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An Anguished Odyssey: The Flight of the Utes 1906-1908

An Anguished Odyssey: The Flight of the Utes 1906 -1908


The history of Ute lands is in the familiar vein of American Indian history — they lost their lands to white men. The original land had been a princely domain. It stretched from Denver to the Salt Lake Desert and from northern Colorado to the pueblos of northern New Mexico.

Because the Utes lived just north of the Spanish frontier, they were generally immune from control by their European neighbors and often served as allies to the Spanish in humbling other tribes. In the two and one-half centuries of contact with that Spanish frontier, the Utes came to expect a certain set of relationships with white men. Then came the Americans.

The first Americans came to the Ute lands to seek furs, both from the Missouri country and from New Mexico. Their energy caused little concern to the Indians at first, and they were welcomed as friends and allies. By the 1830's fur trading posts were established among the Utes in the heart of their land by traders from Taos and Santa Fe. Trade blossomed with both the Americans and the Mexicans, especially after the Old Spanish Trail was opened from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. The trail went through central Utah.

When the Mexican War came in 1846, the Utes saw the Spanish people with whom they had dealt for two centuries quickly humbled. The new power which now confronted them was very different indeed. By the time the war was over, the Mormons had already invaded their lands. Within a decade, the western border was lost to the control of this group, and the discovery of gold in the eastern part of the Ute domain caused the effective loss of that area shortly after 1859.

The Americans also ringed the land with forts. Southern Wyoming, Utah, northern New Mexico, and eastern Colorado all had forts; and to further irritate the Utes, the Americans placed a fort deep in their territory — Fort Massachusetts in southern Colorado.

Resistance began — first in Utah in what was called the Walker War — in 1853. The Utes lost. The Utes resisted in southern Colorado — they lost. They tried again to stem the tide in Utah in the 1860's, and lost the so-called Black Hawk War (not to be confused with the Black Hawk War earlier in Illinois). For their trouble the Utah Utes were removed to Uintah Valley where President Abraham Lincoln had a reservation set aside for them.

Difficulties in the Denver area caused the Utes to be pushed west of the Continental Divide in 1868, and the discovery of gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains resulted in another loss in 1872. The United States' attempt to make farmers of the Utes led to their rebellion in 1879 against Nathan Meeker, whom they considered a tyrant, and the United States Army was sent against them in force. By then the demand for land had risen to the point that the pressure to "remove" the Utes was strong enough to bring the desired results. Those unfortunate people north of the San Juan Mountains, guilty of rebellion or not, were dispossessed and pushed into Utah's Uintah Basin. The land assigned to them was extremely barren. Those to the south of the San Juans were forced into a small corner of Colorado which was, and is, relatively unproductive.

Two bands of the Utes were moved into Utah, the White River band (Yampahs) and the Uncompahgres or Tabeguaches. It was members of the White River band who had killed Nathan Meeker and made war on the United States. They had earned the attention and enmity of both the United States Army and the Indian Bureau. While the Uncompahgres were bewildered and shocked by their removal, the White River Utes were angry and sullen.

Several times between the time of their removal to the Uintah Basin and the great exodus, they returned to Colorado to hunt. Each time they were repulsed by cattlemen or the army herded them back.

The army, which moved the Indians to Utah, established Fort Thornburg at the present site of Ouray, and later the fort was moved to a site near Vernal. In 1886 Fort Duchesne was established about midway between the two agencies of Ouray and Uintah.

In 1902 Congress passed a law to allot the Utes in severalty and conducted a great survey and evaluation of the land area of the Utes in preparation for throwing the Uintah Basin open to homesteaders. The Utes viewed all of this with disquietude.

In the living memory of many of these people, they had watched the white man seize political control, virtually destroy their way of life, occupy their lands, and force them to live with a fort guarding the interests of the white man. The outrage was greatest among the White River Indians who had "massacred" Nathan Meeker and fought the Army of the United States.

The Indians protested bitterly through their agent and finally gained so much attention that the government brought their leaders to Washington, D.C. According to later testimony of Tim Johnson a leading Ute, there was a long dispute between the Indians and the Department of Interior over the opening of the Reservation. The Indians lost again. The new State of Utah now had men of influence in the federal government, and Senator Joseph L. Rawlins of Utah spearheaded the opening of the last refuge of the Utes.

