Nathan Meeker

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Nathanial C. Meeker
Born (1817-07-12)July 12, 1817
Euclid, Ohio
Died September 29, 1879(1879-09-29) (aged 62)
Meeker, Colorado

Nathanial C. Meeker (July 12, 1817 – September 30, 1879) was a 19th-century United States (US) journalist, homesteading entrepreneur, and Indian agent for the federal government. He is noted for his founding in 1870 of the Union Colony, a cooperative agricultural colony in present-day Greeley, Colorado.

In 1878 he was appointed US Agent at the White River Indian Agency in western Colorado. The next year, he was killed by Ute warriors in what became known as the Meeker Massacre, part of the Ute War. His wife and adult daughter were taken captive for about three weeks. In 1880 the US Congress passed punitive legislation to remove the Ute from Colorado to reservations in present-day Utah, and take away some land formerly guaranteed them.


Nathan Cook Meeker was born in Euclid, Ohio in 1817, to Enoch and Lerena Meeker. He was Christened at the First Presbyterian Church, Cuyahoga on 18 May 1818. As a young man, he married Arvilla Delight Smith on 8 April 1844 in Geauga, Ohio, and they had several children together.

Meeker later became a newspaper reporter for the New York Tribune. In the 1860s, when he was in his 50s, he served as its agricultural editor.

Very interested in the West, in 1866 Meeker wrote Life in the West. He went to the Rocky Mountain region for the Tribune in 1869, and was inspired to plan a utopian agricultural community there. With the backing of his editor Horace Greeley, Meeker organized the Union Colony to be settled in the Colorado Territory. He advertised for applicants to move to the South Platte River basin, in what was intended as a cooperative venture for people of "high moral standards." Meeker received approximately 3000 replies that winter, and accepted about 200 of them to purchase shares.[1]

With the capital from the shares, in 1870 Meeker purchased 2000 acres (8 km²) near present-day Greeley at the confluence of the South Platte and the Cache la Poudre (Powder Bag) rivers. The venture, which relied on funding from Horace Greeley, was initially successful. The settlers brought irrigation techniques to northwestern Colorado, and helped attract additional agricultural settlement in the region. The town of Greeley was incorporated in 1886. The predominant American Indian tribes in the area were bands of Ute, who were struggling with the results of European-American encroachment on their lands.

In 1878, eight years after the founding of the colony, Meeker was appointed United States (US) Indian agent at the White River Ute Indian Reservation, on the western side of the continental divide. He received this appointment although he lacked experience with Native Americans. While living among the Ute, Meeker tried to extend his policy of religious and farming reforms.

Meeker Massacre

An etching that appeared in the December 6, 1879 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the aftermath of the "Meeker Massacre." Meeker grave at lower left; W.H. Post grave at lower right

The federal government had been trying to persuade the Ute to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, and become farmers. It wanted them to send their children to European-American style schools and assimilate into majority culture.

Meeker wanted to convert the Ute from what he considered their state of primitive savagery to become subsistence farmers who adopted his techniques. He was warned that the Ute resented his reforms and attempts at conversion. Ignoring these reports, Meeker ordered that a horse racing track be plowed under to convert the track and horses' pasturage to farmland. The Ute held their horses as a chief source of status and wealth, and considered the order an affront. Meeker suggested to one man that the tribe had too many horses and they would have to kill some to give more land over to agriculture.[citation needed]

Frederick Walker Pitkin, the recently elected Governor of Colorado, had campaigned on a theme of "The Utes Must Go!"; both he and other local politicians and settlers made exaggerated claims against the Ute. They wanted to gain the rich land occupied by the Ute under the Treaty of 1867.[2]

After having the track plowed, Meeker had a tense conversation with an irate Ute chief. Meeker wired for military assistance, claiming that he had been assaulted by an Indian, driven from his home, and severely injured. The government sent approximately 150-200 soldiers, led by Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, commander of Fort Steele in Wyoming, to settle the affair. When the troops were about 50 miles (80 km) from the Indian Agency, a group of Ute rode out to meet them. The Ute said they wanted a peace conference with Meeker, and would allow Thornburgh and five soldiers to come. Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Ute wanted the main body of soldiers to stay 50 miles (80 km) away on a hill which they designated. Thornburgh ignored their demand and continued into the restricted Ute land.[citation needed]

On September 29, 1879, before troops arrived, the Ute attacked the Indian agency, killing Meeker and his 10 male employees. They took some women and children as hostages to secure their own safety as they fled and held them for 23 days.[1][3] Two of the women taken captive were of Meeker's family: his wife Arvilla and daughter Josephine, just graduated from college and working as a teacher and physician.

