MEEKER I While the Meeker Pageant—the annual dramatic re-enactment of the events leading up to and surrounding the Meeker Massacre—garners plenty of attention every year during Range Call, history buffs should take time out to tour another nearby battle site.
The Milk Creek Battle of 1879 was the last major engagement between a Native American tribe and the United States Army.
As tensions escalated between White River Indian Agent Nathan Meeker and the Utes, Meeker called for military assistance from the nearest fort. In response, Major Thomas T. Thornburgh and 150 troops were dispatched from Fort Fred Steele in Wyoming. They rode south and crossed Milk Creek some 18 miles northeast of the White River Agency, where they engaged in a fierce battle with the Utes that lasted 12 days.
While Thornburgh and his men were besieged by Ute warriors, other Utes from the tribe attacked the White River Agency on Sept. 29, 1879, and killed all the white male employees of the agency, including Nathan Meeker.
Thornburgh’s troops formed a wagon circle and sent out a plea for aid. In response, 35 African-American cavalrymen based out of Fort Lewis, Colo., broke through the Indian line to reinforce their comrades-in-arms.
A relief expedition of 350 men led by Col. Wesley Merritt from Fort D. A. Russell, Wyo., finally lifted the siege on Oct. 5, 1879. Army casualties were 13 dead, including Major Thornburgh, and 43 wounded.
To commemorate the battle and honor all who lost their lives in the battle, a memorial park has been built on County Road 15, approximately 17 miles northeast of Meeker. The park attracts heritage tourists from throughout the world annually.
The Rio Blanco County Historical Society (RBCHS) and many other organizations and individuals worked together to create two monuments at the site: one for the Utes who died and one for the soldiers. Gates designed by iron artist Mark Scritchfield and local mason Paul Vinzant tell the story of the battle at the park’s entrance.
Once again, the RBCHS will host a comprehensive tour of the battle site during the Range Call Celebration. This year’s tour will take place on Friday, July 3, beginning at 10 a.m. at the Garrison building next door to the White River Museum (565 Park Ave.) and will convoy to the site with educational stops along the way. The tour takes at least two hours and costs $10 per adult. Children are free.