What is a Ute?

[Official Definition | Culture and History | History of the University ]

Official Definition

Ute (yoot') n., pl. Utes [Ute Yuta.] 1. A tribe of North American Indians once inhabiting Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico and now living on reservations in Utah and Colorado. 2. The Uto-Aztecan language of the Utes. 3. The official nickname for athletic teams at the University of Utah.

Culture and History

Who Are the Utes?

The Utes are some of the oldest continuous residents of present-day Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. However, like most Native American groups, the current name used to identify the tribe is not the traditional name they use to describe themselves. The Utes call themselves “Nuchu” (or a similar variation of that word, depending on the specific Ute tribal band). In the Ute language, Nuchu simply means “the people,” a name which implies their special sense of belonging in the “land of the shining mountains” where their Creator placed them.

The name “Ute” comes to us from Friar Geronimo Salmeron, a Spanish explorer who visited New Mexico in 1604 A.D. In his writings, Salmeron noted that the Pueblo people he met spoke of a group of Indians from the north called Guaguatu or Guaputa. These Indians spoke a Shoshonean dialect, which was vastly different from that of the Pueblos. Thus, the friar distinguished them as “Quasuatas,” a form of the word "Yutas," by which he and later Spanish writers called all Indians who spoke Shoshonean dialects. And eventually, these people came to be called simply the “Utes.”


No one knows exactly when the Utes first came to their homelands in the “shining mountains” of the Colorado Plateau. Before they arrived, their lands were inhabited by two distinct ancient cultures. The northwestern portion of their domain was populated by the Fremont people – a group of hunters and crude farmers who developed pottery in a unique style known as "Gray Coil." Most archeologists believe the Fremont inhabited the western Colorado Plateau and the eastern Great Basin from approximately 400 to 1200 A.D.

During this same era, the southeastern part of the Ute domain was inhabited by the Anasazi (or “Ancient Ones”). The Anasazi grew into one of the most advanced cultures in ancient North America. They were the originators of the Pueblo form of architecture – a building technique involving expertise with stone masonry and use of clays for mortar. By around 1000 A.D., the Anasazi were building impressive stone cities in the rocks and cliffs of the four-corners region. And even today, the ruins of their distinctive culture can still be seen at places like Mesa Verde and Manitou Springs (Colorado).

No one knows exactly why, but the Fremont and the Anasazi began to disappear from the intermountain area around 1050 A.D. Experts speculate that part of the reason was that climatic conditions favorable for farming seem to have changed during this period. This forced groups like the Fremont and Anasazi to become increasingly dependent on wild food resources. At the same time, other groups of hunter-gatherers (like the Utes) were moving into their lands, increasing competition for these wild resources. In the end, the “part-time” hunter-gatherers like the Fremont and the Anasazi were no match for the newer tribes, and they eventually displaced them. By 1200 A.D., the ancient cultures had vanished (or moved among the tribes to the south), and Ute culture became dominant in the mountainous regions of Utah and Colorado.

The Origin of the Utes

According to an ancient Ute legend, Sinauf (a god who was half man and half wolf) ruled all creation with his brothers Coyote and Wolf. He spent many years in the lands to the south, and then one day he decided to take a journey to the north country. In preparation for this journey, Sinauf made a bag, in which he placed selected sticks--all different yet all the same size. The bag was a magic bag, and when Sinauf placed the sticks into the bag, they changed into people. As he put more and more sticks into the bag, the noise of the people inside grew louder, thus arousing the curiosity of his brothers.

Among all the powerful creatures, Coyote was the most curious. In fact, this particular brother of Sinauf was not only curious but devious as well. Every time Sinauf did something wonderful, Coyote almost always opposed him, and often caused serious trouble.

After filling his magic bag, Sinauf closed it and went to prepare for his journey. When Coyote heard about Sinauf's magic bag full of stick people, he grew very curious. “I want to see what those people look like,” he thought. With that, he made a little hole with his flint knife near the top of the bag and peeked in. He laughed at what he saw and heard, for the people were a strange new creation and had many languages.

Before long, Sinauf finished his preparations and prayers, and was ready for his journey northward. He picked up the bag, threw it over his shoulder, and headed for the distant high mountains. From the tops of those mountains, Sinauf could see long distances across the plains to the east and north, and from there he planned to distribute the people throughout the world. Sinauf was very anxious to complete his long journey, so he did not take time to eat and soon became very weak. Due to his weakness, he did not notice the bag getting lighter. For, through Coyote's hole in the top of the bag, the people had been jumping out, a few at a time. Those who jumped out created their families, bands, and tribes.

Finally reaching the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Sinauf stopped. As he sat down he noticed the hole in the bag and how light it was. The only people left were those at the bottom of the bag. As he gently lifted them out he spoke to them and said, “My children, I will call you Nuchu, and you shall roam these beautiful mountains. Be brave and strong.” Then he carefully put them in different places, singing a song as he did so. When he finished, he left them there and returned to his home in the south.


As in the creation legend of Sinauf, the ancestors of the Utes probably migrated from the south. There is some archeological evidence to support this, but the strongest evidence by far is linguistic. The Utes speak a Shoshonean dialect that belongs to the Aztec-Tanoan ethnologue. No one knows for sure, but most linguists believe the Aztec-Tanoan languages originated in the Sonora Valley of Mexico, and gradually dispersed northward and southward over time. The most advanced cultures migrated south, eventually growing into the impressive Mayan and Aztec empires.

