When Ferdinand Hayden’s team of surveyors entered the Crystal Valley in 1873, they noted the existence of a “hardened trail” running from the summit of what is now known as Schofield Pass down to the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. At this point, the surveyors were the guests of the Ute Nation which had been promised roughly the western fifth of the Colorado Territory as their permanent reservation under the Treaty of 1868.
The eastern boundary of the 1868 reservation lies approximately where Woody Creek sits today, and the entire Crystal watershed, and lands west to the Utah border, were within it. Hayden’s report to Congress that year noted that the trail was a major Ute travel route, connecting the western Colorado River valley with the Front Range via Schofield and Monarch passes. Hayden’s maps were ultimately published in the 1884 Atlas of Colorado. For those interested in such things, the atlas can be viewed at both the Aspen Historic Society and Denver Public Library Western History Collection.
When the Ute were granted the western fifth of Colorado, one might have hoped that the U.S. government would protect their dominion of the same. But the government’s racial bias in favor of white settlement permeated the priorities and policies of the day. So it was, that when a zealous missionary named Nathaniel Meeker entered the reservation to “civilize” the Ute, the U.S. Army was sent to protect him.
This didn’t end well for Meeker, or for the initial cavalry detachment. The Ute were determined not to become victims of another Sand Creek Massacre, and attacked the soldiers as soon as they entered the reservation, defeating them at Milk Creek in September of 1879.
For generations, the Ute had skirmished with the Arapaho, each fond of hot springs and horses, and vying for control of both. These skirmishes were among people who understood each other, who shared both the strengths and vulnerabilities of living off the mountain landscape.
Estimates of the total Ute population vary, with “The People of the Shining Mountains” concluding their total numbers were likely around 4,000. The warriors in the tribe could not know the extent of the white population and material resources of the recently arrived Europeans. But when they trounced the cavalry at Milk Creek, reinforcements arrived quickly, and the warriors knew enough not to wait around for a further response. And so, they fled up the Crystal Trail and sought the high grounds on Schofield Pass.
I originally became aware of this story in a brief mention in “The Crystal River Pictorial”, Dell McCoy’s wonderful book on the Crystal Railroad. Years later, I was fortunate to walk some of the same sections of the trail with Kenny Frost, a member of the Southern Ute tribe. Kenny independently recounted that the Ute warriors had indeed sought refuge in the upper Crystal Valley following the Meeker uprising and the associated Battle of Milk Creek.
Imagine that scene. Some early white settlers had already appeared in the Valley, squatting on lands promised to the Ute. Myron Thompson had apparently first diverted water from his namesake creek this same year, in 1879. Perhaps he was about his farm that fall day, when the battle-weary group of Ute rode past.
These brave souls were at the height of their strength, combining their deep knowledge of the mountains with the horses and firearms that Europe had introduced to the scene. Myron would have been wise to keep a low profile.
And what was on the minds of the warriors? They had prevailed at Milk Creek by controlling the high ground. They also knew the topography intimately. They might have chosen any place in Western Colorado for refuge. They chose the upper Crystal. Whatever the invaders’ numbers and equipment, they at least would have their familiar high ground.
What might have been a protracted guerilla war in the Crystal Valley was averted by Chief Ouray himself. By this time, the Meeker women were under his guardianship at his home near Montrose. He arranged to repatriate them, unharmed (contrast this to what occurred 15 years prior, at Sand Creek).
According to Kenny, Ouray then sent runners up into the Crystal and told them to come down. These brave souls had won the battle, but they could not win the war for their homeland, and Ouray would sadly agree to relinquish the 1868 reservation, accepting in return two smaller reservations in southwest Colorado, and shared habitation of the already occupied Uintah reservation in northeast Utah.
This history bears remembering for all those visiting and residing in the Crystal Valley, especially for those who might do that without respect for the sacred landscape. Not long ago, the bravest warriors of an honorable nation stood ready to defend their homelands in this fragile valley.
CVEPA is dedicated to protecting access to all the ancient trails in the Crystal Valley, while insisting that human interactions with the same are conducted in a respectful manner.