Milk Creek Battle radically changed Colorado and Utes’ world

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There will be a ceremony at the Milk Creek Battle Site Saturday at 11:30 a.m. for the 140th anniversary of the battle.
Caitlin Walker Photo

RBC | By Sept. 23, 1879, the march toward what would become the Battle of Milk Creek, northeast of the present town of Meeker, was underway.

The weeklong battle that began on the morning of Sept. 29, combined with the killing of Nathan Meeker and employees at the White River Indian Agency the same day, radically altered the western Colorado landscape.

It led directly to the expulsion of thousands of Ute Indians from Colorado and the opening of millions of acres of land that had formerly been the Ute Indian Reservation—including all of the Grand and Uncompahgre valleys—to white settlement.

The 140th anniversary of the Milk Creek Battle will be recognized this Saturday (Sept. 28) beginning 11:30 a.m. at the Milk Creek Battlefield Park, about 18 miles northeast of Meeker on Rio Blanco County Road 15. Sponsored by the Rio Blanco County Historical Society, the event will feature presentations from both Ute and Anglo speakers. The public is welcome.

Tension between whites and Utes had been building for decades prior to 1879, and the Utes had gradually given up territory through a series of treaties. Still, many people in Colorado subscribed to the rallying cry, “The Utes Must Go!”

Nathan Meeker became the White River Indian Agent in the summer of 1878 and things came to a head a year later. In August 1879, he ordered one of his employees to plow up a Ute horse pasture and a favorite spot for their horse racing.

Meeker soon reported to state and federal authorities that his employees had been fired upon by Utes and the plowing had been halted. The Utes denied shooting at the plowman.

During an argument with a Ute leader named Cavanish, Meeker said he was knocked down and would probably have been killed if Meeker’s employees hadn’t intervened.

Cavanish said he did nothing more than give Meeker a solid push in the shoulder to emphasize a point.

But Meeker feared for his life and the lives of others at the agency, which was located west of today’s town of Meeker. He pleaded for help to Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin and to the military at Fort Steele, near Rawlins, Wyo., which was the closest Army post.

The Army responded by ordering Major Thomas T. Thornburgh to head south from Fort Steele to assist Meeker. He mustered about 180 troops, including cavalry and infantry units, plus civilian freighters.

Thornburgh’s orders were murky. His second in command said he “was directed to confer with the agent [Meeker] … to take such steps as … he should think necessary to bring about quiet at the agency, and, perhaps, to make some arrests.”

Exactly who might be arrested was also unclear. Two Utes, known to whites as Bennet and Chinaman, were wanted on state warrants for allegedly starting fires. But Meeker reportedly told a Ute leader known as Captain Jack a few days before the battle that Captain Jack and other Utes would also be arrested and hauled off to Fort Steele in chains.

Thornburgh met Captain Jack at his camp outside the reservation, a few days before the battle, and he agreed, initially, to a proposal made by Jack.

He would leave the bulk of his troops outside the reservation boundary and proceed to the White River Agency about 20 miles away with five of his officers. At the agency, he would confer with Ute leaders and Meeker and, it was hoped, reach a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But, after conferring with junior officers, he decided that was too dangerous, and it didn’t fulfill his orders. So, on the morning of Sept. 29, he crossed Milk Creek onto the reservation with most of his troops, even though Captain Jack and had told him the Utes would perceive that as an act of war.

A small detachment of troops led by Lt. Samuel Cherry was sent forward and encountered a line of Ute Indians along a ridge above the Milk Creek valley. Cherry waved his hat in signal to the Utes, and shots were fired. Both sides maintained the other side fired first.

The Battle of Milk Creek was underway. Within a few hours, Thornburgh would be dead, shot as he galloped between two groups of soldiers. Twelve other soldiers and civilians were also killed during the battle, and at least 19 Utes.

The Utes kept the surviving troopers pinned down in a meadow near Milk Creek for a week, until reinforcements arrived from Cheyenne, Wyo.

Shortly after the battle began, Utes raced to the White River Agency, and shooting erupted between Utes and workers there. Nathan Meeker and his eight male employees were all killed.

Meeker’s wife Arvilla and daughter Josephine, were taken hostage by the Utes, along with Flora Ellen Price, the wife of one of the male employees killed at the agency, and Price’s two young children. The five hostages were held for 23 days before being released at a camp on Mesa Creek on the edge of Grand Mesa.

Heroes emerged on both sides:

Eleven soldiers at Milk Creek were awarded Medals of Honor, including Sgt. James Harris, an African-American “Buffalo Soldier.”

Scout Joe Rankin, who was with Thornburgh’s troops, galloped 140 miles to Rawlins in less than 24 hours to send a telegram for reinforcements.

Susan, Chief Ouray’s sister and the wife of a White River Ute leader, protected the white hostages from angry Utes during their 23 days of captivity.

A Ute name Yanco rushed from the Milk Creek battle to the Uncompahgre Valley in less than two days to tell Ouray of the fight.

Joe Brady, an Anglo employee of the Indian agency in the Uncompahgre Valley, rode to the Milk Creek camp of the Utes in the battle, carrying a message from Ouray urging the White River Utes to stop fighting.

When word of the battle and the killings at the White River agency reached the outside world, people throughout Colorado and the country were enraged. An official investigation was held in the Uncompahgre Valley late in 1879, followed by a congressional inquest in Washington in early 1880.

Soon, Congress passed legislation requiring the White River Utes and the Uncompahgre Utes to be removed from Colorado to reservations in Utah. The Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes were assigned to small reservations in southwestern Colorado.

The lands the Utes had claimed as their homeland for centuries-—the high mountains and fertile valley of western Colorado—were officially opened to white settlement.

There’s no doubt settlers would have eventually overwhelmed the Utes and claimed much of western Colorado. But, how that occurred, and whether any of those lands would have remained available to the Utes, might have had a different outcome if not for what occurred 140 years ago this week.

Sources: “Hollow Victory: The White River Expedition of 1879 and the Battle of Milk Creek,” by Mark E. Miller. “Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of Utes from Colorado,” by Robert Silbernagel; “Testimony in Relation to the Ute Indian Outbreak, taken by the Committee on Indian Affairs of the House of Representatives,” 46th Congress, Second Session.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is

By BOB SILBERNAGEL | Special to the Herald Times

This story was originally published in the Daily Sentinel and is reprinted with permission.