Prisoners of the Bluff War in Thompson, Utah, waiting to board a train for their trial in Denver. Photo includes Marshal Nebeker, carrying the binoculars, and General Scott, third from left. Chief Polk (Narraguinnep) is standing in between Nebeker and Jess Posey, while Chief Posey stands to the right of Jess, next to Tse-ne-gat.
Ute and Piute bands battle settlers and Navajo police
By Rob Carrigan, email@example.com
Like most conflict, it had been brewing for years. But it boiled over in March, 1914, with an incident between a Utah shepherd Tse-ne-gat, the son of the Paiute Chief Narraguinnep ("Polk").
When Chief Posey and his band of renegades became involved and helped Polk fight a small guerrilla war against local Mormon settlers and Navajo policemen near the town of Bluff, Utah, trouble boiled in Montezuma Valley at least until March, 1915, when Ole Polk (Narraguinnep) and Posey surrendered to the United States Army. It became known as the "Ute Mountain Incident" and the rising tension as "the Bluff War."
Ute Mountain Incident
"Armed combat between the United States and American Indians was considered over by the turn of the 20th century. But 15 years later, the so-called Bluff War deep in Ute country in San Juan County, Utah, and Montezuma County, Colorado, stirred up emotions on both sides," wrote
The March 9, 1915, edition of the Twin Falls Times posted the headline “Indian Hunters Score” on a story about the capture of Tse-ne-gat — the son of Ute Chief “Old Polk” — who allegedly murdered a Mexican sheepherder named Juan Chacon the previous year on the Ute Mountain Reservation in Colorado.
"A posse of 26 cowboys, led by Marshal Aquila Nebeker, found Tse-ne-gat and Old Poke with Paiute Chief Posey near Blanding, Utah. Then known as Grayson, the area was at the center of the Ute’s last hunting grounds.
“One White man, one Indian brave and an Indian maiden were killed in the battle,” newspaper accounts said. Joseph C. Akin of Colorado, who in some reports is described as a U.S. Marshal, was killed. The Indian maiden was “believed to have been shot by the (stray) bullet of an Indian.” Two other Indians in addition to the Colorado marshal, were also said to have been killed, according to news reports.
State troops initially weren’t asked to join the battle, which continued for several days. The posse “is better able to meet the Indian methods of warfare,” said Nebeker, the marshal, Mathews reported.
But eventually the hard-headed lawman requested backup and the hunt for Tse-ne-gat was turned over to Brig. Gen. Hugh Scott of Virginia. Unarmed, Scott met with Posey, Polk and Tse-ne-gat at Medicine Hat near Navajo Mountain, where the young Ute surrendered.
Driven by anti-Indian sentiment, the military forcibly removed 160 other Ute from their homelands and resettled them on the Ute Mountain Reservation in Colorado.
"Chief Posey played a prominent role in the war, as it was primarily his band who took up arms. Between 1881 and 1923, Posey led his braves in several skirmishes against the Navajo and the American settlers, killing several, including several at the "Pinhook Massacre" on the northwest slopes of the La Sal Mountains.
His band, which included about 100 people, both Ute and Paiute, was feared and well-known. Unlike most native American tribes, Polk's and Posey's followers did not reside on a reservation, but rather they lived near Bluff, around Allen and Montezuma Canyons.
Ultimately, Posey's struggle to keep Westward expansion away failed in 1905, when the town of Blanding, then known as Grayson, was founded in the center of the Ute's last prominent hunting grounds.
For the next ten years, sporadic fighting occurred, until March 1914 when Tse-ne-gat, the son of Chief Polk, allegedly robbed and murdered an ethnic Mexican shepherd named Juan Chacon on the Ute Mountain Reservation in Colorado, according to The History of Utah's American Indians.
Chacon had camped with a group of Utes and Paiutes from Polk's band, among them Tse-ne-gat, also known as Everett Hatch. A few days later Chacon was found dead and witnesses claimed that Tse-ne-gat was responsible. Chief Polk defended his son's actions, so when Navajo policemen attempted to arrest Tse-ne-gat, Polk drove them off with rifle fire.
