He became chief of the Tabeguache band in 1860, when he was twenty-seven years old. He believed that if the Utes were not to suffer the genocidal conquests that many other Native American peoples had suffered, he would have to negotiate in good faith with the U.S., make necessary concessions, and work to keep his people at peace with the results. This earned him the sobriquet of “the White Man’s Friend” among the Whites, the respect and loyalty of most of the Ute bands, and the enmity of some of the more bellicose members of the tribe.
Colorado became part of the United States with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico. In 1849, the U.S. signed a peace treaty with the Utes. That treaty was broken after the discovery of gold at Pike’s Peak in 1858, which kicked off the “Rush to the Rockies.” The White population along the Front Range grew quickly, and Colorado became a recognized U.S. territory in 1861, at which time land was taken from the Utes along the Front Range without treaty. That year, President Lincoln (1809–1865) ordered the creation of the Uintah Valley Reservation in Utah for the Uintah Ute tribe there. By 1862, prospectors were sometimes pushing onto Ute lands as far west in Colorado as the San Juan Mountains.
In 1863, Ouray, with the help of Kit Carson (1809–1868), drafted and negotiated the Treaty of Conejos with the U.S., which formally ceded all of the Ute lands in Colorado east of the Continental Divide, and gave the government the right to build roads and forts in Western Colorado, in exchange for hunting rights and land guarantees in the Western Slope, as well as goods, provisions, and livestock –– which usually didn’t arrive. The treaty was a holding maneuver for the Utes and a tactical delay for the U.S.
Around this time, Ouray and his second wife Chipeta (circa 1843–1924) took up a homestead just south of what would later become Montrose and began farming, partly as a demonstration to other Utes that the change in lifestyle was acceptable and manly. Most resisted the change and wanted to remain hunters, but the reduction in hunting grounds and the regular failure of promised winter provisions to arrive resulted in hunger and deprivation for many Utes. Beginning in 1867, Ouray and Kit Carson negotiated another treaty that established Indian agencies and reservations near White River and Montrose. Forty-seven Ute chiefs signed the treaty in 1868. Among other things, the treaty guaranteed Utes possession of the San Juan Mountains, their traditional summer hunting grounds.
The discovery of silver by wildcat miners in the San Juan Mountains in the late 1860s, however, prompted other miners to begin encroaching on the Ute Indians, sometimes with deadly results. The rights and possessions guaranteed the Utes by the 1868 treaty meant little to white miners, who often resented the Utes’ very presence in the area, much less their legal ownership of the land.
By 1871, the U.S. government had stopped recognizing the sovereignty of Indian tribes and started negotiating agreements instead of treaties, so in 1873, Felix R. Brunot, Chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners, was tasked with negotiating a new agreement. Chief Ouray was persuaded by Brunot that if he didn’t accept the agreement, the U.S. government would eventually send in the cavalry to protect the white miners and their illegal camps, and effectively vacate the 1868 treaty by force. Ouray recognized the stark truth of this, and convinced the other Utes to agree.
Brunot also used what might have been a bit of subterfuge to persuade Ouray: Ouray’s first wife had died in childbirth, but the boy had lived. When a band of Sioux attacked the hunting camp Ouray was traveling with five years later, his son was abducted, never to be seen by Ouray again. Ouray longed for years afterwards for the unlikely return of his son, and Brunot, knowing the story, sent investigators searching for him. They returned with a seventeen-year-old orphan, who turned out not to be Ouray’s son, but Ouray was reportedly impressed with Brunot’s attempts.
In exchange for $25,000 per year in perpetuity and the continued right to hunt peacefully on the land, the Utes ceded 3.5 million acres to the U.S. (Utes apparently had no understanding of inflation yet, or if they did, the threat of U.S. troops outweighed their understanding that over time the value of the $25,000 would diminish.) In 1874, Ouray led a delegation of Utes to Washington, D.C., to formally present the agreement to Congress, which accepted it. Ouray’s wife Chipeta, by then a trusted companion and advisor to Ouray, accompanied him on the mission. The visit became a sort of celebrity tour in the press, which often portrayed the couple as Ute royalty.
