Chief Ouray Was a Big Part of the History of Colorado

Ouray and Chipeta

Native American, Chief Ouray of the Ute Indian Tribe was considered a peacemaker and was well respected by many people of his era.

Chief Ouray of the Tabeguache band was born in Taos, New Mexicoto to a mother who was a member of the Umcompahgre band and a father who was half Jacarilla Apache. As a child he learned to speak both Spanish and English, preferring Spanish since it was the dominate language in the area. It was only later that he learned the Ute and Apache languages.

Early Years of the American Indian, Chief Ouray

Chief Ouray spent the first 18 years of his life in the Taos area. Most of his time there was spent working with Mexican sheepherders and fighting rival tribes such as the Sioux and the Kiowas. When he was around 18 years of age, he moved to Colorado and became part of the Tabequache band of which is father had become leader.

The first few years of his life in Colorado were uneventful from a historical viewpoint. He hunted and fished just like other Ute braves. He married his second wife Chipeta in 1859 when he was about 26 years old. She was 16; a Kiowa Apache who had been adopted by the Utes when she was a child and made a member of the Tabequache band.

The Native American Chief Becomes Known as “The White Man’s Friend”

In 1860 Chief Ouray’s father passed away and Chief Ouray became the chief over the Umcompaghre Tribe. He was considered a man of patience and diplomacy and his command of languages was instrumental in communicating with the white man. In 1863, Chief Ouray negotiated a treaty for the Tabequache Tribe. While they were given a reservation in Colorado; ultimately the government repealed much of the treaty over the next couple of years.

In 1868 Chief Ouray visited Washington D.C. where he signed the Kit Carson Treaty which gave about six million acres of land to the Utes. They were guaranteed that no one would travel through their land with the exception of authorized roads and railways. At that time, the government appointed Chief Ouray head chief of the Utes.

Subsequent treaties continued to erode the lands of the Utes. As Chief Ouray attempted to negotiate on behalf of his people; they begin to resent the loss of their lands and Chief Ouray survived several attempts on his life.

Tensions Escalate as Indian Reservation Land Decreases

When gold was discovered in Colorado, an influx of miners encroached upon the land of the Utes. In 1873 the Ute Nation signed the Brunot Treaty that allowed mining in the San Juan Mountains. The government was to pay the Ute Nation 11 million dollars; but instead paid each person who signed the treaty a mere two dollars. Though Chief Ouray was able to calm the Umcompaghre Tribe; he was not able to control the other tribes within the Ute Nation who wanted to extract revenge for the unfair treaty.

Tension grew as the government continued to not honor the treaties they signed with the Ute Nation. The Utes in the White River Valley were being forced to farm which was against their culture. The government’s lack of understanding of the American Indian culture added fuel to the fire and eventually even Chief Ouray was unable to keep some of the Utes from acting.

In 1879 The Utes of the White Valley attacked the Indian Agent Nathan C. Meeker and killed him and all of the males at the agency. They captured Meeker’s wife, daughter and a couple of other women and held them hostages for almost a month. This incident resulted in the relocation of all Ute Tribes that were living in Colorado; some tribes being altogether removed from the state. In 1880 Chief Ouray made his final visit to Washington D.C. and signed a treaty that relocated the White Valley Tribe to the Unitah Reservation in Utah; the Southern Ute to the La Plata River; and his own Umcompaghre Tribe to the newly created Ouray reservation near the mouth of the Gunnison River.

Negotiator Even in the Last Days of his Life

In the summer of 1880, Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta traveled to Ignacio where the Southern Ute agency was located with intentions to renegotiate. However, by this time, Chief Ouray was a sick man and though he was able to make the journey, he died of Brights Disease while there. Chipeta continued her husband’s work as a diplomat for her people. In 1881, the Umcompaghre Tribe was again relocated to a small reservation on the southwestern boundary of Colorado. Chipeta moved to a reservation in Utah where she passed away in 1924.

Originally Chief Ouray was buried in the rocks south of Ignacio, Colorado; however, forty-five years later, his bones were moved to Montrose, Colorado to lie beside his wife Chipeta on the site of their farm.


  1. Chief Ouray Historical Ute Leader