For the next six months, newspapers around the United States circulated reports of the incident. By that time, Polk had taken his band, about eighty-five people, to the Navajo Mountain area. Chief Posey and his warriors joined them, setting the stage for a battle. Local newspapers reported that "Hatch [Tse-ne-gat] has a notorious reputation as a bad man" and that his group was "terrorizing" the settlers in the Bluff area, they also said that Tsa-na-gat was "strongly entrenched with fifty braves who will stand by him to the last man."
Battle of Cottonwood Gulch
Ten months after the murder of Chacon, Tsa-na-gat still had not surrendered so Marshal Aquila Nebeker organized a posse of twenty-six "cowboys" and three sheriffs from Montezuma County, Colorado to make arrests. The posse left Bluff and headed towards Navajo Mountain. Just after dawn, on the morning of February 25, 1915, Marshal Nebeker and the posse came across Chief Polk and fifty of his men encamped in Cottonwood Gulch.
The weather was very cold and snow covered the ground, reported various papers. One of the natives in camp spotted the approaching possemen, so he alarmed the others with "woops of warning" before opening fire with a rifle. Other accounts say that the posse achieved a surprise attack and began firing into the camp without warning.
Either way, the posse implemented a type of "Indian strategy of the kind that one is accustomed to read in the histories of early life in the West." Chief Posey and his band were camped not far from the area, along the San Juan River, and when they heard the sound of the gunfire, Posey led his warriors to Polk's rescue. Posey's men, numbering about forty, maneuvered to the rear of the posse's position and then he gave the order to engage.
Shortly thereafter, Marshal Nebeker realized that he needed help, so he sent a message back to Bluff requesting reinforcements. Over the next several hours, about fifty volunteers from Bluff, Blanding, Cortez and Monticello arrived in the battle area. The fight continued all night and into the next day, when a truce was called. During the fighting, five of the possemen got separated from the rest and had to hold off the attacking natives from the top of a rocky hill. At least one American was killed, posseman Joseph Carl Akin of Colorado, and several others were wounded, though some accounts say two possemen died.
Other reports say one native, known only as "Jack's Brother," was killed and two others received wounds. A second native woman was also killed when she "ran into the line of battle." Two of the natives, named Howen and Jack, were captured by the posse and later described by "The Day" as being "choice warriors."
Hysteria in local white communities ran rampant, and it was not until General Hugh L. Scott arrived that the Indians felt comfortable in surrendering. Polk, Tse-Ne-Gat, Posey, and Posey's Boy accompanied Scott to Salt Lake City then Denver, where Tse-Ne-Gat stood trial and the jury found him not guilty.
Local whites were irate, especially when the Indian Rights Association from back East sprang to the Indians' defense. More brush fire conflicts arose in 1917, 1919, and 1921, until finally, in 1923, local whites reached a final "solution." The main force behind this achievement was rooted in an insignificant affair involving two young Utes who robbed a sheep camp, killed a calf and burned a bridge. The culprits voluntarily turned themselves in, stood trial, but then escaped from the sheriff's grasp. The people of Blanding moved quickly to get not only the two boys, but Posey as well, who by this time had become synonymous with all of the ill-will felt between the two cultures. To the towns people, he was the living metaphor of all the troublesome Indians.
In spite of what the newspapers reported then, and what has since been billed as the "Posey War" or the "last Indian uprising in the United States," the events that followed moved little beyond a mass exodus of Utes and Paiutes fleeing their homes to escape the white men. Posey fought a rear-guard action to prevent capture, was eventually wounded, watched his people get carted off to a barbed wire compound in the middle of Blanding, and died a painful death from his gunshot wound a month later. Only one other Ute died during the incident.
The government took the opportunity to settle both the Allen Canyon Utes
involved in the fracas, as well as the Montezuma Canyon Ute band, on individual
parcels of land. Twenty-three allotments went to those in Montezuma and
neighboring Cross Canyon, and thirty went to those in Allen Canyon, thus
removing the Indians from long disputed range lands, according to the "Utah History Encyclopedia."