The Ute languages (and all other Shoshonean dialects) are part of the Numic branch of the Aztec-Tanoan language tree. Experts believe this branch separated from other Aztec-Tanoan speakers by moving into southern California, where they stayed for several centuries. Over this period of time, various family groups began to develop significant language variations, even though these people lived in close proximity. This resulted in a split of the Numic language branch into three distinct sub-families: the Western Numic (which includes the Mono and Northern Paiute tribes), the Central Numic (which includes the Panamint, Shoshone, and Goshute tribes), and the Southern Numic (which includes the Kawaiisu, Southern Paiute, and Ute tribes).

How much difference in speech is there between these three Numic branches? Perhaps the best way for a non-linguist to understand this is through a comparison. For instance if you look at two languages that are part of the same Numic branch (such as the Southern Paiutes and Southern Utes), you would see differences in dialect and rate of speech, but generally, members of the two tribes would be conversant – perhaps comparable to an American and an Englishman trying to communicate. However, if you compared languages of different branches (such as the Northern Utes and the Shoshone), problems of understanding would increase dramatically – perhaps comparable to an American attempting to understand a Dutch person (both languages belonging to the same Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family). Thus, each Numic-speaking group faced a linguistic challenge if it ventured too far from its home territory.

For unexplained reasons, some time around 1000 A.D., all three of the Numic groups began once again to move and expand. Fanning out from their central locations in southern California, these three groups moved northeasterly; but they remained on the edge of the Great Basin until about 1050 A.D. Coincidentally, this was essentially the same time that the Fremont and Anasazi began to decline. When that happened, the Numic tribes moved rapidly into the Great Basin and eventually onto the neighboring Colorado Plateau, displacing the Fremont and Anasazi that had lived there for many centuries. Thus, a new age began in the intermountain region, and the saga of the Utes was about to commence.

Early Ute Life

As the Numic speakers took up residence in their new intermountain homelands, their languages became more diverse and their groups began to spit up even further. Eventually, the Utes became concentrated into a loose confederation of eleven bands. The names of the eleven bands and the areas they lived in before the coming of the Europeans are as follows:

  1. Moache (Mouache) -- The Moache lived on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, extending from Denver area (on the north), to Trinidad, Colorado (on the south).
  2. Capote (Kapota) -- The Capote inhabited the San Luis Valley, ranging east of the continental divide. This area begins near the headwaters of the Rio Grande and continues south into New Mexico (especially around the region where the towns of Chama and Tierra Amarilla are now located).
  3. Taviwach (Tabeguache - also called Uncompahgre) The Taviwach lived in central Colorado, in an area including the Gunnision River, the Elk Mountains, and the Uncompahgre River. The town that is now called Grand Junction was their approximate western boundary.
  4. White River Utes (Parianuche and Yamparika) -- The White River Utes occupied the river valleys of the White and Yampa river systems, as well as North Park and Middle Park in the mountains of northern Colorado, with territories extending westward to eastern Utah.
  5. Weenuche -- The Weenuche lived west of the continental divide, in the valley of the San Juan River and its northern tributaries Their traditonal lands included the Dolores River in western Colorado, the Blue Mountains in southeastern Utah, and the fringe of the mesas and plateaus in the Canyonlands.
  6. Sheberetch -- This tiny band dwelt in the region around present-day Moab, Utah. The group was far more desert oriented than were the other groups, and their history is more obscure. By the 1870s, the Sheberetch had been reduced by disease and war. It seems probable that the survivors joined the Uncompahgre, Weenuche, and Uintah bands.
  7. Uintah (also called Nuchu or Noochew) -- The Uintah Utes inhabited the large Uintah Basin, including Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake (on the west) and extending through the Tavaputs Plateau in the Green and Colorado river systems (on the east).
  8. Tumpanawach (also called Lagunas, Fish-Eaters, and Timpanogos Utes) -- The Tumpanawach lived around the southern and eastern perimeters of Utah Lake in Utah Valley in north-central Utah.
  9. San Pitch (Sanpits) -- The San Pitch lived in Sanpete Valley in central Utah and the Sevier River Valley.
  10. Moanumts -- The Moanumts lived in the upper Sevier River Valley in central Utah, the Otter Creek area south of Salina, and in the Fish Lake area.
  11. Pahvant -- The Pahvant band ranged the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, west of the Wasatch Mountains, almost to the Nevada border. Throughout their history, they tended to mix somewhat with the (non-Ute) Goshutes and Paiutes in southern Utah.

Before the Europeans arrived on the scene, the eleven Ute bands were broken up into small family units for a large portion of each year. It was necessary to do this because food was scarce and it took a large area in the mountains to support a small number of people. Each family unit needed a great deal of room (since food gathering was difficult for larger groups), and therefore individual family groups lived largely independently of others.

The Ute people followed the cycle of the seasons. Each group traveled within a specific territory in search of food, returning to their hunting and gathering areas year after year. In general, the pattern was moving to deserts and valleys during the winter and to mountains in the summer.

When the gathering season began, families would leave their winter villages and go out into the hills and desert valleys. Ute women gathered and dug cactus, various barks and seeds, and roots and tubers. Many of these plants and seeds were dried, placed in baskets, and stored in pits dug in the ground and then covered with earth. To gather the seeds, the women made finely woven baskets.

