Navajo Nation: From Prehistory to the Twentieth Century

Navajo Nation

Navajo Nation: From Prehistory to the Twentieth Century

Contributed by the National Parks Service. All Rights Reserved

The exact moment of the arrival of the Navajo people in the Southwest remains the subject of dispute. The standard view of archeologists and anthropologists suggests that when the Spanish arrived from the south in the 1540s, the Navajo were in the process of migrating into the region from the north. An Athapascan people, they had come from the area around what is now the Canadian border, gradually moving south over a period of hundreds of years. Estimates from this school of thought for the beginning of Navajo influx into the Southwest suggest a time between 1400 and 1525 A.D. Clearly the process was ongoing when the Spanish arrived.[1] In this sense, the point of contact between the two cultures was the meeting point between two different migrant groups, each with different cosmologies, values, and technologies, one slightly ahead of the other in chronological appearance. Both strangers to the region, they arrived nearly simultaneously. The subsequent three hundred years involved working out the nature and extent of the relationship between the two groups.

Navajo oral tradition and tree-ring dating suggest an earlier arrival than does much of modern archeology and anthropology. According to this view, at least some Navajo people or their forerunners were in the region at the same time as the Pueblos. Tree-ring dates from western Colorado show the construction of hogan-type dwellings in the 1100s A.D. that show Navajo-like characteristics and a Navajo homestead south of Gallup, New Mexico, has been dated to approximately 1380 A.D. In addition, a Navajo legend places the arrival of the Dinè, as the Navajo refer to themselves, in the vicinity of Chaco Canyon between roughly 900 and 1130 A.D. Nevertheless when the Spanish arrived, the Navajo were already well ensconced on the Colorado Plateau and their numbers were growing. [2]

The arrival of the Spanish produced a classic confrontation between denizens of the new and old worlds. The Spaniards possessed technology, biological characteristics, and domesticated animals with which the Navajo had no previous experience. The Navajo were better adapted to life in the harsh environment that was and is the Southwest. They knew its edible plants and hidden water sources and had adjusted to life in an unforgiving environment. Until the coming of the Americans, the collision was a stalemate.[3] The first Spaniards to record contact with the Navajo were not typical explorers in search of gold. Antonio de Espejo, a fugitive fleeing a murder charge who financed an expedition to find two missing priests and thereby redeem his name, led a small group of men that traveled widely across the Southwest. Early in the spring of 1583, the party set off from Zia Pueblo towards Zuñi Pueblo. As they circumvented Mount Taylor, one of the sacred mountains of the Navajo, they met what they called "Indios Serranos," mountain Indians, who were most likely Navajos. These people were peaceful and later engaged in trade with the Spaniards.

But any positive feelings engendered by the initial meeting did not last. Subsequent events set a far less optimistic tone for Navajo-Spanish relations. In 1598, don Juan de Oñate set out from New Spain to colonize New Mexico. Persuading Indians to accept Christian missionaries was an important component of his plan of colonization. While some of the Pueblos reconciled themselves at least temporarily to new forms of worship, others were not so accepting. On December 4, 1598, Acoma Pueblo, the Sky City, revolted against the Spanish.[4]

Acoma was no stranger to warfare with the Spanish. The pueblo had previously fought a pitched battle with Espejo's men, winning decisively. After an incident caused by a lack of cross-cultural communication, the Acomas seized eighteen Spaniards including one of Oñate's nephews, who were in the Sky City to requisition supplies. The nephew and ten other Spaniards were killed, along with a number of Indian servants. Four other Spaniards jumped off the 375-foot mesa into sand dunes below and escaped to carry the news to Oñate.[5]

Retribution was swift and furious, establishing the tone of relations for the next 250 years. Oñate sent a force of seventy men, headed by the slain nephew's brother, to exact revenge and show the strength of the Spanish. In a two-day battle, the Spanish scaled the mesa and burned the Pueblo. Indian casualties in battle were estimated at 800. Another 500 women and children and seventy or eighty warriors were captured. Many of the captives were cut to pieces and thrown from the mesa. The rest were tried and sentenced to punishments of servitude of various lengths. Adult males also had one foot chopped off. Two Hopi Indians involved in the revolt had their right hands chopped off and were sent back to their people as an example. The word spread quickly through the region. In one intense moment, the Navajo and the Spaniards had learned to intensely dislike each other.[6]

