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The West goes White Circa 1880

Updated on October 25, 2013

A latecomer tries to catch up.

I spent the greater part of my life in the Midwest and East. I had often thought of the West, but only with the onset of old age had I allowed myself the opportunity to poke around in, to me, its sunnier and warmer exotic realms. There is history everywhere, like the ubiquity of natural beauty, which revved up activists are fighting in a variety of ways to preserve. And in the West, some very sensational events took place that shaped and continue to shape the destiny of the entire nation. It takes a while to break away from the mindset that avers how, in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, everything more or less falls into place, bringing one to the present, which is always the primary focus of concern.

Until I went West, my thinking was restricted to the thought that the East was far more historical than the Midwest. It was not until 1803 that Fort Dearborn was built in what later would turn into Chicago. The Eastern seaboard had provided havens to immigrants since 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Boston and New York were so much older than Midwestern cities, and had substantial artifacts, sites with or without plaques, and restored buildings to prove it. This being the case, the West could only offer far less in the way of a historical nature. Or so I imagined, totally disregarding the ten, fifteen, twenty or more thousand year sojourns and civilizations of peoples native to the land, pre-dating the arrival of Whites.

This was something that, for me, required an address change to make light of. I was no longer a student, professor, or publishing author, and yet the pure and unaffordable life of the mind was something I refused to let go of, probably much to my own detriment. I knew nothing of Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, cliff dwellings, or, bringing this unpaid quest further up to date, the Long Walk, Indian Country, and prominent Indian fighting Generals such as Crook and Pope. Now, an assortment of historical data having to do with pre-Columbian and post-Columbian America is second nature to me. I am ready for the next step, whatever that means, to either continue along this line, zeroing in on more and more of the same, or get real.

People, places, and things.

When I first heard the story of the Meeker Massacre from Coloradans, I was not greatly impressed. The West is peppered with anecdotal material that Hollywood has so well-mined and refined, that it almost seems as though if it did not make the movies, at least in a big enough way, then it had no real significance. No one watches westerns anymore, not the way they once did, and at first glance, I could not see how the few small towns encrusted in the sleepy valleys of the Western Slope of Colorado were compelling enough to warrant more than a quick photograph. These towns were tucked away like mini-Shangra Las, cushioned against cruel reality. But in addition to whatever else I had substantially overlooked, these same towns were the caretakers, basically, of major events that should never be forgotten.

Unfortunately, massacres in Western history are remarkably numerous. Moreover, the words that reached my ears did not form a coherent whole. There was something about a racetrack and disparaging comments about Nathan Meeker, upon whose shoulders what took place is routinely lodged. But traveling about since then and supplementing these minor excursions with relevant reading has enabled me to gain a truer perspective. To my mind, it matters. Red-White relations are still somewhat shaky, a challenge to a Democracy that boasts all-inclusiveness, whose genuine fulfillment has not yet occurred. Back then, the situation was far worse. Both sides deliberately committed atrocities. They were done to send a clear message and scare one another off. The more rational period of treaty-making in the late 1800s had achieved only very limited gains. And the wider, greater historical movement was unsparing in its relentless drive toward acts of violence that would finalize, underline, or make null and void so much talk, exchange of gifts, and ceremonial photographs. As it is, the Meeker Massacre turned out to be the defining moment in time that would settle a lingering, excrutiating matter -- how to establish a peace between belligerents.

It all began with the cessation of hostilities. Both sides were exhausted. That it was hard enough fighting wars is a given. But that attempts at peace were even more difficult escapes attention. It is a fact that will not go away anytime soon in today's world. Decades and decades went by during which chiefs were wined and dined in the East, and then introduced, if possible, to the President. They must have been awed to a point, rarely losing sight, ultimately, of whom they truly represented. In return, chiefs felt impelled to make concessions involving huge swathes of land, which brings us to the now. No transaction resulting in staggering losses has ever been totally forgotten. Further, reservations dealt with a way of life no Native American had ever been prepared to accept. Whites wanted to "civilize" Native Americans. If necessary, their spirits had to be crushed. Often enough, as in the case at hand, acts of violence brought about secondary actions and aftershocks that decided disputes once and for all. Few were as ugly and disconcerting as the expulsion of Utes by force majeure from the entire new state of Colorado. This was not what Meeker had in mind, though he would not live to witness the bitter consequences of what he had set in motion.

The White River now.

Once an item of bitter dispute, now a great big park.
Once an item of bitter dispute, now a great big park. | Source

Nathan Meeker, a well-intentioned man.

