c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
For decades, Hollywood had movie fans believing all Indians were evil savages who ran around killing whites and committing barbaric acts. Such stereotyping has been countered by historians showing that America’s true natives were, like any culture, closely knit with their own society, religion and way of life that is in fact enviable. In Colorado, the Utes stand out as one of the friendliest tribes in the Indian nation. They also are the only indigenous Native Americans of Colorado. And, despite their reputation as a peaceful tribe, the Utes of Colorado were never violently conquered by another civilization. That isn’t to say they didn’t have their battles—beginning with early Spanish explorers—but it is rare to see an instance where the Utes started a fight. They just finished it.
Nobody really knows when Ute tribes first came to Colorado, or even where they migrated from. The Indians themselves simply say they have been here “since the beginning.” It is thought that the Ute nation is descended from the Desert culture, the Fremont Indians and perhaps even the Basket Makers, which would date their presence in Colorado to 10,000 years ago or more. Other sources speculate the Utes may have migrated from Mexico, since their native tongue is deemed Uto-Aztecan.
Throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s in Colorado, Utes both befriended and fought various incoming tribes, including Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos. Seven different tribes once thrived throughout the state, each with their own name, dialect and culture. The Utes commanded the mountainous regions of Colorado, guarding Ute Pass—one of the few ways to access the western portion of the state. It should be noted here that at last count, there were five areas officially known as Ute Pass. The pass referenced here today traverses a beautiful canyon west of Interstate 25 from Manitou Springs. Most recently, the area made international news for the Waldo Canyon wildfire in 2012 and the subsequent floods which created havoc along the pass in 2014.
In those early days, Manitou Springs at the bottom of the pass was regarded as a sacred sanctuary. Here, seemingly magical, bubbling springs flow from massive caverns below. The Utes believed a great god, Manitou, resided below the springs. Manitou’s breathing gave the springs bubbles and steam, bringing health to all who drank from them. To pay homage and bring good luck, the Utes made annual treks from the mountains to visit Manitou. Utes were adept at basketry, leather work and clay wares. They often left offerings of this nature, as well as beads and knives, for Manitou. Other tribes were permitted to pay homage as well, and springs were known as common ground among all nations. At the top of the pass near Florissant, however, immunity from war was forgotten; battles between the Utes and other tribes were common.
While the near the top of the pass Cripple Creek District is best known for its gold deposits and mining history, the Utes favored the area’s high country meadows as an abundant hunting ground for thousands of generations. Utes were hunters and gatherers, and the mountains offered an abundance of edible fauna, berries and wildlife. Because the District sits at an elevation close to 10,000 feet, however, the area did not make good winter quarters. The Utes spent their winters in the lower and warmer regions, such as northern New Mexico, once the snow began falling. Spring and fall were spent commuting and preparing for the alternate seasons.
After a treaty between the Utes and the Spanish was established in 1675, the Utes became accustomed to the presence of Spaniards, Mexicans and eventually, white settlers traipsing up and down Ute Pass. They traded freely with early explorers and weathered several historic events, including New Mexico Territorial Governor Juan Bautista de Anza’s quest to kill the Comanche leader Cuerno Verde in 1779, Zebulon Pike’s failed attempt to scale Pikes Peak in November of 1806, and Major Stephen H. Long’s successful climb to the top of the mountain in 1820. They also met such famous explorers as Kit Carson, explorer John C. Fremont, and English adventurer George F. Ruxton, all of whom traversed Ute Pass during the 1840’s.
The year 1859 saw the first use of Ute Pass by freighters. Hundreds of prospectors and merchants were making their way to the gold fields on the western slope of Colorado. Skirmishes between whites and Indians still occurred, but the occasional troubles hardly stopped people like Augusta and H.A.W. Tabor, who traversed the pass on their way to Leadville. Within a year, Ute Pass became known as the “Gateway to the Goldfields”. The Utes’ passiveness at the new flurry of activity was encouraged by their famed leader, Ouray, who encouraged friendships with white men. In 1863, Ouray served as an interpreter at the Conejos Peace Treaty and was subsequently appointed leader of the Tabeguache Utes. In 1873, he also assisted in negotiating the Brunot Treaty. Unfortunately many of these treaties, designed to bring peace between the Indians and the government, were later broken by the white men who agreed to them.
In the aftermath of the infamous Meeker Massacre of 1879, Ouray and another Ute, Buckskin Charlie, went to Washington D.C. to negotiate a peaceable end to the ordeal. When Ouray resigned his position as Ute leader a short time later, he appointed Buckskin Charlie his successor. Ouray died in 1880, but the town of Ouray on Colorado’s western slope was named for him. Ouray’s wife Chipeta also had two towns named for her, including the Ute Pass resort town of Chipita Park.
A Colorado native, Buckskin Charlie was orphaned by the age of 11. He became a warrior, participating in many battles against plains Indians. One skirmish left a bullet scar on his forehead. Later, Charlie served as a scout for the U.S. Army. He earned his famous nickname for the number of antelope he killed and subsequently skinned on the expedition. Buckskin Charlie reigned over the Utes for an amazing 56 years. Photographs of him often depict him wearing a moustache, a rare characteristic among Indians. Charlie encouraged his tribe to let their children be educated by whites and attend church services. He also spoke English and dressed in white men’s clothing when visiting Washington D.C.—even though the government noted his preference for the Ute tongue and his refusal to outlaw peyote and other ceremonial aspects of his native culture. Still, Charlie was patient and sensible in his dealings with U.S. officials, even when arguing over broken treaties.
As Charlie continued his negotiations, more and more whites migrated to Colorado. Throughout the years, the Utes had watched as early ranchers homesteaded on their treasured hunting grounds and began mining in the Cripple Creek District. By the 1890’s, when the District was formed, the Utes had lost their hold on the area altogether. Within a few short years, hundreds of prospect holes and mines were erasing the past. Two gulches, Papoose Gulch and Squaw Gulch, were so-named for the remains of an “aborigine woman” and a child that were found there. More than likely, they were actually Ute skeletons.
Indeed, the turn of the century held many changes for residents of the Pike’s Peak region. In 1912, the El Paso County Pioneer’s Association in Colorado Springs decided to dedicate the old Ute Pass trail to those who had used it long before any white man. Buckskin Charlie was invited to the ceremonies. Scores of Utes, dressed in full regalia, rode the pass. As the party passed into French Creek Valley just below Cascade, the Indians burst into ceremonial song. Buckskin Charlie led the pack, declaring, “I seventy years old and never been so happy.” Ute outposts were still visible along the pass as late as 1920.
Throughout his career, Buckskin Charlie maintained his outstanding reputation and personally met with seven United States presidents. He died in 1936, and some say his death was the last of the Indian frontier as Native Americans knew it. Although fewer in number, however, many Utes still live in Colorado, maintaining their peaceful lifestyles and ceremonial beliefs.