Chief Ouray ~ Ute Tribe

Published on March 3, 2011 by Carol

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Chief Ouray - Brady-Handy

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Chief Ouray and Chipeta

Chief Ouray (Arrow) (c. 1833–August 24, 1880) was a Native American leader of the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe, then located in western Colorado. Because of his leadership ability, Ouray was acknowledged by the United States (US) government as a chief of the Utes. He testified to Congress in 1880 about the Ute uprising of 1879 and tried to secure a treaty for the Uncompahgre Utes to stay in Colorado, but they and the White Rivers were forced to remove to reservations in present-day Utah the next year.

Early life and education

Ouray was born in what is now New Mexico. According to oral history passed down by Ute elders, he was born on the gloriously clear night of November 13, 1833, when a magnificent display of the Leonid meteor showers streaked across the black winter night. The elders had believed it was a sign; a message from above of good things to happen. Some accounts state that he was born as early as 1820. He was the son of Guera Murah, a Jicarilla Apache adopted into the Ute, and his mother was an Uncompahgre Ute. He learned Spanish, English, and later both the Ute and Apache languages, which he found helpful in negotiating treaties.
At about age 18, Ouray came to modern-day Colorado to be a member of the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) Ute band, where his father was already a leader. He spent much of his youth working for Mexican sheepherders, but fought both the Kiowas and the Sioux while living among the Tabeguache. At his father’s death in 1860, Ouray became chief of the band.

Marriage and family

He married Black Water and started a family with her. After her early death, he married Chipeta, who was 10 years younger than he. She became his close confidant. Although she did not have children, they reared his children by Black Water, as well as some orphans they adopted.

While fighting the Sioux in 1863, Ouray lost his only son to captivity by them. Despite attempts by the United States government to gain the boy’s release, Ouray was unable to find him. A decade later in 1873 while visiting the Indian Commissioner at Cheyenne, Wyoming, Ouray learned his son was alive from an elderly Mexican woman who had lived with the Sioux. They claimed that he had been sold to the Southern Arapaho, but a search for the boy revealed nothing.


As Ouray sought reconciliation between peoples, understanding that war with the powerful whites could mean the end of the Utes, some more militant Utes considered him a coward. They called him The White Man’s Friend in a pejorative sense.

Ouray never cut off his long Ute-fashion hair, though he often dressed in the European-American style. About the time that the White River Indian Agency was created in western Colorado, the government recognized Ouray as chief of the Uncompahgre. The White River Utes had separate leaders.

When the United States president Rutherford B. Hayes met Ouray in 1880 while in Washington, DC, he deemed him “the most intellectual man I’ve ever conversed with.” Ouray also met President Ulysses S. Grant.

The Meeker Massacre

The Meeker Massacre occurred at the White River Indian Agency in Colorado on September 29, 1879. The Federal Government of the United States had been pressing the Utes to change their nomadic lifestyle and become farmers, and the US Indian Agent, Nathan Meeker was to carry out this policy. After a confrontation with a Ute, Meeker wired for military assistance. The government sent approximately 150-200 soldiers, led by Major Thomas T. Thornburgh from Fort Steele in Wyoming, to settle the affair. He insisted on going into reservation land, despite the Utes requesting they keep a distance. Angered Utes ambushed them, quickly killing Thornburgh and 12 other men, including all his officers above the rank of captain. The Utes kept the surviving troops pinned down, who hid behind their wagons and used their dead horses and mules as barricade until being relieved by Army reinforcements October 8.

Later that day, the Utes attacked the Indian Agency, killing Meeker and his 10 white male employees. They took three women and two children as hostages. About three weeks later, release of the captives was gained by General Charles Adams of the Colorado Militia, with the help of Ouray and Chipeta.

The Uncompahgre Utes did not participate in the uprising, and Chief Ouray helped bring an end to the fighting. Despite this, area settlers demanded the removal of all the Utes from western Colorado. Ouray was part of a Ute delegation that traveled to Washington, DC in early 1880 to try to negotiate staying in Colorado and testify on the uprising to Congress. That year, the US Congress passed legislation to force removal of both the White River and Uncompahgre Utes to Utah. On August 28, 1881 the Uncompahgre were resettled in Utah.


Ouray died in August 1880 near Los Pinos Indian Agency in Colorado. His people secretly buried him near Ignacio, Colorado. Forty-five years later his bones were re-interred in a ceremony led by Chief Buckskin Charley and Chief John McCook at a monument in Montrose, Colorado.

Chief Ouray’s obituary in The Denver Tribune read: “In the death of Ouray, one of the historical characters passes away. He has figured for many years as the greatest Indian of his time, and during his life has figured quite prominently. Ouray is in many respects…a remarkable Indian…pure instincts and keen perception. A friend to the white man and protector to the Indians alike.”

Legacy and honors

  • Ouray County and its county seat, the town of Ouray in Colorado are named for him.
  • A youth resident camp in the Fraser Valley of Colorado was named for him.
  • Two different mountains are named in his honor: Mount Ouray in the Sawatch Mountain Range and Ouray Peak in Chaffee County, both in Colorado.

Source: Wikipedia Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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