History in Focus: The Utes and the Progressive Era
Conservation of wildlife and natural resources is one of the great accomplishments of the Progressive Era. However, in 1897 new state hunting laws designed to protect dwindling big game herds precipitated a final and violent conflict between Ute Indians and settlers in Browns Park.
After the Meeker Massacre in 1879, the Northern Utes were forced to accept reservation life centered around Fort Duchesne, Utah. However, the state boundary was of little significance to the Utes who annually returned to their traditional hunting grounds in northwest Colorado .
In the spring of 1897, the state legislature passed new and strict wild hunting laws. In a public notice published in newspapers, the Department of Forestry, Game, and Fish declared, “…all wild game, animals, and birds therein mentioned, and the fish in the public waters are declared to be property of the state…” (Pueblo Chieftain, 5/7/1897). The state was determined to protect its newly designated property.
In northwest Colorado W. R. Wilcox of Steamboat Springs was named deputy game warden, a tough law man who, “officiated as deputy marshall in the frontier towns of Kansas in early days, which fits him especially for the position which he has received.” (Steamboat Pilot, 4/28/1897).
By fall, reports filtered in that Utes were slaughtering wild game and cattle in western Routt County (today’s Moffat). Wilcox deputized ten citizens and set out to arrest the violators. The posse caught up to a Ute camp in Lily Park, near the confluence of the Little Snake and Yampa Rivers
Wilcox planned to arrest the leaders, force the reservation agent to pay fines, and convince the Indians to return to Utah, despite treaties allowing them to hunt in the area (Kouris, p.195). On October 24th, Wilcox and just one other deputy approached the camp. He later stated in the Craig Courier, “I took no steps until I found abundant evidence of guilt. Fresh venison, beef, deer, and beef hides were found concealed in Snake Pete’s camp on the Snake River.” (11/6/1897).
As Ute hunters returned to camp and the rest of the posse joined Wilcox the situation became volatile. An angry and milling group of natives thwarted Wilcox as he tried to arrest Ute leaders Star, Shinaraff, and a few other “bucks” (Ute men). They surrounded the posse and pulled the arrested off the horses of the posse. After four hours the situation had crescendoed towards a violent tipping point.
Out of options, Wilcox ordered the posse to surround the camp, make the arrests, and return to Lay. Suddenly, an Indian squaw raised a pistol at Wilcox; as the gun was knocked away it fired and shattered the arm and shoulder of a nearby Ute woman. Gunfire erupted and one posse member, Al Shaw, was clubbed unconscious. Within minutes the skirmish was all over and six Utes lay on the ground. None of the posse was killed (Craig Courier 11/6/1897).
The next day some Utes descended on the ranch of Longhorn and Armida Thompson and torched the haystacks, stables, and corrals. Fearing an insurrection, 120 settlers evacuated Lily and Brown’s Park, but the Utes had already retreated to Utah.
Questions surfaced about the conduct of Wilcox and the posse. The Craig Courier of Nov. 13, decidedly favored Wilcox: “If the Utes are made to understand that it is a choice between obeying the law or being shot by the game wardens, a very long step will have been taken in the matter of stopping these annual raids into the state for the slaughter of game.”
Local sentiment aside, governor Alva Adams ordered an investigation. In December the committee arrived in Steamboat and Craig to conduct interviews, investigate the site of the skirmish, and interview tribal members at Fort Duchesne. Wilcox was absolved of any wrongdoing and the it was noted the Utes had been informed of the new laws and not to hunt in Colorado (Kouris, 195).
As late as 1909, Utes still made forays into Moffat County, but the large scale hunts of the free life were over (Routt County Sentinel, 11/26/1909). While the power of the state and the conservation movement acted as the final nail in the coffin for the Utes old way of life, it is also the reason abundant wildlife and big game once again roams the mountains and valleys of Moffat County.
For more details, please read: Tales of the Old West Retold – Early Stories of Northwest Colorado by C.A. Stoddard and Nighthawk Rising: A biography of Accused Cattle Rustler Queen Ann Bassett by Diana Allen Kouris, available at the Museum of Northwest Colorado and Downtown Books.
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