Is Pitkin County’s namesake as questionable as Columbus Day? |

Is Pitkin County’s namesake as questionable as Columbus Day?

Several Utes are shown mounted on horseback and standing in front of teepees, circa 1900. One of the men is holding a gun.
Aspen Historical Society, Masterson Estate Collection |

When Greg Poschman stumped for Pitkin County commissioner in the fall of 2016, the usual political topics of local concern surfaced — housing, transportation, the environment and so on. But one issue to emerge while he was on the campaign trail captured no attention during the debates or in media reports — the etymology of the name of the very county he wished to represent.

“There were a lot of young people who asked me, ‘Why are we still named Pitkin County? Why is the county named after this guy? He was a monster,’” recalled Poschman, who ultimately won in his bid for the District 3 seat on the county commission.

This “guy” was Frederick Walker Pitkin, Colorado’s second governor who served from 1879 to 1883. Pitkin, a Connecticut-born attorney who moved to Colorado in 1874, never resided in the county bearing his name. In fact, there is no record of him visiting Pitkin County, which was established Feb. 23, 1881, the same year most of the Ute Indians left Aspen.

Pitkin was propelled into office thanks in large part to his message that “the Utes must go,” a platform “formulated not only by the governor but by prominent politicians who controlled his actions,” according to a May 15, 1975 historical account in the Steamboat Pilot.

The fact is not lost on Roland McCook, a great-great-grandson of Chipeta and Ouray, the chief of the Uncompahgre band of the Utes who testified before Congress in 1880 about the Utes’ uprising of 1879.

“His name represents all of the turmoil and the removal of the Utes,” said McCook, who lives in Montrose and is a former Northern Ute chairman.

On Sept. 26, McCook and Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, the founder of the Aspen Ute Foundation, pleaded for members of Aspen City Council to declare the second Monday of October — the federal holiday known as Columbus Day — “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

Their effort was well-received by the council, which by all indications will bless a resolution at its meeting Monday recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day “to celebrate the contributions, the enduring culture and the traditions of all Native Americans and indigenous peoples.” The city does not recognize Columbus Day as a holiday.

The pending decision, however, hasn’t won universal approval in the Aspen community. The writers of some letters to the editor of The Aspen Times have argued explorer Christopher Columbus has been unfairly portrayed as the architect of Native American genocide.

“He was one man, on a single mission that discovered the new world,” wrote Jim DeFrancia in a letter to this newspaper. “If genocide followed, it was undertaken by many others as an aspect of the expansion of European interests to a new continent.”

Another observer, Marty Stouffer, of “Wild America” fame, offered in an email to editors at The Aspen Times: “Skim right over Frederick W. Pitkin and go after freaking Christopher Columbus? Really? They’re more than a few centuries late on that one.”

Yet McCook and Vitrac-Kessler say Columbus Day is an offensive reminder of the atrocities committed against Native Americans, while the explorer has been ignorantly lionized by mainstream America.

“There is such a misconception because Columbus is presented as a hero, and granted, he was an amazing navigator for sure,” Vitrac-Kessler said. “But he also was a monster of a human being.”

The debate also comes against a backdrop of American turmoil over the removal of Confederate monuments located in public venues. Outside of the Pitkin County Courthouse stands a statue of a Civil War soldier showing no allegiance to the Confederacy or Union, and the county plans to display a plaque of some type putting the monument in its proper context.

Removing the name behind Pitkin County, however, is another issue.

“I’ve heard comments in my seven years that Gov. Pitkin did not have the best track record with regards to his relationship with the Utes, but no one has made a specific request to change his name,” County Manager Jon Peacock said.

First, it would take a state legislative act to remove the name of the 19th century governor, whose last name also is attached to streets in Glenwood Springs, Fort Collins and Saguache, while a small town in Gunnison County is named after Pitkin. And, as Poschman noted, there’s a branding issue at play; from changing county letterheads to building titles, the list goes on.

“It certainly couldn’t hurt,” he added. “But maybe it’s humbling to be reminded of where we’ve come from, who our ancestors were, and what actually transpired.”

Indeed, Gov. Pitkin’s mantra certainly was the order of the day.

Colorado newspapers, generally speaking, marched in lockstep with Pitkin’s position to remove the Utes, as evidenced by a declaration by Colorado Daily Chieftain on Oct. 29, 1890: “The Ute Indians are making nuisances of themselves up in Routt county. They are off their reservation and are annoying the white people, and Gov. (Job Adams) Cooper is writing letters to the authorities at Washington beseeching that the Indians be sent home. The last time those Indians left their reservation during the administration of the late Gov. Pitkin, he sent the following message to Washington: ‘Your Indians are off their reservation annoying the white people. Take them home or some of them will be hurt.’ Those Indians returned to their reservation in a hurry. There are governors and governors.”

Pitkin’s personal secretary, William Vickers, also editor of the Rocky Mountain News, was no more accommodating to the mobile Utes, who discovered and lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 800 years, calling the area the “Shining Mountains” before Ute City was formed in 1879 and replaced by Aspen in 1880.

“Vickers preferred extermination, arguing that ‘the Utes are actual, practical Communists and the government should be ashamed to foster and encourage them in their idleness and wanton waste of property,’” noted Aspen Times contributor and historian Tim Willoughby in an article published Sept. 4, 2009.

A pivotal event in the conflict between Colorado settlers and the Utes — known as the Meeker Massacre — happened Sept. 29, 1879. That’s when Nathan Meeker, who was a U.S. agent for the White River Indian Agency in present-day Rio Blanco County, and 10 of his employees were killed as the result of an uprising by the Utes, who purportedly refused to adhere to Meeker’s efforts to transform them from hunters to farmers.

Historians also have theorized the impetus of the revolt was the male Utes felt humiliated because the female Utes weren’t asked to do the same work, as well as learning Gov. Pitkin was sending in military personnel to stave off their rebellion.

Another battle, around the same time, raged in Mill Creek, where the Utes fought cavalry troops. Killed were 37 Utes and 12 soldiers.

In the book “The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century,” author Richard Keith Young wrote that Gov. Pitkin’s responded to the violence by saying of the Utes: “My idea is that, unless removed by the government, they must necessarily be exterminated. I could raise 25,000 men to protect the settlers in 24 hours. The state would be willing to settle the Indian trouble at its own expense. The advantage that would accrue from the throwing open of 12,000,000 acres of land to miners and settlers would more than compensate all expenses incurred.”

McCook said Gov. Pitkin epitomized the sentiment Colorado settlers had regarding Utes at the time.

“He represented the oppression and the idea that the Ute Indians were in his way, and what was best for the country was to remove them to make room for the settlers,” he said. “That was his entire mode: to remove Native Americans to make room for the settlers.”

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