After years of developing the battlefield park which marks the graves of Army soldiers and Native American warriors who were in battle on this historic site one hundred and thirty six years ago this month [Sept 29-Oct 6, 2015], Rio Blanco County Historical Society hosted a dedication to commemorate the historic site improvements and the memory of this historic event. A gazebo to hold ceremonies and heritage events has been built on the property and was utilized for the occasion.
Click HERE for photos of the occasion.
Article submitted to The RBC Herald Times Newspaper. Ran in the October 1, 2015 edition:
“Saturday, September 26th, turned out to be a beautiful afternoon to dedicate Milk Creek Battlefield Park with 300 plus in attendance. Through the event, Rio Blanco County Historical Society hosted many Ute friends and VIP from all over Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, authors of books on the Milk Creek Battle, the local VFW and the VFW Post 126 of Fort Duchesne, Utah, local leaders, Colorado State dignitaries, and New York film makers – and everyone witnessed it all come together in an evolving ceremony of remembering and looking forward to the future.
Turn back the clock one hundred and thirty six years ago this week to when the Northern Utes and their ancestors inhabited this part of mountainous western Colorado and had for many years. One band, the White River Utes, settled in the green valley on the banks of the White River where they raised their prized racing ponies. This area of beautiful pasture land became known as Powell Park after John Wesley Powell resided with the Utes while he explored the area in the winter of 1868-69. Powell Park later became the site of the Agency of the White River.
The creation of Colorado Territory brought competition for the land, The Agency was established in 1868 when the Utes permitted the Overland Stage Road to access lower Wyoming and also mining began in Hahn’s Park.
At the time the Department of Interior assured jurisdiction, the Reserve contained many millions of acres and the Utes and local traders engaged in a “buckskin” economy at posts along the Yampa and Little Snake Rivers.
Then, a policy of enforced conversion to agriculture was implemented in the months and years preceding the battle. An Indian Agent’s role rapidly changed from that of total support of tribes and bands to that of the enforcement of limits and restrictions. Agent Nathan Meeker assumed the role of Agent in 1878, the year before the battle and moved the Agency site to Powell Park. At this site, Chief Douglas and Johnson, an influential medicine man, worked daily with Meeker. Chief Jack and Colorow tended to avoid and resist his “programs.”
September 1879, when Nathan Meeker ordered the Ute horse race track plowed in an effort to change the Ute culture, there were arguments and anger. In fear, Meeker requested military assistance of Major Thornburg, but the implications of this in the mind of the Ute People were not seen in time to prevent tragedy. Utes regarded military encroachment as a hostile act of war.
A column of troops, led by Thornburg, made their way from Fort Steele, east of Rawlins, Wyoming. The column advance with several ox pulled freighters who were resupplying the Agency. Thornburg was visited by Chief Jack and Colorow as it crossed present day Moffat County, where they tried to come to an agreement, complaining of Agent Meeker’s policies and standing firm in their beliefs of treaty rights.
However, they had determined before hand to resist if the troops crossed Milk Creek. Waiting at the far end of the valley, they watched as Thornburg, who continued to follow superior orders, led three Cavalry companies ahead despite their conversations.
It is not certain who fired the first shot, but when it happened, several grueling days of battle ensued from September 29 – October 6. Ultimately, the army failed to prevent the Meeker Massacre and the Utes lost their horses and lush mountain reservation and in 1881 were removed to the Utah desert. The army and militiamen lost thirteen dead and forty-four wounded. Chief Jack estimated that nineteen warriors were killed and seven were unaccounted for. It was a historic tragedy.
During the years following, even though local citizens had come to this spot to pay respect and Ute leaders had visited to say prayers and leave Eagle feathers, it wasn’t until approximately twenty five years ago, it came into the hearts of some of the members of the historical society and in particular, Joe Sullivan and the late Dr. David Steinman, to memorialize the location on behalf of the incident as it was one of the last Indian and Regular Army Unit Uprisings in America. Their vison was for it to become a public interpretive destination for both sides that had lost lives on this site. And so it has!
From the process of receiving the donation of the plot of land to making it into a park, the site has continued to see improvements with the beautiful gate entrance – stonework by master stone craftsman, Paul Vinzant and the iron gates telling the story through the master craftsman skill of Mark Scritchfield. And recently, a gazebo was built to provide a venue for events and tours and a flag pole was erected for the American flag to fly continuously by Tom Kilduff and the VFW.
