29 – Meeker Massacre Witness Account & Photos

By Museum of Northwest Colorado

“I arrived…only to find the agency building and property smoldering heaps of ruins…employees putrid bodies lying about the grounds where they had fallen… and the women and children their wives, sons and daughters missing”. These were the words written in 1879 by a reporter arriving on the still-fresh scene of what became known as the “Meeker Massacre”.
Nathaniel Meeker was appointed Indian Agent to the White River Ute Indian Agency near present-day Meeker, CO in 1878 with the intent of quickly converting the Utes into farmers. After nearly a year of tense relations with the local tribe (mostly attributed to Meeker himself), the final straw occurred when Meeker ordered a horse racetrack, a favorite pastime of the resident Utes, to be plowed-up. This event prompted a minor uprising in which Meeker claimed to have been assaulted by one of the chiefs prompting him to send a letter requesting military support. Major Thomas T. Thornburgh at Fort Steele in Rawlins, WY organized nearly 200 troops to quell the mounting tensions.When Thornburgh was nearing the agency he was met by a Ute demanding that he continue with just 5 soldiers to convene a peace conference along with Meeker. Thornburgh, suspecting an ambush, ignored the request.
On September 29, 1879 Thornburgh and his troops officially crossed into Ute territory near Milk Creek- an act the Utes considered an overt treaty violation. Ute warriors, led by Chief Colorow, soon attacked. Several miles away that same day, the agency was also attacked. There, Meeker and 10 of his men were killed. The Utes also kidnapped Meeker’s wife, Arvilla, and daughter, Josephine along with another woman and her 2 young children.
Meanwhile, the Milk Creek battle lasted several days. Thornburgh’s troops were soon reinforced by a small group of black cavalrymen (Buffalo Soldiers) and eventually a few hundred more troops arrived to force a Ute surrender on October 5th,1879. Major Thornburgh and 13 other men were killed in the battle along with roughly 20 Ute warriors.
Twenty-three days after the initial siege, all the hostages, including Mrs. Meeker and her daughter, were released unharmed. However, the battle was used as a rally-cry for those individuals determined to remove the Utes from Colorado altogether. They soon succeeded.
Photographed here are the 11 pages written by Martin L. Brandt, a reporter for The Herald who arrived just a few days after the battle. Also pictured are two original photographs of Mrs. Meeker and her daughter taken by famed photographer W.H. Jackson soon after their release.