Meeker Massacre/Milk Creek Battle

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring Sioux Nation Forts

The following story is from the book, Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, by Jerry Keenan.

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.

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  • “As a result, the Utes were persuaded to sell large tracts of their land to accommodate the growing population.”

    Persuaded by poverty, starvation and the U.S. Government’s refusal to deliver cattle, sheep, feed and other rations promised in the 1868 Treaty. “Persuaded?”

    • Thank you for this contribution. Please note, as explained in our website policies, the decision to post an excerpt like this one does not imply the endorsement of our editorial team. Pieces like the one above are intended for scholarly research into the views and behavior of settlers at that point in history. We encourage readers to understand and critique the one-sidedness of these accounts and appreciate your comment.

  • “They thought the troops had come to arrest them.”
    Meeker repeatedly reminded the Ute of the fate of Arapahoe at Sand Creek and told them they would be killed and led away in chains if they did not submit to his commands. The Ute repeatedly warned Thornburgh not to cross Milk Creek into Ute lands, telling him it would be interpreted as an act of war. Thornburgh knew EXACTLY what he was doing and so did the Utes. There was no confusion here. Thornburgh declared war. The Utes defended their land.

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