At Milk Creek on the northern edge of the reservation, about 18 miles from the Agency, Ute warriors attacked Thornburgh's forces. In the first few minutes' exchange of fire, Major Thornburgh and 13 men were killed, including all his officers above the rank of captain. Another 28 men were wounded and three-quarters of the horses and mules were killed, but troops dug in behind the wagon trains and animals' bodies for defense.[4] One man rode hard to get out a request for reinforcements. The US forces held out for several days. They were reinforced by 35 black cavalrymen (known as Buffalo Soldiers) from Fort Lewis in southern Colorado, who got through the enemy lines.[1] The nation was electrified by news of the two Ute attacks in Colorado. Several of the Ute escaped and wintered in North Park, where their wickiups still stand.

Larger US Army relief columns were sent from forts Fred Steele and David A. Russell, both established in Wyoming Territory after the American Civil War as part of the Department of Dakota. Col. David Merritt commanded 350 troops, who traveled by train and marched to reach the surviving forces on Milk Creek on October 8. They rescued the troops and put down the Ute uprising in the Battle of Milk Creek. Wintering over at the site of the former Indian agency, in the spring the US Army forces built a Camp on White River, which the Army occupied until 1883.[1] A few buildings remain of the Army camp.[3]

The following year the US Congress held hearings into the massacre and other circumstances. In retaliation for the killings, they passed the Ute Removal Act. The act denied the Ute 12 million acres (49,000 km2) of land that had formerly been guaranteed to them in perpetuity. Congress insisted that the Utes be forcibly removed from the “Shining Mountains” and relocated to eastern Utah.[5]

Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre Ute, who had not been involved in the uprising, attempted to keep the peace after the massacre and attack on Army forces. He and his wife Chipeta helped negotiate the release of the women and children who had been taken hostage. Despite his efforts, the government forced his people also to leave the western slope and relocate to the new reservation in Utah. He died soon after this decision. On August 28, 1881, his people were forcibly relocated to the Utah Territory.

Nathan Cook Meeker is buried at the Linn Grove Cemetery, Greeley, Weld County, Colorado, U.S. of A -Plot: Blk O, lot 37, spc 3 [1]

List of the dead

  • Nathan Meeker
  • Frank Dresser
  • Henry Dresser
  • George Eaton
  • E.W. Eskridge
  • Carl Goldstein
  • W.H. Post
  • Shaduck Price
  • Fred Shepard
  • Arthur L Thompson
  • "Unknown teamster" [Julius Moore][6]

Legacy and honors

The Meeker Memorial Museum in Greeley, Colorado, the former home of Meeker.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Meeker (Nathan C.) Home", Survey of Historic Sites and Homes: Colorado, National Park Service, 2005, accessed 20 Dec 2010 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "NPS" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Katherine Retzler, Review: Peter Decker, The Utes Must Go, San Juan Silver Stage online Archived January 5, 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Milk Creek battle (or Meeker Massacre)". Meeker Colorado Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 2007-11-17. Retrieved 2008-03-16. 
  4. "Thomas Tipton Thornburgh", Colorado Springs Gazette, 2 October 1879, reprinted on Arlington Cemetery Website (personal), accessed 20 Dec 2010
  5. Dr. Ted Fetter, "The Utes and the Unitarians", November 22, 2009 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
  6. Jacob Piatt Dunn, Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West, Boston: Harper & Brothers, 1886, p. 704, accessed 20 Dec 2010
  7. Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 204. 

Further reading

  • Silbernagel, Robert (2011). Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of the Utes from Colorado. ISBN 978-1-60781-129-9

External links