The terrified hostages were held in a remote and primitive camp. They huddled under animal hides to keep warm. Their meager rations were mostly dried meat or stew made from whatever animal was shot that day. They ate with their unwashed fingers.    
          Captives in Iraq or Afghanistan? No, this event took place 130 years ago in Colorado.
Nathan MeekerNathan Meeker had received appointment as Indian Agent for the Northern Utes although he had no experience with the Indians. He thought it would be a simple matter to teach nomadic hunters to settle down and become farmers. Failing to change the Utes’ way of life, he threatened that soldiers would come to the White River Agency and take troublemakers off to prison.
          On September 10, 1879, Meeker telegraphed the Indian Bureau in Washington that he had been physically assaulted by a Ute and feared for his life. The War Department ordered troops to the scene. Major Thomas T. Thornburgh left Fort Steel in Wyoming on September 21st with 200 men, 33 supply wagons, and 220 pack mules.
          Ute men spotted a column of soldiers marching toward the reservation on the morning of September 29th. Some of these Utes had experience as scouts for the military and understood army ways. A small group of Utes road out twice to talk with Thornburgh. They asked him to come to the Agency and talk with the chiefs and the Indian Agent. Thornburgh refused.
          The Utes set up an ambush in a narrow pass. By nightfall they had killed 12 soldiers, including Thornburgh, and wounded 43. Shooting from high ground, the Utes managed to kill all the soldiers’ horses and mules. The Army was pinned down with no escape. They remained in this position until the morning of October 5th when they were rescued by the 5th Cavalry.
          When Utes at the Agency received word of the fight, they killed Agent Meeker and the eight white men employed at the Agency. They took Meeker’s wife and daughter, another white woman and her two children as hostages.

A detailed account of the Thornburg Battle is found in The Ute Campaign of 1879: A study in the Use of the Military Instrument by Major Russel D. Santala, Combined Arms Research Library, Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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