"The mid-1920s saw the establishment of a small Ute farming community in the Allen Canyon area. Attempts to teach agricultural techniques by local whites, met with nothing but frustration on both sides. Formal education suffered also. The Utes requested a school be built in Allen Canyon but their bid for local education was unsuccessful. The majority of their children attended school at Towaoc, tribal headquarters of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation just outside of Cortez, Colorado. Many of them were so unhappy, that in 1930, a private home in Blanding, later named the Ute Dormitory served as a first attempt to integrate Ute children into a white school. For eleven years, the dormitory functioned, but was eventually closed because of the expense, the start of World War II, and limited success. Other local attempts to integrate Utes into the educational system met with some resistance, but the seeds for future accomplishments were already planted and would bear fruit later.
"Many Utes realized that their isolation in Allen Canyon was counter-productive,
while others living on the outskirts of Blanding, wanted to have better
lands for farming. Starting in the mid-1950s, families began to move onto
White Mesa and form a community eleven miles south of Blanding. Frame homes
arose out of the sagebrush, electricity arrived in 1964, and bus service
delivered Ute children to the schools in town. "
"Today the community supports a population of around 350 people, has 100 modern homes with electricity and running water, and is governed by the White Mesa Ute Council, established in 1978. Many of the Ute people are employed in service industries such as schools, motels, etc.; some work for the Council; others are employed at Towaoc in farming projects and in the casino. Every September, the community participates in the traditional Bear Dance and welcomes visitors anxious to share a part of Ute heritage," says Utah History Encyclopedia.
When the truce was called, Nebeker retreated to Bluff while Chief Polk and Posey led their bands further into the desert. It was believed that after defeating the posse, the two renegade bands would besiege Bluff, but this did not happen. According to newspapers, there were enough men in Bluff to defend the town, but not enough to pursue the natives if and when they chose to escape. Sometime later, a force of about fifty Navajo policemen, from the Navajo Reservation, caught up with the hostiles, but were turned back in the following skirmish. After that, the handling of the situation was turned over to Brigadier General Hugh L. Scott.General Hugh L. Scott and Lorenzo Creel, guide.
Surrender at Mexican Hat
Upon receiving orders, General Scott traveled all the way from his post in Virginia City to Bluff, in order to negotiate an end to the war. Scott was genuinely uninterested in fighting the hostile Utes and Paiutes, so on March 10, 1915 he left Bluff, unarmed, with just a few of his men, to meet Polk and Posey at a place called Mexican Hat, near Navajo Mountain.
General Scott described the journey:
"We reached Bluff on March 10 and learned that the Indians had gone to the Navajo Mountains, 125 miles southwest of Bluff. We stayed a day in Bluff and then went on to Mexican Hat. Some friendly Navajos met me at Mexican Hat and went ahead of me to tell Poke's [Chief Polk] band of my coming. Among them was Bzoshe, the old Navajo chief with whom the government had so much trouble with a year ago and who is now our fast friend. I had sent for him to meet me at Bluff. Mr. Jenkins, Indian agent at Navajo Springs, Mr. Creel, Colonel Michie, and my orderly accompanied me to Mexican Hat. None of us had a gun. Jim Boy, a friendly Paiute, was sent out to tell the Paiutes that I wanted to see them.
"Some of them came near where I was camped, but it wasn't until the third day that anyone dared to come to the camp. Posey and four other Indians then came in. We talked a little through a Navajo interpreter. It was in the evening, and I just asked them how they were. I told them I did not feel very well and did not want to talk to them until the next day. They helped us kill a beef and we gave them a good meal, the first they'd had in weeks. We also gave them some blankets."
According to General Scott, "Posey and his men didn't have any weapons, but I have reason to suspect that they had hidden them nearby. The next day, Poke and Hatch [Tse-ne-gat] and about 25 others came to see me. I asked them to tell me their troubles. I said that I didn't think they would like to have their children chased by soldiers and cowboys all over the mountains and killed and that I wanted to help them. I didn't try to push the matter with them, but asked them what they wanted to do. After they had talked among themselves, they said they would do anything I wanted them to do."
Tse-ne-gat was tried in Denver and found not guilty of the murder charges.