The instigator.
The instigator. | Source

Numbers

They are not a game, and yet, when speaking about one's own national history, numbers are something like a free radical. I wish I had a way to get more accurate information, but according to the book upon which I based this hub, the Ute population near the end of the 1870-1880 decade could not have amounted to more than several thousand. How many, however, my source did not reveal nor could I estimate. There is no concrete number. But Utes seem to have amounted to only a relative handful -- not a menacing horde, as is often depicted. They included the White River Utes, Uncompahgres, Southern Utes, and Uintah Utes. There were others besides. Further, Whites at the time were considerably less than the 5+ million mixed population that obtains today in Colorado. In the distant past, one can only guess how Whites treated each individual Ute with suspicion, fear, and a twitchy finger on a trigger. "The Utes must go" had been their protracted mantra. Thus, our perspective looking back is not that of the time period in question. The area in which the regionally famous incident occurred is still far from over-populated. It is now home to many who reside in Western Colorado, perhaps thankful for the surrounding mountain chains that make it impossible for random traffic to just drive by or through from the bigger cities along faraway I-25. Even if the obscure and modest figures for Utes need to be doubled or tripled into the tens of thousands, the affair would not have been the kind that attracts attention in the media. After Rwanda and Darfur, tragic events are conventionally linked to high numbers. Numbers help television audiences judge whether or not a catastrophe is serious as well as how serious and worthy of attention. It is the same with tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The victims as people themselves have been lost to a new media-driven measurement of current affairs. The emphasis for future study dealing with the deadly clash of Ute and Coloradan has to entail what actually transpired, motivated by what was thought, collectively or individually, regardless of the numerical accounting for how many survived, died, or were injured.

Meeker vs. Ouray

These were names I referred to in a previous hub. Further research only firms one up in the opinion that an explosive event was inevitable. There was nothing all that different about Meeker from other Whites in the late 1800s except that he was more prone to languishing in deep thought than the run-of-the-mill. What we do know is that Meeker distinguished himself in letters. He was a newspaper writer, the proud author of a published novel, and a close friend to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. He was into Fourier Socialism, which had to do with the organization of societies into cooperative units called phalanxes. Meeker also admired Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist Preacher and his "Gospel of Love". He was also a man who regarded his own brainstorms as though they were redoubtable revelations. He had a Napoleonic ambition that triumphed over each new failure, thinking that God Himself or some divine mechanism, was leading him by way of successive failures to new and newer, high and higher heights.

Before coming to the White River Ute Agency, Meeker had actually founded Greeley, Colorado -- a commendable achievement. But he was still plagued by irksome debts. Long before, while living in New York, Meeker had been thinking about American Indians. There are indications that he had dreamt of becoming their "George Washington". Further, it was as if this obsession were a messianic calling. How such a conjuring was possible at a time when the Utes, to whom he eventually meandered, had already laid claim to an exceptional chief they greatly admired, Ouray, can only be relegated to the weird psychology of scholars who abandon libraries and ivory towers. Meeker wanted more out of life than the average citizen, and his stubborn aspirations led him to fool himself into believing that he was the answer to a prayer no one had actually uttered aloud or to oneself.

Josephine Meeker, captured and returned.

survivor
survivor | Source

The Utes were no angels.

Part of the problem when delving into Indian-American conflicts is that analysis so often leads to the glorification of the Red and the demonization of the White. The opportunity to bash America, usually from within, is just too tempting, and simultaneously purposeless. The real center of attention should be on today, its values, and what adjustments need to be made, either in terms of legislation or psycho-social orientation. Nonetheless, just think. Indians had no real way to defend themselves by means of due process or peacefully put a stop to practices that resulted in their impoverishment or anguish. If they did not strike back when struck, they faced almost certain extermination. They were constantly being chased for murders, whereas they themselves could be murdered with impunity. After all, it was White America that regularly treated its foe with shameless cruelty. But, to set the record straight, it was Red Native America that responded with "depredations". These have been well-documented. The Meeker Massacre is a prime example. After shooting her father, Josephine Meeker was taken hostage. She did, nevertheless, endure and survive, and ultimately make the talk circuit, such as it was, by railroad, stirring up ample publicity. All the same, what are Whites to do about the tragedies their forefathers foisted upon a beleaguered people? And what are Reds supposed to do now about the employment of terror? For this episode, like so many of its kind, there exists no black and white explanation. Coloradans are fond of saying that Meeker deserved what he got, but that is the way people talk. In sum, like so many affairs, current or long since past, the absolute truth is probably unavailable.

Ute History in Ten Minutes

The cast.

Back cover to Massacre.
Back cover to Massacre. | Source

Portraits: a marketing technique used by publishers in 1957.

The somewhat lurid back cover to the book, Massacre: The Tragedy at White River, indicates the readership toward which publishers packaged and sold this piece of history. It needs to be rescued from the tabloid-like category into which it has languished all these years. This is real history, pertinent and essential, not just a good read.

A very descriptive rendering of the historical event.

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