As the Uintah lands were allotted to the White River band in preparation for the opening, the Indians refused to cooperate with the officials. So the agents allotted lands without the Indians taking part in what they were given. This led to much bitter complaint after the Utes lost their fight to keep the whites out.

The frontier was opened again in 1905 for the sparse acres of the Uintah Basin, and the settlers poured into that area in what must have seemed a tide of people to the Utes. As their anger turned to dismay, they decided to flee.

Not all of their discontent went unobserved. The Vernal Express warned that:

Indian trouble of gigantic proportions is brewing ... a band of the White River Utes, by actual count known to number 321 camped at Dry Fork Wednesday night.

The Indians were all well armed and had ammunition in abundance, they also had 1,000 head of horses, and about 50 head of cattle. . . . They informed the settlers that they were going to one of the Northern reservations where a great gathering of all the Indians in the West has been arranged for, to council over their supposed grievances. They express freely their determination to fight rather than return. .. .

This intense anxiety of the people of Uintah was unnecessary, as the Indians had no intention of disturbing the peace in their outward migrations and they said so.

When the Utes reached Diamond Mountain, north of Vernal, the Express opined:

It is hardly possible that among all the three hundred there is a single Indian whoever took a scalp; yet these young bucks, sons of the wilder redmen, have slumbering in them the wanton ferocity of the race, which needs but the flaming. And nothing is just suited to awaken all the old time spirit of the Indian, more than the war whoop and the war dance.

When "Cap" Whitlock, a Uintah Basin resident who had many dealings with the Utes, was contacted by the Vernal Express, the report of his testimony furnishes some insight.

... we learned that the evil genius who is in reality the backbone of the present ugly disposition of the natives, is no other than Red Cap, a sub-chief of the same stock as the bloody old chiefs Arapene and Walker. That he is a repeat of these bad Indians is emphasized more when it is known that he speaks English well and has twice been a delegate to Washington for his tribesmen and ought, therefore, to counsel peace. On the contrary, he was the first to raise the banner of insurrection. This he did openly on the occasion of the last great Bear Dance at the Indian village on the Duchesne. About once every hour he would get up on a box and deliver himself of a harangue. "The whitemen," said he, "have robbed us of our cattle, our pony grass and our hunting ground," and then seeing that others approved his words, he grew bolder in his fiery tirade. He called upon all the Indians who were willing to fight for their rights to shave their heads in token. Shortly after, thirty or forty young bucks were seen among the crowd with their hair so cut that it stood straight up all over the top of their heads, and with their painted faces looked positively wild.

And then in a most revealing paragraph, the reason for the choice of destinations is given away.


Red Cap advocated a trip to the Sioux, the Crows and all northern Indians for the purpose of forming a league to fight the whites, and it appears that he has prevailed. Other influential Indians told Mr. Whitlock during the festivities, that they did not want to fight. But it seems that the radical element is carrying the band northward, it may be by dint of the enthusiasm aroused and kept alive by war-like demonstrations, together with the novelty of a visit in the distant country. Whichever motive impels them, there is serious liability of trouble ahead.

In the summer of 1967, the author talked to Wilson Johnson, son of one of the Utes who fled. He mentioned that the reason for the journey was to make an alliance with the Sioux to resist further white encroachment.

The Indians were especially afraid that they would be gathered up by the soldiers from Fort Duchesne and forced to return to their erstwhile camps. Legal considerations made it impossible to go after the Utes with an armed force. The agent at Fort Duchesne followed the Indians as they fled into Wyoming.

The citizens of that state took alarm at the size of the Indian caravan moving across their state. A dispatch from Cheyenne on August 20, 1906, stated:

Seven hundred Utes are slaughtering cattle and sheep, robbing ranches and committing other depredations in the vicinity of Douglass, on the Platte River 150 miles north of Cheyenne. They are in an ugly mood and refuse to return to their reservation at White Rocks, Utah. Mosisco, a Ute Chief, is at the head of the band. Engleston, a Sioux renegade, and Red Cap who is said to have driven a barrel stave through the head of old man Meeker at the Meeker Massacre, and Red Jacket Jane, the squaw who gave the Indian the alarm when the soldiers came, are also with the party. The three latter are troublemakers, and hate all whites. The Indians have little or no money or provisions. Occasionally they sell a pony and with the provisions buy flour and ammunition. All are well armed.

