Chief Ouray: A leader caught in the middle

  • This negative image of Chief Ouray and Chipeta was taken in 1880. Courtesy Library of Congress.
    This negative image of Chief Ouray and Chipeta was taken in 1880. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Most of us who live here know that the city and county were named for Chief Ouray. We’ve seen his photos along with his wife Chipeta. Maybe we’ve even visited the Ute Museum in Montrose or attended programs about our region’s history. There’s definitely more to Chief Ouray’s story if you look a little deeper Some of the accounts offer slightly differ ent facts, which makes it challenging for a lay historian.

Chief Ouray was born near Taos, New Mexico, in 1833 during the Leonid meteor shower. “Ouray” means “arrow” in the Ute language, and this moniker proved appropriate and even prophetic.

His father, Guera Murah, was Jicarilla Apache, and his mother was a member of the Uncompaghre Ute band. He didn’t grow up with his parents. A neighboring Spanish family raised him, and he spoke both Spanish and English in the home and was educated by Catholic friars. He spent much of his youth working for Mexican sheepherders and fighting against the war ring Sioux and Kiowa.

Despite being Apache, his father was also a chief of the Ute. joined his parents in Colorado in his late teens and settled into life with the tribe. He became known as a fierce warrior against other Plains tribes and was called “the enforce? as he also dealt with tribal disciplinary issues.

He married his first wife, Black Water, who died during a Sioux attack. A few years later he married Chipeta, a Kiowa Apache, who had been taken in by the Utes after her parents were killed in a raid by another tribe. At 27 he became the Ute’s leader upon his father’s death.

The chief’s life was one of leadership while his heart was breaking. As more and more white settlers came into the region, he believed that “co-existence” was necessary for the Ute’s survival.

Ouray and Black Water’s only son was kidnapped during a Sioux raid in 1863 when the boy was 5 years old. The chief and Chipeta never had children, but he searched for his lost son throughout his life.

Chief Ouray met with Presidents Grant and Hayes, even making several trips to Washington, D.C. President Hayes said the Ute was “the most intellectual man I’ve ever conversed with.”

The U.S. government named Ouray the head chief for all the Ute tribes, and he negotiated multiple treaties trying to preserve their lands. Again and again Ouray saw the government fail to deliver on their promises. “Local” negotiators included Kit Carson and Otto Mears. Carson’s agreement provided that only approved roads and railroads would pass through the Ute lands. Mears failed to pay the Utes Su per person as stated in one treaty, giving them approximately sz each.

Government officials called him “the white man’s friend.” Members of his tribe did, too, but this was a slur on each failed treaty, many of the Ute became even more disgruntled with his leadership and even tried to assassinate the chief multiple times. Ouray’s own brother-in-law, Saponvanero, tried to kill him with an ax at the Los Pinos Indian Agency.

By 188o the fate of the Utes has been decided. The Southern Ute agreed to settle along the La Plata River, the Uncompaghre moved to the mouth of the Gunnison River, and the White River Ute went to Uinta reservation in Utah. Later that same year Chief Ouray and Chipeta traveled to the Southern Ute agency near Ignacio where he died from kidney disease. The great warrior and chief was secretly buried nearby. Forty-five years later he was re-interred in the White River Cemetery near Ignacio with a tribal funeral.

An article in the Denver Post in zom noted “He saw the shadow of doom on his people ... and was dealt a sad task of liquidating a once-mighty force that ruled nearly 23 million acres of the Rocky Mountains.”

Several sources cite Chief Ouray as speaking his truth: “The agreement an Indian makes to a United States treaty is like the agreement a buffalo makes with his hunters when pierced with arrow. All he can do is lie down and give in.”

Sources for this article include The Denver Post, ourcommunitynowcom,,, and “Ouray: Chief of the Utes” by P David Smith.

Carolyn Snowbarger is a retired educator. After teaching middle schoolers in Olathe, Kansas, for 28 years, she and her husband Vince moved to Washington, D.0 She directed the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative at the U.S. Department of Education and then managed continuing education programs for the American Institute ofArchitects. The Snowbargers moved to Ridgway in 2013 after decades of San Juan family vacations.