During the gathering season, the men kept busy either helping with the gathering or hunting small desert animals. The men set traps to catch a few rodents, squirrels, or birds to supplement the diet. They also used a method of setting fire to brush and killing the animals that emerged. The time of summer harvesting was especially good for the Utes. The seeds, berries, and roots were plentiful. It was a time when families could get together for hunts and festivals and gossip about their winter adventures.

Fall was the time when seeds had to be stored, meat had to be dried, clothing had to be made and repaired, as did utensils such as pouches and bags, baskets and water jugs. This was also the time of great large game hunts, including some for buffalo. Many families would get together, feasting and preparing for the hunt. The hunters would then venture out to find and bring back as much meat as they could carry. When the men returned, there was another gathering, with gambling, singing, and courting. These hunts were very important socially.

When the snow came, the People left their homes in the hills for the warmer flatlands. Women assembled their supply of seeds, roots, pine nuts, and dried berries and put them into storage pits. They piled meat on willow racks at the top of their tipis and hung jerky from the poles. They stored willows for making baskets, fiber, and string. They also stored great bunches of rabbit skin cordage for making blankets.

Throughout the winter the men hunted. They shot birds and small animals with their bows and arrows and did some ice fishing. They also trapped small rodents and birds. The People knew how to use alternate sources for food if game became scarce. The long winter evenings were spent sitting around the fire listening to the old ones tell stories of the creation and why things were the way they were. In time, the winters became great social occasions for the different bands. There would be much visiting and many festivities. This was also the time when marriages would be contracted.

In early spring (usually around the middle of March), each band would hold the Bear Dance, the most ancient and typical of all the Ute dances. The origin of the Ute Bear Dance relates the time when two brothers were out hunting in the mountains and as they became tired, they laid down to rest. One of the brothers noticed a bear standing upright facing a tree and seemed to be dancing and making a noise while clawing the tree. This brother continued to observe the bear with fascination, knowing that Sinauf (the one above) had sent the bear to teach the people about survival and to combat the mischief of the Coyote. The bear taught the young man to do the same dance and also taught the young man the song that went with the dance. He told the young man to return to his people and teach them the dance and songs of the bear.

According to the legend, the songs of the dance show respect for the spirit of the bear, which brings special power to make one strong. In addition, the coming of spring made people restless after a long winter. Most people were anxious to be outside, and the symbol of the bear rising from hibernation was a powerful force for in this regard. Thus, the Bear Dance became an important ritual the Utes, and it was the climax of their winter social activities.

The Bear Dance took place in an open field or corral surrounded by a fence made of brush or woven branches. Both the men and the women wore plumes as they danced, and the women also wore brightly colored shawls. The women selected partners by flicking the fringe of their shawl at one of the men. The dance commenced with couples being divided into two lines. One of the singers played the role of the Cat, using a willow switch to urge shy dancers to move faster. The dancing continued for four or five days, and ended with either ( a ) one of the couples falling down from exhaustion, or ( b ) the singers getting tired. Once the dance ended, the dancers removed the plumes they had worn during the dance and left them on a cedar tree at the east entrance of the corral. As the Ute's say, leaving the plume on the tree was to leave your troubles behind and start your life anew. The celebration then ended with a huge feast organized by the Bear Dance Chiefs, after which each family unit prepared to go its separate way until the next winter.

The shelter and clothing of the Utes fit their lifestyle. Being often on the move, everything had to be either portable or disposable. The people lived in either brush shelters or tipis. The environment determined the kind of housing. In the desert where materials were scarce, they used brush or grass to make shelters. In more forested lands, there were trees for lodge poles and big-game animals for hides. These were tanned and sewn together with sinew of different animals to make the tipi covers.

The brush and willow houses were cool in the summer but could be easily heated by an open fire just outside. One family might build several in the course of a year's travels, leaving them behind as they moved on. The tipi was portable, easily raised, and waterproof. With its wind deflecting small flap at the top, it was well ventilated even with a fire burning inside. It was warm during the winter and cool in the summer.

Women made the clothing. In warm weather the women wore a short skirt of shredded bark or buckskin and the men wore breechcloths. In winter women wore ankle-length dresses; men wore shirts and leggings of tanned animal skins. The hides of buffalo, deer, antelope, elk, and mountain sheep were tanned and treated. Sinew thread was used for sewing. Blankets were made of rabbit skin, deerskin, buffalo skin, or of woven cloth traded from Pueblo people of New Mexico. The moccasins, shirts, leggings, and dresses used in festivities were often fringed and tied with hair or small tanned skins decorated with paint. Some of the garments were embroidered.

The Utes designated time and the seasons according to the position of the sun and the stars. Certain stars told the Ute people of the coming of the various seasons. The Jack Rabbit, as they referred to the Big Dipper, was their clock as to the time of the night. Its position also foretold the seasons.

The power of healing was an important aspect of Ute life. The Poowagudt (medicine man) used abilities bestowed upon him by spiritual or natural powers. The Utes discovered by experience what was good for them and what was not. To the Utes, disease was an entity, something which took possession of the person to do them harm. The Poowagudt was called upon to get rid of the evil. He might sit up all night with that person and conjure. Through the use of chants, drums, and spiritual objects, the Poowagudt discovered what the ailment was and what should be given to treat it.

The Coming of New Neighbors

This way of life began to change around 1600 A.D., when the Spanish moved into the area just south of the Ute domain. The first Spanish expedition to approach Ute lands came under the direction of Francisco Coronado. Between 1539 and 1542, Coronado entered the area in search of the seven cities of Cibola. It is unlikely that his party met any Utes, but they may have heard of him from their southern neighbors. In fact, with their wide trade connections, the Utes probably heard about Spaniards long before.