Agent Hall of White Rocks Agency, has been following the redskins ever since they entered Wyoming two weeks ago, but they have reportedly refused to return to their reservation. Tonight agent Hall wired the department for instructions and in all probability troops will be hurried to Douglass from the Crow Creek maneuvre camp.

Ranchmen and townspeople in the vicinity of Douglass are arming and a conflict appears to be inevitable. Should an outbreak occur the Indians could massacre many settlers before troops could reach the scene, although there are 1,000 infantry, 1,200 cavalry and 800 artillery in the Crow Creek camp, 130 miles away.

Their progress was closely followed by the Vernal Express, and the comments of the Wyoming press tend to prove that the Utes were far more peaceful and reasonable than the people had been prepared for, as the following item on September 1, 1906, indicated:

Word comes from Douglas that Indian agent Hall now seems to have the band of 700 Utes encamped along the river near that place, fully under control, and while there is still some stealing and killing of stock, affairs are comparatively quiet. Mr. Hall is awaiting advice from Washington as to the disposition desired to be made of the band.

The people of Wyoming were vocal in their attempt to get the federal government to intervene. On August 25, 1906, Honorable B. B. Brooks, governor of Wyoming, telegraphed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that the Utes, who were camped near Douglass, should be removed to prevent violence.

Captain C. G. Hall, Ute agent who was in Wyoming, was instructed time and again to try to induce the Ute people to return to their former homes. They persisted in their outward migration. When Hall advised the government of his failure, the commissioner wired the governor:

As long as they [the Indians] are peaceable and do not threaten hostility it does not seem that the Federal Government would be justified in interfering with them. Moral suasion has been used with little apparent effect in inducing them to return to their homes, it would therefore seem at present that the case is one for the local authorities rather than for this Department.

On September 17 the governor protested again and urged federal action. F. W. Mondell, congressman from Wyoming, wrote to the commissioner that serious trouble could be expected if the Utes were not removed. The commissioner in desperation sent his chief troubleshooter, Inspector James McLaughlin, to Casper to attempt to reason with the Utes. McLaughlin knew the Utes to some degree as he had negotiated the opening of their reservation. He convinced forty-five of the group to return to Utah, and one hundred of the most aggressive said they would go on to the Big Horn Mountains where they thought they would settle. The rest were bound for Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

McLaughlin had helped to keep the tribes of the area from developing too much enthusiasm during the Ghost Dance excitement of the 1890's and had become one of the leading figures in planning policy in the Indian Bureau for that part of the United States.

A week later the governor further pursued his demands upon the federal government, reporting that the Utes, "were drinking, insulting and stealing, and had defied the local police." On receiving this missive, the President asked if the governor was asking for United States troops to be sent to Wyoming. The governor responded in the affirmative, and the President sent the matter to the War Department for resolution.

In a telegram of October 14, 1906, the Secretary of War addressed the commander of the northern division:

It having been represented to the President that a band of Ute Indians have entered the State of Wyoming, and have there committed a series of depredations against the property and rights of its citizens; . . . the President directs that Major-General Greely, commanding northern division, be instructed to cause a suitable force of cavalry to proceed to the scene of disturbance and command the intruders to return to their homes. It is the President's desire that they be firmly but tactfully dealt with and that a violent course be avoided unless their defiance of the authority of the United States continues and it becomes necessary, for that reason, to compel them to desist from their unlawful conduct and return to the lands which have been allotted to their use in the Uintah Reservation, Utah.

Major-General Greely, who was in charge, sent two detachments from the Tenth Cavalry to hold council with Chief Appah and his band while soldiers from posts in the area were ordered to converge on the camp. The commissioner in his Annual Report for the year stated: "The purpose of employing so large a military force was to overawe them and persuade them to return quietly to their homes as the alternative of being disarmed and compelled to do so."

