During the 1870s silver strikes in Colorado brought many whites into the western part of the state. As a result, the Utes were persuaded to sell large tracts of their land to accommodate the growing population. By the end of the decade tension between Indians and whites had reached a dangerous level. The Utes harbored much anger over their treatment, and whites were quick to blame the Utes for any crime that occurred.
In the spring of 1878 Nathan C. Meeker was appointed agent at White River in northwestern Colorado. Meeker proved a poor choice, especially for White River, where tensions were running particularly high. Meeker operated under the philosophy that the Utes could and should be transformed, literally overnight, into an agricultural society. He insisted, for example, on plowing up meadows where Ute ponies grazed. Acts such as this provoked the Utes to a point that even Meeker feared a violent reaction and asked the army for help.
When Maj. Thomas Thornburg arrived in the area with a column of troops from Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming, the Utes became angry; as they thought the troops had come to arrest them. In a meeting with Ute leaders, Thornburg assured them that the soldiers had not come for that purpose. However, when Thornburg moved his command forward so as to be closer to the agency, the Utes interpreted this as a hostile action and attacked the soldiers. In the fight that followed at Milk Creek Canyon, Thornburg was killed and his besieged command was rendered helpless. The Utes, their anger now unleashed, attacked the agency. Meeker and nine of his employees were quickly slaughtered; Mrs. Meeker and her daughter Josephine, together with another woman and two children, were taken captive.
As news of the event spread, troops were rushed to the area from various stations in the West. A full-scale military reprisal was avoided, however, largely through the efforts of Ouray and former Ute agent Charles Adams, who managed to negotiate with the White River band for the release of the women.