Pagosa's Past: The Meeker Massacre

2021/03/oldtimer-scan0087-use-300x212.gif Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Shown here is the stagecoach carrying passengers between the Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad in northern New Mexico and Pagosa Springs circa 1881. The station was called the Halfway House and was located on today’s U.S. 84 just north of Deadman’s Curve.[/caption]

By John M. Motter

PREVIEW Columnist

This week’s column is continued from last week. We’ve been writing about the creation in 1878-1879 of the Southern Ute Indian Agency in Ignacio.

The Utes gave up almost 1,894,400 acres of land in exchange for their new reservation. The government intended to compensate the Utes with money for the lost land, but it never happened. A provision in the contract to do so was mistakenly omitted. It mattered little because Congress failed to ratify the contract.

Unfortunately for the Utes, they and their agent stationed at Ignacio were left in limbo after this agreement was not signed. The agent, whose name was Weaver, had but two small buildings from which to tend the needs of 800 Utes.

Camp Lewis was probably established at Pagosa Springs at this time because the Army thought the proposed reservation would be approved by Congress. Pagosa Springs would then have been an ideal location for the fort, with the agency headquarters south on the Navajo River.

The Utes were not happy about being back in Ignacio, according to Weaver. He complained in his annual report that they had threatened his life for putting the agency in Ignacio instead of on the Navajo River.

Nevertheless, Weaver attempted to carry out government policy, which was to make self-sufficient farmers of the Utes.

Evidence of Ute discontent mounted across Colorado. Finally, at the White River Agency near Meeker in northwestern Colorado, the smoldering resentment of the Utes exploded into tragedy. 

Led by Chief Douglas, the White River Utes killed Agent Nathan Meeker, driving a wooden stake through his mouth and navel. All of the male agency employees, including three freighters, were slaughtered. The womenfolk and children were kidnapped and held hostage. Fourteen soldiers from three rescue forces sent in by the U.S. Army were killed.

Finally, Company D of the U.S. Cavalry, a special unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers sent to patrol the area, arrived at the scene and rescued the hostages. Company D had been at Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs just a few weeks earlier. The conflagration just described became known as the Meeker Massacre. Only the Custer Massacre in Montana exceeded the Meeker Massacre in carnage.

As newspapers spread details of the massacre across the nation, public outrage soared. Even though only the White River Utes committed the atrocity, all Utes were made to pay.