Documents relating to the Ute Indians and the Unitarians

Recently, people in the United States have been taking the month of September to reflect on the wrongs perpetrated against the indigenous peoples by the U.S. government and citizens.

(And yes, the perpetrators of wrongs against Native Americans were nearly all White, which means that Ron DeSantis doesn’t want this material taught in the Florida public schools because it might make some White kids feel ashamed of their race. More than 20 other U.S. states have laws similar to Ron DeSantis’s law in Florida, which means that this blog post is officially and legally banned in schools in more than one third of the U.S. But I digress….)

After the Civil War, various religious groups were assigned to Native American groups. The Christian religion, especially Protestant Christianity, was considered a “civilizing force,” a means by which White settlers could maintain control over Native peoples by forcibly integrating them into White culture. The Unitarians were still considered Christians in the 1870s (we got kicked out of the Christian club after 1900), and as a small denomination we were assigned “the Utes of Colorado,” a group of Native nations then living in Colorado, later forcibly removed to Utah. The Unitarians considered this “mission work,” a way of spreading the Unitarian religion through good works among non-White (and therefore less “civilized”) persons; and they classed it with the Unitarian mission in Kolkata, India, and the mission work done among African Americans in the Deep South.

Apparently, the Unitarians were fairly ineffective at this mission work. Given the history of Unitarianism, I suspect our ineffectiveness was due to our usual lack of organization and unwillingness to provide adequate funding. We established a school for Ute children, which is not listed in the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, so perhaps it was not a boarding school. Nevertheless, given what we know now about how White-run boarding schools did so much damage to Native children, it seems important that we learn more about how this school operated.

(All this makes me think: The Universalists can be thankful that we were so small and disorganized and heretical during the 1870s and 1880s that the U.S. government never assigned them a group of Native peoples.)

In any case, I’ve collected some documents from the 1870s and 1880s pertaining to the Unitarian mission among the Ute peoples. They make for some pretty uncomfortable reading. Even though the Unitarian Universalist Association formally apologized to the Utes back in 2009, we still have a lot to do to reflect on how the Unitarian religion was used as a tool of colonization.

Scroll down for the documents….

Cover page of the report of the Fifth Meeting of the Unitarians.National Conference


Report of the Fifth Meeting of the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches (privately printed at Salem, Mass., 1874), pp. 31-32:


To our modest movements in the way of missions to people of other races, may now be added what is substantially a missionary effort for the elevation of the Ute Indians.

Under the new Indian policy of the United States, the nomination of Indian agents is entrusted to the different organized religious communions. The agents are of course appointed and confirmed by the Executive and the Senate; but the religious bodies name the men. To each denomination a tribe or body of tribes is given, and to us, as the Benjamin in the Christian family, youngest, smallest, and dearest, has been given the nomination of the agents among the Utes of Colorado, one of the smaller Indian tribes.

The religious organizations might, of course, stop with the nomination of an agent. But the opportunity for carrying on the work of religion and education with the sympathy of the local authorities is so good, that various churches have gladly accepted this field for missionary endeavor. The agent appoints the teachers and other assistants whom the government sends out, and an agency may thus be made a centre of various instructive and elevating influences.

By the misfortune which runs through all the Civil Service, the power to turn out an agent is not guarded by the same formalities as those which surround his nomination. It would seem in this Indian matter as if any agent who was the real friend of the Indians entrusted to him becomes so surely the object of suspicion to all squatters, speculators, and other wild frontiersmen, that they appeal for his removal as soon as they find what he is. We are notified, therefore, from time to time, that our agent has been removed, without any tangible charges against him, and that we must appoint another. Such frequent changes, of course, embarrass all consecutive movements for the benefit of our wards. We have, however, not failed to fill the vacant places with men who can be trusted.

We can fight it out on that line for more summers than one, and we can name honest men for difficult duty as long as the nation asks us to do so. The Unitarian Association has just now renewed its agent among the Utes, and we shall all regard the station as a point of special interest. These Utes themselves are a harmless people, who are more advanced than some of the tribes; they have welcomed the kind efforts of our agents, and offer hopes not unpromising for the gradual elevation of their children. The effort to be made in their behalf is to make them a pastoral people, who shall take care of their own herds and flocks as they already take care of their own horses. They will then be able to feed themselves, instead of coming for food to the government of the United States; and they will thus have taken that step which all history shows is the first step in civilization.


Semi-Centennial of the American Unitarian Association (Boston: AUA, 1875), p. 14:

Rev. E. H. Danforth and Rev. H. F. Bond continue as agents in the employ of the United States Government, and as missionaries in our behalf in the humane service of the Ute Indians in Colorado.