Sadly, just as the 1868 treaty had held for only five years, the 1874 Brunot Agreement only held for seven. In 1879, in response to ever-increasing pressure on the Utes from Nathan Meeker (1817–1879), the U.S. Indian agent at the White River Ute Indian Reservation, to abandon their traditional lifestyle and religion and convert to farming and Christianity, the Utes began to push back. A frightened and unqualified Meeker called for military reinforcements, and this sent some of the Utes at White River into open rebellion. We discuss the White River War, its causes, and its aftermath in more detail here: https://www.facebook.com/HistoricalFruitaPhotos/posts/786375525124008.
During the White River War, Ouray and Chipeta successfully negotiated the release of White hostages and cared for several of them, including Nathan Meeker’s wife Arvilla (1857–1882), in their home just outside of Montrose. They then headed a January 1880 mission to Congress to plead for clemency, pointing out that most of the White River Utes did not participate and that the Uncompahgre Utes were not involved. But the cry of “The Utes Must Go!” had reached Washington before Ouray and Chipeta had.
Congress at first decided that the White River Utes would be removed to the Uintah Ute Reservation in Utah, while the Uncompahgre Utes would be allowed to stay on a yet-again-reduced portion of their Colorado land. But the cry for full removal was too loud to ignore, and after Ouray’s death on August 24, 1880, it was decided that the Uncompahgre Utes would be removed to the newly-created Ouray Ute Reservation in Utah. The remaining northern Ute tribes were forcibly removed from Colorado in September 1881, and their newly-appropriated lands were opened to White settlement in October.
With this move, the Utes now only maintained the two smaller reservations for Ute tribes from southern Colorado, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and the Southern Ute Reservation, in Western Colorado on the border with New Mexico. To this day, they remain the only Ute tribal holdings in Colorado. Today, the Uintah and Ouray reservations in Utah are merged into a single reservation.
In the two decades between 1861 and 1881, Ute territory in Colorado and Utah was whittled down to less than 10% of what it had been. More land would continue to be taken from the Utes until the mid-1930s, when U.S. government policies toward Native American tribes began to change.
It is believed there were about 8000 Utes in the early years of the nineteenth century. That number had been whittled down with their land holdings to fewer than 2000 by 1920. After government policies changed and Ute lands were no longer taken by whim, tribal governments became autonomous, eventually some land was won back in court, Ute farms became more productive, health gradually improved, and the population began to increase. Today tribal numbers on the three reservations have returned to nearly their early nineteenth century levels. Longevity remains a dire problem, though, with life expectancy on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation being only a shockingly tragic forty years.
Ouray died of Bright’s disease (kidney nephritis) near the second Los Piños Indian Agency near present-day Montrose, Colorado. (This description sounds to us like it might be referring to his and Chipeta’s farm.) His body was buried in secret according to Ute custom by his people near Ignacio. His successor as treaty negotiator, Buckskin Charley (Sapaiah) (1840–1936), and a brother-in-law, John McCook (1851–1937), led a ceremony to re-inter his bones in the Ignacio cemetery in May 1925.
After being relocated with the other northern Ute bands to the Ouray Reservation in Utah, Chipeta remained a force among the Utes for the next four decades. She continued to be well-respected and even to be celebrated among both the Utes and the whites, and became known for her advocacy for Indian rights. She was allowed by Ute council chiefs into meetings from which all other women were banned, and she was allowed among white society in places from which all other Indians were banned. She regularly rode the train, for example.
She continued to visit Western Colorado often, frequently staying in Fruita’s Park Hotel. In her waning years, Chipeta had become nearly blind due to cataracts, so her brother John McCook accompanied her almost everywhere. Her last visit to the Park Hotel was in September 1923. She died on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation on August 16, 1924, and was buried there in secret by her brother. In March 1925, she was reinterred on the land she and Ouray had homesteaded outside Montrose, the site of the Ute Indian Museum today. John McCook was buried there in 1937.
Photograph of Ouray and Chipeta taken in Washington, D.C., during their January 1880 visit. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.
Steve & Denise Hight
Historical Photos of Fruita & Western Colorado:
Historical Photos of Women’s Suffrage:
The town of Ouray was named for Chief Ouray (1833–1880), the Tabeguache (AKA Uncompahgre) Ute leader who was later recognized by the U.S. government as speaking for all of the Ute bands in Colorado. (Utes refer to themselves as Nuche.)
Ouray, who had been indentured in Taos, New Mexico, to a Mexican family from about 1845 to 1850, spoke Ute, Apache, Spanish, and a smattering of English, and was raised a Catholic, although he later became an Episcopalian. He returned to his people in 1850, and quickly rose up the leadership ranks due to his skills and abilities.