As the troops took to the field, rumors spread. The agent at Crow, Montana, reported rumors that "the Utes had burned ranch buildings, shot and killed a prominent citizen, raided the cattle of the settlers, etc." The commissioner lamented that these reports had been sent to the press.

In truth the Utes were very peaceful on their journey. They did indeed kill game, but they felt that the game was owned by the Indian people. Despite the adverse publicity of the newspapers, the losses to cattle and sheep were extremely small and violence to white persons nonexistent. Nonexistent, that is, unless insulting remarks are construed to be violent.

When the forces of the United States Army converged upon the unhappy Utes, the Indians saw the hopelessness of their situation, and after a parley with the military, they "accepted" the escort of the troops to Fort Meade, South Dakota. It was an expectant band of people who arrived at Fort Meade. In spite of all predictions to the contrary, they had succeeded in getting there. The elation at their success was shortlived. Not only were the Sioux people unwilling to enter into an alliance, but they regarded the Utes with much dismay. The end of the great campaigns against the United States Army were finished; the Sioux were facing difficult times, and they had no hunting lands they cared to share with the Utes.

In the beginning of the sojourn in South Dakota, the army supplied rations to the wanderers. This quickly caused protest, and the government sought a method to put the Utes to supplying their own needs. Several expedients were tried. The Utes' former agent in Utah was sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to help find a suitable place for them. Captain Carter P. Johnson found surplus pasture land on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and negotiated a rental agreement with that portion of the Sioux Nation to put the Utes there. There they remained in a bewildered state for some months.

The whole relationship of the Utes and the government was now called into the open. In a blistering speech before the Lake Mohonk Conference, the Honorable Francis E. Leupp, United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, succinctly reviewed the next stage of the affair.

But it was no part of the President's purpose, as was explained to the Utes at the time, and has been repeatedly since, to let them live there in idleness; if they wished a change of climate and surroundings, he was willing to give them a chance to do as they pleased in these respects, but he did insist that they should, like all other citizens, of every race and color, pay for their own support. This was not in the Ute program. So we are faced with an interesting situation. The Utes were first of all offered an opportunity to work at high wages, including free house rent, free water, and free fuel, on the Santa Fe Railroad. They protested that it was a long distance off and they did not want to go so far; moreover, they had a herd of ponies, and they did not know what to do with those. It was suggested that they should do as white people would under the same circumstances — sell the ponies and use the money for the betterment of their own condition. That did not suit them at all. So the President then said: "Very well, we will see what we can find for your nearer home."

During the summer we made an investigation of labor conditions in the northwest, and found an opportunity for all the able bodied men among these people to do unskilled labor at two dollars a day, at a point not far from where the bulk of their band were living, and where the children could go to school within fifteen miles of their work, so that the parents could see them from time to time. This offer they have absolutely rejected. They say: "We are government people, not like the Sioux — the Sioux have to work but the government will feed us." Well, I am sorry to say that I fear this bodes ill for the relations of the government and these Utes. I think that later this fall they will be given once more the opportunity of choosing between going to work and doing the other thing — going hungry. Now, the pinch of hunger is one of the greatest educators for any race of people. We sometimes say that we reach the American mind and heart through the stomach. When the Indian begins to find that his rations are dropping off, he for the first time realizes the problem which confronts him. We are cutting down the rations everywhere through the Sioux country, and among the rest these Utes are suffering. A little while hence they will discover that what has been told them was absolutely true — that they must either go to work or go hungry. When that time comes I do not know what the result may be. It is possible, as they have carried their arms with them, that they will rise in revolt; if they do, that revolt will be suppressed, and, if necessary, with an iron hand. I want to say this right here and now, so that every member of the Conference will know exactly what is going to happen, and will understand the position of the government toward those people. It was not the government's fault that they took the course they did in order to get into a place where they could live in idleness and eat the bread of charity. If they persist in that course they will be made to understand what the word "must" means. (Applause.)

