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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 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 as catalysts of change in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The Beginnings of Human Influence

Climate, geology, and large natural distcurbances were the drivers of ecological trends in the Roaring Fork Valley area for millions of years. As human populations grew and developed new tools, transportation, hunting, or farming techniques, our species also became a catalyst of change in the Roaring Fork Valley.

 


Geography 


Credit: Joseph Wheat, Powell Survey-USGA 1873.

The ancestral lands of the seven Ute, or Nuche, bands stretch from the plains of Colorado, west to central Utah, and as far south as New Mexico. Often traveling in family groups, the Utes spent generations following 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. Knowledge of natural systems and connections to the landscape were critical to survival. The mountain areas that formed portions of the Ute’s ancestral lands also held special spiritual significance. 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.

By the time of Spanish exploration during the 1600's, the Utes were long established as a culturally distinct people. It is estimated that Utes had a population of around 5,000 -10,000 individuals, across Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, living in migratory patterns over 150,000 square miles, including the region today known as the Roaring Fork Valley. However, by the 1800's incursion from prospectors and settlers who had received land grants contracted this territory, particularly in New Mexico, and the Ute populations decreased to an estimated 3,500-4000 people, with the Tabeguache (also known as the Uncompahgre) forming the largest band.

As increasing numbers of settlers came to Colorado following the discovery of gold in 1858, 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, although the treaty was written as though intended to last for generations, it was broken by the US Government in 1880, after prospectors' fever for ore combined with unrest between settlers, indian agents, and Utes led to conflicts. The consequence was the initiation of the "trip of sorrow:" the remaining Ute peoples in the Colorado Rocky Mountains were displaced from their ancestral lands and removed to reservations in Utah.

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.

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

 

Distribution


The light blue shading on the above map shows the changes in Ute lands since the 1800s. The dark blue text shows the time period for each range. As settlers from eastern states came West, the US government forced Ute bands into smaller ranges, eventually forcibly removing the bands to reservations in Southern Colorado and Utah. Today these reservations are under Ute sovereignty.

By the time of Spanish exploration during the 1600's, the Utes were already 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.

As increasing numbers of settlers came to Colorado following the discovery of gold in 1858, 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, although the treaty was written as though intended to last for generations, it was broken by the US Government in 1880, after prospectors' fever for ore combined with unrest between settlers, indian agents, and Utes led to conflicts. The consequence was the initiation of the "trip of sorrow:" the remaining Ute peoples in the Colorado Rocky Mountains were displaced from their ancestral lands and removed to reservations in Utah..

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.

Changes to Landscapes and Ecosystems

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: anecdotally, fires were occasionally set to flush out game. When the Utes were displaced in the late 1800s, settlers began migrating to the area in greater numbers, triggering a new era of human impacts on the land.

Global Connection

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

The quest 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 government removal of Utes from their ancestral homelands 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