Fifty-second Anniversary of the American Unitarian Association (Boston: AUA, 1877), pp. 7-8:

Two agencies in Colorado, among the Ute Indians, are under our charge. Hitherto their efforts have been chiefly to maintain on one hand a strictly honest administration of government affairs, and on the other to meet the Indians in a humane, Christian spirit, saving them from trickery, robbery, intemperance, and other vices of frontier life; and to present to them the better phases of a Christian civilization. Something has been done to induce them to adopt the homes, the clothes, and the simpler modes of civilized life; and in these elementary ways much has been gained. But these people are more docile and susceptible than is popularly supposed, and they open to us an important field of Christian influence and brotherly service.

Ninth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for the Year 1877 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1878), pp. 78-79:


Two agencies are under the direction of the Unitarian association among the Ute Indians in Colorado.

The larger one, at Uncompahque in Southern Colorado, has recently been put in charge of Mr. Joseph B. Abbott, of Keene, N. H., a man of superior qualifications, having had large and successful experience in the service of the sanitary commission, and having the best commendations from trustworthy sources.

The management of this agency has not recently met our just expectations. But we have every reason to hope that Mr. Abbott will do credit to the service.

The smaller one, at White River in Northern Colorado, has been in charge of Rev. E. H. Danforth and his wife for nearly four years. They have labored faithfully and have won the confidence of the Indians and of their superior officers during the last administration. They have had for a short time a prosperous school, and had succeeded in getting some of the Indians to adopt citizens’ dress and to live in homes built for them at the agency. They report the Indians as peaceable and docile, and were heartily interested in their work. But the failure since last May to procure from Rawlius the proper supplies due from the government has compelled the Indians to scatter on their hunting expeditions, and has greatly thwarted all their efforts, until they have become discouraged by the obstacles and their inability to do much, and now desire to resign. At both agencies the land is high and sterile. They have frost every month in the year. With severe winters and drought and caterpillars in summer there is no opportunity for agriculture, and hence little chance for civilization, or for in any way reaching and holding the Indians or their children.

We desire still to co-operate with the government so far as opportunity is offered. The disadvantages of the locality so largely prevent agriculture, settlement, and schools, that our efforts thus far have mainly been confined to securing agents who are honest and humane.


[By 1883, at least we were becoming aware of the harm being done to the Utes by White colonization. But the Unitarian mindset remained a colonizing mindset, still apparently unaware of the inherent worth and dignity of Ute culture.]

Henry F. Bond, “The Ute Indians of Colorado,” Unitarian Review (Boston: Unitarian Review,1883), vol. XX, no. 2, August, 1883, pp. 126-127:

But because the aim of the Government should be to locate the Indians upon lands in severalty, and because some policy needed to be adopted which would so far pacify the exasperated people of Colorado as to restrain unauthorized hostilities, it does not follow that the limits of these Indians should have been at once reduced from 18,324 square miles to 950. Because it would doubtless be much to the wellbeing of the red man to raise corn and potatoes instead of digging for roots, to supply himself with cattle and sheep instead of deer and buffalo, it does not follow it is best to leave him nothing to do except what, as a matter of fact, he will not do.

The facts from which Mr. Schurz argues — namely, that white civilized (?) men will encroach upon reservations as they always have done, and the soldiers will fight on the side. of the whites as they always have done and until the territory of the red man is reduced to a moderate acreage like that of the whites – become offset with the equally stubborn fact that the Indian does not take to farming intuitively, and will not cultivate the land for many generations. It may be wrong in him not to do it. Is it not also wrong for the miners and settlers to overrun the reservations, regardless of solemn treaties, or for the military to sustain them in so doing, or for the Government to insist upon so hasty a relinquishment of the old mode of life?

It may be admitted that the reservation system is necessarily to be regarded henceforth as only provisional, and that in all our dealings with these people we must anticipate their settlement upon farms.

It may be, also, that we should not allow these poor ignorant creatures to decide themselves what is best for them; still, are we not — we, as well as others, ask — to yield to facts in the case? Will we not allow the provisional arrangement to last a while longer? In regard to the Utes, whatever may be said of other tribes, it is certainly true that they can most readily commence civilized life as herders. In this employment they can continue for a time their nomadic life. All understand herding horses already. Many of them have learned to herd sheep. From herders of sheep, they will become herders of cattle; from being cattle ranchmen, they will, within reasonable time, become workers of cattle and plant corn and potatoes.


Mr. Eugene White, Special Agent in Charge Uintah and Ouray Agency, Utah, , “Report of Agent in Utah,” Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1886 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1886), p. 230:


I have yet to see an Indian who professes or has any religious belief, or any idea of the Creator and the great truths of Christianity. The missionaries and religious societies of the East have sadly neglected these Utes, or do not know of this very fertile field for their labors. However, in the early spring the American Unitarian Association of Boston, Mass., sent out the Rev. Mr. Bond, a Unitarian minister, and wife, to look over the field and see what could be done. The gentleman had been the agent for the Indians ten years back, when their reservation was in Colorado, was well acquainted with their leading men, and naturally thought he could do a great deal of good among them. However, he soon concluded that they were so intolerably stupid and sullen, and so little inclined to give him even a respectful hearing, that he took his departure after a stay of three weeks, without accomplishing anything.

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