Nathan Meeker

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Nathanial Cook "Nathan" Meeker

Birthdate: (62)
Death: September 30, 1879 (62) ( killed by Ute Indians)
Immediate Family:

Son of Enoch Meeker and Sorana A. Meeker
Husband of Arvilla Delight Meeker
Father of Josephine Meeker, Teacher and Doctor; Ralph Lovejoy Meeker; George Columbus Meeker; Rozene Skewes and Mary Ann Fullerton

Managed by: Private User
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About Nathan Meeker

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, and was killed by Utes the next year 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 Utes from Colorado to reservations in present-day Utah, and take away some land formerly guaranteed them.


Nathan Cook Meeker was born in Euclid, Ohio. As a young man, he married a woman named Arvilla and they had a family. He became a newspaper reporter for the New York Tribune, where in the 1860s, when he was in his 50s, he served as its agricultural editor. Very interested in the West, in 1866 he 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.

With the capital from the shares, 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 Utes, 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. His political appointment was made despite his lack of experience with Native Americans. While living among the Utes, Meeker tried to extend his policy of religious and farming reforms.

Meeker Massacre

Meeker wanted to convert the Utes from what he saw as a state of primitive savagery to become farmers who worked in a way he dictated. He was warned that the Ute resented his reforms and attempts at conversion. Meeker ignored the warnings, and ordered that a horse racing track be plowed under to convert the track and horses' pasturage to farmland. The Utes, whose horses were a chief source of status and wealth, 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]

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

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 Utes rode out to meet them. The Utes 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 Utes 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.

On September 29, 1879 before troops arrived, the Utes attacked the Indian agency, they killed 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. 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. One man rode hard to get out a request for reinforcements. The US forces held out for several days, helped by 35 black cavalrymen (known as Buffalo Soldiers) from Fort Lewis in southern Colorado, who got through the enemy lines. The nation was electrified by news of the two Ute attacks in Colorado. Several of the Utes 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 Camp on White River, which the Army occupied until 1883. A few buildings still remain of the Army camp.

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.

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.

List of the dead

Legacy and honors

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

Meeker, Colorado was named after him.

Mount Meeker, a shorter neighbor to Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, was named for him.

The Meeker Memorial Museum is located in at 1324 9th Avenue Greeley, Colorado. It was originally Nathan Meeker's home.

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Nathan Meeker's Timeline

July 12, 1817
Age 27
Age 29
Age 31
Age 36
Age 39
Ohio, United States
September 30, 1879
Age 62