One of the worst defeats suffered by the frontier Army occurred on Sept. 29, 1879, at Meeker, Colo.
On that date, Chief Douglas of the Northern Utes and a group of his warriors killed Indian agent Nathan Meeker and seven other members of the White River Agency at Meeker.
We’ve been writing for some weeks describing friction between the Utes and white settlers in Pagosa Country. Fort Lewis was started at Pagosa Springs as a result of that friction. Even with the fort located in Pagosa Springs, local settlers were worried and taking precautionary measures.
Company D of the 9th Cavalry commanded by Capt. Dodge had been stationed in Pagosa Springs during the winter of 1878. Because there was Ute unrest throughout western Colorado, Dodge and his black cavalry company had been moved to Fort Garland early in 1879. From there, they had been sent on patrol in North Park in the northern part of Colorado.
Later in the year, they were camped at Hot Sulphur Springs, 150 miles from the White River Agency with headquarters at Meeker. By this time, Dodge had 44 men in his command. The Meeker reservation had been set apart for the Northern Ute bands, who were at least as restless as the Southern Utes in Pagosa Country.
Getting restless himself, Dodge led his men across the Gore Mountain Range to Steamboat Springs and later to the Yampa River crossing of the road to the reservation. Here, a mail contractor told him things were fairly peaceful at the Meeker Agency. He returned to North Park.
Meanwhile, Maj. Thomas T. Thornburg had been ordered to march from his post at Fort Steele, 15 miles east of Rawlins, Wyo., to the White River Agency at Meeker. Thornburg commanded an infantry company, three cavalry units and a supply train of eight wagons.
On Milk Creek, about 30 miles north of Meeker, Thornburg’s command was attacked and pinned down by the Utes just after they had crossed the creek. Out in the open and isolated from the creek, they defended themselves by circling the wagons. The Utes were killing the troops’ horses and mules in an effort to prevent the defensive circle.
A homesteader named Jim Dunn guessed at the route Dodge would take getting back to North Park and left a written message along the trail tied to sagebrush. The advance guard of Dodge’s detail found the message two days later. The message read, “Thornburg killed. His men in peril. Rush to the rescue.”
Dodge abandoned his supply wagons in order to travel faster. Riding at double-time, Company D scrambled as fast as they could in an effort to save Thornburg’s troops. When they arrived at the battle-site on Milk Creek, Dodge ordered his bugler to sound the attack. The Utes let them through and the pinned-down troops held their fire while the 9th Cavalry joined them inside their bloody enclosure.
At daybreak, Dodge suggested a charge of the sharpshooting Indians hidden on the mountainsides above Thornburg’s men, but was convinced by others that a counterattack would be suicide. By the second day after Dodge’s arrival, 148 Army animals were dead. Instead of affecting a rescue, Dodge had entered the death trap. More next week on the Meeker Massacre.”