San Juan County almost became a Southern Ute Reservation more than a century ago

Whenever I hike in Bears Ears National Monument, I think about how it almost became an Indian reservation. 

Over a century ago Durango businessmen actively campaigned to remove the Southern Utes to San Juan County, UT. Most of that county would have become a new 2.9 million-acre Ute Indian reservation. 

The businessmen almost succeeded, but they were thwarted by a group from Philadelphia named the Indian Rights Association that interceded on the Utes’ behalf. What happened, and what didn’t happen, forever changed Four Corners history.

By 1880 the Southern Utes were relegated to a narrow strip of land adjacent to the New Mexico border, 15 miles wide and 110 miles long. 

As Durango thrived, farmers, ranchers, and businessmen coveted the long rectangle of the Ute reservation. 

They schemed to have the Utes move to southeast Utah onto mesas, plateaus, and deep canyons already contested between fifty Mormon families living in Bluff City, Monticello, and La Sal, and large cattle companies. 

Both proponents and opponents of the move claimed their intentions were to benefit the Utes.

Coloradans complained that the long, narrow shape of the reservation presented a barrier to whites living on each side. Proponents for Ute removal argued the Southern Utes themselves wanted more isolation which could be found in the proposed Utah reservation that lay “outside of the track of the white man, is hemmed in by rivers and canyons, is adapted to grazing, and abounds in game.” 

Utes were to receive the wild, uncharted, and unmapped San Juan Triangle or the canyon country between the San Juan River on the south and the Colorado River on the north.

In 1892 Senator Edward Wolcott from Colorado introduced Bill No. 362 for Ute removal to Utah. The Indian Rights Association sent a representative to scout the area. 

He described San Juan County as a “‘no man’s land’ owing to the extreme scarcity of running water... Where there is sufficient water the altitude is too great for farming, and where the altitude is not too great there is no water.” 

Along 62 miles of the San Juan River, only 160 acres were being farmed. For Indian advocates who sought to turn Southern Utes into farmers, that was unacceptable.

The Philadelphia-based Indian Rights Association (IRA) fought vigorously to prevent the move, even as Indian Agent David Day from Durango not only supported it, but told the Utes to pack their horses and teepees and head to Utah, which many families did. 

The IRA argued, “No removal of Indians from their homes should be dictated purely by greed of white men for Indian land, but primarily by considerations affecting the welfare of the Indians themselves.”

While the Indian Rights Association protested, Day and others encouraged the Utes to move while also prodding Congress to act. 

In December 1894 Congress debated whether to give San Juan County, UT to the Southern Utes who had begun to settle in Dry Valley, which is now the flat strip of Bureau of Land Management land north of Monticello and south of Moab, punctuated by Church Rock, a landmark that looks like a large sandstone teapot.

But too many cattle and sheep had already decimated grass. Severe overgrazing had begun. Utes with their large horse herds took over water holes and springs at Harts Draw, Hatch Point, Silvey Pocket, and elsewhere. 

“It was a desperate situation,” explained Utah pioneer Frank Silvey. “We learned that Durango people, feeling sure the Indian removable bill [would] pass the Senate and with President Cleveland’s signature would become law in a few weeks, [Utes] through the Indian Agent David F. Day were told to come to San Juan County. 

“It was theirs; ‘Washington City Man’ had given it to them, so the Indians were honest in this matter and were overjoyed to come here.”

Coloradans thought San Juan County to be “a desert country inhabited by large cattle owners and cowboys, a few Mormons, and plenty of outlaws. It was no good and the Utes should have it.” 

Speaking at a public meeting in San Juan County, Mariano, a Weenuche headman under Chief Ignacio, stated, “Washington City Man tell us to come here, sit down. We sit down. All over this country, it is ours. 

“Now you say we get out and go back to our reservation. What’s the matter now? We stay. Our fathers, our grandfathers, and our great-great-grandfathers have hunted here for many, many snows. We love this country.”

But Utah’s territorial Governor Caleb West sided with Mormon settlers. He said, “I feel you have been unjustly encroached upon by the Indians, although they are right in a way. They must go.” 

Meanwhile, the Indian Rights Association also petitioned the halls of Congress for the Southern Utes to be returned.

On February 20, 1895 the 53rd Congress voted on legislation titled the Hunter bill, H.R. 6792 “to disapprove the treaty heretofore made with the Southern Ute Indians to be removed to the territory of Utah, and providing for settling them down in severalty where they may so elect and are qualified, and to settle all those not electing to take lands in severalty on the west forty miles of present reservation.” 

By the middle of March 1895 few Southern Utes remained in Dry Valley. Indian Police rounded up those who had stayed.

By September 30, 1895, Francis E. Leupp of the Indian Rights Association wrote The Latest Phase of the Southern Ute Question. He summarized that “although the Southern Utes were disposed to be peaceful...the citizens of Colorado were resolved to get rid of them altogether. 

“To this end legislation was procured from Congress for the removal of the whole tribe to a reservation in Utah and another government commission was appointed in 1888 to obtain their consent.”

Leupp added, “Perhaps it would be safe to say that no negotiation ever attempted with a tribe of Indians has given rise to so much public discussion as this.” 

The Indian Rights Association wanted the Southern Utes to settle down and be farmers, but it fought provisions of the bill requiring allotment without tribal consent. The bill passed anyway, forever shaping land ownership in La Plata and Montezuma counties in Colorado, and San Juan County, UT.

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