Chipeta – Woman of Character, Courage and Commitment

In honor of Chipeta’s recognition during National Women’s History Month, here is a post about her 1880 testimony before a Congressional Committee investigating the Meeker Massacre in Colorado. This post originally appeared on this blog March 24, 2009.

Chipeta by Mathew Brady, Washington, D.C., 1880

Chipeta by Mathew Brady, Washington, D.C., 1880

On March 19, 1880 Chipeta entered the Capitol building and took the witness stand facing a group of Congressmen seated behind a long table. Not yet 40 years old, she had lived her entire life in the Rocky Mountains. She was the wife of Chief Ouray and his most trusted advisor and confidant. She travelled to Washington, D.C. with a group of Ute chiefs. Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz welcomed her as a member of the delegation rather than as a tag-along wife.

Her upcoming testimony was announced by The Washington Post, describing her as “a fat, good-humored looking squaw.” The reason for her appearance in the capitol city was an event that had captured national attention the previous year. A group of Northern Utes attacked a column of soldiers, murdered their Indian agent, Nathan Meeker, and all male employees of the agency. They spirited three white women and two children into the high mountains as hostages. Newspapers across the nation followed the unfolding events for the next 30 days until the hostages were safely released.

In the Congressional hearing, Chipeta responded (through an interpreter) to ten questions about where she was when the massacre took place and what caused the events. Most of her answers amounted to “I don’t know” because she had not been present at the massacre. She told the committee some of the Indians said Agent Meeker “was a bad man, that he talked bad…Some of them claimed that he was always writing to Washington and giving his side of the case, and all the troubles at the agency…I do not know whether that is what they killed him for, or what they did it for.”


Source: Testimony in Relation to Ute Outbreak, 46th Congress, 2nd Session, House Miscellaneous Documents no. 38, 1880, 91.

Two Ute Bands; One Reservation, 1885

Hillers stereoscopic photo Elkskin Tepee, Utah

Hillers stereoscopic photo Elkskin Tepee, Utah

In his 1885 annual report, Agent Elisha M. Davis stated his observation of differences between the Uintah and White River bands of Utes. The two bands had shared the Uintah Reservation in Utah since 1882. Davis began his assignment about the time the White River Utes were relocated from Colorado. By the time of this report he had known both groups for three years.

The Uintahs branched off from the great Ute nation and settled by themselves in this valley many years ago. The Uintahs are an agricultural people, depending very little upon the chase [hunting]. The habits and customs of the Uintah Indians are more nearly like those of the tribes north of them. The language of the Uintahs is, I apprehend, the pure Ute language, it having undergone little or no change since they settled here.

The White Rivers have never taken kindly to agriculture. The chief cause of the Meeker massacre was because Mr. Meeker tried to compel them to work. They have never been contented to settle down in one place. Their habits are more like their southern neighbors. Their language is different in many respects from that of the Uintahs, it [the White River language] being strongly tinctured with Spanish.

          Agent Davis held the U.S. Government responsible for some of the conflicts between the Uintah and White River Utes. Being forced to share their reservation land with the White Rivers was difficult enough for the Uintahs. 

To widen the breach, between them, the Uintah were compelled to stand peacefully by and see the White River Utes, whose hands were reeking with the blood of Agent Meeker, his family and his employees, receive a large cash annuity, when they were brought here in 1882, and they [the Uintahs] receive nothing…and then a large herd of beef cattle belonging to the White River Utes was brought here at the same time, which was issued to them in abundance, while the Uintahs received little or none.

          The Uintah Utes were included as part of the “Confederated Band of Utes” who shared an annual cash annuity of $50,000 for giving up reservation land.  When divided among roughly 3,300 eligible Utes, each person’s share was about $15 per year. However, “pensions” to families of the Meeker victims, totaling about $3,000 per year, were paid out of the White River share of the annuity. This reduced the share received by each White River Ute to $13 per year.

