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A Summary of Denver’s Native American History


October 2, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Native Americans have inhabited the area that is now Colorado for more than 13,000 years. The earliest archaeological evidence of inhabitation is found at the Lindenmeier Site, located in Larimer County. The site contains Folsom culture artifacts dating from approximately 8710 BCE.

The cultural groups inhabiting today’s Colorado are diverse. They include the Ancient Pueblo Peoples who lived in the Colorado Plateau valleys and mesas. The Apache lived on the plains areas before migrating to the south. As the Apaches moved, the Arapaho and Cheyenne moved into the area from the east. The Cheyenne arrived in the 18th century and inhabited the area east of the base of the Rockies. The Arapaho were closely related to the Cheyenne, both speaking Algonquian languages. Bands form both nations often lived in the same areas; both were relocated out of Colorado in the 1860s, after the Colorado War. The Comanche lived on the high plains of southeastern Colorado and were known for the horses they had acquired from Spaniards. They were removed to Indian Territory during the 19th century. The Shoshone, closely related to the Comanche, lived in the mountain valleys in the north of the state. The Ute inhabited the southern and western Rockies for centuries. They firmly resisted encroachment by other nations (especially the Arapaho and Cheyenne) and controlled nearly all of Colorado west of the continental divide until white settlers flooded in during the silver boom o 1879. Most of the Ute were relocated into Utah after the Meeker Massacre in the 1880s; two small reservations remain in southwestern Colorado.

For years, multiple tribes hunted the bison that migrated through the valleys of the South Platte. Republican, Smokey Hill, and Arkansas Rivers. As white settlement forced tribes to the west, competition for these lands increased. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, negotiated with multiple tribes, designated these lands to the Cheyenne and Arapaho—who most often inhabited the area. The site of Denver lay within those lands.

The treaty did not address the areas inhabited by the Northern Cheyenne and the traditional hunting areas of the Pawnee in certain areas between the rivers in what would become part of Kansas. In many cases, these areas overlapped. The treaty indicated tribes retained any rights not mentioned specifically in the treaty and gave US citizens rights of passage through tribal territories (but not rights to settle).

In June 1858, gold was discovered in Colorado. Over 100,000 gold-seekers poured west, trespassing on Arapaho lands to prospect claims. By October, a store was built in the area of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek and Denver was incorporated a month later. Suddenly, whites, Arapaho, and Cheyenne were competing for land.

In 1858, the Arapaho returned to their traditional winter camping site and encountered the white settlement of Denver. At first, the Southern Arapaho chief, Little Raven, was content to share the land near the rivers. The Arapaho made their camp nearby and both the Cheyenne and Arapaho traded with the whites, whom they assumed would move on, as other migrating tribes did.

Instead, the whites illegally squatting on Arapaho and Cheyenne lands demanded the U.S. government usurp the claims granted under the 1851 treaty. In the fall of 1860, negotiations were held between government agents and the tribes at a meeting on the Arkansas River. The new Treaty of Fort Wise offered the Cheyenne and Arapaho a small reservation along the Arkansas River between the northern boundary of New Mexico and Sand Creek. Under the treaty, the tribes would also be required to give up their nomadic lifestyle and become farmers. There would be no communal hunting areas; each tribal member would receive 40 acres of land. The tribes as a whole would receive a yearly $30,000 subsidy for a period of 15 years, a grist mill, as saw mill, and schools.

The Treaty of Fort Wise was signed in 1861, despite the fact that those signing it could not read and their insistence that they did not hold the power to speak for any bands other than their own and thus did not represent the entire Arapaho and Cheyenne nations. Black Kettle signed for the Cheyenne. Later, when the government sought signatures for the other bands, the original signatories stated that they had been misled and had not known they were surrendering their lands and other tribal members stated they had never been consulted.

In first years after the 1861 treaty, mismanagement by federal officials undermined the tribes’ transition to farming. Federal agents, such as Samuel Colley (Upper Arkansas agency) misappropriated goods meant for the tribes. Colley instead sold the goods to his son Dexter, a trader. Throughout the agency system, allotted goods failed to reach the tribe.

Increasing numbers of white settlers were also moving westward, disrupting bison hunting and encroaching on lands. The U.S. Army shifted emigrant trails southward as the more northerly routes (through Sioux territory) became violent, following the South Platte across north-eastern Colorado. As traffic increased, tribes such as the Kiowa, began to attack the whites crossing their territories. Though the Cheyenne and Arapaho remained peaceful, the increasing attacks by other tribes resulted in problems for them as well.

The Colorado War (1863-1865) was an armed conflict largely fought in the Colorado Territory between the United States and a loose alliance of Native American tribes. The tribes included the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne nations. The roots of the conflict lay in the increasing violence undertaken by Kiowa and Sioux against whites along the westward trails. Several attacks occurred near the Overland Trail and the Great Platte River Road along the South Platte River. Combined with strained relations between whites and bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne near Denver, the activity spurred territorial citizens to form a citizens militia and the territorial government to create the Colorado Volunteers. Participation by the United States Army was minimal.

With the relocation of the stage and emigrant routes through Colorado, the U.S. Army, based in Fort Laramie, established the temporary camp of Camp Collins near present day Laporte, Colorado, then moved to higher ground at Fort Collins. Arapaho winter villages were located along the nearby Cache la Poudre River but the Cheyenne and Arapaho bands living there were relatively peaceful. Initially, U.S. Army troops occupied the fort but later shifted control to the Colorado (territorial) Volunteers.

With attacks along the stage route by Kiowa and Sioux bands increasing, the Colorado Volunteers began to take action against the nearby Cheyenne and Arapaho bands in an effort to drive them forcibly onto reservations. Defensive, the tribes began their own attacks on travelers.

In November 1864, the Colorado Volunteers, under the leadership of Colonel John Chivington, attacked the winter encampment of Black Kettle’s band of Southern Cheyenne along Sand Creek. The massacre left between 165 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead and another 200 wounded. Two-thirds of the dead were women, children, and elderly.

The action was initially lauded as a great victory. However, reports by survivors and white witnesses surfaced which revealed the attack had been unprovoked and that Chivington’s troops had targeted unarmed villagers. Chivington was investigated by Congress and condemned for genocidal brutality. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche were removed from Colorado and relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

The Utes were the sole remaining tribe in Colorado Territory, living west of the continental divide. The silver boom of 1879 led to encroachment of whites into those areas. In 1880, the Utes clashed with whites in the Meeker Massacre. As a result, most of the Ute nation was relocated to Utah. Only two small reservations remained, in southwestern Colorado.

With no further native claims to the area, Colorado was open to white settlement. Denver grew to 35,000 people in 1880 and 106,000 in 1890. In the 1950s, many Native Americans moved to the metro area. Today, Denver is the second largest city in the West and once again has a healthy population of Native Americans. While relations are peaceful, there have been heated protests among the native population.

Colorado was the first state to recognize Columbus Day in 1907. But in the 1980s, protests against the holiday grew. The American Indian Movement called for an end to the holiday. In 1992, Russell Means was arrested for throwing fake blood on a statue of Columbus in Denver. The annual Columbus Day parade was cancelled for two decades.

In 2010, about 1.4 percent of Denver’s population was Native American (8000). About 100 tribes are represented. The city is now a hub for community-based organizations serving urban native populations with health services, education, and other support. As well, many national organizations serving native populations are headquartered in the city. Native cuisine has found a home in local restaurants and Native American culture and art flourish here.

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