The Chief and the Pathfinder: How the Western Slope Was Won

By Paul O’Rourke
The paths of Ouray, chief of the Ute Indians, and Otto Mears—called the “Pathfinder of the San Juans” for his wagon and railroad building exploits—crossed often during the years from 1865 to 1880. It was a time in Colorado history when American westward expansion collided with Ute Indian culture in a struggle over which race would call the western part of the state home. This was a conflict waged more with treaties and promises than with weapons—perhaps a more dangerous, but equally deadly, method of engagement—for with words it is sometimes difficult to tell friend from foe.


Mears met Ouray in 1865 in Conejos, at the Ute Indian agency post in south central Colorado Territory. Mears was twenty-five years old at the time, already seasoned in the ways of the world. Orphaned at two and shipped from his Russian birthplace to London, then New York, he wound up—alone—in San Francisco in 1853, selling newspapers on street corners to pay his room and board. Following a brief go at mining in the Nevada goldfields, Mears enlisted with the California volunteers at the start of the Civil War in 1861. He was sent to New Mexico, where he reportedly developed a ruthless proficiency at poker while under the command of Kit Carson during the campaigns against the Navajo. Opening a general store at Conejos became Mears’ first order of business following his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1864.

The Ute Indians* were familiar with the region near Conejos. While principally based in western Colorado, the Utes, a nomadic people for centuries prior to 1860, hunted and roamed over all of the land that is now Colorado. The gold rush in the late 1850s disrupted the range of their seasonal migrations, and in 1863, at the suggestion of Kit Carson, the Utes agreed to give up a portion of their hunting grounds along the Front Range and in the San Luis Valley in exchange for provisions and the promise that they wouldn’t be bothered west of the Continental Divide. The winter of 1864-5 was particularly harsh, and with their traditional hunting territory diminished, the Utes were frequent visitors to the Conejos agency post, where it seems Indian Agent Major Lafayette Head carried out his orders with less than “official” zeal.

Agent Head also operated a general store at Conejos, where, as claimed by the Utes and others, he diverted some of the provisions intended for the hungry natives. Mears was apparently interested in a piece of the action, so Head procured a government contract for him to trade with the Utes. During his brief stay in Conejos (he moved to Saguache in 1866), Mears learned the Ute language and grew to understand the customs and culture of his new clients. He befriended an influential Ute sub-chief, anticipating with uncanny prescience Ouray’s rise to power and that a partnership might benefit him down the road.

A new treaty, signed at Conejos on March 2, 1868, established one Ute reservation west of the Continental Divide and designated Ouray, then thirty-five years old, as chief and spokesman for the seven confederated bands. Replacing Conejos, two new agency posts were created: one at White River for the Northern Utes, the other at Los Pinos Creek, some sixty miles west and slightly north of Saguache, for the Southern and Tabeguache bands. Mears was contracted to provision the agency and hired to put in the road over which supplies were to be hauled. Ouray may have been pleased with the agreement that defined close to 15 million acres as exclusive Ute domain “for all time.” But he understood that despite what the treaty said, it wouldn’t be long before more whites came.

Hearing news of rich mineral strikes in Baker’s Park (near present-day Silverton) during the late 1860s, thousands of prospectors—mindless of the illegality of their actions—rushed to locations near where the towns of Rico, Durango, Ouray, Silverton and Lake City now stand, and Mears played a role in the early development of the latter camp. Most of the prospecting parties, such as those of Lon and Bill Remine, who made their way into San Miguel Park (near present-day Telluride) during the spring of 1872, were seasonal expeditions. They arrived in spring, scouted for promising veins or worked their established claims, then left as the aspens changed color. Ouray complained to the agent at Los Pinos of the repeated treaty violations and government troops were called to the region, only to encounter an openly hostile population of miners who refused to leave the reservation. The soldiers weren’t inclined to roust whites from their work: Token reprimands were the extent of their military admonitions. Newspaper stories gave voice to the widely held view that a small number of Indians did not deserve the vast expanse of territory given them; that to remove the miners who were putting the land to its “best and intended” use was virtually sacrilegious. On April 23, 1872, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to begin negotiations with the Utes for the “extinguishment of their right to the southern part of the reservation” granted them in 1868.