From “Reports of Agents in Utah,” Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs 1885

Published in: on December 17, 2012 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Meeker Massacre Utes Testify

Ouray by William Henry Jackson

Testimony of the Ute Chiefs
The New York Times
November 16, 1879
Los Pinos, Cal.
[a little typographical error by the Times; should be Colorado]

“Ouray carried his point at the Indian council held on the night of November 12, and the principal chiefs of the White River Utes, except Jack, were at the agency yesterday…
          “Ouray has made all the necessary preparations for the protection of the commission and if the White River Utes should make any attempt toward an outbreak, 50 picked men, who are now encamped within rifle shot of the commission, would be on hand the instant anything of that kind was attempted. [A Peace Commission was taking testimony related to the Meeker Massacre.]
          “Indians who testify before the commission are sworn by Chief Ouray…Douglass was the first witness called. The oath, like all the testimony, was translated into Spanish by Ouray, and then into English by Interpreter Townsend…
Douglass…said nothing, heard nothing, and took no part in the killing of Meeker and his employees or in the fight with Thornburg;
he found Mrs. Meeker frightened and fleeing, and took her to his house and took care of her;
his time was so much occupied with the care of his wounded boy that he did not know anything in relation to what was going wrong;
at the time of the killing of the employees began, he was in the warehouse, and did not know who began the attack;
his feelings overcame him, and it made him cry to think of the condition into which his friends had fallen;
         “Meeker told him that in two days soldiers would come. Douglass replied that it would be better to have officers come to the agency and have a council and try to settle the existing difficulties. As the Indians were afraid of the soldiers, Mr. Meeker promised to go with Douglass in the morning and meet the officers; but while they were talking the fight with Thornburgh was going on, though neither Douglass nor Mr. Meeker was aware of the fact at the time.”

Published in: on November 14, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Accounting for Indian Funds

In January 1880, Congress held hearings on the Meeker Massacre. William Leeds, Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (often called the “Indian Bureau,” said in his testimony:

“From 1874, for three years, there was $25,000 a year due them [the Utes] that was not paid. Then when the new Ute Commission went out [to Colorado] in 1878, they paid the Indians something on account, but there is now some sixty and odd thousand dollars due them, or more than that.” Leeds noted that this was a “source of constant grievance, and all the more so because Ouray was paid his $1,000 a year.”

          William Leeds was apparently sympathetic to the plight of Indians he encountered in his job with the Indian Bureau, and perhaps irritated with the way the Bureau handled Indian affairs. Leeds had been an investigator for the Board of Indian Commissioners until his appointment as Chief Clerk in 1877.
          In 1879 Leeds had hosted the visit of Hinmaton Yalakit of the Nez Perce, also known as Chief Joseph, who came to Washington to plead his case. During the chief’s visit, Leeds resigned from the Bureau. That same year, Leeds informed the Indian activist writer Helen Hunt Jackson about government supplies for Indians that were left sitting at Rawlings, Wyoming for over a year. (The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879-1885)

Leeds quote from: Testimony in Relation to The Ute Indian Outbreak taken by the Commission on Indian Affairs of the House of Representatives, 46th Congress, 2nd Session, HR, MIS DOC No 38

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Treaties and Indians

In January 1880, debate over the fate of the Utes in Colorado was national news. Ouray and Chipeta had arrived in Washington, D.C. with a delegation of chiefs and a few of the accused in the Meeker Massacre. Some Colorado legislators quoted hometown newspaper headlines that blared “The Utes Must Go.”
          The following note (author unidentified) appeared in the January 10, 1880 issue of Harpers Weekly.

          The truth is that we impose treaties upon the Indians and observe them just so far as suits our own pleasure, and no farther. When the white population presses more closely upon an Indian reservation, as now upon that of the Utes in Colorado, the Indians are made to give way. Of course the advance of civilization must not be restrained. But equally of course a government which does not intend to respect treaties has no right to make them; and when they are made with people who cannot compel their observance, the violation of them is as mean as it is infamous.

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Cantankerous Colorow

Colorow was one of the participants in the 1879 Meeker Massacre. As a result, his band of White River Utes from Colorado was sent to the existing Uintah Reservation in Utah. In 1887, the Indian Agent at the Unitah Agency wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs requesting approval to transfer a list of Indians to the Ouray Agency, Utah.

September 17, 1887. “Most of these Indians belong to Colorow‘s band. He does not want to come to this reservation but is willing to stop on the Uncompahgre Reservation. The Indians here prefer for him and his band to remain below.”

