Native American History in Leadville and Twin LakesNovember 19, 2021
For Native American Heritage Month in November, we’d like to take you a step in time back from the Silver Rush history for which Leadville and Twin Lakes is known, to honor the original inhabitants of the land.
The Leadville Herald Democrat has written a thought-provoking series on Colorado’s Indigenous people, the effect that European settlers and mining had on them, and how the Nuche/Ute people were forced to leave the area. Learn more about the Nuche people, landmarks named after them, and conflict with European settlers in excerpts from Herald Democrat articles. We also discuss why the Nuche story is important.
Meet the Nuche People
You likely have heard of the Utes, but Colorado’s Indigenous people called themselves Nuche, meaning “the mountain people.” Spanish settlers gave the name “Yuta” to all Indigenous people in the mountain west, said “The Ute people self-identify as Nuche.”
“Oral histories passed down within Ute culture recall that they have lived in the mountains of this region since time immemorial,” said “The Ute are oldest inhabitants of region.” “Unlike many other Indigenous peoples of the North American continent, the Ute have no migration story.” Historical records show that the Ute people lived in much of Colorado by 1600, with Indigenous people living in the Rockies for at least 10,000 years.
The Nuche were nomadic, hunting big game in the Colorado’s mountains in the summer and traveling south to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, southern Wyoming, western Kansas and Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle in the winter, said “The Ute were the first to inhabit Dayton.”
Did you know that bison once roamed near Leadville and Twin Lakes? You could see a bison trail from the Arkansas River to Twin Lakes and beyond until the 1920s, a Herald Democrat article said.
Shavano and Tabeguache
If you like to climb 14ers, you may have heard of Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak to our south, near Salida. Both are Nuche names, and the Herald Democrat shares some background:
“Tabeguache Peak was named after the band of Ute people identified as living in the area. The original Nuche word from which it was derived, mogwtavungwantsingwu, translates roughly to ‘cedar-bark, sunny slope people,’ according to Carol Patterson’s description in ‘Concepts of Spirit in Prehistoric Art according to Clifford Duncan, Ute Spiritual Elder.’
“To the south, Mount Shavano, Tabeguache’s slightly higher neighboring peak, bears the name of a Tabeguache leader. Shavano was a well-documented leader within the Tabeguache band as a result of his regular interactions with European settlers in the area.” Another Tabeguache leader, Chief Ouray, is pictured at the start of this article.
Conflict Between Nuche and European Settlers
Interactions with European settlers began to affect Nuche people in the Leadville/Twin Lakes area when miners rushed to the area in the mid to late 1800s. Violence between Indigenous tribes and Spanish settlers first began erupting to the south, after territories and treaties were breached. (See “The Ute occupied territories across Colorado” and “The Spanish defeat the Ute near Abiquiu” for more info.)
The Nuche people tried isolating themselves. Yet as settlers arrived in Colorado from the east to dig rich mineral deposits, they put pressure on Nuche lands and hunting and moved into land that had been designated as Ute reservations.
“Gold accelerates settlement of Ute lands” explains what happened next. “The surge of people coming to the region focused on areas in the High Rockies near present-day Alma, Breckenridge, Como, Fairplay and South Park. This sudden and large presence of settlers seeking wealth from Ute lands pushed the original inhabitants to the central part of their territories as they sought isolation and game that had also been driven out.”
By 1860, “the discovery of gold in California Gulch would lead to thousands of prospectors crossing deeper into Ute territory, eventually founding Leadville.”
Federal, and then state, governments claimed ownership of what once were Nuche lands. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 declared Ute lands to belong to the United States, and Colorado became a state in 1876. Governments created Ute reservations and then shrank them as settlers discovered more mineral deposits. Land that had been designated Ute territory in 1863 was sharply reduced in 1868. That did not stop miners in search of riches from moving into the new, smaller reservation. Then the governments decided to take all of the land.
“Under the rallying cry, ‘The Utes must go,’ the state and federal government would begin to implement genocidal measures such as forced relocation and the establishment of Indian boarding schools that Ute children were forced to attend,” said the Herald Democrat. Indian agencies and the military would soon carry out government policy that sought to remove the Ute from the area in favor of settlement and economic growth.”
“Treaty restricts Ute to government lands” and “Ute bands are assigned Indian agencies” discuss the ways that the federal government set up points to distribute food and livestock to the Indigenous people it had removed from their traditional food sources, and the ways the government often broke promises.
Why Is This Story Important?
Traditionally, Leadville and Twin Lakes celebrate their mining heritage and the National Historic Landmark District of Victorian buildings and stories of the old West. Many locals are former and present-day miners at the Climax molybdenum mine, located at Fremont Pass on Highway 91 between Leadville and Copper. They are proud of their hard work mining ore to support their families and the remote high-altitude city of Leadville. This mining heritage of 140+ years contributes to the gritty, welcoming nature of today’s locals.
We share the Nuches’ story to acknowledge that our past is multi-layered and that to understand the full scope of the area’s history, it is necessary to look at all eras. Our history includes the Indigenous people who lived off the land’s lush surface and were forced to leave it, the miners who lived off the minerals they panned or dug from the earth, and today’s residents who build livelihoods and lives in the forests, peaks and rivers, with modern-day machines and conveniences, in a time of climate change.
What will future stories of this land and its people tell?
We invite you to consider what life may have been like for the Nuche people as well as the miners. When you visit us, please consider how the land looked in its pristine state and help us to keep Leadville and Twin Lakes beautiful.
More from the Leadville Herald Democrat
To learn more, please read the remainder of the Herald Democrat’s series:
- The Ute utilize fire to renew landscapes
- Pike reaches eastern edge of Ute territory
- The Ute, Mexicans and Americans clash
- Ute leaders and Meriwether agree to terms
- Ute people refuse relocation north
- Reservation boundaries impose stationary agriculture on the Ute
- Conflict arises between the Utes and Meeker
- The Utes are removed to reservations
- Northern Ute bands displaced to Utah
- Extractive industries expand into Ute lands
Main photo, Tabeguache Chief Ouray, By Dodd, Mead & Co.; lithography by Julius Bien, N.Y. – New International Encyclopædia, 1905, v. 10, facing p. 574 (lower left). Wikipedia Commons.