Ouray refused to negotiate at first. How could it be that a government so anxious to impress him with its power was not strong enough to keep its treaties and control its own people? Cash payments had not been made or were slow in arriving; rations, when delivered, were often spoiled or in quantities smaller than promised. Mears, on one occasion, purportedly sold government cattle intended for the Utes at Los Pinos to a Denver meat merchant. Even a tour—guided by Mears, who Ouray invited to join the entourage—of Washington, D.C., and the White House in late 1872 failed to move the chief to sell any more land to the whites. Ouray told the federal negotiators, “I will tell no more lies to my people.” Apparently Ouray experienced a change of heart in September 1873. When asked to see what he could do to encourage the negotiations, Mears convinced the chief that in addition to other concessions, $1,000 per year for ten years might provide great comfort as Ouray approached old age. Outraged that an agreement hinged on a bribe, U.S. Indian Commissioner Felix Brunot relented when a he received a correspondence from Ouray, dated September 13, 1873, which stated, in part:

We are perfectly willing to sell our mountain-land, and hope the miners find heaps of gold and silver; and we have no wish to molest them or make them any trouble. We do not want they should go down into our valleys, however, and kill or scare away our game.

A parcel of land comprised of four million acres in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, excluding the “four miles square” that encompassed the sacred hot springs in Uncompahgre Park (just north of the Town of Ouray), was ceded to the U.S. government that same day. The agreement promised that the valleys and close to 11 million acres would remain the exclusive domain of the Utes “for as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers flow.”

The stampede to the vacated region was as predictable as it was intense. Overnight, mining camps blossomed into fledgling towns, thanks, in part, to the construction of wagon roads. Capitalizing on his previous experiences in road building, Mears regraded the road he had built from Saguache to the Los Pinos agency and added tollgates. In 1874, he ran the road to the Barnum Post Office (Gateview) and then south along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River to Lake City. In subsequent years, the road from Barnum was extended north and west, following what is Highway 50 today, to Montrose and then south along the Uncompahgre River to the town of Ouray (named for the chief, who lived nearby). In describing his passage from Saguache to Telluride during the spring of 1880, L.G. Denison wrote, “There were toll gates the entire distance. Charges were usually five dollars for a single team. The toll gates were always placed in some narrow canyon, where it was impossible to pass.” For Mears, the 1873 agreement with the Utes, the Brunot Treaty—which he helped broker—quickly become a paying proposition.

The Los Pinos agency was moved during the fall of 1875 to where the town of Colona is now located. A six-room adobe home was built for Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, about eight miles north of the new agency (the Ute Indian Museum just south of Montrose now occupies the site). Mears was paid $10,000 to act as building contractor. With a 500-acre farm and horse corrals, not to mention a sizeable pension, Ouray settled into a comfortable, if only temporary, retirement.

By the end of 1877, the citizens of the town of Ouray called for another treaty to acquire Uncompahgre Park. On December 15 that year, Lake City’s Silver World reported growing concern over the conditions on the Ute reservation, speculating that should “the Indians of the White River agency go upon the war-path it will not be improbable that they may be joined by those [Indians] of the other agencies.” By February 1878, a bill had been introduced in Congress authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate with the Utes for the extinguishment of the title to all of their reservation in the state of Colorado and calling for their removal to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.


Historians point to the events that occurred on and around September 29, 1879, at and near the White River agency near present-day Meeker in northwestern Colorado as pivotal in precipitating the Utes removal from Colorado. One, labeled the “Meeker Massacre,” was when several renegade braves murdered Agent Nathaniel Meeker and ten other males, and kidnapped five females, including Mrs. Meeker and her daughter. The other occurrence was the battle between the Utes and U.S. Army troops at nearby Milk Creek. Shortly afterward, newspapers across the state ran banner headlines demanding, “The Utes Must Go!”

