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Chief Ouray

In the mid-1800s, Colorado was crawling with prospectors and settlers in search of their fortunes—and undergoing great social and political change. The Ute Indians, who until then occupied almost all of Western Colorado, wanted nothing to do with the newcomers.

Chief Ouray (whose Ute name means Arrow) found himself caught in the middle. On the one hand, if he didn’t learn the white man’s politics, what chance did he stand of striking a deal with the U.S. government to save the best part of his people’s land? On the other hand, would his people think he was a traitor if he negotiated with the white man and adopted his ways?

Broken Treaties

One of Ouray’s major accomplishments was the negotiation of the Treaty With the Ute in 1868, which granted some 15 million acres of land to the Indians. The treaty was considered to be the most favorable ever negotiated with the U.S. government by an Indian tribe. But it wouldn’t last. By 1874, the discovery of gold in the San Juan Mountains had attracted fortune seekers by the dozens to Ute land. Although most of the Ute favored violent retaliation, Ouray insisted on peaceful negotiation. The U.S. government drew up another treaty, proposing that the Ute give up almost 4 million acres of their land in return for some $60,000 in annuities and allotments. (Those acres included land that would become Ouray, Silverton, Lake City, and dozens of other mining camps.) Ouray, who was still convinced that cooperation with the U.S. government was best for his people, reluctantly signed the agreement, known as the Brunot Treaty. The tribe never received any money from the United States. Within seven years, they’d lose the rest of their land and be ordered to a reservation in Utah.

Between Two Worlds

The treaties earned Ouray recognition as head of the entire Ute nation, and granted him an annual salary of $1,000. Even though he preferred the traditional ways, Ouray knew his people could not stop the march of history, something he believed his fellow Ute would never understand. He took up residence with his wife, Chipeta, on a small government-owned farm south of Montrose to show his people that it was possible for them to adjust to white ways. The couple adopted Euro-American customs, furnishing their home with curtains, china, and teapots. Ouray even wore the white man’s broadcloth and boots for a time, but he refused to cut his long hair, which he wore in braids that hung down on his chest in typical Ute fashion. Most Ute felt Ouray had sold out to the whites. He was even accused of treason, and several attempts were made on his life. Nonetheless, Ouray was instrumental in negotiating the release of white hostages kidnapped during the Meeker Massacre in 1879, and continued to act as a liaison between his people and the government until his death in 1880. A great negotiator, Ouray is remembered as a man who believed in peace more than war.

Updated: 2014-01-16

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