History: The mountain Utes in Colorado | SummitDaily.com

History: The mountain Utes in Colorado

Sandie Mather
Special to the Daily

For centuries, the land that would become Summit County provided the necessities of life for humans. As long as 12,000 years ago, hunters roamed the area in search of food. Projectile points, knives, scrapers and charcoal from campfires tell of the continuous occupation of specific sites. These people were the ancestors of the Mountain Utes, the Native Americans encountered by the trappers, travelers, miners, merchants and others coming later to Summit County.

Because of the isolation provided by the mountainous terrain and deep valleys, the bands of Utes in Summit County became quite distinct from those living in Utah. Here, they adopted many cultural traits of the Native Americans living on the plains, who were at various times their rivals, allies or enemies.

The Ute way of life left distinct marks on the landscape as they followed the bison between summer grazing lands along the Blue River and winter quarters at lower elevations. The passes used by the Utes became early wagon roads. Present-day highways follow some of these same routes.

The Ute's biggest legacy resulted from their use of fire. They burned the valley bottoms annually to encourage the growth of the short, tender grasses that the bison preferred. Besides improving pasturage, the fires facilitated travel, removed unwanted trees and improved visibility. The fires destroyed species that could not tolerate repeated burning and encouraged the growth of lodgepole pines, whose cones open only after being subjected to heat. The bison further changed the vegetative character of the county. Large herds stripped the ground of most of the grasses, trampling anything not eaten. Therefore, much of the vegetative landscape in place when the miners and others arrived resulted directly from the Ute lifestyle.

In 1839, Thomas J. Farnham crossed Boreas Pass and traveled down the Blue River valley. In describing the land occupied by the Utes, he noted "swells covered with buffalo and wild flowering glens." John C. Fremont wrote in his journal, in 1843, that the expedition camped in the shade of pines, in an area "alive with buffalo."

The Utes migrated with the seasons. Men spent summers in the High Country hunting bison, deer, elk, mountain sheep, antelope and jackrabbit. The Utes acquired horses from the Spanish, which meant a wider hunting area and perhaps resulted in healthier diets. Women gathered herbs, berries and roots. Favorites included the brown roots of the yampa plant (a member of the carrot family) and the bulbs of the camus plant. Seeds and berries added variety to meals while aspen and willow sap provided the necessary sugar in the diet.

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Rather than carry all of their food supply with them, the women stored food in caches along migratory paths. The horse-pulled travois, which could hold as much as 100 pounds, made life easier for the women, who moved belongings from camp to camp.

The Utes lived in groups that varied in size and composition throughout the year. Bands came together for a hunt, perhaps, but quickly dispersed after the hunt concluded. Shelters reflected their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In winter, they lived in tepees built in the style of the Native Americans living on the plains, using the lodgepole pines so abundant in the county. In summer, the Utes built shelters called wickiups made of brush and willow arranged over a wooden frame. Permanent Ute villages could be found outside of Summit County where food remained more abundant on a year-round basis, but none existed in the county. Staying too long in a particular location depleted the food supply.

Men and women wore highly decorated clothing made of hides tanned by the women, who then added quills, beads, earth-tone paints and fringes to the softened hides. Decorative bags hung from their waists. Moccasins protected their feet. Making and decorating the clothing was just one of many roles assumed by Ute women on a daily basis. Ute men did not cut their hair, but wore it in long braids. Masters of the bow and arrow, they also used rifles obtained from traders for hunting.

The Utes valued children — often pampering them. All adults shared responsibility for the children, who in turn learned expected behavior by following examples set by the adults. Children spent most of their first year in a cradleboard carried by their mother or sister. Older women made the boards from a wooden frame covered with soft hides, embellishing the boards with elaborate beadwork and fringes.

Utes did not use the word "chief." For each task, they chose an appropriate leader. When the role no longer existed, the leader no longer held power. Only white settlers used the word "chief."

Except for the names of streets, roads and physical features, such as Arrowhead Drive, Broken Lance Drive, Buffalo Mountain, Ute Pass Peak and the names of condominiums and housing developments, there is little to remind present-day travelers of the Utes who so recently called this area home.

This article is part of a book that was written for the Summit Historical Society's 50th anniversary, "Windows to the Past" by Rick Hague and Sandie Mather.

IF YOU GO

On Saturday, Aug. 13, from 2–4 p.m., The Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco will host a book signing for “Windows to the Past,” written by Rick Hague and Sandie Mather, in celebration of the Summit Historical Society’s (SHS) 50th anniversary of service to Summit County. “Windows to the Past” tells the story of the county — from the Utes to the ski areas. It follows the changes from the search for brown gold to yellow gold to white gold and green gold. The cost of the book is $25, which supports the various educational programs hosted by the Historical Society.

The books are available from SHS in Dillon at the Dillon Schoolhouse, in Frisco at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, and in Breckenridge through the Breck Heritage Alliance at the Welcome Center, Edwin Carter Museum, Barney Ford House Museum and the Gaymon Cabin. It’s also available at the Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco. Or purchase directly from Hague at (970) 409-7937.

Rick is a former president of the Summit Historical Society and presently a member of the Society’s Board of Directors. Sandie is now the president of the Historical Society. Both lead hikes, host special programs and give talks for the various historical organizations in the county. Sandie is the author of numerous books about Summit County.