Rio Blanco County Road 15 (Yellowjacket Pass)   
USGS 7.5' Map: Thornburgh, Sawmill Mountain, Rattlesnake Mesa
Difficulty: Number: Miles: Altitude: Obstacles: Time:
Graded Cnty 15 14.00 6,348 to 7,538 ft. NA 1-2 hours
County: Rio Blanco
Adopted by:      
Managed by: Rio Blanco County 555 Main Street, Meeker, CO 81641 (970)878-9400
Summary: Rio Blanco County 15 is an easy road that connects Yellowjacket Pass with Meeker,CO.
Attractions: Historic Marker
Best Time: June - Best
July - Best
August - Best
September - Best
October - Best
Trail Heads
Camping: There are no campsites along County Road 15.
Base Camp: NA
Fall Colors: Poor - the landscape is rolling hills and sage.
Navigation: From Meeker, CO head east on CO-13 N/Market Street towards 6th Street and continue to follow CO-13 N for 2.8 miles. Turn right onto County Rd 15, the Yellowjacket Pass road.

From Craig, CO head west on W Victory Way towards Breeze Street for 1.4 miles. Turn left onto CO-13 S and go 16.4 miles. Turn left onto County Rd 45 and go 8.8 miles. Continue onto County Rd 15 and go 1.0 mile. After crossing Milk Creek turn right to continue on County Rd 15, the Yellowjacket Pass road.
History: Yellowjacket Pass divides the drainages of Milk Creek and Coal Creek. Yellowjacket Pass was an old Ute indian trail before it was converted to a government road between Meeker, Colorado, and Rawlins, Wyoming.

In 1861, Colorado Territory gave a charter to the Colorado and Pacific Wagon, Telegraph, and Railroad Company to develop a route over the pass. In March of 1864, the Denver and Pacific Wagon Road Company was also chartered to create a route over Yellow Jacket Pass. The route of the Denver and Pacific Wagon Road became known as the Berthoud Salk Lake Wagon Road. In 1873 the Hayden Party mapped and surveyed the pass. By 1876 the route over the pass was well used.

In August of 1879, north of Yellowjacket Pass, the Milk Creek massacre took place in a wide valley. The massacre became the turning point that removed the Utes from northwestern Colorado.

To the 19th-century American, land was for one purpose: it was to be used to produce a profit. The Utes were nomads that hunted in the mountains in the summers, then wintering in warm valleys. The idea of farming the land for food and profit was completely alien to them. The Indian agencies were set up to help the native americans learn these new ways, essential to convert them. When minerals were discovered in the San Juan Mountains the potential mines were believed to be large and profitable. By 1870, many western settlers were demanding access to these rich lands. However, there was one major problem: the lands in question belonged to the Ute tribes. Citizens of Denver, including most leading businessmen, demanded the natives be removed and that the San Juans be opened for settlement. In 1873, the Ute problem in southern Colorado was solved when a treaty was negotiated by Felix Brunot by which the Utes gave up all claims to the San Juan Mountains. In return, the Utes agreed to move to two agencies: one on Los Pinos Creek in Southern Colorado, and one along the White River in western Colorado. The Brunot Treaty provided a temporary answer to a sticky problem and, thanks to the annuities, a promise of land, and an influential, progressive chief, Ouray, the Utes were peacefully relocated.

While the Treaty of 1873 allowed Anglo settlement in the San Juans, many settlers who illegally moved into Middle and North Parks resented the use of the area by the Utes for hunting. It was claimed the Indians started forest fires, ran off livestock, and wantonly killed animals.

The Utes move into White River Agency was peaceful and organized. Here Utes could hunt, fish, and live as they always had. In addition, they were granted an annuity of some $10,000 that provided food, clothing, and other goods. The Brunot Treaty granted all lands from the Continental Divide west into Utah and from the White River north to Wyoming to the Ute nation. This meant that the Utes were given choice hunting grounds, as well as excellent agricultural lands. However, the Utes saw no reason why they should not continue to use all hunting land in the old traditional manner. The United States government saw the question in a different light. Secretary of the Interior's Carl Schurz Indian policy called for the "civilization" of the natives of America. This meant that Indians should be taught English, they should learn to read and write, they should become agriculturally oriented, and they should wear European clothing and live in houses.