About forty years later, Franciscan missionaries in northern Mexico learned that some of the local Indians were trading regularly with other people who lived further north. Several expeditions were organized to establish contact with these people, and to bring them the gospel of Christianity. In 1595, the Viceroy of New Spain gave Juan de Oñate a contract to establish an encomienda (or feudal settlement) in this territory, which they called “New Mexico”. This contract specified in great detail the number of settlers, livestock and other provisions he was to provide. In return, he was awarded titles which gave him civil and military authority over the new colony. He was also to be the primary beneficiary of any riches they may discover.

In January, 1598, Oñate finally left Compostela, Mexico, at the head of a large caravan. The expedition consisted of nearly two hundred soldier-colonists (many with wives and families), nine Franciscan priests, several hundred Indian servants, and thousands of head of livestock. By April, they reached the present-day Ciudad Juarez, where Oñate paused to take formal possession of the province in the name of his king. As they traveled north along the Rio Grande Valley, Oñate also paused at each Indian settlement to obtain the inhabitants' formal allegiance to their new king and a new God. Gradually, several Spanish settlements were established along the Rio Grande corridor, and in 1610 a new capital was established at the city of Santa Fe.

In 1604 an expedition sent by Oñate met an Indian who told of a land to the northwest that held the great lake of Copala. The Spaniards later called this legendary area El Gran Teguayo. The area was probably the land of the Utes, and the Lake of Copala may have been Utah Lake. However, this report sparked only minor interest to the Spaniards. They were busy subjugating the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, and so their arrival in the region had little effect on the Ute way of life.

Or, at least that's how it appeared on the surface. But, in truth, the Ute economy had always involved trade with other tribes (including the Pueblo and Navajo of the southwest). Since many of these tribes were now heavily involved with the Spanish, it was inevitable that the Spanish would have at least an indirect impact on the Utes. Before long, the Spanish influence brought two new commodities into to the Ute economy – Horses and Slaves. And both of these commodities changed the Ute way of life forever.

Horses and Slaves

When the Spanish brought horses into New Mexico, the various Native American tribes reacted differently. To those tribes who were less dependent on mobility, the horse was a great convenience. However to the nomadic tribes (like the Utes) who were highly dependent on mobility, the horse quickly became a matter of life and death. Rather than hunting for food in restricted locales, the horse made these tribes capable of ranging out into new hunting grounds. With the horse, they could also evade their enemies more easily, and transport their goods to a central camp where the women and children were protected. For this reason, the Utes were the first tribe to eagerly seek (and acquire) the horse. They acquired some horses through trade, but more often they obtained them by raiding the Spanish settlements.

Thus, the horse not only increased the mobility of the Utes, it also made them more warlike. The Utes no longer needed to spread out thinly in family units, and so they began to congregate in larger numbers under the direction of powerful leaders. The family unit continued to be the basic unit of society but the leader directed camp movements, hunts, raids, and war parties.

Of course, the Spanish did not sit still while the Utes raided their livestock. In the early seventeenth century, Governor Luis de Rosas of Santa Fe sent an expedition northward to attack the Utes. In 1683, the Spaniards captured about eighty “Utacas,” who were then forced to labor in workshops at Santa Fe. Eventually, the Ute tribes accumulated their own stock of horses, and they signed a treaty of peace with the Spanish in 1670.

As some of the Ute prisoners were released from service in Santa Fe, they brought tales of Spanish slavery back with them to their native tribes. This concept was based on the “Encomienda System,” where a Spanish conqueror not only claimed ownership of the land, but he also claimed ownership rights to the labor of the native inhabitants who dwelt on the land. The Utes found this concept appealing in their new warlike culture, and so they began to raid weaker tribes in order to acquire slaves of their own. Before long, trade in horses and slaves became in integral part of the Ute economy.

The Pueblo Revolt

In the 1670s, a drought struck the Ute domain. This put increased pressure on the existing food supply, and the Utes responded by increasing their raids on neighboring tribes. The Pueblo people of New Mexico were hit particularly hard during this time, and they became dissatisfied with the protection (or lack thereof) they received from their Spanish masters, and also with the God of the church they had imposed on them. So the Pueblo people began to return to the worship of their old gods (in the hope of seeing the drought come to an end). This provoked a wave of repression on the part of Franciscan missionaries, and in 1680 the desperate Pueblo decided to throw off the Spanish yoke.

The Pueblo Revolt was planned and orchestrated by a San Juan Indian named Popé (or Po'Pay), one of the medicine-men arrested and whipped in 1675 for heresy. From Taos, he dispatched runners to all the Pueblos carrying knotted cords - the knots indicating how many days remained before the uprising. Each morning the Pueblo leadership was to untie one knot from the cord, and when the last knot was untied, that would be the signal for them to rise against the Spaniards in unison.

The day for the attack had been fixed for August 18th, but the Spaniards learned of the revolt after capturing two Pueblo youths. Popé then ordered the execution of the plot on San Lorenzo's feast day, August 10th, before any strong measures could be taken to suppress it. In the end, Popé’s revolt proved successful, and by September 21st all Spanish settlers had retreated from New Mexico to the settlement at El Paso del Norte.

During the revolt, many Ute slaves and servants were freed, and Spanish horses became available in large numbers. The Utes may also have been involved in the fighting, but if they did so it was likely on the side of their Spanish trading partners.

