the Gunnison, Ouray was on a hunting expedition, but Chipeta, after sending a runner to acquaint him with news, rode alone on the long trip north to intercede for the white captives. This exploit brought her the plaudits of all America.

On October 5, General Merritt relieved the thirty starving troopers at Milk Creek and rushed on to the agency, finding it only a smoldering ruin. Merritt rushed no further south, but set about building a fort for winter quarters. This site is where the present town of Meeker stands.

After 23 days of captivity, the women were released to General Charles Adams who had come north from Los Pinos.”

Some interesting dates, activities of the Meeker area

By Rich Lyttle
Special to the Herald Times
MEEKER — This column deals with some interesting activities that occurred in the area that were gleaned from Meeker Herald files or from “This is What I Remember” volumes published by the White River Historical Society.
1868 — First Indian agency in this area was located at Danforth Park, which is about eight miles east of Meeker.
Sept. 29, 1879 — Meeker Massacre and Thornburgh battle on Milk Creek.
1882 — J.W. Hugus established a general store in Meeker with J.B. Adams in charge. This first store was a frame building at Fifth and Main where the Variety Shack is today. A three story brick building replaced this store and was located at Sixth and Main.
1884 — Town Ditch constructed by the Meeker Townsite Co. and a year later the Town of Meeker was incorporated with Wm. H. Clark the first mayor. Clark was a surveyor. Town lots sold then for $2.63 each.
July 4, 1885 — This was the first Independence Day celebration, which was held in the two parks — now where the elementary school and courthouse stand.
Aug. 15, 1885 — Meeker Herald was started by James Lyttle.
1888 — White River City Incorporated. Many hoped that oil development would bring about a more permanent settlement.
July 6, 1889 — Billy the Kid overnighted in Meeker. His name is on the Meeker Hotel register and that register is now housed in the White River Museum.
Late 1880s and early 1890s — G.S. Allsebrook brought sheep into the valley.
1896 — New brick structure for the Meeker Hotel replaced the frame building, which was built in 1884.
1896 — I.O.O.F. Hall at the corner of Fourth and Main was erected.
Oct. 13, 1896 — Meeker bank robbery at the J.W. Hugus & Co. bank failed with the three robbers being killed by local citizens.
Sept. 1897 — Piceance Rock School was built — it’s still there today.
May 9, 1899 — Freeman Fairfield was born. Mr. Fairfield left $2 million in a charitable trust to Meeker. The trust was set up in 1969 and has been a great benefit to many people in this area.
Feb. 1, 1901 — Theodore Roosevelt (later to be president) was here to hunt lions.

From Rich Lyttle’s column “Ropin The Past” that appeared regularly in the Herald Times. Rich’s columns were compiled in a book and the book is available for purchase at the local museum.