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Chipeta Queen of the Utes, by Cynthia S. Becker and P. David Smith

Review by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Utes – May 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

Chipeta, Queen of the Utes: A Biography
by Cynthia S. Becker and P. David Smith
Published in 2003
by Western Reflections Publishing Company
ISBN 1-89-0437-79-4

MOST COLORADANS have heard of Chipeta, wife of Ute Chief Ouray. She is esteemed as one of the “good Indians” during the turbulent years when land was being opened for settlement and development. Although not everyone agrees about whether Ouray was serving the best interests of his tribe, all concur that Chipeta was a charming, attractive individual, much admired by all who met her.

History readers have long awaited a biography of Chipeta, and this book may be as close as they will come to one, since her secondary importance doesn’t seem to prompt scholarly tomes. Chipeta’s frequent cameo appearances in popular histories, however, have justified a record of her life.

This biography may satisfy those who enjoy history mixed with fantasy, but it will probably irritate those who prefer their history straight. Those who favor ungarnished history would do well to skip the first chapters of this 267-page volume, for there is little factual information available about Chipeta’s early life.

Instead of reliable history, this book offers a creative story about Chipeta’s youth, filled with imagination, conjecture, and sometimes obvious errors. The reader will find fictionalized history, such as “Chipeta could hardly sleep.” But, thankfully, it includes no cooked-up dialogue. (And how in the world did Mary Lincoln get into this tale?)

This section of the book has several misstatements, such as the assertion that Ouray was Agent Head’s translator and that Ouray’s first wife, Black Mare, died, assumptions which cannot be verified. An egregious error is the speculation that “John C. Frémont’s exploration party in 1848 crossed Cochetopa Pass and might have traded with Chipeta’s family for fresh horses.” Frémont did not cross Cochetopa Pass in 1848 but instead led his men and mules, not horses, into the La Garita Mountains, where the expedition ended in disaster. Moreover, as the text earlier stated, Chipeta’s family was Kiowa, and therefore would not have been trading horses near Cochetopa Pass. Furthermore, they were presumably killed in a battle a few years before 1848.

Enough about this biography’s inadequacies. After Ouray became a figure of some importance in U.S./Indian affairs in the 1860s and ’70s, Chipeta appeared as her husband’s familiar companion, and was sometimes mentioned in press accounts, so her story can be interwoven with Ouray’s. Chipeta, Queen of the Utes handles this part of her story better than her early years. The information about Chipeta’s life after Ouray became a well-known chief until his death offers more reliable history and better writing — perhaps because co-author David Smith published a popular biography, Ouray:Chief of the Utes, in 1986. Regarding this period, expect a good read.

After Ouray’s death and the removal of the Uncompahgre Utes to Utah, the story focuses on Chipeta by necessity. Reminiscences by people who knew Chipeta in her late years provide interesting commentary on her circle of family members, her personality, and her lifestyle.

Chipeta’s biography concludes with the removal of her remains to a tomb near her former home south of Montrose and, arguably, Ouray’s remains to a cemetery at Ignacio.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Ute Indians of Utah may wish for more information about the history, geography, bands, agencies, and reservation there. And the same comment may apply to Colorado’s Utes, but such material can be found in published works elsewhere.

A large collection of black-and-white photographs accompany the text, and an appendix lists the many place names and organizations doing homage to Chipeta’s memory. Endnotes are grouped at the end of each chapter, a most satisfactory arrangement, as users too often find them placed together at the end of a book, where they are difficult to sort out. The book also has a lengthy bibliography and an index, which would have benefited from copy editing and/or proofreading.

Co-author Cynthia Becker is a freelance writer and artist who previously worked in human resources and in the office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. David Smith, who is associated with Western Reflections Publishing Company, has owned a well-known shop in Ouray, purveying Western Americana, and has been a lawyer and judge in that community as well.

–Virginia McConnell Simmons