Some 10,000 years ago, prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived in Eagle County, the trace evidence being projectile points, grinding slabs and other tools. In addition to trace elements, a skeleton approximately 8,000 years old was discovered in a cave in Eagle County— the remains sent to the Southern Ute Tribe for burial.
For centuries, Ute Indians claimed the land from the Wyoming border to the north, into Utah to the west, the beginning of the plains to the east and far south. Ute Indians of the Uncompahgre and White River Band freely hunted along the tributaries of the Eagle River in the warmer months and kept a winter camp in Glenwood Springs.
Once the Utes acquired horses from the Spanish in the 1700s, they became excellent horsemen. This allowed the Utes to become mobile and easily change location with the help of pack horses. Traditionally the tribe favored an elevation of about 5,000 to 7,000 feet, where they found plentiful grasses such as sagebrush, alder and cottonwoods as well as a plethora of fruit like chokecherries and service berries. Wildlife, too, was plentiful with bison, antelope, deer, beaver and sage hens surrounding their camp.
The Utes were renowned for their smooth and soft buckskin deer hides, which they made into clothing. They also used buffalo hides for tipis, which they adapted from Plains Indians and designed elaborate patterns on their moccasins, using the beads they obtained by trading buckskins.
When describing the different elevations, the Utes used the terms Lower Earth, Middle Earth and Upper Earth. The Eagle River Valley fell in Middle Earth or Blue Earth, whose Ute name is Saguguachipa. To the white man, the Utes called this area “The Shinning Mountains.” It offered a pinion-juniper zone which tended to be warmer for winter camps and cooler in the summer when temperatures soared. The band of Utes who resided in the area was the Parianuche or Elk People with the Yampa or Root Eaters a little farther north.
Typically, the Utes stayed in the mountains with the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux Indians residing on the plains. From time to time, a tribe wandered into their enemy’s territory, either to hunt or to steal horses and to capture children to trade.
It was in the 1800s, that Arapaho braves moved into Ute territory in the summer months. They, too, found the land full of wildlife and berries and roots as well as waterfalls and steep canyons. When the Utes discovered their enemies at the confluence of Two Elk Creek and the Eagle River, a vicious battle began and lasted for three days. The fighting then continued on the mountain that divided the Eagle River from its headwaters. In the end, although many from both tribes perished, the Utes were victorious and the Arapaho were finally expelled. The mountain above Minturn, where the conflict took place is called Battle Mountain.*
Being highly mobile, Ute Indians hunted and fished in the Eagle River Valley and along the Eagle River tributaries. With Glenwood Canyon impassable by horse, they either traveled up Squaw Creek, over Bellyache Ridge and over Cottonwood Pass. From the Colorado River, the Utes traveled over the Flat Tops and held spiritual dances in the caves at Sweetwater.
A legend claims that the Ute started fires that burned the trees in Vail’s back bowls. However, historians don’t believe that the Utes were responsible, as the tribe was known to be respectful guardians of their natural environment and would not have destroyed the land. It is also known, from tree rings, that 1879 was a dry summer and forest fires claimed many acres.
One of the best-known Ute leaders of the nineteenth century was Chief Colorow, who was involved in many significant events in Colorado history, from his first contact with white Americans to “Colorow’s War” of 1887. Born to the Comanche tribe in 1811, the young Indian was adopted and raised by the Muwache Utes in 1815 and given the name Colorado, because his skin was more red than brown. As an adult, he stood six feet tall and was adept at horse trading and knew Spanish. Traveling through the land, which is now Colorado, Colorow knew every trail, tribe and chief throughout the territory and became a well-respected leader of his people.
As a young man, Colorow hunted throughout ancestral Ute territory. He married three sisters, Recha, Siah and Poopa from the Yampa (Yampirika) Ute band in northern Colorado and had 13 children. Colorow and his band crisscrossed the state, traveling along the Eagle River, hunting in Vail’s open meadows and on Battle Mountain. He was always friendly toward the settlers and was famous for antics like racing horses and arm wrestling. When photographers came West during the gold rush, Colorow and his family were paid to pose for the camera: the first photographs the family appeared in were in 1866; the last photo of the great chief was taken about 1883.
