I have always loved learning about the area where I live. Growing up, I looked forward to the fourth grade study of Washington history very intently and continued to build my knowledge of the area into high school. I was initially drawn to Idaho’s Silver Valley by its history (mostly through reading Tim Egan’s The Big Burn) and then purchasing the cabin drove my research into the specifics of mine development in the upper valley. I have been pretty slow to develop my understanding of the history of the San Juan Mountain region. Lately, I’ve been doing better at delving into books, some of which I’ve talked about here recently.
One of the more enlightening things that I’ve read lately is Ouray: Chief of the Utes by P. David Smith. Inspired partly by the ongoing renovation of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, I picked this up at the library. I wanted to have some background knowledge before visiting the museum when it reopens this spring. (Recent political events have also inspired me to read more about not white men… I violated this by reading about Otto Mears so I guess I’m going to have to put Isabella Bird next…or perhaps Chipeta?)
The San Juans were settled relatively late, with the initial gold placer gold finds happening in the Eureka area (near Silverton) in 1860. Ouray spends some time discussing Chief Ouray’s early life but Smith wisely spends most the book discussing Ouray’s time as one of the leaders of the various Ute bands during the multiple treaty negotiations for the San Juan Mountain region and the Uncompaghre Valley.
As might be expected, the discovery of riches on lands granted to the Ute tribe (a loose confederation of approximately seven bands) lead to the US government continually renegotiating treaties with the tribe and shrinking their holdings. I am curious to see how the Ute Indian Museum presents the story of the tribe (the redesign of the museum features input from the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Northern Ute Tribe) because Smith’s interpretation of Ouray is extremely favorable.
The portrait painted by Smith is of a man that fought hard for his people while grasping the futility of the situation. While the story clearly shows a man that was able to coordinate diverse interests within the larger Ute Nation the picture seems entirely too cut and dried to me. Ouray himself was promised a salary for the remainder of his life while the reservation became smaller and smaller and predicated some negotations with the government on their willingness to search for his son who had been abducted by the Sioux. His actions (and the actions of his wife Chipeta) during and after the Meeker Massacre were certainly admirable―they welcomed the surviving women from the Indian Agency into their home while the recovered from the ordeal. Certainly, Ouray was a man of his time that did the best that he could with what he knew.
This book served as a great introduction to Ouray’s life. I was fascinated to learn that the hot springs that are now Orvis Hot Springs were considered holy to the Utes which lead to them attempting to hold onto the land that is now Ridgway for a long time. I’m sure that forming a complete picture of the man is difficult given the circumstances but I’m looking forward to reading more about his life.
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