From then on, Spanish-Navajo relations were strained. Unlike the smaller, less mobile Pueblos, the Navajo were not easily subdued. Regarding themselves as bearers of civilization, the Spanish found their desire to hegemonize thwarted. They could not bring these independent Indians under their control, but could capture a sufficient number of Navajo to compel a similar response. Despite a seemingly endless series of treaties and arrangements, the Spanish and the Navajos regarded each other as enemies. Initially conflict was military; later it became economic. But one feature of the conflict was consistent: Europeans and their descendants sought to regulate the Navajo way of life, the lands available to the Navajo, and to a lesser degree, their trade with the outside world. They also sought to convert any and all captive Navajos to Christianity and the Spanish way of life.

The acquisition and mastery of the horse by the Navajo compounded the problems of the Spanish. By 1610, the Navajos could use horses to further their objectives. Horses offered them a mobility that made them more lethal opponents of the Spanish, a range that made no part of New Mexico safe, and a cultural identity that accentuated Navajo autonomy. By the end of the reconquest of New Mexico in the 1690s, the Spanish recognized that the Navajo were and would remain beyond their reach.[7]

By 1820, the Navajos became the most feared enemy of the colony. The horse transformed the Navajos into a powerful adversary almost equal to the Spanish. Along with Utes and Comanches, Navajos incessantly raided the colony in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, forcing the weak, often debilitated, and contentious leadership of Spanish New Mexico to become enmeshed in a cumbersome and poorly followed set of treaty arrangements. The Spanish formed uncomfortable alliances with all the tribes in the region, at various times finding themselves using the Navajo in campaigns against other Indians and conversely fighting alongside other Indians against the Navajo. Animosity between different groups of Indians also contributed to an already complex situation. Spanish slave raids, particularly one that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Navajo women and children in Canyon del Muerto in 1805, heightened existing tensions, and the Navajos became raiders on a large scale.[8]

Yet the Spanish colony of New Mexico remained weak. The Spaniards lacked the resources and the wherewithal to establish a powerful entity at the northern tip of their empire in the Americas. Their religious, cultural, and economic mission never achieved success with the Navajo. The only effort to establish a mission to Christianize the Navajo lasted merely two years. Nor was New Mexico as economically profitable for the Spanish as were other parts of their empire in the New World. As a result, administration of the colony was half-hearted throughout the eighteenth century, leaving it open to challenges to Spanish authority. By 1800, the Spanish empire had crumbled. Fewer and fewer of its resources were allocated for the New Mexico colony.

The abundance of complex and repeated agreements between the Navajos and the Spanish colony of New Mexico attested to the precariousness of the position of the Spanish. They lacked the numbers and power to enforce their will on the Navajo. Clearly fear was a major element in the Spanish view of Navajos; the establishment of the genizaro–detribalized Indian–community at Abiquiu as a buffer between the "Indios Barbaros" and the colony revealed the vulnerability of Spanish New Mexico.

Despite its limitations, the Spanish empire in northern New Spain persisted into the nineteenth century. Although the periphery was seldom strong, it did hold for an extended period. New Mexico, at least along the Rio Grande, remained a part of the Spanish empire and Spanish culture and religion melded with that of the Pueblos. But extending hegemony beyond the river valley proved too much. The Navajos played an important role in denying further Spanish expansion.

The Spaniards faced many problems in their efforts to deal with the Navajos. Among the most important was identifying individuals who could speak for the Navajo people. In one such effort, a colonial governor offered to provide four silver-tipped canes and medals to Navajos who were willing and able to assume that role. In addition, the Spanish often paid Navajos to fight with them against other Indians, arbitrarily designating the leaders of these accomodationists as the leaders of the Navajo people.[9]

But unlike the effort made with the Pueblos, the Spanish made few attempts to offer the Navajo the "benefits" of their society. When compared to the town-dwelling, agricultural Pueblos, by Spanish standards, the Navajos seemed backward. The Navajos were not subject to comprehensive missionary efforts as were the Pueblos, nor were there efforts to rid the Navajo of their culture and make them Spanish. Only Navajo captives were brought into the realm of Spanish culture and life. The Spanish simply could not subject the Navajo to their cultural will.