Francis E. Leupp was the former Washington agent of the Indian Rights Association, a reform group headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This organization took upon itself the responsibility of defending American Indians against the encroachment of the government and white citizenry. The leaders of the Indian Rights Association were present at the Lake Mohonk Conference, a conference they helped sponsor. The Indian Rights Association was the most outspoken and forceful of the reform groups working on Indian problems at that time. If the Rights Association could find no reason to support them, the Utes' alienation from any national support was virtually complete. The Sioux, who were enduring very pressing economic privation, were ill-disposed toward sharing their small and shrinking means with strangers, even though these were also Indians. The Utes' insistence that they were "government people" was soon dispelled. When the economic pressure became acute in the fall of 1907, Captain Hall went to their camp and told them that the last limit of leniency had been reached. They were in a mood to resist, but were restrained when the federal troops (two troops of cavalry) arrived to overawe them.

Under the leadership of Charles E. Dagenett, an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some of the Indian men went to work for two of the railroads. One of the railroads went broke and the Utes lost some of their wages. Others went to Rapid City, South Dakota, where they worked at repairing fences and other jobs. The government agents were further angered that the Utes would not sell their ponies and remove to the Santa Fe Railway to work for wages.

Although there had been a running argument over putting the children in school, few attended until the group went to Rapid City. The children attended rather well there — probably not because the government agents had won the argument, but because food and clothing were provided.

Congress was petitioned on the "Absentee Utes' " behalf and they were allowed to use some of their trust-fund money to overcome their most pressing needs. After some fifteen months of their sojourn, some of them came to the conclusion that their situation was untenable.

In January 1908 the special Indian farmer who had been sent among them wrote to the agent at Fort Duchesne that the Utes had expressed a desire to return and that he would like to return with them. A little later the councils were held and even the most militant felt that the only thing to do was to go back to the Uintah country. The decision came as most welcome tidings to the officers of the various federal agencies, and they were only too glad to find $9,920 to help them return.

The return was orderly and really very comfortable. The government had new wagons and harnesses shipped to Rapid City, South Dakota. There they provided additional horses and mules for dray and even collected rations for the odyssey. The Indians were escorted by Major Carter P. Johnson, and ten soldiers from the Tenth United States Cavalry. It was a journey of more than 1,000 miles but was made in 101 days.

The Vernal Express in October 1908 reported:

The longest distance traveled any one day was 35 miles. Many days the cavalcade did not move at all. The trip was not without its exciting features and death was in the midst. Wherever there is life, death trying to enter in and he never fails. Three Indians died, it is said, from consumption. That is the disease which is carrying most of the red men off to-day. While they were housed and kept in confinement in the barracks 12b north, over 40 died, but as soon as they were again given outdoor life they became healthy. This wandering outdoor life agrees with their nature, there were but few accidents. . . .

They have learned to make some quick remarks and witty answers to many questions. One old buck was standing alongside of his wyckiup while the squaw was baking bread. To the question as to what his name was he replied that he was too poor to have a name. ... As a rule the Indians all appear to be healthy and in good spirits and glad to> get back, although they say they are poor. Capt. Johnson believes in feeding them well and getting them good natured, which he claims will civilize them and bring them into the white man's ways quicker than cutting down rations and say "work or starve." He takes the stand that a hungry Indian is usually a sullen, mean Indian. He makes them get busy, however, and do all the work around camp. . . . The wagons and harnesses will be given to the Utes.

Thus they returned.

What was the meaning of their odyssey? Many facts of their condition were demonstrated. They were frustrated to such a degree that they were willing to take desperate measures to attempt to remedy their forlorn situation. It showed that the federal government was willing to go to great lengths to avoid an Indian war. But when troops were used, enough were dispatched to insure quick and certain victory should the Utes resist.

The journey demonstrated the loneliness of their position. In their attempt to form an alliance with the Sioux, they were rebuffed. Even fellow Indians were neither willing nor able to help. After so long a journey, their reception by the Sioux must have been a very great shock. They were required to pay even for pasture for their ponies.

The incident proved extremely costly to the government, and the end of the affair was a great relief to a harried group of government officials, The melancholy spirit of the Utes was not assuaged by the journey, and they came back to the position they had fled feeling very defeated. Finally, it told the Indians that their hope of return to those happy days before the coming of the white man was tragically hollow.

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