c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide in 2000.
Long before Colorado’s Ute Pass became Highway 24, an ancient Indian trail once skirted the base of Pikes Peak. Much of it comprises Ute Pass as we know it today, with traces of the original path veering off and onto the highway.
The Utes were among Colorado’s first residents. Ute Pass served as the gateway for their tribes, who worshiped the magical bubbling waters at today’s Manitou Springs. They often camped up and down the pass, even after the formation of Colorado City in 1859, Colorado Springs in 1871 and Manitou Springs in 1872. Frequenters of Ute Pass included Buckskin Charlie, one of the last tribal leaders of the old Ute nation in Colorado.
Born circa 1842, Buckskin Charlie was an original Colorado native. His father was Ute and his mother Apache, but both died before Charlie was 11 years old. The young boy eventually became a warrior, participating in many battles against plains Indians. One such skirmish left the scar of a bullet wound on his forehead. Later, he learned to speak English and served as a scout for the U.S. Army. He earned his famous nickname for the number of antelope he killed during an expedition on behalf of the United States.
Buckskin Charlie also made fast friends with Ouray, head of the Mouache Utes. The two men often made trips to Washington D.C. and talked treaties with the government. It was Ouray who appointed Buckskin Charlie his successor when he stepped down as leader of the Utes. When Ouray died in 1880, Charlie assisted in his secret funeral ceremony.
Photographs of Buckskin Charlie often depict him wearing a moustache, a rare characteristic among Native Americans. As the leader of his people, Charlie encouraged his tribe to let their children be educated by whites and attend church services. He also dressed in white men’s clothing when visiting the Capital. Ever wary, however, government officials took note of Charlie’s preference for his native 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. He was respected by both whites and his tribe, and reigned over the Ute Nation for an amazing 56 years.
The turn of the century held many changes for residents of the Pikes Peak region. In recognition of the passing of an era, the El Paso County Pioneer’s Association decided in 1912 to dedicate the old Ute Pass trail to those who had used it long before any white man. Buckskin Charlie and his tribe were cordially 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.”
Buckskin Charlie continued living a colorful life. In 1925, he assisted in the moving Ouray’s remains to the cemetery at Ignacio. Throughout his career, he maintained his outstanding reputation and personally met with seven United States presidents. He died in 1936 and is buried beside Ouray at Ignacio, in Southern Colorado.
Pictured: Buckskin Charlie and his sons.