As a result, the Navajo retained autonomy and remained largely beyond Spanish control. As the letters of governors of the colony show, the Spaniards spent a lot of time worrying about what the Navajos would do next. The Spanish empire in the New World crumbled in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the problems of one of the most remote outposts of New Spain attracted little attention. Spanish authorities had more important problems to address, and without support, officials in New Mexico could do little to change or stop the Navajo. They lacked the resources and the power. An adversarial view became codified in the perspective of the Spanish. Navajos became the feared adversary–the enemy.

If anything, the Mexican territory of New Mexico was even weaker than the Spanish colony. From its founding in 1821, Mexico lacked the economic resources to sustain its northern frontier. Texas in particular and to a lesser degree New Mexico were invaded by U.S. economic interests almost from the moment of Mexican independence. The Mexican government could do little to stop the Navajos, who preyed on the weakened and nearly defenseless territory. The Navajos relentlessly attacked New Mexico, appropriating crops, stealing livestock, and taking captives. The situation became so dire that in 1845, Governor Manuel Armijo wrote: "the war with the Navajo is slowly consuming us." When Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny arrived in Santa Fe in 1846 to proclaim the beginning of the American era, the best thing he had to offer the people of New Mexico was protection from Navajo raids. "The Navajos come down from the mountains and carry off your sheep and your women whenever they please," he told Santa Feans on August 22, 1846. "My government will correct all this."[10]

It was a promise the U.S. military intended to keep, particularly after a band of Navajo stole a flock of American army horses. The Navajos had almost free run of New Mexico; the great chief Narbona exercised his curiosity about the Americans by viewing the American troops at Fort Marcy near Santa Fe from a secret vantage point in the nearby mountains. But Kearny made a promise. By treaty or war, the Americans sought to bring a measure of order to New Mexican-Navajo relations that had never before existed.

Although the Navajo and the Americans signed a treaty at the end of 1846, it proved insufficient to maintain peace. The Taos Rebellion of 1847 complicated cross-cultural relations in New Mexico, and by the summer of 1847, the treaty had become a bad memory. The Navajos had lost respect for American soldiers, while Spanish-speaking New Mexicans incessantly reminded the Americans of General Kearny's promise in 1846. The result was more than a decade of war designed to compel Navajo submission.[11]

This effort culminated in the efforts of Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, who attacked the Navajos in their own land and removed them to a "reservation" in eastern New Mexico. Smitten with gold fever and using the Civil War as an excuse, Carleton proceeded against the Navajo. In the summer of 1863, he railed against the Navajo to his superiors, brought Christopher (Kit) Carson from Taos to lead 1,000 men to the Dinehtah, the Navajo homeland, and gave the Navajo until July 20, 1863, to surrender. A war with no quarter began, in which Carson and his men destroyed Navajo livestock and crops. The scorched earth policy succeeded. By the middle of February of 1864, more then 1,200 Navajo had surrendered. The Americans had kept their promise to the people of New Mexico, albeit at the expense of the Navajo.[12]

Some of the Navajo escaped capture and fled west, to the Navajo Mountain and Shonto Plateau areas. Many settled in the area, forming an independent and uncowed group of Navajo, committed to their pre-reservation style of life. Not exposed to Anglo culture and the degrading removal to the Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in the Pecos Valley and subsequent attempts to anglicize the Navajo and make them dependent, these Navajos retained an autonomy that helped sustain traditional culture. After the Navajos returned from the Bosque Redondo in 1868, the people of the western reservation were distinguished by their independence and fidelity to traditional Navajo ways. Settled as an evasive maneuver from a conqueror, the western reservation became a bastion of cultural conservatism, the home of the most traditional Navajos. These "longhairs" had a different set of experiences than those who were sent away, and it shaped their outlook. They survived the conflict with the Americans, suffering only geographic relocation as a price. Their freedom, cultural autonomy, and economy were not taken from them.

Nor did they face much encroachment from Arizona Territory. The little development in the middle and late nineteenth century centered on the south-central part of the territory. The area around Navajo Mountain offered grazing and mining opportunities, but because of the Navajo influx, it had the reputation of being hostile territory. In the late nineteenth century, a number of Anglo-Americans explored the area, but they did so carefully. They recognized that they were in the homeland of people who took a dim view of their presence.