The White River Agency had a history of problems. Since its establishment in 1868, the agency had seen several agents come and go. Most left in total frustration. The next to last agent, Reverend H. E. Danforth, quit because the government failed to deliver promised annuities on schedule. The Utes deeply resented the fact that goods such as flour, blankets, and other supplies sat in depots at Rawlins, Wyoming, and rotted.To succeed Danforth, Nathan Cook Meeker was chosen. In many respects he was the worst possible choice, while in other ways he was perfect, a visionary altruist. Meeker, a founder of Greeley, Colorado (the Union Colony), and a minister, was also a skilled agriculturalist. Meeker was sixty-seven years old and in deep financial trouble when he gained the appointment to the White River Agency. He was given the job, thanks to political pull, by Carl Schurz. Meeker saw his position as an opportunity for testing out theories on Indian recivilization, while the job also would help payoff debts incurred at Greeley.

In 1878, Meeker moved to the White River Agency, which was then located just east of present-day Meeker. He quickly surveyed the region and decided to move the agency downriver, which he felt was perfect for agriculture. He planned to irrigate the lowlands using the White River, to build the Utes houses, to provide a school, to put up a commissary that would dole out annuities, and to fence the land in the fashion of European agriculture. These concepts were totally new to the Ute, who while interested, failed to understand. Upon arriving at White River, Meeker met several Ute chiefs, including Douglas (so-called because he looked like Steven A. Douglas), Jack or Captain Jack, who had been raised by a Mormon family, the medicine man Johnson, and Colorow. Douglas was the main spokesman for the Utes, and when Meeker explained his great plans, Douglas said that the tribe was not interested. When Meeker said that these plans were orders from Washington, D.C., the Utes, awed by "Washington," agreed to try the new system. With Douglas' and the other Utes' reluctant approval, Meeker began his experiment. The agent began by moving the agency to Powell Park, where he erected several buildings, including a house for himself, a school, and a store. His daughter, Josephine, was on the government payroll as schoolmistress and doctor. His wife, Arvella, became the self-appointed religious teacher of the natives. Meeker found that his main problem was keeping the Utes on the reservation. They were constantly moving around to hunt. They naturally needed guns and ammunition, for which they traded goods with merchants at Hayden and Windsor (later Craig), Colorado. Meeker decided this "impeded progress" and planned to keep the Indians on the reservation by using their rations as bait. He employed a Mr. Curtis from the Los Pinos Agency to supervise the work of ditch digging, which began under his and Captain Jack's direction. Over 5,000 feet of irrigation ditches were built; the Indians were paid and everyone settled in peaceably for the winter of 1878. Through the summer of 1879, Meeker worked with the Utes trying to get them interested in crops that could pay for the agency. Meeker found the Indians became more and more disinterested; soon most had left for the mountains to hunt. Meeker's letters progressed from optimistic in March 1878 when he first arrived, to more and more gloomy. By September 1879, his communications showed fear, not just despair. During the summer of 1879, Meeker's plan seemed to go fairly well. However, there were several incidents that increased tensions. First, a series of forest fires swept the Parks and much of the Yampa Valley; it was an extremely dry summer and such fires were natural. However, many European settlers in the various Parks, especially Egeria Park, blamed the Utes, claiming they were trying to get rid of settlers by burning them out. The fires caused such an uproar that numerous complaints poured into Denver, and the governor's office asked for troops. Some forty troops were sent to Middle Park from the 9th Cavalry Regiment located in the San Luis Valley. These were the "Buffalo Soldiers," an all-black regiment, much feared and hated by the Utes. The other incident that summer was the reported burning of a home near Hayden in August 1879. A "posse" from Hot Sulphur Springs was sent to capture the two Indians considered responsible for the "outrage," "Bennett" and ''Chinaman.'' They were found. Meeker, having been apprised of the situation, refused to go to Hayden to look at the home. Douglas said it was not touched, which was true. Meeker said that if a white man said that it was burned, then Douglas lied. As summer progressed, Meeker was eager to get as much land as possible under cultivation. He decided that a racetrack the Indians used at the agency had to go, because the field should be put to productive use; racing was wasting the time of the natives; there were too many horses for the park, and there was continual gambling. When Meeker suggested the Indians should kill some of their animals to lessen the grazing burden on Powell Park, the Utes were outraged. On September 10, 1879, tensions that were growing came to a head. Chief Johnson went to Meeker's home to discuss the horse track's destruction. Meeker refused to listen to Johnson's protests and the chief, in anger, shoved Meeker against a hitching post. The old man fell and bruised himself. This "assault" caused Meeker to wire Rawlins, Wyoming, with the message that he was seriously injured by Johnson, and that a plowman had been shot at on September 8. He also requested help from either Governor Frederick Pitkin or General John Pope. Neither the War Department nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs felt it necessary to send troops at that point.

