When a delegation of Utes visited the capital city in the early months of 1880, the Washington, D.C., reporters described the event as one big party.
But for Chipeta, especially, the trip must have been far from festive.Her 46-year-old husband was dying of kidney failure. This would be Chief Ouray's last trip to Washington. He was negotiating a treaty that would end a way of life for the Uncompahgre Utes. He knew it and she knew it: The best they could hope for was to lessen the losses.
They would be giving up 16 million acres of Colorado grasslands and mountain meadows, ending a life of hunting and trading and self-determination. Ouray was setting the stage for a treaty that would banish his people to the desert of the eastern Utah Territory.
The white people, too, must have realized it was the end of an era. They were after all, about to become the recipients of all that gorgeous, fertile, mineral-laden land. The Eastern press chose this time to romanticize the Utes and their visit.
In newspaper articles of the day, and later in the poetry of a slew of would-be Longfellows, Chipeta became a legend.
How much of the Chipeta legend is true? Let the story of the Meeker captives be an indication. In the Washington papers in 1880, mention was made of Chipeta's daring as she saved the lives of three white women. Arvilla and Josephine Meeker and Flora Price were held captive by a group of White River Utes after the Indians killed 10 men at the Indian Agency. Later, biographers told of Chipeta riding 100 miles, bareback, in a nonstop race to save the white women.
In fact, there probably was no such ride. Chipeta did not physically rescue the women, though she and Ouray were influential among their people and definitely lobbied for the release. It was government agents who gathered up the captives and brought them to stay at Chipeta and Ouray's house on their trip home.
But facts didn't stand in the way of any of the colorful accounts of Chipeta's life. Reporters gushed over her and the gifts she was given during her several visits to Washington - European-style clothes, furniture and silver - and the dances and receptions she attended.
It was during the 1880 visit, her last visit with Ouray, that she was christened by white people as the "Queen of the Utes."
She was their darling, and then she wasn't. The reporters and historians of her day had a much more difficult time romanticizing her after her husband died and she left the relative richness of Colorado to live in a dusty, desolate land. They began to search for her sins, possibly to assuage their own guilt. While she was still alive, her biographers began to blame her for her own altered circumstances.
In their efforts first to glorify her, and then to find fault with her, the writers spent more words on Chipeta than on any other Ute woman. But for all that was written about what she thought and what she felt, the facts are few. What we really know of her life is just a sketch, a brief outline. And 70 years after her death, she has still not taken her place in history as a full human being.
"The people who wrote about her got their information from documents," says Clifford Duncan, Ute historian. "They didn't get input from Indian
people." Her biographers are not even in agreement on the basic facts of her life, such as whether or not she had a child. She was the most beloved of Ute women, and yet those who professed to adore her knew little about her.
Chipeta was born in 1843, at a time when her people were prosperous and thriving. Their horses were fast, and hunting and trading and food gathering came easy. They were mobile people, living and traveling in family groups, only getting together as a tribe several times a year. Whites called these people the Utes, and they called themselves the People. There were, at the time of the first white settlers, perhaps 12 distinct bands roaming in an area of more than 225,000 square miles. Their homeland stretched beyond the borders of present-day Utah and Colorado. At the time of Chipeta's birth, the Uncompahgre lived in central Colorado.
Gold was discovered near Denver in 1858. In 1863 the U.S. government negotiated a treaty to move the Uncompahgres west, out of the way of progress. They were promised cattle and money, none of which they got.
Chipeta met and married Ouray in 1859. She was 16 and he was 26. He was already a favorite of the whites, having been an interpreter since he was a
boy. The son of a Jicarilla Apache father and an Uncompahgre Ute mother, Ouray was raised near Taos, N.M. He spoke four languages - Ute, Apache, Spanish and English - and apparently moved easily between cultures.
Ouray was married once before he married Chipeta. Most biographers agree that his only child, a boy named Queashegut, was the child of his first wife. Queashegut was kidnapped by the Sioux when he was somewhere between 2 and 12 years old.
Eventually, Ouray was able to enlist the aid of his friends in Washington to help search for his son. But when they located a lad they thought was Queashegut, living with the Arapahoe, the young man refused to admit the possibility he could be Ouray's son.
The fate of the first wife isn't clear. She may have died young. While some Utes did have more than one wife, nothing is recorded about Ouray having another wife while he was married to Chipeta.
In the early days of their marriage, Chipeta and Ouray may have been able to follow the traditional cyclical ways of their people - following the deer into the mountains in the summer, gathering nuts in the fall, living in the lower elevations in the winter. But when increasing numbers of white settlers came, the government increasingly relied on Ouray to be not only an interpreter but a mediator.
In 1868, when seven Colorado Ute tribes negotiated a new treaty giving them about one-third of the state, Ouray was one of the main negotiators.
Biographers write about him as if he were the elected leader of the Uncompahgre. In fact, the whites were the ones who chose him, and often he was expected to speak for more than just the Uncompahgre, for the White River and other Utes as well.
