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Summit County, Colorado
Original Inhabitants

The following information is transcribed from, Historic Sites in Summit County, A Consultant Report to the Board of County Commissioners, by Douglas S. Walter. College of Environmental Design, Univeristy of Colorado, May, 1976, Pages 25 - 32.
**Please note, the terminology used in this transcription is original to the author and the era in which it was written.
These are not the opinions of the site author.**


    One evening, about 7,000 years ago, an Idian hunting party found an inviting spot along the upper reaches of West Tenmile Creek, near what we now call Vail Pass, and made camp there for the night. A fire was started to roast meat for dinner while other hunters set to work chipping new stone points for their hunting tools. We know this because in the summer and fall of 1975, a team working in advance of the Interstate 70 project found those stone flkaes, found discarded tools, and found the actual campfires which, through radio-carbon testing, proved to have burned 4800 years B.C. That was only the earliest trace found: there were many more campfires and many more tools and flakes due to repeated use for centuries, the most recent dating being about 1760, a century before the white man arrived in force.
    The Indian was not interested in the gold and the silver that seemed to drive the Spanish and the miners into such a frenzy. THe Indian roamed the fertile valleys of what is now Summit County for game. Vast herds of buffalo, deer, and elk were sheltered by her mountains, while rivers and streams abounded in fish.
    The Utes were the primary tribe associated with the mountain country of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, although Plains Indians frequently ventured into the mountains for game, to make war, or simply to get lodgepole pines, found only at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet, for their tipis. A Jesuit missionary, who traveled thorughout the Rocky Mountains, Pierre Jean De Smet, left us with this account of the Ute Indians as the white men found them in 1841:

The country of the Utaws is situated to the

East and Southeast of the Shoshonees, at the
sources of the Rio Colorado. The population
consists of about 4000 souls. Mildness, aff-
ability, simplicity of manners, hospitality
towards strangers, constant union among them-
selves, form the happy traits in their char-
acter. They subsist on hunting and fishing,
and on fruits and roots. (Thwaites, 1906, p.168)

    The Utes were a strong, nomadic people, living in family groups throughout the mountains. They hunted and fished, and in the 19th century, learned to trade with the Spaniards and teh white hunters who began to appear. They valued the horse that had been introduced to their lives by the Spanish, for giving them greater mobility and making access to the plains and trading towns easier. While the men either fought and hunted or spent much time boasting about it, the women did the work. Indian women prepared the meals, raised the children (except for instruction in war, hunting and religion), made the clothes, and even moved the campsites. Their houses were easily transportable tippis, a framework of slender logs over which was stretched a covering of buffalo hides. To move camp, they simply lashed the poles to either side of their horses, lashing the folded buffalo skins behind. Of course, this method of transport was hard on the poles, which grew shorter with every move and soon required replacement. (McMechan, 19, p. 113)
    After a successful buffalo hunt, the women skinned the animals, roasted meat for a feast and cut the rest into strips which were hung over a fire to dry. The hides were scraped clean, treated and stretched on frames to dry. Dried meat was often combined with wild berries and ground into a powder; this was called pemmican and was put away for the winter. The hides were used for tipi coverings, leggings, robes, moccasins and the like. (Pike, 1975, p. 69)
    It was their custom of burial for squaws and lesser braves to be placed in caves or gullies on hillsides, and covered with rock. Chiefs, however, departed this life in a different fashion. Father De Smet observed that they, "... threw the body of the deceased upon the funeral pile, together with a hecatomb of his best horses. The moment that the smoke rises in thick clouds, they think that the soul of the savage is flying towards the region of spirits, borne by the manes of his faithful coursers..." (Thwaits, 1906, p. 165)
    "A powerful and aggressive people, their alliances frequently changed, but the loyalty of the Ute to their land never faltered. The mountains had always been their security, their love and their future." (Exhibit text, State Historical Society Museum) Except for defensive alliances with the Apache to the south (Stone, 1918, p. 77) the Ute were at peace with no other Indian tribe. Arapaho and Commanche tribes are known to have inhabited South Park, and raiding parties frequently crossed the mountain passes leading in and out of what is now Summit County. [Transcribers note, South Park is in neighboring Park County.] Colonel John C. Fremont, leader of a famous 1843 expedition, wrote while camped along the Blue River at a point somwehere north of today's Silverthorne: "We saw today the returning trail of an Arapho party which had been sent from the village (1) to look for Utahs in the Bayou Salade; and it being probable that they would visit our camp with the desire to return on horseback, we were more than usually on the alert." (1) In present Grand County, Colorado. (Fremont, quoted in The Expedition of John Charles Fremont, 1970, p. 715) Several days later, Fremont's party witnessed the fight that developed when the Arapahos finally found the Ute in South Park, a battle involving 500 warriors. (Ibid., p. 718)
    A miner's diary written in 1861 provides us with this eyewitness account:

About the 1st of July, 1861, my friend W.B.