During the next twelve years (following the revolt), the Pueblo people remained independent of Spanish rule. Then in July of 1692, the Spanish sent Diego De Vargas to attack Santa Fe. He surrounded the city and called on the Indians to surrender, promising clemency if they would swear allegiance to the King of Spain and return to the Christian faith. The Indian leaders gathered in Santa Fe, met with De Vargas, and agreed to peace.

As the Spanish returned, they found their position more difficult than it had been before the revolt. They were surrounded by hostile tribes, including the Utes, Apache, and Navajo. To protect themselves, the Spaniards granted the Pueblo Indians a measure of freedom to practice their native culture and religion. They also began to form alliances with other Indian groups, hoping that these alliances would create a buffer zone around their settlements.

The returning Spaniards hoped to maintain good relations with the Utes, who had been friendly to them. As enemies, the Utes posed a great threat to the Spanish frontier towns. As friends, they were valuable allies against hostile tribes. But the Spaniards soon found that the once-friendly Utes were joining their neighbors to raid the settlements. These alliances, however, were only temporary, and they rarely involved more than a few bands. Warfare in the area consisted of small groups that would ride into an enemy camp to take horses, guns, and prisoners. After the raid they would retreat to their homelands. These tactics proved very effective for the Utes, who grew in strength and power throughout the century.

The Comanche Wars

During the years of the Pueblo revolt, the Utes developed alliances with two of their neighboring tribes. However they did not enter these alliances as a single Ute nation (in the way we think of alliances today). Rather, individual Ute groups became allied with certain other tribes as it became advantageous to do so (regardless of what the rest of the Ute bands were doing). In this process, several of the southern Utes became allied with the Navajo. They traded deerskins and other mountain products with the Navajo people for horses and items produced in the southwestern deserts. They also supported each other in raids against the Spanish, and together became an important check against Spanish strength in the area.

Similarly, several of the northern Ute groups became allied with the Comanche. This powerful tribe was a distant relative of the Utes, having entered the northern plains as part of the Eastern Shoshone. Sometime around 1500 A.D., these forefathers of the Comanche separated themselves from the other Shoshone, and evolved into a unique tribe living along the upper reaches of the Platte River in southeastern Wyoming – ranging between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills of North Dakota.

In the year 1650, the Utes and Comanche became united by a common threat. In that year, groups of Apache from the Oklahoma area began moving into eastern Colorado, encroaching on their lands. By 1706, the problem became serious enough that the Utes and the Comanche decided to fight back. They organized joint war parties, and started to attack the Apache villages. Though the Apache fought well, they had no horses and had to fight on foot. In contrast, both the Utes and the Comanche had become excellent horsemen by this time, so the small, isolated Apache villages became easy targets for their mounted enemies. By 1716 the Jicarilla Apache had been forced into the mountains of northern New Mexico, while other Plains Apache had abandoned most of their settlements north of the Arkansas River.

As the war against the Apache pushed ever closer to New Mexico, the Spaniards became increasingly wary of contact with the Utes. In 1712 the governor of New Mexico, Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, forbade Spanish traders from venturing into Ute lands. Nevertheless, discreet trade continued, and by the spring of 1716, a Ute-Comanche village had been established in northeastern New Mexico. During that summer, a party from this village visited several of the area’s Spanish settlements to trade. Convinced that these visits were actually an attempt to spy for defensive weaknesses, the Spanish attacked the Ute-Comanche village. Prisoners were later sold as slaves.

During the next few years, there were few incidents in New Mexico, but the war against the Plains Apache continued. Each year, the Apache retreated southward and the Comanche advanced to fill the void. By 1720, the Apache retreat had become a major problem for the Spanish. Groups of refugee Plains Apache (Lipan and Mescalero) concentrated in southern Texas and New Mexico and began to attack the nearby Spanish settlements. Other Apache bands continued west across southern New Mexico into Arizona threatening to isolate Santa Fe from El Paso and northern Mexico. To make matters worse, persistent rumors of French traders on the plains were reaching Santa Fe. A military expedition sent that year to investigate was annihilated (probably by Pawnee).

In an effort to strengthen their position against the Comanche, the Spanish began building alliances with both the Apache and the Navajo during the 1720s and 30s. This put a tremendous strain on the alliance system that had become established among the Utes. The Navajo were now committed enemies of the Comanche, and they tried turn the Utes against them. This cause the Utes to feel betrayed by the Navajo, and their relations with that tribe began to break down. At the same time, the Comanche were becoming more belligerent and demanding of their Ute allies. To make matters worse, in the 1740s the Comanche started trading with the French (in southeastern Kansas), giving them horses in exchange for firearms.

About 1748 the Comanche allied themselves with the French and the Wichita. With access to French guns, the Comanche broke with the Utes and turned against them. In response, the Utes made peace with the Spanish and, in 1749, formed a new alliance with them. Peace with the Utes was important to the Spanish. Ute attacks had forced them to abandon a number of their northern settlements, such as Abiquiu in 1747. And trade with the Utes for tanned deerskins and other animal pelts was in important part of the economy of New Mexico. There was also the extensive slave trade, where the Utes captured other Indians and traded them for Spanish horses. Although there were protests against this trade from about 1650, the practice only stopped after the United States conquered the territory in the Mexican War.