After the "Long Walk" to Fort Sumner and the subsequent four-year stay at the Bosque Redondo, the threat of the Navajo as a physical adversary ended. But the military defeat of the Navajo did not mean that efforts to integrate them into the society of the New Mexico Territory began. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo, which allowed the Navajos to return home, cemented a new order. While the Navajos were compelled to give up raiding and other predatory practices as part of the agreement to return to the Dinehtah, the only concession to their need to develop a self-sufficient economy was the assignment of 160-acre parcels of the newly created reservation to heads of families and 80-acre tracts for single people, as well as $100 worth of seed and implements the first year, $25 the following two years, and $10 per year for the subsequent ten years for Navajos engaged in farming. The Navajo young were required to attend school, and informal provisions for the return of Navajos held by New Mexicans were established. The Navajo were home, but needed to find a viable way to reconstitute their culture and livelihood.[13]

On their return to their homeland, the Navajo had to adapt to the new order imposed by the Americans. Much of their historic economy and way of living had been eliminated. Raiding the settlements protected by the Americans was out of the question. It was this practice that inspired the wrath of the American military, and the memory of exile in the Bosque Redondo loomed large in Navajo consciousness. Navajos instead built an economy based less on agriculture and much more on livestock and crafts such as jewelry- and rug-making. Even the people of the Shonto Plateau and the Navajo Mountain area experienced these changes, although their distance from Indian agencies and other institutions of American government and society limited the impact.[14]

Always important in the Navajo economy, sheep became the basis of sustenance for many in the post-Bosque Redondo era. Adaptable and innovative, the Navajo responded to their new situation by developing a livestock-based economy. In the 1880s, the livestock economy flourished, making the Navajo prosperous by their own standards. But this attempt at self-sufficiency also put many of the Navajo in conflict with some of the most powerful interests in the New Mexico Territory.[15]

After 1846, the Territory of New Mexico was transformed. A loosely knit cabal often referred to as the "Santa Fe Ring" dominated both the political and economic affairs of the territory. Many of its members, such as Thomas Benton Catron, later U.S. senator from New Mexico and the person for whom Catron County is named, made great fortunes and wielded vast influence. Even those who were sometimes supportive of Hispano and Indian interests, such as territorial governor and judge L. Bradford Prince, were far more sympathetic toward the Pueblos than the Navajo. Almost all of the leaders of the ring were involved in the livestock industry and most had some ties to the various railroads that sought to traverse New Mexico in the 1870s and 1880s. The result was that the most powerful forces in the territory had needs that came in direct conflict with the growing and increasingly prosperous Navajo livestock economy.

In the resolution of the so-called "Checkerboard lands" dispute between 1885 and 1910, powerful territorial interests and the Navajos developed a pattern of economic competition to replace the military adversity of the pre-Bosque Redondo era. The attitude of the Americans toward the Navajo had not changed; despite the fact that Navajos resided in the jurisdiction of the U.S., they were still regarded as opponents. The checkerboard resulted from the overlap of the alternating sections of land given to the railroads with executive order additions to the Navajo reservation and public domain lands. Compounding the problem were historical patterns of use. Navajos settled in the contested areas after their return from the Bosque Redondo and grazed animals in the area. The Indians sought to make the area an executive order addition to the reservation, but the discovery of Artesian water made the status of the lands worth contesting. Efforts by leading members of the territory helped assure delays, and the situation was never clearly adjudicated. [16]

In Arizona, the Navajos faced a similar situation. Encroaching grazing interests pushed farther north in the state, threatening Navajo sheep range along the southern rim of the reservation. Pressure increased as the network of trading posts spread across the reservation, embroiling Navajos in the cash economy and subtly encouraging more emphasis on craft-making. Little of this reached the Navajo Mountain area, located in the heart of the western reservation. No trading posts were located in the area before 1900, and the contested public domain areas that skirted the reservation protected the people of its heartland from outside grazing pressures. In the vicinity of Navajo Mountain, Navajos retained a historic pattern of living.[17]

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Navajos were people in transition, saved by their adaptability. They had survived the Bosque Redondo and developed new strategies to replace what they had lost. The livestock industry initially flourished, but the period of relative prosperity came to a halt in early 1890s as a result of an extended drought. The Navajo population continued to grow. This led to increasing pressure on the resources of the region and economy of the Navajo people.

