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RBC I Saturday was a beautiful afternoon to dedicate Milk Creek Battlefield with more than 300 people in attendance.
Through the event, the Rio Blanco County Historical Society hosted many Ute friends and VIPs from all over Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, authors of books on the Milk Creek Battle, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and the VFW Post No. 126 of Fort Duchesne, Utah, local leaders, Colorado State dignitaries, and New York film makers. Everyone witnessed it all come together in an evolving ceremony of remembering and looking forward to the future.
Turn back the clock 136 years ago this week to when the Northern Utes and their ancestors inhabited this part of mountainous western Colorado and had for many years. One band, the White River Utes, settled in the green valley on the banks of the White River, where they raised their prized racing ponies. This area of beautiful pasture land became known as Powell Park after John Wesley Powell resided with the Utes while he explored the area in the winter of 1868-69. Powell Park later became the site of the Agency of the White River.
The creation of Colorado Territory brought competition for the land. The Agency was established in 1868, when the Utes permitted the Overland Stage Road to access lower Wyoming and also mining began in Hahn’s Park.
At the time, the Department of Interior assured jurisdiction, the Reserve contained many millions of acres and the Utes and local traders engaged in a “buckskin” economy at posts along the Yampa and Little Snake rivers.
Then, a policy of enforced conversion to agriculture was implemented in the months and years preceding the battle. An Indian agent’s role rapidly changed from that of total support of tribes and bands to that of the enforcement of limits and restrictions.
Agent Nathan Meeker assumed the role of agent in 1878, the year before the battle, and moved the agency site to Powell Park.
At this site, Chief Douglas and Johnson, an influential medicine man, worked daily with Meeker. Chief Jack and Colorow tended to avoid and resist his “programs.”
In September 1879, when Nathan Meeker ordered the Ute’s horse race track plowed in an effort to change the Ute culture, there were arguments and anger. In fear, Meeker requested military assistance of Maj. T.T. Thornburg, but the implications of this in the mind of the Ute people were not seen in time to prevent tragedy. Utes regarded military encroachment as a hostile act of war.
A column of troops, led by Thornburg, made its way from Fort Steele, east of Rawlins, Wyo. The column advanced with several ox-pulled freighters resupplying the agency. Thornburg was visited by Chief Jack and Colorow as the column crossed present-day Moffat County, where they tried to come to an agreement, complaining of agent Meeker’s policies and standing firm in their beliefs of treaty rights.
However, they had determined before hand to resist if the troops crossed Milk Creek.
Waiting at the far end of the valley, they watched as Thornburg, who continued to follow superior orders, led three Cavalry companies ahead despite their conversations.
It is not certain who fired the first shot, but when it happened, several grueling days of battle ensued from Sept. 29 – Oct. 6.
Ultimately, the army failed to prevent the Meeker Massacre and the Utes lost their horses and lush mountain reservation, and, in 1881, were removed to the Utah desert. The army and militiamen lost 13 troops and 44 were wounded. Chief Jack estimated that 19 warriors were killed and seven were unaccounted for. It was a historic tragedy.
During the years following, even though local citizens had come to this spot to pay respect and Ute leaders had visited to say prayers and leave Eagle feathers, it wasn’t until approximately 25 years ago, it came into the hearts of some of the members of the historical society and in particular, Joe Sullivan and the late Dr. David Steinman, to memorialize the location on behalf of the incident, as it was one of the last Indian and regular Army unit battles in America. Their vison was for it to become a public interpretive destination for both sides, who had lost lives on this site.
From the process of receiving the donation of the plot of land to making it into a park, the site has continued to see improvements with the beautiful gate entrance—stonework by master stone craftsman, Paul Vinzant and the iron gates telling the story through the master craftsman skill of Mark Scritchfield. And recently, a gazebo was built to provide a venue for events and tours and a flag pole was erected for the American flag to fly continuously by Tom Kilduff and the VFW.
Today, the site has attracted visitors from all over the world and has become a destination for descendants of those who died, history buffs, battle scholars, interested tourists and many others who find their way up a gravel county road in Rio Blanco County to a still relatively raw piece of land that holds two monuments and the hearts of those who come to pay tribute to a sad time in history.
At the dedication, Joe Sullivan, chair of the Milk Creek Battlefield Park Committee, spoke about this park being a place of unity. As the crowd listened respectfully to prayers and songs from the Native Americans Utes and as the American flag was honored and the pledge of allegiance was shared by all, it became apparent that unity was a reality at least at this place in this time together.
RBCHS would like to thank all those who helped make this event a success. For crowd logistics from Rio Blanco County Sheriff Department and Officers to Redi-Services Sanitation service to Marshall Cook and the EMS Teams to Davidson Ranch Manager, Billy Stewart, for parking use. We thank all those who participated in the program including Johnny Barton and David Main for music, the VFW for bringing a group out to do the flag ceremony, Tawny Halandras and Mountain Valley Bank for welcoming the Ute Powwow Dancers at the Fall Festival, Bob Amick and use of Meeker Arts and Culture Council’s equipment for sound and the Milk Creek Battlefield Committee and team who worked tirelessly to prepare for the occasion.
RBCHS’ next goals are to erect 12 points of information in the park to tell the story. We will apply for grants and receive donations to add this much needed feature to continue to make this a sacred destination.