The Ute people were interested in allying themselves with the Spaniards for defense against the well-armed Comanche. The alliance proved valuable for both. After nearly thirty years of periodic fighting, the Ute--Spanish forces, with their Apache and Navajo allies, defeated the Comanche. The Comanche moved south, and the Apache moved farther south and west. The Utes were left in control of the lands north of New Mexico.

Renewed Spanish Expeditions among the Utes

In June of 1765, New Mexican Governor Tomas Velez de Cachupin granted special permission for Juan Maria Antonio Rivera to travel into Ute territory. The purpose of this expedition was threefold: (1.) to find a crossing of the Colorado River, (2.) to identify the local Indian groups en route, and (3.) to determine their attitude toward the Spanish.

Following old Indian paths, Rivera and his party traveled to the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado. From there, they crossed into Utah northeast of Monticello, proceeded to the base of the La Sal Mountains, and finally moved on to Spanish Valley and the present site of Moab. According to Rivera’s journals, the Utes (who acted as their guides) did all they could to discourage and lead astray the expedition. One Ute guide took them into the rough country of Indian Creek, Harts Draw, and part of present-day Canyonlands National Park before another Ute led them on a more direct route. The party eventually took a high trail on the western slopes of the La Sal Mountains before dropping down into Castle Creek and finding a crossing place on the Colorado River. To mark this crossing point (and also to assert Spanish rights), Rivera carved a cross and the words "Viva Jesus" on a nearby cottonwood tree. He then returned to Santa Fe to report his findings.

By the 1770s, Spanish explorers and others had moved north even deeper into Ute territory. In 1776 the Uinta Basin Utes first encountered non-Indians when a Spanish expedition led by Franciscan friars Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante came through the area searching for a northern inland route from Santa Fe to Monterey (California). It was led in part by Ute guides. The friars also hoped to establish Indian missions throughout the area. The journal of the expedition was the first written description of the Ute lands and people. The maps by Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco were also the first ever made of the Wasatch Front area.

The expedition traveled north through the Chama River Valley into south-central Colorado, and then through the La Plata Mountains to the Uncompahgre River. From there they headed into northwestern Colorado, entering the Uinta Basin a few miles south of the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers. Crossing the Green River, they traveled west, following Strawberry Creek to what is now Spanish Fork, and into the valley of Utah Lake. Expedition members observed the following about the local Utes:

“[They] live on the lake's abundant fish...Besides this, they gather the seeds of wild plants in the bottoms and make a gruel from them, which they supplement with the game of jackrabbits, coneys, and fowl, of which there is a great abundance here. They also have bison handy not too far away...but fear of the Comanches prevents them from hunting them.

“Their dwellings are some...little wattle huts of osier, out of which they have interestingly crafted baskets and other utensils for ordinary use...they wear...deerskin jacket [s] and long leggings of the same. For cold seasons they wear blankets made of jackrabbit and coney rabbit furs...They possess good features, and most of them are fully bearded...[They have an] easy-going character.” (Excerpt from the Dominguez-Escalante Journal, page 60.)

From Utah Lake the friars proceeded south and, after experiencing some dissension and bad weather, the expedition elected to return to Santa Fe, which they did by difficult travel north of the Grand Canyon.

White Men from the East

In spite of these successful expeditions, the Spaniards never established settlements among the Utes. However, they did establish several important trade routes passing through the territory, and they expanded their trade with the northern Ute tribes.

It wasn't until the early 1800s that white men from the east began to disturb the northern Ute domain. In the 1820s English-speaking trappers explored most of the area's great rivers and valleys as well as some of the desert land. Jedediah Smith (a famous explorer) made several significant journeys throughout the area, and published his findings in the east. And in 1824, the famous trapper Jim Bridger reported his sightings of the Great Salt Lake. Before long, new trails were opened up to English speaking settlers, who made their way west in increasing numbers.

In 1829 the Spanish Trail was opened, passing through south-central Utah. This trail was an important trade route, which carried valuable woolen goods between Santa Fe and Los Angeles (California). Once the trail became active, Ute leaders regularly stopped the caravans and demanded tribute for crossing Ute lands. A powerful Ute chief named Wakara formed an alliance with mountain men Thomas "Pegleg" Smith and James Beckworth and began regularly raiding for horses from settlements at both ends of the trail. By 1837 Wakara and his followers were getting wealthy through tribute and trade, and Wakara was becoming legendary, often reported in several places at the same time.

In 1847, Euro-American settlers belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons - or "Mermen" as the Utes called them) came into Utah and settled in the Wasatch Valley. At first they wanted to convert the Utes to their religion. Their "Book of Mormon" says, the "Lamanites" (dark-skinned ancestors of Native American peoples) are descendants of Abraham and part of the "Chosen People." Some of the Utes accepted the Mormon religion and became farmers, while others resisted. Still, for the first few years there was relative peace between the Utes and the Mormons.

The Mormons were initially content with what land they had settled and the ability to practice their religion without persecution. The first settlements were in the Salt Lake valley, located just outside of the Ute domain in the northern region that bordered the Shoshone lands. However, as the Mormon population continued to grow and expand southward, the Ute population started to decline through disease and destruction of food resources. Also at this time, Mormon leaders began to take action against the Mexican slave-trade, which was a source of great power and wealth to Wakara and his Utes. Wakara grew to distrust the white settlers as they encroached on Ute hunting lands. Before long, he began openly resisting that encroachment.