Chief Colorow’s name (often appearing as Colorado) and those of his sons appear on most signed agreements with the Utes, according to Colorado Encyclopedia. The treaties all stated that the Utes had the right to hunt on cede (granted) property, a fact that settlers often were not told or managed to forget. The existing treaties did not prevent whites from encroaching further on Ute land.
Compensation for the loss of their lands usually included “annuities,” which consisted of annual supplies of trade goods, blankets, clothing and food paid to the Utes at Indian agencies establish which were on or near reservations. Colorow’s love for the white settlers waned when his son, Tabernash, was killed at close range in September 1878 by a member of a sheriff’s posse. Then, in the spring of 1879, a new Indian Agent at the White River Indian Reserve, Nathan Cook Meeker, pressured followers to plant a field of garden crops in an area they had traditionally used to graze their horses. But, trouble brewed and the following September, a battle, to become known as the “Meeker Massacre,” erupted when a stray bullet was fired.
Meeker, along with ten other agency employees was killed and two women, including Meeker’s wife and two children were abducted by the Utes. At an investigation of the event, Colorow explained that the stake driven into Meeker’s mouth had been necessary “to stop his infernal lying on his way up to the spirit world.”
Soon after that, a rumor circulated in Red Cliff that the Utes were on the warpath. To protect themselves, the residents of the town constructed a fortification on a prominent quartzite outcropping at the junction of Turkey Creek and the Eagle River. Named Fort Arnet, after a prominent citizen, the fort was occupied for several days and then abandoned when no Indians showed up.
Following a year of U.S. martial law, the Northern Ute tribe was banished from Colorado, to the Uintah Indian Reservation on the Colorado-Utah border. According to the Aspen History Society, Colorow was one of the last to leave and promised, “I go now. In winter I come back—hunt deer and elk.”
Every winter, for seven years, Colorow and his men did return to the red rocks and made almost daily rounds of the settlers, demanding food, clothing and anything else they fancied. He spent time hunting in Colorado and soaking in the hot springs, as allowed by a treaty, at what became Glenwood Springs. According to a Ken-Carly Ranch History, Colorow also “took a fancy to biscuits, thick with syrup, which he would eat as fast and as long as a ranch wife could bake them.”
As one story from the State Historical Society tells it, “A woman named Dora I. Foster was visiting her aunt in Bradford City on a day that the Indians arrived. Dora and her aunt made biscuits as quickly as they could, but because they didn’t want the Indians to find their store of flour in the pantry they only brought out enough for a batch or two each time. Finally, the aunt told the group that she had no more flour. At which time, the Indians brought in more flour that had been wrapped in greasy skin pouches and bits of dirty rags. And the baking continued.”
In 1888, Colorow made camp outside the reservation boundaries on the White River. A posse found the group west of Rangely and a skirmish took place, known as “Colorow’s War,” the last conflict between Native Americans and white Americans on Colorado soil. Two soldiers, and eight Indians died, and others were wounded, including the great chief, Colorow. He went into hiding at his camp at the mouth of the White River near the Uintah Reservation, but developed pneumonia and died in December in a gathering place, still known as “Colorow’s Cave.”
Today many of our hiking trails are remnants of those traveled by the Ute Indians. Up Squaw Creek is a subdivision called Colorow. In Brush Creek, remains of a wiki-up have been found, and at near Sweetwater Lake is a cave with ancient Ute drawings.
There is a house that still stands along a bluff overlooking the Eagle River that belonged to an early settler named Joe Brett with whom Colorow became friends.
According to legend, the chief found that Marie made the best biscuits anywhere. Best of all, she, served them with raspberry jam that had been harvested from the berries that grew along Lake Creek. As it happened, Joe had a foot injury and, in return for the biscuits, Colorow would give Joe yarrow salve for his “ache” when he visited the couple.
This year marks the 130th anniversary of Colorow’s death. The chief has been long gone, yet the legends surrounding this great man still takes us back to a time that was, at once, dangerous and exciting. And, if one looks west, the imagination can see the imposing figure of a Ute warrior riding up the trail, the wind ruffling the feathers tucked in his hair.