A new treaty was drafted, calling for three reservations for the Utes. The Northern Utes, the bands most associated with the Meeker “atrocities,” were to be removed to northeastern Utah; the Southern Utes were to remain on a narrow rectangle of land in southwestern Colorado; and the Tabeguache, the largest of the bands, were, at Mears’ suggestion, to be relocated near the confluence of the Gunnison and Grand (Colorado) Rivers, near present-day Grand Junction. Wanting the Utes out of Colorado altogether, Governor Pitkin, a business and political associate of Mears, adamantly opposed the treaty. Ouray and the Tabeguache were equally vocal in their refusal to leave Colorado. Congress ratified the treaty on June 15, 1880, provided that three-quarters of the tribe’s male population sign the agreement by October 15.

While visiting Southern Ute Chief Ignacio, ostensibly for the purpose of convincing his perennial nemesis to accept the government’s treaty, Ouray succumbed to a chronic liver ailment and died on August 24. Without Ouray as mediator and with the deadline looming, Mears, then a commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took it upon himself to do what was necessary to bring matters to a conclusion. He personally offered $2 to any Ute male willing to the sign the treaty. Bird in hand and with the understanding that they would relocate to familiar and favorable territory within Colorado, the Utes provided the requisite number of signatures. There was, however, a catch.

The idea to remove the Tabeguache to the Grand River Valley was initially presented by Mears to a Colorado congressman, who passed it along to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. The congressman failed to tell Secretary Schurz about Mears’ stipulation that if the Utes were to remain in Colorado, the Grand River site would be the most suitable. The treaty’s language was even more obscure. The “relocation provision” called for the Tabeguache to be removed to land at or adjacent to the confluence of the Grand and Gunnison Rivers. When first presented to him in the spring of 1880, Ouray rejected the treaty’s language. Having experienced the duplicity in how treaties read versus what they meant, the Utes finally agreed to the wording, despite the ambiguity, only after they were assured that five Ute chiefs would join the commissioners, including Mears, when selecting the site of their new home. Though several of the commissioners—and the Utes—interpreted “adjacent” to mean in Colorado, Mears had other intentions as he headed up the “inspection party” in June 1881.

Convinced of its potential as an agricultural oasis, Mears advised the Utes and government officials that the Grand River location was “unsuitable” for Ute habitation. How the Ute chiefs came to concur with Mears’ assessment remains a matter of speculation. One can only wonder what the outcome would have been had Ouray lived to participate in the negotiations. Nonetheless, Mears’ recommendation to remove the Tabeguache to Utah became final.


On Sunday morning of August 28, 1881, nearly 1,500 men, women and children were ordered to pack their belongings; round up their dogs, sheep, goats and ponies; and with what possessions they could transport on horse travois or carry on their backs, make their way out of western Colorado. A heartbreaking day for the Utes, it was an occasion marked by joy for others. An Army general would later recall that the whites who had gathered to watch the Utes go “were so unrestrained by common decency that it was absolutely necessary to use military force to keep them off the reservation until the Indians were fairly gone.”

Mears rode with the Ute procession that day, probably more out of official duty than empathy. Yet, even as the Utes were leaving, Mears was, figuratively speaking, collecting tolls on his new wagon road, built with Navajo work crews, that ran from the new town of Dallas, alongside Leopard Creek to Placerville, and then up the San Miguel River Valley to the prospering mining camp of Telluride. Mixed emotions may have visited Mears that morning, but it is likely the Pathfinder of the San Juans shed nary a tear.

*The Ute Indians were geographically separated into seven tribes. The Northern Utes were comprised of the Uintah, Yampa and Grand River bands, and the Southern Utes were made up of the Weeminuche, Capote and Mouache bands. The Tabeguache Utes, the largest of the seven, wintered in the vicinity of the Uncompahgre River drainage.

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