The Walker War

In July 1853, several Utes were camped on Spring Creek near Springville in order to trade with James Ivie, a Mormon who resided there. An altercation arose between a Ute man and his wife, and Ivie tried to intervene, fearing that the melee was about to move into his cabin. In the ensuing struggle, Ivie killed a Ute man (who was a relative of Wakara's) and wounded two others. Now, traditional Ute justice demanded an "eye for an eye" type of retribution, so when local officials came to discuss terms of justice with chief Wakara, he demanded that one white settler be put to death to pay for the killing. When the settlers refused this request, Wakara and his band began a struggle that came to be known as the "Walker (Wakara) War."

The war was mainly a series of raids led by Wakara on the Mormon settlements. Utes attacked Fort Payson, and Brigham Young (leader of the Mormons) responded by sending in the Nauvoo Legion (or Mormon militia). During the next ten months fewer than twenty whites were killed, while many more Utes died. As the war progressed, Brigham Young sent out word to fortify the Mormon settlements and to curtail the trading of arms with the Utes. In March 1854, Brigham Young sent Major E.A. Bedell, the federal Indian agent, to meet with Wakara about the possible sale of Ute lands. During the meeting, Wakara stated that "he would prefer not to sell if he could live peacefully with the white people, which he was anxious to do."

In May, Brigham Young and several other Mormon Church leaders went on a tour of southern Mormon settlements. Presents were sent to Wakara and arrangements made for him and other Ute leaders to meet Brigham Young and his party at Chicken Creek. The meeting took place, but the issue of Mormon occupation of Ute lands was not settled. However despite this remaining obstacle, Wakara agreed to pursue peace. The treaty was never formalized by federal government action, but Wakara kept his word and peace was restored. On January 28, 1855, Wakara died of pneumonia and was buried with his wealthy goods, including horses and young Indian slaves.

Black Hawk

Although general peace was restored, tensions continued to mount between the Utes and the Mormons. Food sources became increasingly scarce among the Utes as growing Mormon settlements spread out to engulf their traditional hunting lands. Between 1855 and 1860, starvation dramatically increased among the Utes until most tribal groups were constantly on the move in search of food. By the early '60s, the desperate Utes were starting to fight back against encroaching Mormon settlers. To provide an alternative gathering place for the Utes, President Abraham Lincoln established the Uintah Valley Reservation in 1861. The original reservation boundary was described as going from "Peak to Peak to Peak," of the expansive Uintah Basin.

Throughout the 1860s, federal agents began to remove Ute bands to the new reservation. But because the federal presence in Utah was small, progress was slow and Mormon/Ute conflicts continued. Finally, on April 9, 1865, widespread violence erupted. A handful of Utes and Mormon frontiersmen met in the town of Manti to settle a dispute over some cattle that had been killed and consumed by starving Indians. An irritated (and apparently drunk) frontiersman lost his temper and violently jerked a young chieftain from his horse. This greatly insulted the Indian delegation, including a dynamic young Ute named Black Hawk. They abruptly left the scene, promising retaliation. Over the course of the next few days Black Hawk and other Utes killed five Mormon settlers and escaped to the mountains with hundreds of stolen cattle. Naturally, scores of hungry warriors and their families flocked to eat "Mormon beef" and to support Black Hawk, who was suddenly hailed as a war chief.

Encouraged by his success and increasing power, Black Hawk continued his forays, stealing more than two thousand head of stock and killing approximately twenty-five more settlers that year. During this conflict (which came to be known as the "Black Hawk War"), Black Hawk succeeded in uniting factions of the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo tribes into a very loose confederacy bent on plundering Mormons throughout the territory. Cattle were the main objectives but travelers, herdsmen, and settlers were massacred when it was convenient. Contemporary estimates indicate that as many as seventy settlers were killed during the conflict.

The years 1865 to 1867 were by far the most intense of the conflict. Mormon residents considered themselves in a state of open warfare. They built scores of forts and deserted dozens of settlements while hundreds of Mormon militiamen chased their illusive adversaries through the wilderness with little success. Requests for federal troops went unheeded for eight years. Unable to distinguish "guilty" from "friendly" tribesmen, frustrated Mormons at times indiscriminately killed Indians, including women and children.

By the fall of 1867, the conflict had swung decisively in favor of the Mormons and most of the Utah Utes had been forced onto the Uintah Reservation. Recognizing the futility of his situation, Black Hawk made peace with the Mormons toward the end of that year. Without his leadership, the remaining Ute forces fragmented even further. The war's intensity decreased and a treaty of peace was finally signed in 1868. However, intermittent raiding and killing continued until 1872 when 200 federal troops were finally ordered to step in and restore complete order. Starving and suffering from Mormon retaliation, the Utes turned to civil leader Tabby-to-kwana who led them onto the reservation. From that time forward, the Utah Utes remained primarily on the reservation.

The White River Expulsion

In 1879, an incident occurred in Colorado that dramatically enlarged the population of the Uintah Reservation. A government agent named Nathan Meeker had been given responsiblity to settle several Colorado Utes on a reservation at White River, Colorado, but they would not stay put. They couldn't understand why they couldn't go back to their traditional homes and hunting areas to live like they used to. Meeker thought he could change the Ute way of life by killing their horses and plowing up their race tracks. But the Utes viewed horses as great wealth, and they killed Meeker for his atrocity. This generated great fear and outrage among the Colorado citizenry, and they called for a forced removal of the White River Utes. By 1881 the Northern and Central Colorado Utes were marched at gunpoint out of Colorado to join the Uintah Utes at the reservation in Utah. The following year the government moved the peaceful Taviwach (Uncompahgre) Utes to the adjoining two-million-acre Ouray Reservation.

