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Through 1881

Geography and Ute History

Ute Teepee circa 1871. Credit: John K. Hillers, Robert N. Dennis Collection

Climate, geology, and large natural disturbances were the most significant generators of trends in this area for millions of years. As human populations grew and developed new tools, transportation, hunting, and farming techniques, this species joined the ranks of the most powerful drivers of change. Necessity, culture, and economics all became powerful forces in shaping who and what lives in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The Beginnings of Human Influence

Climate, geology, and large natural disturbances were the most significant drivers of ecological trends in the Roaring Fork Valley area for millions of years. As human populations grew and developed new tools, transportation, hunting, and farming techniques, our species joined the ranks of the most powerful instigators of change. Necessity, culture, and economics all became powerful forces in shaping who and what lived in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The Ute People

Credit: Joseph Wheat, Powell Survey-USGA 1873. 

Seven Ute, or Nuche, bands once lived and roamed from the Front Range of Colorado, west to central Utah, and as far south as New Mexico. Often traveling in family groups, the Utes followed the buffalo, elk, and deer herds, living in the mountains during summer months when food was abundant and moving to lower elevations to avoid harsh weather in the winter. Trade with early Spanish explorers led to the acquisition of horses, allowing for new hunting and fighting techniques and increasing the use of teepees as a portable shelter.

The Rocky Mountains were named "The Shining Mountains" for their snow-capped peaks, and the Utes were sometimes called "The Blue Sky People." Although certain territories were associated with different bands or tribes, land was not considered as something that could be owned.

Learn More with the Aspen Ute Foundation
Connect with the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, Colorado


Human Ecological Impacts

As they travelled following game animals, Utes brought changes to the areas they visited. Preferred foods or medicinal plants may have been dispersed by being carried from place to place. Disturbance regimes were also changed: fires were anecdotally set on occasion to flush out game, or, in one instance, to flush out prospectors who were discovered illegally squatting on Ute land near current-day Carbondale.

Geography and Population

The light blue shading on the above map shows estimated Ute use of land since the 1800s. The dark blue text shows the time period for each range. Changes in Ute land use were not voluntary; they were a consequence of rulings by the U.S. government. 

By the time of Spanish exploration during the 1600's, the Utes were already a culturally distinct people. It is estimated that Utes had a population of around 5,000 -10,000 individuals, across all bands. This population was spread over 150,000 square miles, which included the mountains of Colorado. By the 1800's incursion from prospectors and settlers who had received land grants had contracted this territory, particularly in New Mexico, and the Ute populations was estimated to be have decreased to around 3,500-4000 people, with the Tabeguache (also known as the Uncompahgre) forming the largest band.

In addition to holding strong spiritual and cultural significance, the high elevation of much of the Utes' range allowed them to maintain greater isolation than many of the plains tribes. The harsh geography of the area also allowed the Utes to drive out or otherwise resist settlement, first by the Spanish and later by prospectors from the east in much of their territory.

As increasing numbers of settlers came to Colorado following the discovery of gold in 1858, however, some Ute leaders, including Chief Ouray from the Tabeguache band, felt that a treaty with the US government should be made. Several treaties were made, including the Treaty of 1868, which designated the western 1/3 of Colorado as Ute territory, an area of 25,000 square miles from which settlers were forbidden from hunting or prospecting. The treaty also recognized an already-designated patch of Unitah land in Utah. However, the treaty, intended to last for generations, was broken by the US Government in 1880, after prospectors' fever for ore, combined with unrest between settlers, indian agents, and Utes leading to conflicts and the initiation of the "trip of sorrow." The remaining Ute peoples were displaced from their ancestral lands and removed to reservations in Utah and the south of Colorado.

Today, bands of the Ute nation hold the title to three reservations, totaling around 2,031 square miles, and there are 2,970 tribal members registered with the Ute tribe. The Roaring Fork Valley still retains important cultural significance, and the Aspen Ute Foundation collaborates with Ute elders to host ceremonies and events to help re-integrate the spiritual significance of this area into American Indian culture.

Global Connection

Although the mountains provided the Utes with a degree of geographic isolation from other American Indian tribes, they were still connected to the outside world via trade, and global economic trends played a critical role in the course their history took.

Lust for gold in the New World, for example, brought the first Spanish explorers to the Americas in the 1600s. With them, the Spanish brought horses, which the Utes quickly integrated into their culture. More harmful exchanges also took place, including the introduction of new diseases. Although the Utes successfully retained their hunting grounds from the first wave of settlers, other economic drivers continued to bring them into contact with Europeans in the coming centuries. In the 1700s and 1800s, demand for fashionable beaver fur hats in Europe drove trappers further and further west in the search for pelts to meet the market demand, leading them to encounter Utes in the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps most influential, though, was the international demand for minerals such as silver, gold, and coal. Colorado's settler population boomed when these resources were discovered in the area in the late 1880s, and prospectors clamored to be allowed on Ute lands to extract these tradable goods, contributing to the eventual removal of Utes from these lands.

Brain Bug

Today international trade has become a deeply ingrained part of our lives. Take a look at three objects that are close to you as you read this. Where were they made? How did they travel from where they were produced to where they are today? In your home, what percentage of the objects you use regularly is made within 1,000 miles of where you live?
Explore Global Trade Patterns with Harvard's Atlas of Economic Complexity