Finally, after much communication between Nathan Meeker; Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming; General Pope; and the War Department, it was decided to send troops to White River to arrest the troublemakers and to restore order. In late September, Major Thomas T. Thornburgh was ordered to march to White River with a detachment of 190 men. He had with him two companies of cavalry under the commands of Captain J. S. Payne and Lieutenant B. D. Price, and a long supply train. They camped along Fortification Creek, at the mouth of Blue Gravel Creek, and then marched to the Yampa River where a depot was established just south of Lay, Colorado. Thornburgh, totally unaware of conditions at White River, was forced to rely on his scouts, including Joe Rankin, an avid Indian-hater.

On the second day out, the Thornburgh detachment camped along the Bear (Yampa) River, and then moved into Coal Creek Canyon not far from White River. Here they met Douglas and Colorow, along with Captain Jack. Major Thornburgh and the natives talked about what the soldiers were doing in the area, and Thornburgh explained he was ordered there by Washington. Rankin did his best to discredit the Ute's claims that the Utes came in peace and would leave the soldiers alone if the troops did not come to White River. Thornburgh, much to his credit, ignored Rankin. Thornburgh promised that he would reconsider moving to the agency and that he would tell Douglas what he decided before he marched.

Meeker, in the meantime, sent a message to Thornburgh. He asked that five men be sent to the agency to look over the situation, and that Thornburgh camp nearby. Thornburgh replied that he would set up a base along the Milk River, and then send five men with E. H. Eskridge (an agency employee) to White River. Meeker wrote to Thornburgh on September 29 that he was expecting the five men the next day, and that Douglas would fly the American Flag as a sign of peace; the letter never reached Thornburgh.

In order to reach White River, Thornburgh had to traverse a small canyon opening into the valley. Here, as Rankin pointed out, would be a perfect place for an ambush. This was where the Utes, under Douglas, waited along the canyon rims, anxious to see what would happen. At this point, Douglas and Colorow lost control of the young warriors. Douglas and Thornburgh both expected to talk, but someone opened fire, and before Douglas could stop the shooting, the Utes and the U.S. Army were engaged in battle. Thornburgh was killed almost immediately. The soldiers fled northwest back toward the hills. The wagons were circled, and fallen horses became breastworks. Firing continued all day, and when it was over, fifty men were killed or wounded, including most of the officers. Joe Rankin made a twenty-eight hour dash to Rawlins to report the battle. On October 1, 1879, the garrison at Fort D. A. Russell heard that the Utes nearly wiped out a detacment on the Milk River. The War Department ordered Colonel Wesley Merritt to move from Fort Russell (near Cheyenne) via the Union Pacific Railroad to Fort Steele. Merritt was ordered to take 200 cavalry and 150 infantry to Milk River so as to relieve Captain Payne. The confusion was compounded by Denver newspapers that reported an uprising on the Southern Ute (Los Pinos) reservation.

Captain Payne, on inspecting a burnt out wagon heard the yelping of a puppy. He kept the puppy and named him Thornburgh, who became a military camp follower. Thornburgh finally ended up in Wyoming at Fort Bridger permanently. To read more visit the Historical Marker Database site.

Captain F. S. Dodge, stationed in Middle Park with his Ninth Cavalry, was ordered on October 1 to relieve Thornburgh. He arrived October 2 and reinforced the besieged troops. Meanwhile, Merritt, moving south, arrived October 5, only to discover that the fight was over. The Utes withdrew in the face of this force. While the Thornburgh detachment was beseiged, the White River Agency was also attacked by the Utes. On the night of September 30, 1879, agency Indians rose up and killed all eleven white males at White River. Meeker was killed and his body pierced by a barrel stave. The Utes then took hostage Mrs. Meeker, Josephine, Mrs. Shadrack Price and her two children. It was not until October 13, 1879, that the newspapers got their first dispatches describing the agency massacre portrayed by Merritt, second on the scene. The headlines blazed, "A SCENE OF SLAUGHTER," and Denver citizens demanded immediate action. Governor Pitkin denounced the attack in no uncertain terms, and incidentally pointed out that 12,000,000 acres could be opened with the removal of the Utes. This wa now the perfect opportunity to be rid of the natives for good.

