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Chief Ouray and Chipeta
Delegation of Ute Indians in Washington, D.C. in 1880. Background: Woretsiz and General Charles Adams are standing. Front from left to right: Chief Ignatio of the Southern Utes; Carl Schurz US Secretary of the Interior; Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta.

Chief Ouray (c. 1833–August 24, 1880) was a Native American leader of the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe of modern-day Utah and Colorado.


Early life

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 however state that he was born as early as 1820. The son of Guera Murah, a Jicarilla Apache adopted into the Ute. His mother was a Uncompahgre Ute. He learned Spanish, English, and later both the Apache and Ute 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 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. With his father's death in 1860, he became chief of the band.

While fighting the Sioux in 1863, his only son was captured and, despite attempts by the United States government to return him, Ouray was unable to locate the boy. However 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. Claiming he had been sold to the Southern Arapaho, a search for the boy revealed nothing.


As he sought reconciliation between peoples, understanding that war would mean the end of the Utes, Ouray was considered a coward by more militant Utes and called The White Man's Friend. Ouray never cut off his long Ute-fashion hair, though he often dressed as a white man.

The United States president Rutherford B. Hayes met him in 1880, and deemed him "the most intellectual man I've ever conversed with." He also met President Ulysses S. Grant.

The Meeker Massacre

The Meeker Massacre occurred on September 29, 1879. The Federal Government of the United States had been trying for some time to get the Utes to change their nomadic lifestyle, and become farmers. The Indian agent, Agent Meeker, plowed up part of one of the Utes horse-racing tracks to try and make this point. After Meeker had a short fist-fight with the man whose race track had been destroyed, Agent Meeker wired for military assistance, claiming that he had been assaulted by an Indian, driven from his home, and severely injured. The government sent approximately 200 soldiers, led by Major T.T. Thornburgh, to settle the affair. When the troops were about 50 miles out from the Agency, a group of Utes rode out to meet them, saying that they wished a peace conference with Meeker, and that Thornburgh and five soldiers would be allowed to come. Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre, the Utes wanted the main body of soldiers to stay 50 miles away on a hill the Indians designated. Major Thornburgh ignored this demand and continued into Ute land. At Milk Creek, the soldiers were ambushed by angry Utes, and in the first few minutes of fighting, Major Thornburgh and all his officers above the rank of captain were killed. The natives attacked the Indian agency, killing eight men, including Agent Meeker, and taking the women captive to secure their own safety as they fled. Of note, the Uncompahgre Utes were not even part of it, and Ouray sent orders to the Utes to stop fighting as soon as he heard of it, but the area settlers demanded their removal.

Ouray attempted to keep the peace after this massacre, but his people were sent to a reservation in Utah. He died very soon after, and his people were forcibly relocated to the Utah Territory on August 28, 1881.


Chief Buckskin Charlie and Chief John McCook reburying Chief Ouray bones

Ouray died near Los Pinos Indian Agency, and was secretly buried near Ignacio, Colorado. Forty-five years later his bones were re-buried 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.”

Ouray County and its county seat, the town of Ouray are named for him, as is the youth resident camp in the Fraser Valley of Colorado. Two different mountains are named for him as well, Mount Ouray in the Sawatch Mountain Range and Ouray Peak in Chaffee County.


  • Grant, Bruce. The Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian 3rd ed., Wings Books: New York, 2000.

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