The Ute War: a History of the White Thomas F. Dawson and F. J. V. Skiff, E. V. Sumner & Thomas Sturgis Date Published:
2014/04 Page Count:
200 Softcover ISBN-13:
978-1-78282-274-5 Hardcover ISBN-13:
The conflict between the White River Ute Indians of Colorado and the United States Army was the last Indian conflict in the region. In 1879, the Utes were already living on a reservation managed by Indian agent Nathan Meeker. He was dedicated to converting the tribe to both Christianity and an agrarian lifestyle. Inevitably, he provoked outrage among his charges when he pursued his policy to the extent of ploughing the paddock the Utes used for horse grazing. Foreseeing trouble, Meeker called in the army for support, a contingent of which arrived under the command, and arguably heavy and impetuous hand, of Major Thomas Thornburgh. Despite promising the Utes he would not escalate matters by military force and would keep soldiers off the reservation, Thornburgh ordered the opposite and was immediately discovered by a watchful and suspicious Ute force. This prompted open hostilities, resulting in the Battle of Milk Creek. Tactically outmanoeuvred, Thornburgh’s command was held under siege and suffered significant casualties including the death of its commanding officer. The Utes then rose against their overseers on the reservation, slaughtered several men, including Meeker and took three women and two children into captivity. The survivors of Thornburgh’s command were by now in a poor condition, pinned down in pits behind insubstantial barricades and surrounded by their dead animals. Annihilation would have been certain but for the timely arrival of relief in the form of the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ from Fort Lewis. Hostilities progressed in the usual manner for the western frontier, once American forces became aware of the situation and applied the resources required for a definitive solution the Utes were defeated. This, irrespective of the merits of their case, was disastrous for the future of the tribe and their displacement from their traditional lands became an inevitability.
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During the early part of the first night of the siege under cover of the darkness, while the Indians had temporarily ceased their murderous vigil, Joe Rankin, the scout who had warned the fallen commander of his danger, stole away from the trenches and succeeded in reaching the open road to the north. His mission was to convey the tidings of the battle and call out relief for the beleaguered troops. The wonderful ride of this daring scout has become a feature in the history of the war. The distance from the scene of the massacre to Rawlins, the nearest telegraph point, is one hundred and sixty miles. Rankin started at ten o’clock Monday night on a strange horse, his having been shot in the battle, and delivered the startling tidings at Rawlins Wednesday morning between two and three o’clock, he having accomplished the distance in twenty-eight hours. This man brought the first news of the ambush and of the death of Thornburgh and his command.
The first morning of the siege broke bright and clear. It was a glorious day and the romantic scenery of the cañon never spoke greater glory to Nature. But the picture which the rising sun, as it moved across the arch, exposed to view, was one which none but a hostile could gaze upon and not shudder.
As the dark mantle of night was lifted and the first day of the siege came on, the orb of light was greeted by the groans of the dying, the moans of the wounded and the wild cry of the disabled horses. The hours of the first night had seen the soldiers labouring hard to complete their defence as far as possible and secure to themselves all the protection which the desperation of a forlorn hope could call upon men to devise. The location of the pits and wagons and the position of the trenches and wagons have been given. There were seventeen pits in all, about seventy feet long, two and a half feet wide and two feet deep, with breast works ranging from two to four feet above the opening and at its sides.
In the centre of the pits were forty-three wounded men, including a few settlers. One hundred soldiers occupied the pits and over two hundred and fifty dead animals surrounded the corral. There were two look-outs to each pit, making thirty-four men constantly on guard, through oddly fashioned loop-holes, in some instances made through the body of a horse.
As day grew on, the alert foe, securely hidden be hind the sheltering shelves of the bluffs, renewed their fire, watching each exposed point and directing aim at man or beast whenever carelessness or necessity brought them in even momentary view.
Captain Payne, then in command, during the night had the wounded horses shot for breastworks, dismantling the wagons of boxes, bundles of the bedding, corn and flour sacks, which were piled up for fortifications, so that the troops were fairly protected when morning came. The picks and shovels were used vigorously during the day for digging entrenchments. All the time a galling fire was concentrated upon the command from all the surrounding bluffs which commanded the position. Not an Indian could be seen, but the incessant crack of their Sharps and Winchester rifles dealt fearful destruction among the horses and men.
The groans of the dying and the agonizing cries of the wounded told what terrible havoc was being made among the determined and desperate command. Every man was bound to sell his life as dearly as possible.
About midday a great danger was seen approaching at a frightfully rapid pace. The red devils, at the beginning of the day, had set fire to the dry grass and sage-brush to the windward of the position of the pits, and it now came sweeping down towards the trenches, the flames leaping high into the air and dense volumes of smoke rolling on to engulf the troops. It was a sight to make the stoutest heart quail, and the fiends were waiting ready to send in a volley as soon the soldiers should be driven from their shelter. It soon reached the flanks, and blankets, blouses and empty sacks were freely used to extinguish the flames. Some of the wagons were set on fire, and it required all the force possible to smother the blaze. No water could be obtained, and the smoke was suffocating, but the fire passed, and the men still held their position.
All this time a constant fire was poured upon the pits, Captain Payne being wounded for the second time and First Sergeant Dolan, of Company F, killed instantly; McKinsley and McKee killed and many others wounded. But the greatest danger was past. The men had now nearly covered themselves, but the poor horses and mules were constantly falling under sharp fire.
And so passed the first day. That night a second courier was sent out with despatches up to the hour of his leaving. There was great danger in breaking from the shelter of the trenches even under cover of the darkness, but the men who volunteered for this service knew no fear and were skilled in the intrepid feats they essayed. During the second day the bodies of the dead men and animals began to become offensive, and every opportunity afforded by a brief relaxation in the firing of the Indians from the heights which might indicate a temporary cessation of watching, the breastworks which crested the trenches would be increased in dimensions by the added body of a dead soldier or horse. Over these bodies dirt was thrown, and by this means the corpses were poorly buried and at the same time additional protection afforded the survivors of the fight. Thus had been erected three breastworks formed by the dead bodies of horses, while one was formed of dead soldiers piled one above the other and covered with earth.
Many were the earnest councils held as to the possible means by craft or daring of escaping the terrible pen in which the soldiers were. The hours were counted it would take the relief in which to reach the trenches, in case the couriers got through safely. There seemed no way but to wait the coming of the troops.
Just about sundown this day a charge was attempted, but repulsed, the Indians trying to drive off some of the horses that had broken loose. The attack ceased at dark, and pretty soon every man was at work enlarging the trenches, hauling out the dead horses, caring for the wounded and burying the dead. And so came on the third night. In the history of the siege this was the most uneventful night. Several trips were made for water, which brought no warning shot from the bluffs. The wounded were cared for and the protections made more secure.
The sun came up on the third day of the siege, shooting its rays upon the horde of dead, wounded and alive alike. How succour was prayed for; how the speed of the couriers was urged by the despairing soldiers as they contemplated their desperate, almost hopeless condition, rendered ten-fold wretched by the presence of their dead comrades and the sufferings of their wounded companions. But while yet the beleaguered troops were praying for the safety of their messengers and the hurrying forward of their relief, an outlook shouted alarm, and preparations were made for an attack from the foe which had been expected for hours. Every man jumped to his post ready to give the red devils a warm welcome. Even the wounded who were able to do so, grasped rifles and made ready to defend themselves, shattered as they were. But it was a relief, entirely unlocked for, but welcome beyond expression. It was the famous coloured cavalry under command of Captain Dodge, who had been intercepted by a Rawlins courier and had ridden to the support of their white brethren in arms.