For five years, there were two separate Ute reservations in Utah: The Uintah agency headquartered at Whiterocks and the Ouray agency headquartered at Ouray. Then, in 1886, the Bureau of Indian Affairs merged these administrations into a single Uintah-Ouray reservation. However, the forced removal and consolidation of the three tribal groups engendered a number of problems between them. There was a great deal of suspicion and jealousy over land, money, hunting grounds, opportunities to travel, and attitudes toward farming. To make matters worse, reservation life itself was extremely difficult for all three groups (as it was for almost every Native American tribe across the United States).

The General Allotment Act

For centuries the native peoples of North America had followed a unique lifestyle in which no individual owned any of the land, and no one person (not even the tribal leader) could dispose of it. All of the land was considered communal property, and individual family groups had always been able to range free in search of their livelihoods. Now suddenly, the various tribes were forcibly restricted to a limited area. Many tribes, including the northern Utes, found it difficult to make these reservations productive, and it wasn't long before the majority came to depend on the federal government for the necessities of life. In contrast, white settlers had always held strong beliefs in the importance of individual property ownership. They often found it difficult to understand why Native American groups struggled so much under the confines of sedentary reservation life. Many whites, regarding ownership of land as the basis of success, hoped that by owning their own farms the Indian populations would become independent farmers.

And so, in the late 1880s, a national movement developed in which white settlers petitioned the government to establish "individual allotments" of reservation lands. The movement was primarily spearheaded by white men concerned for the welfare of Indians, but other whites, hungry for land, seized on this idea too. They realized that, by creating individually owned allotments, much of the reservation lands could be freed up for their use. And so, in 1887, both of these groups urged the passage of the Indian General Allotment Act. This act provided for dividing reservations, which had been held in common by the tribes, into parcels to be allotted to individual Indians. The "surplus" land, was then sold to white homesteaders. Provisions of the act also granted citizenship to the Native Americans receiving parcels of land and to any other Indians who agreed to give up tribal life for "civilized" ways.

On the Uintah Reservation, the Allotment Act gave 80 to 150 acres of land to each tribal member. This reduced the vast territory of the Uintah Reservation from nearly four million acres to a jointly owned 250,000-acre grazing reserve and 1,283 individual allotments totaling 103,265 acres. In 1905 the federal government withdrew over 1,100,000 acres for the Uinta National Forest and 56,000 acres in 1909 for the Strawberry Valley Reclamation project. Sales of individual allotments further reduced Northern Ute holdings. Like other Native Americans, many Utes were unused to the idea of individual ownership of land and had little understanding of money values. They sold their allotments at absurdly low prices, spent the money, and became destitute. And those who retained their allotments often divided them among their children, causing decreased general landholdings among individual Utes.

Eventually resentment and resistance to allotment grew. In 1906, nearly 400 Utes defied government orders and bolted from the reservation, traveling as far as Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This minor rebellion came to be known as the "Ute Outbreak." It was effectively squelched when federal troops surrounded the fugitive Utes near Fort Meade and demanded their surrender. The Utes complied peacefully and agreed to return to their own reservation. However, the resistance movement did not end at Fort Meade, it merely became more subtle. Two new religions -- known as Peyotism and the Sun Dance cult -- began to increase in popularity. These religions shunned the ways of the white man, and instead taught adherents to embrace their own traditions and to seek brotherhood among the native people.

The Modern Era

Eventually it became apparent to government officials that the programs forcing Indians to adopt an alien way of life had been largely unsuccessful. In 1934 Congress enacted the Indian Reorganization Act, which ended the allotment policy. The new law's most important provisions reestablished tribes as political entities and partially restored their internal sovereignty. The Utes took advantage of this new-found political freedom and organized a business council composed of elected representatives from each of the three bands. This organization was incorporated as the Northern Ute Tribe, and became part of several successful federal claims cases. However, most of the money from these judgments went to finance irrigation projects, tribal operations, or was tied up in regulated trusts and individual accounts.

Following the incorporation of the tribal council, the Northern Utes began working to repurchase alienated reservation lands and to resolve internal issues. This was no easy task, but gradually the Utes made progress. In 1948 the federal government returned some 726,000 acres to the tribe in what is called the Hill Creek Extension. In 1954, following a long-standing dispute within the tribe, the Northern Utes accepted a division of assets and the termination of federal recognition for people with blood quantums less than one-half. The mixed-blood Utes then organized as the Affiliated Ute Citizens.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northern Ute community benefited from increased oil and gas development on reservation lands in the form of jobs and severance taxes. Many of these enterprises still exist, and benefit the Ute community today. The Northern Utes have also been key players in the Central Utah Project (a federal project designed to increase the water supply to the populous areas along the Wasatch front). As part of the CUP agreement, the Utes received money and stored water in return for the diversion of their watershed runoff into central Utah. Their political clout increased in 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the tribe's right to exercise "legal jurisdiction" over all pre-allotment reservation lands, giving them an undefined amount of legal control over the land and citizens of eastern Utah. By the 1990s, the Northern Ute Tribe was able to boast nearly 3,000 members and had become an increasingly powerful force in local and state politics. And, as of this writing, they are continuing a prosperous course; actively maintaining their language and cultural traditions while seeking to improve the economic situation of tribal members through education, tribal enterprises, and planned development.

Last Revised: March 2006

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