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An etching that appeared in the December 6, 1879 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the aftermath of the "Meeker Massacre." Meeker grave at lower left; W.H. Post grave at lower right

Meeker Massacre was a conflict that occurred when the Utes attacked an Indian agency on September 29, 1879. They killed the Indian agent, Nathan Meeker and his 10 male employees. They took some women and children—including Meeker's wife and daughter—as hostages to secure their own safety as they fled and held them for 23 days. Troops from Fort Steele in Wyoming were called in.


In 1878, Nathan Meeker was appointed United States (US) Indian agent at the White River Ute Indian Reservation, on the western side of the continental divide. He received this appointment, although he lacked experience with Native Americans. While living among the Ute, Meeker tried to extend his policy of religious and farming reforms, but they were used to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with seasonal bison hunting, as opposed to one which would require them to settle on a particular piece of land.[1]

Frederick Walker Pitkin, the recently elected Governor of Colorado, had campaigned on a theme of "The Utes Must Go!"; both he and other local politicians and settlers made exaggerated claims against the Ute. They wanted to gain the rich land occupied by the Ute under the Treaty of 1867.[2]

Nathan Meeker had a tense conversation with an irate Ute chief after he began to force an agricultural lifestyle on the Utes. Meeker wired for military assistance, claiming that he had been assaulted by an Indian, driven from his home, and severely injured. The government sent approximately 150-200 soldiers, led by Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, commander of Fort Steele in Wyoming, to settle the affair. When the troops were about 50 miles (80 km) from the Indian Agency, a group of Ute rode out to meet them. The Ute said they wanted a peace conference with Meeker, and would allow Thornburgh and five soldiers to come. Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Ute wanted the main body of soldiers to stay 50 miles (80 km) away on a hill which they designated. Thornburgh ignored their demand and continued into the restricted Ute land.[citation needed]

The massacre

On September 29, 1879, before troops arrived, the Ute attacked the Indian agency, killing Meeker and his 10 male employees. They took some women and children as hostages to secure their own safety as they fled and held them for 23 days.[3][4] Two of the women taken captive were of Meeker's family: his wife Arvilla and daughter Josephine, just graduated from college and working as a teacher and physician.

At Milk Creek on the northern edge of the reservation, about 18 miles from the Agency, Ute warriors attacked Thornburgh's forces. In the first few minutes' exchange of fire, Major Thornburgh and 13 men were killed, including all his officers above the rank of captain. Another 28 men were wounded and three-quarters of the horses and mules were killed, but troops dug in behind the wagon trains and animals' bodies for defense.[5] One man rode hard to get out a request for reinforcements. The US forces held out for several days. They were reinforced by 35 black cavalrymen (known as Buffalo Soldiers) from Fort Lewis in southern Colorado, who got through the enemy lines.[3] The nation was electrified by news of the two Ute attacks in Colorado. Several of the Ute escaped and wintered in North Park, where their wickiups still stand.

Larger US Army relief columns were sent from forts Fred Steele and David A. Russell, both established in Wyoming Territory after the American Civil War as part of the Department of Dakota. Col. David Merritt commanded 350 troops, who traveled by train and marched to reach the surviving forces on Milk Creek on October 8. They rescued the troops and put down the Ute uprising in the Battle of Milk Creek. Wintering over at the site of the former Indian agency, in the spring the US Army forces built a Camp on White River, which the Army occupied until 1883.[3] A few buildings remain of the Army camp.[4]

After the massacre

The following year the US Congress held hearings into the massacre and other circumstances. In retaliation for the killings, they passed the Ute Removal Act. The act denied the Ute 12 million acres (49,000 km2) of land that had formerly been guaranteed to them in perpetuity. Congress insisted that the Utes be forcibly removed from the “Shining Mountains” and relocated to eastern Utah.[6]

Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre Ute, who had not been involved in the uprising, attempted to keep the peace after the massacre and attack on Army forces. He and his wife Chipeta helped negotiate the release of the women and children who had been taken hostage. Despite his efforts, the government forced his people also to leave the western slope and relocate to the new reservation in Utah. He died soon after this decision. On August 28, 1881, his people were forcibly relocated to the Utah Territory.

List of the dead

  • Nathan Meeker
  • Frank Dresser
  • Henry Dresser
  • George Eaton
  • E.W. Eskridge
  • Carl Goldstein
  • W.H. Post
  • Shaduck Price
  • Fred Shepard
  • Arthur L Thompson
  • "Unknown teamster" [Julius Moore][7]


  1. Tucker, Spencer; Arnold, James R.; Wiener, Roberta (September 30, 2011). "Nathan Cook Meeker". The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607–1890: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO. pp. 482–483. ISBN 978-1-85109-697-8. 
  2. Katherine Retzler, Review: Peter Decker, The Utes Must Go, San Juan Silver Stage online Archived January 5, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Milk Creek battlefield". National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2008-03-17. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Milk Creek battle (or Meeker Massacre)". Meeker Colorado Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2008-03-16. 
  5. "Thomas Tipton Thornburgh", Colorado Springs Gazette, 2 October 1879, reprinted on Arlington Cemetery Website (personal), accessed 20 Dec 2010
  6. Dr. Ted Fetter, "The Utes and the Unitarians", November 22, 2009 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
  7. Jacob Piatt Dunn, Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West, Boston: Harper & Brothers, 1886, p. 704, accessed 20 Dec 2010

Further reading

  • Marshall Sprague (1980). Massacre: The Tragedy at White River. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-4107-7. 

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