When the Uncompahgre (or Ouray) Reservation was established in 1881, it was on land south east from the Uintah Reservation. The letter was included with a census taken by the agent. (National Archives microfilm #595/608 Indian Census 1885-1940)

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Story in a Blanket

Internet searches may deliver unexpected surprises. A recent search turned up a Navaho child’s shoulder blanket made of wool Bayetta. It was not what I expected but it turned out to be just what I wanted–once I discovered the story behind this lovely musem piece.  
          According to the museum description, Chief Manuelito of the Navajo (pictured above) presented the blanket to Chief Ouray of the Utes. The occasion or reason for the gift was not explained.
          In 1879, Ourary presented the blanket to his friend and former Ute Indian Agent, Charles Adams, after Adams intervened on behalf of the Utes in the Meeker Massacre affair.
          The blanket now resides in the Woolaroc Museum near Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
          The portrait of Manuelito is from the collection of the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hazardous Duty 1879

On September 24, 1879, the Office of Indian Affairs approved the appointments of twelve employees at the White River Agency. There was no difference between the annual wage of a laborer, a carpenter, and a blacksmith; everyone received $720.00 per year (plus room and board) regardless of skills. There were two exceptions. The Ute and English-speaking Interpreter received $300.00. Perhaps he worked only part-time. In an unusual twist for the timeperiod, the only female employee received the highest pay–$750.00. Being the Indian Agent’s daughter made no difference on the government’s fixed pay schedule. Josephine Meeker may have received $30 per year more than the male employees because she filled two jobs–Teacher and Physician. 
          The employees, their job titles, and their annual salaries were:
Henry James, Interpreter, $300   
William H. Post, Carpenter, $720
Josephine Meeker, Teacher and Physician, $750
Henry S. Dresser, Engineer, $720
Albert Woodbury, Blacksmith, $720
Edwin L. Mansfield, Herder, $720
Shaduck Price, Farmer, $720
Wilmer Eskridge, Sawyer, $720
Arther L. Thomson, Laborer, $720
Frank G. Dresser, Laborer, $720
Fred E. Shepherd, Laborer, $720
George W. Eaton, Laborer, $720
          The position of Millwright was unfilled because Meeker could not find a qualified person willing to work in a remote and dangerous place for those wages.
          Five days after the official appointment letter was signed in Washington, DC, Agent Meeker and eight employees lay dead. Only Henry James, Albert Woodbury and Edwin Mansfield survived because they were not at the agency on that fatal day. Josephine Meeker also survived after enduring nearly 30 days as a Ute hostage (along with her mother and the wife and two children of Shaduck Price).

Published in: on October 26, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Rescued Captives

The women and children taken captive during the September 29, 1879 Meeker Massacre were held in a remote moutain camp.
MeekerThe 5th Cavalry under Colonel Wesley Merritt arrived at the White River Agency on October 11th. They buried the bodies of Meeker and his employees. Reinforcements arrived bringing the total number of soldiers to 1,000. On October 14th, just as Merritt was ready to set out to find the camp and rescue the hostages, he received orders to halt.
          Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz had arrived in Denver. Two days earlier Chief Ouray and Southern Ute Agent William M. Stanley had assured Schurz that the White River Utes “…will fight no more unless forced to do so.”  Schurz wanted a peaceful resolution. He appointed Charles Adams to negotiate for release of the hostages.  Adams was a former Ute Indian Agent generally trusted by the Utes.  
           Adams arrived at Ouray and Chipeta’s home on October 21, 1879. Ouray sent a message to the Northern Utes that Adams was coming and assigned his most trusted men to lead Adams to the camp. Adams quickly gained release of the captives. The three women and two children arrived at Ouray and Chipeta’s home on October 29th.   
          Adams continued to negotiate with the Utes to surrender the men responsible for the murders at White River Agency.  Finally on November 10th the Utes agreed.
          The Army remained in western Colorado to keep the peace for the next two years.

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Chipeta’s Legend

Stories still circulate that Chipeta rescued the hostages after the 1879 Meeker Massacre. In these tales, she jumped on her horse, rode through the night, and demanded that the Northern Utes release the captive women and children. Part of this legend comes from a poem titled “Chipeta.” The author, Eugene Field, read it at the 1882 Colorado Press Convention. The key verse about the Meeker captives reads:
          She rode where old Ouray dare not ride,
          A path through the winderness rough and wild;
          She road to plead for woman and child;
          She road in the valleys, dark and chill.
          Chipeta did play a vital role in the hostages’ release but she did her work “behind the scenes.” A Northern Ute runner brought the news. Chipeta sent another runner to bring Ouray home from hunting. She assembled the Uncompahgre chiefs ready for a council as soon as Ouray returned. Later, she talked Ouray out of going to war.
          The Northern Utes asked the other Ute bands to join them. They proposed an all-out war against the white miners and settlers who had invaded traditional Ute territory. Ouray was ill with Bright’s Disease. He knew his body was failing. Dying as a warrior in battle, rather than as a sick man confined to bed, appealed to him. Chipeta talked all night to convince him that war with the citizens of Colorado would doom the Ute people. In the end he ordered the talk of war to cease.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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