and myself left the fort on a prospecting
tour down the Blue River, about 10 miles...
about the time we were preparing a lunch for
supper, we discovered in the distance, coming
down the river, 40 or 50 Ute Inidans, all
riding ponies in single file. We again con-
cealed ourselves in the brush. They passed
within 30 paces of us and kept down the river
on our side as long as we could see them.
The whole line of them passed without utter-
ing a word. They were fearfully painted, and
evidently on business, for there were no
squaws with them. (Conner, 1970, p.82)

    The Utes were to pose no great threat to the miners pouring into the Blue River Region in the 1800's. The log fort, "For Mary B.", that the apprehenisve first settlers constructed for the first winter of 1859-60, was to see no defensive use, and was quickly abandoned. That the Indians who remained here were evidently trusted, is borne out by this item in The Rocky Mountain News on May 30, 1860: "The town (1) is full of begging Utes, who are very friendly, and are much more agreeable than the Cheyennes or Araphaoes, as they are cleanly and noble in appearance. There are about twelve hundred Utes camped at the mouth of Swan River and Tenmile Creek. We have no fear of them whatever, as they are positively friendly." (1) Breckenridge. But the Indians gradually moved westward, displaced by the feverish mining activity along their once tranquil rivers and hillsides.
    Feeling the pressure, Chief OUray of the Southern Utes, wrote these words to Felix Brunot, a federal agent, on September 13, 1873:

We have many friends among the people in this
territory, and want to live at peace and on
good terms with them, and we feel it would be
better for all parties for a mountain range
to be between us.

We are perfectly willing to sell our mountain
land, and hope the miners will find heaps of
gold and silver, and we have no wish to molest
them or make any trouble. We do not want they
should go down into our valleys, however, and
kill or scare away our game... (Steinel, 1926, P. 102)

    But there was no way that the government could honor Ouray's request, for the miners were a notoriously independent lot, and would not be confined to the mountain tops. Add to this the pressure from thousands of prospective settlers who were anxious to homestead these same fertile valleys, and the picture becomes clear: the Indian must go. Reservations were provided and free horses, supplies and food offered as an inducement to get the Indian to abondon the land of his ancestors. But in the 1870's, though the Utes were supposedly on reservations, they respected these boundaries about as much as the white miners and settlers - that is to say, very little. Tension therefore grew in the Ute territory, and by 1879 had reached a bursting point. Feelings of the settler that year were expressed by Governorn Pitkin, in his address to the legislature:

Along the western borders of the State and
the Pacific lies a vast tract occupied by
the tribe of Ute Indians as their reserva-
tion. It contains about 12 million acres...
This tract contains nearly 1/3 of the arable
land of Colorado, and not portion of the State
is better adapted for agriculture and graz-
ing purposes than any poritons of this reser-

The number of Indians who occupy this reserva-
tion is 3000... I believe that one able-bodied
white settler would cultivate more land than
the whole tribe of Utes. These Indians are
fed by the Government, are allowed poinies
without number, and except when engaged in
an occassional hunt, their most serious employ-
ment is horse racing. If this reservation
could be extinguished and the land opened to
settlers, it would furnish homes to thousands
of people of the State who desire homes.
(Steinel, 1926, p.49)

    White the white man didn't seem to comprehend was that the nomadic Ute culture was based on hunting, and that agriculture or good gathering was women's work. This misunderstanding was to have fatal consequences for Nathan C. Meeker, former Greely Tribune publisher, then Indian agent to the White River Utes. While attempting to carry out the official government policy of farming, his employees made the mistake of plowing through the Indians' favorite race course, whereupon the enraged Utes attacked, killing Meeker and nine other men, while carrying off Meeker's wife, daughter and two others. The government responded with 160 cavalry under Maj. T.T. Thornburg; but they too were attacked and 15 soldiers lost their lives. This, the "Meeker Massacre," provoked a national outrage againts the Utes and pressure was applied for a quick solution. On October 21, 1879 Chief Ouray intervened in the dispute and obtained release of the captives. By two years later, on September 4, 1881, the transfer of the Utes to the Uintah Reservation in Northern Utah and to the Southern Ute Reservation on the New Mexico border was completed, and the vast Colorado reservation thrown open to white settlement.
    It was in these years of 1875 - 1880 that the government finally was able to finish surveying the land in Summit County, a necessary step before any homesteading was allowed. The first homestead patent on record in the County Courthouse date from 1882. In barely two decades, the Indian, who had roamed the entire wilderness for at least 7,000 years, was driven away and confined to reservations.
    The Indian left little in the way of written history to tell us what it was like and what their traditions were. It is now the painstaking task of the archaeologist to piece together the puzzle. What followed was another chapter in the history of the land that is Summit County; a wild, frantic chapter that all had to do with something sparkling at the bottom of a sandy stream bed.

Uinta Ute warrior and his bride on horseback, northwest Utah.
Photographed by John K. Hillers, 1874.
American Indian Select List number 173.
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