Today, the site has attracted visitors from all over the world and has become a destination for descendants of those who died, history buffs, battle scholars, interested tourists and many others who find their way up a gravel county road in Rio Blanco County to a still relatively raw piece of land that holds two monuments and the hearts of those who come to pay tribute to a sad time in history.
At the Dedication, Joe Sullivan, chair of the Milk Creek Battlefield Park Committee, spoke about this park being a place of unity. As the crowd listened respectfully to prayers and songs from the Native Americans Utes and as the American flag was honored and the pledge of allegiance was shared by all, it became apparent that unity was a reality at least at this place in this time together.
RBCHS would like to thank all those who helped make this event a success. For crowd logistics from Rio Blanco County Sheriff Department and Officers to Redi-Services Sanitation service to Marshall Cook and the EMS Teams to Davidson Ranch Manager, Billy Stewart, for parking use. We thank all those who participated in the program including Johnny Barton and David Main for music, the VFW for bringing a group out to do the flag ceremony, Tawny Halandras and Mountain Valley Bank for welcoming the Ute Powwow Dancers at the Fall Festival, Bob Amick and use of Meeker Arts and Culture Council’s equipment for sound and the Milk Creek Battlefield Committee and team who worked tirelessly to prepare for the occasion.
RBCHS’ next goals are to erect twelve points of information in the park to tell the story. We will apply for grants and receive donations to add this much needed feature to continue to make this a sacred destination.”
Copy of the invitation that was extended to everyone:
Milk Creek Battlefield Park
Invitation to the Dedication
When: Saturday, September 26, 2015, 3:00 P.M.
Where: The Milk Creek Battle Field Park,
County Road 15, approximately 17 miles NE of Meeker
For the past quarter of a century The Rio Blanco Historical Society has been developing the Milk Creek Battlefield Park. The purpose of this effort is to commemorate the site of one of the last battles of the American Indian Wars. The United States Calvary crossed the boundary of the Ute Reservation with what could only be interpreted as hostile intent. The Utes, as a last resort, resisted the invasion of the military and held the troops in this location for 5 days with minimal loss of life.
As a result of these actions the Utes lost 16.5 million acres of their beloved Colorado lands and were banished to eastern Utah and a small reservation in South Western Colorado. For the Utes this was a tragic loss of their way of life. It was also the fulfilment of the U.S. Government’s policy of Manifest Destiny.
The dedication of the Milk Creek Battlefield Park is not intended to justify or glorify the Manifest Destiny of the white Europeans who came here after the battle in 1879. According to Joe Sullivan, who has led the development of the park, “The purpose is to establish an honored place where people of all races can meet in peace, learn from each other and resolve differences. Before we can act we need to understand and believe that understanding will inform the decisions we make for a better future for us all. This is the best lesson we can learn from our shared history. There is honor in truth.”
To this end the Utes have been invited to share their story at the dedication. Their story is, according to Peter Decker, “A testimony to their superb survival strategies, astonishing staying power, and immense courage of the tribe.”
White scholars have extensively researched and written about the events before, during and after the Battle at Milk Creek. Peter Decker, Bob Silbernagel, and Mark Miller are three who will speak at the dedication. Through their eyes we will see the unfolding of the cause and consequences of this time and place in history.
The past is only a part of the dedication. There has been and continues to be a huge investment on the part of individuals and groups to the Milk Creek Battlefield Park. These contributors have generously given over $100,000 and hundreds of hours to this place. Their work is not finished. Ellene Meece, President of the Rio Blanco County Historical Society will speak to the importance of community in building this tangible symbol of unity where there was once divisiveness. And The Chairman of the Rio Blanco County Commissioners, Jeff Eskelson will speak about how the Milk Creek Battlefield Park strengthens community within Rio Blanco County.
The Rio Blanco County Historical Society hopes that you will come and participate. It is through you that this place is where future generations will come to ponder the events that transpired here and perhaps be inspired to create change that will be valued by all.
Joe Sullivan, Chair of the Milk Creek Battlefield Park Committee, has been the champion and primary participant in maintaining this park for many years. After just celebrating his 96th birthday, this occasion is very meaningful to him. A tribute to Joe by Colorado Public Radio this past summer, gives the story: Staying Vital As Time Marches On.