Pioneer Profiles: Chipeta
This series, “Pioneer Profiles,” explores some of the interesting characters that define Colorado history.
Chipeta, a quiet, amenable woman, never expected to serve in a chief-like role among the Ute people, but many historians view her as an icon of female strength in the late 1800’s. Married to Chief Ouray, this power couple served as liaisons between white agents, the U.S. government, and their people. Chipeta and Ouray tried to lead by example, and for many years their wisdom was sought by Native Americans and whites alike.
Although the true circumstances of her birth are unclear, Chipeta was born around 1843. Of Kiowa and Apache heritage, Chipeta was light-skinned, unlike the Utes who raised her. Chipeta was a child when she met Ouray, a skilled hunter and fierce warrrior who was fluent in both Spanish and English. A few years later, Ouray’s wife died in childbirth, and Chipeta was chosen to become caregiver to Ouray’s small son. Late the next year, they decided to become a couple; she was 16 and he was 26. By 1876, when Colorado became a state, Ouray was in charge of his own tribe and was meeting regularly with Governor Evans and his good friend Kit Carson. When Ouray was named the head of the delegation to meet with the US government, Chipeta set about making him the finest clothes she could produce; she was renowned for her skill with beadwork. Ouray was required to wear a suit while in Washington, so he only wore the traditional dress when meeting directly with President Lincoln.
In 1863, after already forfeiting much of their land, the Utes signed a treaty to give up any remaining land east of the Continental Divide. In exchange, the United States agreed to give them $10,000 in household goods and $10,000 in provisions annually for 10 years. Additionally, they were given five stallions and a bunch of cattle and sheep as incentive to stop hunting and take up farming instead. Most Utes refused.
The Utes continued their hunting, gathering, and trading practices as best they could, even though they feared further encroachment into their way of life. Over the ensuing years, the Utes would struggle as the U.S. government continued to break the treaties that had been so carefully set up. On March 21 1868, the Utes agreed to another treaty, but only with the promise of large amounts of annuities. Forty-seven chiefs signed the treaty. The next year, Ouray and Chipeta were asked to move into their first house, as agents in the Los Piños agency. Having always lived in a round tepee her whole life, Chipeta had no idea what to do with all the corners. In 1873, the house burned to the ground due to a defective chimney and all of their belongings were lost.
Chipeta was instrumental in quelling disagreements that came up in the tribe, especially between her brother and her husband. When Ouray would meet with government officials and be gone for long periods of time, she would gather information from the women who came to the agency while he was away, keeping Ouray updated on the sentiments of the people in regards to his dealings with the U.S. government. Not only did Ouray meet with Lincoln, but he also met with President Andrew Johnson and President Grant.
Chipeta and Ouray eventually settled on a 160 acre ranch near Montrose, Colorado. Growing unrest among the Utes resulted in some hard feelings against Ouray, since the Utes felt like he was giving more and more of their land away for less and less compensation. When the government delayed the payments of its annuities, the Utes blamed Ouray for the problem. The government continued to press the Utes to farm, but they had no interest in it whatsoever, even though Ouray and Chipeta set up a thriving farm as a model for others. The couple did not take their share of the annuities, instead buying what they needed with Ouray’s agent salary and supplementing it from their own farm.
In late 1879, Chipeta accompanied Ouray to the east coast for a tour of major cities and a final meeting with the government. In the end, Ouray had to give up all remaining land owned by the Utes in exchange for $50,000 a year in addition to their annuity. Chipeta was the only woman who traveled to the East and met as part of the delegation.
The Utes thought the issue had been resolved, and they were ready to fulfill their part of the bargain, but some Washington delegates reported that the Utes were not in compliance. It was true; some of the Utes who thought Ouray was incapable of arguing on their behalf had revolted, but both Ouray and Chipeta were successful in convincing most Utes to sign the new treaty. It didn’t do any good. The government decided that the Utes were reneging, and they showed up at the local agency to take control of the Ute reservation and all land in their possession.
One month later, Ouray died. Although Buckskin Charlie succeeded Ouray, everyone knew that Chipeta was de facto chief. Questions like, “What would you say?” eventually evolved into, “What do you think?” as Chipeta took on a leadership role in the tribe. Ouray’s salary ended at his death, so, like other Utes, she traveled for several miles to wait in line for hours for her annuity rations.
In order to keep the government from trespassing more on their traditional way of life, the Utes migrated to Utah to get away from the intervening government forces in Colorado. They thought they would be left alone there, but white agents and other soldiers sent to guard them started little skirmishes which the media exaggerated into much larger accounts (imagine that). They painted the Utes as violent and easily provoked when they really were just trying to live their lives on their own. Land grabs continued until 1905. By 1906, the Utes had lost almost all their land and were out of options. They were starving and unable to support themselves. Their traditional way of life had come to an end.
Chipeta finally returned to Colorado in 1909 where she met President Taft. After that, she was viewed more as a figurehead than an agent for the Utes. In 1910, Chipeta visited and set up camp in the Garden of the Gods where she organized and participated in an annual dance and party which continued every year until 1913, when she was featured in a motion picture filming of the event. The event was big enough to close the intersection of Tejon and Kiowa, in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs.
By the winter of 1914, Buckskin Charlie had died, and several Utes came to Chipeta claiming that they were starving and freezing to death. They had not received rations and there was not enough money to buy them. By then the group had a large number of elderly people, which made it hard to support. The agency suggested that the Utes share out their rations more evenly to make up the difference. In response, 122 Utes signed a petition appealing for aid. As you can guess, nothing happened. Several months later even some white citizens appealed to the agency to investigate the Utes’ conditions because of many reports that the Utes were starving. Frank as always, Chipeta did not fail to describe the horror in which her people were living to the agents who finally paid attention. Her words convinced them that something had to be done, but little intervention actually occurred.
On September 6, 1921 Chipeta was admitted to the hospital at age 78 because she was completely blind. Cataract surgery failed because the nurses could not keep her still enough, so she returned home with limited vision in one eye and only light and shadow in the other. She died of chronic gastritis on August 16, 1924. She was 81 years old; she had outlived Ouray by 44 years. After her funeral, Ouray was exhumed and they were buried together at their old homestead just outside Montrose.
After her death, stories of Chipeta’s heroism inflated, as legends always do. It’s hard to tell the difference between myth and reality when it comes to profiling Native Americans, because all documentation of the time was made by white people. Native American history is traditionally oral and sometimes things get lost in translation. Honored as a statesman by both Natives and whites, Chipeta was known for her love of children and her kindness to visitors.
The names of Chipeta and Ouray appear all over Colorado and Utah. Passes, falls, lakes, parks, streets, schools and even golf courses bear Chipeta’s name. Even dirt in the form of soil samples from a shale deposit, a species of moth, a variety of potato, and a computer system are named for her, which shows just how quietly pervasive Chipeta’s influence really was. If she were around today, she might make a good candidate for President of the United States.