The Ute uprising came to an end when Chief Ouray sent a message to the Northern Utes to lay down their arms. Douglas, Colorow, Johnson, and others fled into the hills where they awaited the outcome of negotiations with Ouray. Former Indian Agent, General Charles Adams, working with Ouray, managed to secure release of the captives. None of the hostages were harmed, and Josephine actually praised the humane treatment they received. The Utes were initially provoked, but despite the decent treatment of the hostages and regardless of Douglas' attempts at peace, Colorado's citizens demanded "the Utes Must Go." The outcome of the Meeker Massacre was a commission established to investigate the cause, and punish those who were guilty. The commission had only the captive women as eye-witnesses, and Ouray refused to let them testify (under Ute law their testimony was null and void). Ouray demanded a trial in Washington, D.C., where he felt the natives would get a fair hearing. Since the commission did not have such authority, Douglas and several minor chiefs were placed on a train for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the pretext that they were going to Washington. The Ute chiefs were held in jail at Leavenworth for several years. This was the extent of the punishment for the Utes who took part in the uprising.

More importantly, the rebellion provided the reason for final removal of the Utes. In 1880, a delegation of Utes headed by Ouray left for Washington. A treaty was put together by which the Utes lost all of their western Colorado lands. The natives were given two reservations. The Southern Utes got the La Plata Reservation, while the Northern Utes moved into Utah to the Uintah Reservation. In addition, they were given $60,000 in back annuities, and $50,000 in new annuities. Three-fourths of the males of the Ute Tribe had to sign the treaty before it became effective.

On August 20, 1880, Ouray died, and the Utes lost one of their best spokesmen. However, despite his influence among Europeans, it is doubtful that he could have saved the Utes from removal. In that same year, General R. S. Mackenzie with six companies of cavalry and nine companies of infantry from Fort Garland, began moving the Ute nation out of northwestern Colorado. There were only about 1,500 people, and on September 7, 1881, the last of the Utes passed the Grand and Gunnison River junction and headed into Utah. The next year, 1882, Congress declared the vacated Ute lands open for filing, and what were hunting grounds became available for agriculture and ranching.

The causes for the Meeker Massacre were many and complex, but the basic problem was a total lack of understanding between two cultures. A series of preventable events transpired to create an atmosphere for trouble. The worst offenders in the Ute removal were the people of Colorado, who found the perfect excuse to get rid of the Utes and to take their land. Because of the uprising of 1879, the balance of northwest Colorado was cleared of Indians, and the land was open to all comers. As Senator Nathaniel Hill of Colorado so aptly stated, the injustice done to the Utes was inexcusable, but the year 1879 signaled a new era in western Colorado.

Helmuth, Ed and Gloria. The Passes of Colorado Boulder, Colorado: Pruett, 1994. Print.
Athearn, Frederic J. An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwestern Colorado Bureau of Land Management: Third ed., 1982, Print.
Rio Blanco County Road 15 is an easy graded road that crosses over Yellowjacket Pass. It connects Highway 13 with Moffat County Road 45. The south end starts near Meeker, CO. and runs along the edge of Rattlesnake Mesa following Coal Creek. At the top of the Pass there is a road to the right which is Yellowjacket-East Beaver Creek, FR250/Cnty48. This is the Yellowjacket Pass Stock Driveway route which heads into the National Forest, Blanca Ranger District. It also serves as a trail head for this access to public lands. From the pass the road heads down following Little Beaver Creek before it opens into a broad valley which contains Milk Creek. You will pass by hay fields before coming to the Milk Creek Battleground Monument (see the History section above). Past the monument you will come to an intersection with Rio Blanco County Road 42 straight ahead, which ends shortly at a ranch, and Moffat County 45 to the left across the bridge at the county line.
Data updated - August 1, 2020      4WD Road driven - September 5, 2016      Copyright - 2000-2020