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The New Monument on Milk Creek

Sidebar by Allen Best

Roadside History – March 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE WAS LITTLE DISPUTE about the facts at Meeker in northwestern Colorado, yet there were two very different tellings of what happened.

The one telling we call the Meeker Massacre, and it’s a familiar story.

Nathan Meeker, the new Indian agent, had managed to annoy the Utes, and when push came to literal shove, a fearful Meeker summoned the U.S. Army from Ft. Steele in Wyoming.

Major Thomas T. Thornburg and his soldiers were met near Yellowjacket Pass, 20 miles from the reservation headquarters. The Utes killed Thornburg and other soldiers, then massacred the Indian agent and others before taking their women captive.

This is the story commemorated in the monument placed long ago at the battle site:

“In memory of the officers, soldiers, and civilians of the United States Army here killed and wounded in Battle with the Utes 29th September to 5th October 1879.”

Such monuments are how we remember our history. The stories are told by the conquerors.

This killing field became different, though.

In 1993, the Utes erected a monument of their own, telling their story. They saw Meeker as imperious, his efforts to make them into farmers ill-conceived, and his suggestion that they kill their prized race horses as insulting.

They see their fallen ancestors as patriots, who died defending their homeland. Thornburg had crossed onto the reservation in violation of their treaty rights. As they saw it, no good ever came from the U.S. cavalry riding into an Indian encampment.

Stories like these define us and our places. Whether cowboys or Indians, newcomers or descendants of the warriors, we’re always filtering our stories through new experiences, always redefining the truth. Unlike the dimensions of a square mile, our past is always changing.

For most of the last century, the Utes have been grappling with this defining battle. Before it, especially when they had horses, they had been conquerors.

Young people have a way of asking fundamental questions, though. In the late 1960s, middle-school students from Ouray-Uintah Reservation in Utah began visiting the battle site. They saw the Army’s memorial, but none to the Ute warriors.

Finally, one year a small black slab of rock was installed. By whom, nobody seems to know. It says:

“In memory of the Ute Indians who were here killed and wounded in battle with the United States Army.”

The Ute students in Norma Denver’s class then wondered why this monument was so small and the memorial to the soldiers so big. Their questions provoked a bigger idea, a monument to the Ute warriors to match that to the Army’s soldiers.

THE TRIBE’S LEADERS agreed to the idea, as did the Rio Blanco County Historical Society. The monument was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1993, a blustery, overcast day. Utes from Utah and from Colorado, Anglos from Meeker, and a film crew from Denver gathered at the battle site. The new monument, nine feet tall,was dedicated to the “Ute Indians who were involved in the Battle of Milk Creek.”

The inscription says:

“Let us not forget the Whiteriver Utes who gave their lives and those who were wounded in the Battle at Milk Creek on September 29, 1879.

“Nathan Meeker, Indian Agent, did not understand the Utes and knew very little about their traditions and culture. Resentment toward Meeker’s policy of farming resulted in a fight between ‘Johnson,’ a Ute, and Agent Meeker.

“This was the beginning of the problems that ensued. Because of the battles at Whiteriver and Meeker, Colorado, the Whiteriver and Uncompaghres were forced by gunpoint to the reservation in Utah, leaving behind their beautiful land in Colorado. However, the Uncompaghres had nothing to do with these events. Under the 14th Amendment, their rights were ignored.”

After the dedication, 1,000 people turned out for a dinner planned for 400 in Meeker.

Larry Cesspooch, former editor of the Ute Bulletin, calls this the “first step in healing.”