The oldest continuous residents of Colorado are the Ute Indians. It is not known exactly when the Utes came from the north and west and inhabited the mountainous areas of the present-day states of Colorado , Utah (which name comes from the Ute people), and New Mexico. We do know that the earliest Utes came into the present day United States along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It is possible that the coming of the Utes was the reason for the Anasazis to move into sandstone caves of the area. Possibly, too, the Utes displaced or replaced those earlier peoples who had developed in the region from the early Basketmaker stage through the Developmental Pueblo stage and into the classic Mesa Verde period. Ruins of the ancient culture of the Anasazi are to be found throughout the present reservation of the Southern Utes. If the Utes tried to leave their mountainous area and go other places to get food, they found other Indian groups already there who would fight them to drive them out. To the east and northeast of the Utes were the Arapaho, Cheyennes, Kiowa, Apaches, Comanches, Sioux, and Pawnees. To the south were the Navajos and Apaches and only the Jicarilla band of Apaches were generally friendly to the Utes. To the west and northwest were the Shoshones, Snakes, Bannocks, Paiutes, and Goshutes.
The language of the Utes is Shoshonean which is a branch or a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language. It is believed that the people who speak Shoshonean separated from other Uto-Aztecan speaking groups about the time of the birth of Christ. Other Indian groups of the U.S. who speak Shoshonean are the Paiutes, Goshutes, Shoshones, Bannocks, Comanches, Chemehuevi and some tribes in California.
Eventually, the Utes became concentrated into a loose confederation of seven bands. The names of the seven bands and the areas they lived in before the coming of the Europeans are as follows:
Of the bands mentioned above, the first two (Mouache and Capote) make up the present day Southern Utes with headquarters at Ignacio, Colorado. The Weeminuches are now called the Ute Mountain Utes with headquarters at Towaoc, Colorado. The last four mentioned (Tabeguache, Grand, Yampa, and Uintah) now comprise the Northern Utes on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation with headquarters at the town of Fort Duchesne, Utah.
A long time ago, these seven groups of Utes were broken up into small family units for a large portion of each year. It was necessary to do this because food was scarce and it took a large area in the mountains to support a small number of people. Each family unit had to have a great deal of room since food-gathering couldn’t be done so well in large groups. From early spring until late in the fall, these family units of Utes would hunt for deer, elk, antelope, and other animals; they would gather seeds of grasses, wild berries and fruits; occasionally they would plant corn, beans, and squash in mountain meadows and harvest them in the autumn. At that time, they did not have horses which would have made the hunting easier, nor did they have any tools except those made of stone. Each family unit used to follow a regular circuit during most of the year, going to places where they knew they could gather food for the winter.
Late in the fall, the family units would begin to move out of the mountains into sheltered areas for the winter months. Generally, the family units of a particular band of Utes would live close together during the winter. The Capote, Mouache, and Weeminuche would each live through the winter some place in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona. The Tabeguache or Uncompahgre would select some place between Montrose and Grand Junction. The Northern Utes would live at some place along the White, the Green, or the Colorado rivers. The winters were great social occasions for the different bands. There would be much visiting and many festivities. This was also the time when marriages would be contracted. For four days in early spring, the band would hold the Bear Dance, the most ancient and typical of all the Ute dances. Then each family unit would prepare to go its separate way until the next winter time. They would follow the migrating deer, antelope, and elk for food until seeds and berries began to ripen in the mountains.
This way of life was to change for the Utes when the Spaniards colonized and occupied New Mexico at the end of the sixteenth century. The reason for this change is that although the Europeans didn’t have many of the plants of the Americas, they had livestock and it is livestock, especially the horse, which changed the life style. The Southern Utes made contact with the Spanish in New Mexico in the 1630s and 40s. At first there were peaceful relations between the two peoples and some trade was carried on. The Utes had dried meat and hides which they traded for knives and other metal utensils and agricultural products raised by the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish. Much of this trading was done at the annual fairs held at Pecos and Taos. The Utes, however, became much more interested in trading for horses. Horses were very expensive in those days and the Utes would trade even children to the Spanish for horses. (The Spanish generally trained those children to be excellent herders.) Possession of horses allowed the Utes to begin buffalo hunting on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and the buffalo soon became one of their main resources, because it would provide them with many useful products: e.g., meat for food (one wouldn’t have to work so hard gathering food); hides for tipi covers, blankets, clothing, moccasins, and bags of all kinds; sinew thread for sewing and for bowstrings; horn and hoof glue for many purposes. And with the horse, the Utes could more easily evade their enemies, transport their goods to a central camp where the women and children were protected, and range farther to hunt for food.
So the Utes no longer needed to spread out thinly in family units. They could live in larger numbers under a more powerful leader. The family unit continued to be the basic unit of society but the leader directed camp movements, hunts, raids, and war parties. In hunting the buffalo, the Utes came into frequent contact with the Arapahos, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Sioux, and Comanche who had many more horses than the Utes. The Utes needed more horses. So they became aggressive and warlike. Also, it was much easier to raid for livestock (sheep, goats, cattle) in New Mexico than to hunt deer and other animals, or to buy livestock. So the Utes became raiders, moving out of their mountain fortresses to raid other Indian groups or towns and villages to the south.