Yet there were splits within the Navajo community. Those who experienced the Bosque Redondo had a different outlook than those who fled to the area around Navajo Mountain. The people of the area that would become Navajo National Monument remained largely unaffected by the Anglo world. Apart from it geographically, their cultural independence was protected by difficult terrain and the lack of Anglo institutions in northeastern Arizona. This area was one of the last places to be surveyed and mapped, much of which did not occur until after 1910. In the early twentieth century, few Anglos dared traverse the area.

The Navajos were also a culture recently exposed to the curiosity of the American mainstream. Beginning in the 1890s, Americans recognized that their continent had limits, geographic and otherwise. Without a frontier into which to expand, Americans perceived their future as different from their past. An effort to save remnants of the cultural and historical past was closely tied to emergence of the idea of utilitarian conservation, best described as the greatest good for the greatest number of people from each resource. Railroads began to promote the historic and prehistoric Southwest, miners and others began to explore the remote regions of the reservation, and anthropologists and archeologists visited the Southwest.

[1] David Brugge, "Navajo Prehistory and History to 1850," in Alfonso Ortiz ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 10 Southwest (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 489-501.

[2] Ibid; Travis, "Draft Survey."

[3] Elizabeth A. H. John, Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), 58-154; Urs Bitterli, Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 20-51; Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 A. D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), .

[4] Raymond Friday Locke, The Book of the Navajo (Los Angeles: Mankind Publishing Company, 1989) 4th edition, 153-54; John, Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds, 29-33, Jack D. Forbes, Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 55-63.

[5] Locke, Book of the Navajo, 157-58; John, Storms Brewed in Other Men's World, 47-50.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Forbes, Apache, Navaho, Spaniard, 110; Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids and Reprisals (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972) 12-13.

[8] Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest 1533-1960 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1962), 1-15, 210-13; Brugge, "Navajo Prehistory and History to 1850," 489-501; Locke, Book of the Navajo, 186-87.

[9] Joseph P. Sanchez, The Rio Abajo Frontier 1540-1692: A History of Early Colonial New Mexico (Albuquerque: The Albuquerque Museum, 1987) 1-142; Spicer, Cycles of Conquest, 21-23, 210-29; John, Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds, 233-35.

[10] Locke, Book of the Navajo, 196, 202-204.

[11] Ibid, 203-05; Robert A. Roessel, Jr., "Navajo History, 1850-1923," in Alfonso Ortiz ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 10 Southwest (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983), 506-23.

[12] . Ibid; Locke, Book of the Navajo, 199-361. The Long Walk, as the policy of forced removal of Navajos to eastern New Mexico was known to the Dinè, was the pivotal moment in Navajo history. Many define time in terms the exile: events happened before or after the Bosque Redondo. As a result, Navajos ceased to be a military enemy of New Mexico Territory and instead began the long process of finding their place within a hostile socio-cultural structure. Aptly referred as the last Navajo war, the events that led up to the removal reflected the policies of the era: Indians had to become civilized or be threatened with extinction. While the reservations established for Indians were ostensibly designed to teach agriculture, practices there revealed a concerted effort to make Indians accept white ways of living. This removed any threat of Indian depredation of western communities, freed their land for use by settlers and others, and showed the power and force of the American military. Assimilation was not yet a goal of Indian policy. Keeping Indians away from settlers, ranchers, and communities was. See Lynn R. Bailey, The Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars, 1848-68 (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1964); Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972); and Bill P. Acrey, Navajo History: The Land and the People (Shiprock, NM: Department of Curriculum Materials Development, 1988), for more.

[13] Locke, Book of the Navajo, 376-90; Roessel, "Navajo History 1850-1923," 506-23.

[14] Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 215.

[15] White, Roots of Dependency, 215-49.

[16] Ibid, 216-19; Lawrence Kelly, The Navajo Indians and Federal Indian Policy (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1968), 22-25.

[17] Frank McNitt, The Indian Traders, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 68-86.


The exact moment of the arrival of the Navajo people in the Southwest remains the subject of dispute.  The standard view of archeologists and anthropologists suggests that when the Spanish arrived from the south in the 1540s, the Navajo were in the process of migrating into the region from the north.

Contributed by the National Parks Service. All Rights Reserved