Ouray was paid $500 a year, perhaps as much as $1,000 a year for a few years, when he acted as an intermediary. It was a princely salary. In addition, the government built a home for Chipeta and Ouray. Then Ouray and Chipeta farmed, the way the government agents were wanting the Utes to do, to be settled - even though no treaty required them to stay put on one piece of land. In fact, Ouray and Chipeta still did leave home for the hunting and to travel, at least some of their days, with their own people.
What they thought about becoming "civilized" and what their fellow Uncompahgre thought of their farm and their friendship with the white people has been recorded only by the whites. It is all glowingly positive.
Chipeta and Ouray must have learned, on their diplomatic visits to Washington, how numerous and how powerful the Americans were. They always tried to convince their people that cooperation was the only way to survive.
In 1872, gold was discovered in the San Juan mountains and Ute land was flooded with whites. Chipeta, Ouray and eight others went to Washington to work out the new treaty in which the Utes gave up a large portion of their land. They were still supposed to be allowed to hunt on the land they gave up.
But now the pressure of white settlers was increasing. Indian agents in the Colorado Territory were beginning to try to keep the Utes from their traditional hunting grounds, and squatters were always trying to stake a claim to Ute land.
Nathan Meeker was the Indian agent for the White River Utes, and he was adamant about making farmers out of them. When an Indian named Johnson refused to plow and plant his horse pasture, Meeker sent a man out to plow it for him. Johnson happened to be married to Ouray's sister. Thus it was actually Ouray's nephew who started the Meeker incident when he fired a rifle over the head of the man who came to plow his father's pasture.
Meeker sent for help. When Army troops arrived, the Utes, fearing attack, ambushed them. Then some White River Utes killed Meeker and the men at the
agency. It was, in a way, just the excuse the government needed to seize all Ute land - not just White River land. The fact that the Meeker women considered Ouray and Chipeta their friends made them heroes but did not save them from the reservation.
In her official testimony about their days in captivity and their release, Flora Ellen Price gave the nation a glimpse into Chipeta's home:
"We were treated well at Ouray's home. It had Brussels carpet, window curtains, stoves, good beds, glass windows, rocking chairs, mirrors and an elegantly carved bureau. We were received as old and long lost friends. Mrs. Ouray wept for our hardships, and her motherly face, dusky but beautiful with sweetness and compassion, was wet with tears. We left her crying."
Then came the last season in Washington, when Chipeta and Ouray were giving testimony about the Meeker incident, and Ouray was negotiating the
reservation. One reporter wrote, of Chipeta's last visit, "She was the rage for the season and the epistolary correspondence from attaches of the English legation to the court journals of London bespoke for her a hearty reception from the peerage of England should she visit that country."
But it seems Ouray and Chipeta were thinking more of Colorado than of England. In the midst of the testimony, when he could see their land would be lost, Ouray ceased to wear the European clothes he had been given. He would dress only in his beaded buckskins.
He went home - to die. He refused white physicians and asked his people not to reveal to the whites where he was buried.
Ouray died before the Uncompahgres were removed from Colorado. It was left to the soldiers who escorted the people to Utah to report on the chaos of the trip, and on how the people cried.
Sometime not too long after leaving Colorado, Chipeta married again. Her second husband, Toomuchagut, was a White River Ute who had been fairly wealthy in Colorado. On the reservation, Chipeta lived with the group who was the most unhappy about reservation life. For years, her white friends hardly saw her - and for this they blamed her.
The Denver Republic in August 1887 told the story of "Chipeta's Downfall" attributing her poverty to the fact that she got remarried.
In her later years, Chipeta again lived with the Uncompahgres. She was with her brother's family on Bitter Creek. She was blind.
In the photos taken of Chipeta in those later years, she is often shown surrounded by family. On several occasions a small girl, perhaps a great-niece, is at her side.
In 1916, the superintendent of Indian Affairs interviewed her, through an interpreter. Finally, someone was asking her to reflect on all she had experienced. She is quoted as saying something rather enigmatic. "Never have I had an unkind feeling or an unkind thought toward the government in Washington, and if I were to express what I have in my mind, someone would misunderstand and think that Chipeta's heart has changed and that she is no longer friendly toward the government." She mentioned that she was promised a good place to live in Utah but that the promise had been forgotten, and when they asked her if she needed anything now she said, "I desire nothing. What is good enough for my people is good enough for me. I expect to die soon."Comment on this story
Chipeta died at the age of 80, in 1924, the same year the Utes were granted U.S. citizenship. Later, her body was moved to Colorado, and a monument was dedicated to her and Ouray, and 5,000 people came to the ceremony. Poetry flowed. The people of Colorado may have been overjoyed to see the Utes leave their state, but they couldn't wait to commemorate them, "with a rush of tears to our eyelids welling, As Chipeta comes back to her old time
dwelling." How she really felt about her life, what she could have said about the government, we don't know. Perhaps the Ute Tribal Council spoke for her, when, in 1968, they issued a statement of purpose that said, in part, "Our ancestors would have preferred to have kept their land."