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Ute Indians Use of Fire as a Defensive Weapon

After Ruxton had been camped near Manitou Springs for two or three weeks, while out hunting one day, he ran across an Indian camp, which startled him very much. No Indians were in sight at the time, but later he got a glimpse of two carrying in a deer which they had killed. The next morning Ruxton concluded that as a matter of safety, he had better remove his camp to some more secluded spot. The following day a fire was started on the side of the mountain to the south of the springs, which rapidly spread in every direction. He says:

I had from the first no doubt that the fire was caused by the Indians who had probably discovered my animals, and thinking that a large party of hunters might be out, had taken advantage of a favorable wind to set fire to the grass, hoping to secure the horses and mules in the confusion, without risk of attacking the camp.

In order to be out of reach of the fire, Ruxton moved his camp down the Fontaine qui Bouille six or seven miles. He says:

All this time the fire was spreading out on the prairies. It extended at least five miles on the left bank of the creek and on the right was more slowly creeping up the mountainside, while the brush and timber in the bottom was one mass of flame. Besides the long, sweeping line of the advancing flame the plateaus on the mountainside and within the line were burning in every direction as the squalls and eddies down the gullies drove the fire to all points. The mountains themselves being invisible, the air from the low ground where I then was, appeared a mass of fire, and huge crescents of flame danced as it were in the very sky, until a mass of timber blazing at once exhibited the somber background of the stupendous mountains.

The fire extended towards the waters of the Platte upwards of forty miles, and for fourteen days its glare was visible on the Arkansas River fifty miles distant.

The testimony of Ruxton bears out information I have from other sources, that a large portion of the great areas of dead timber on the mountain-sides of this region is the result of fires started by the various Indian tribes in their wanderings to and fro. Old trappers say that the Ute frequently went out upon the plains on horse-stealing expeditions; that when they had located a camp of their enemies, they would stealthily creep in among their ponies in the night, round them up, and start off towards the mountains with as many as they could hastily gather together. They were sure to be pursued the following morning when the raid had been discovered, and often the Ute with the stolen herd. would find their pursuers close after them by the time they reached the mountains. In that case, they knew that if they followed up Ute Pass they were likely to be overtaken, but by crossing over the northern point of Cheyenne Mountain and on to the west along a trail that ran not very far distant from the route now followed by the Cripple Creek Short Line, they could much more easily elude their pursuers. If, when west of Cheyenne Mountain the Ute found their enemies gaining upon them, they would start a timber fire to cover their retreat. These fires would, of course, spread indefinitely and ruin immense tracts of timber. This is doubtless one of the principal reasons why our mountainsides are so nearly denuded of their original growth of trees. These horse-stealing raids were no uncommon occurrence. Colonel Dodge, in his book Our Wild Indians, tells of one made by the Ute in 1874, which was daring as well as successful. He says:

A mixed band of some fifteen hundred Sioux and Cheyenne, hunting in 1874, went well up on the head-waters of the Republican River in search of buffalo. The Ute found them out and a few warriors slipped into their camp during the night, stampeded their ponies at daylight, and in spite of the hot pursuit of the Sioux, reached the mountains with over two hundred head.

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