Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo-1864

By William H. Wroth

In 1855 New Mexico territorial governor David Meriwether made treaties with, among other tribes, both the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos. Although the U.S. Congress did not ratify these treaties, they served to inaugurate a brief period of peaceable relations between the United States and these tribes. By 1858 relations between the Navajos and the government became tense again as the Navajos were increasingly disturbed by the buildup of military forces at Fort Defiance which had been established within their territory. Regular Army patrols through Navajo lands increased the tension in 1859 and 1860, and soon a large faction of Navajos under the leadership of Manuelito began harassing the patrols and quartermaster supply trains, culminating in a bold and nearly successful raid on Fort Defiance itself in May 1860. In response the Army ordered troops to New Mexico, including five companies of dragoons commanded by Major David Meriwether. Canby’s series of raids were not particularly effective and only served to further inflame the Navajos against the Americans. James L. Collins, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico in his 1860 annual report called for an end to the futile campaign and recommended that the Army create a reservation for the Navajo as the best way to control them.

With the advent of the Civil War the attention of the U.S. Army in New Mexico shifted from Indian affairs to the task of repelling the invading Confederates, with the result that both Navajo and Mescalero Apache raiding increased over a large portion of the territory. Finally in August 1862 General James H. Carleton was placed in charge of the Army in New Mexico, replacing Canby. Following ideas first proposed by Canby, Carleton’s solution to the immediate Indian problem was first to send the New Mexico Volunteers under the leadership of Kit Carson to Fort Stanton in Mescalero Apache territory. Carson quickly convinced most of the Mescaleros to surrender, and their leaders were sent to Santa Fe to negotiate with Carleton. 

At this time Carleton was establishing a new fort in a remote location in east central New Mexico at Bosque Redondo, to be named Fort Sumner, 165 miles southeast of Santa Fe and far from any other settlements. He told the Apache leaders that all the Mescaleros had to go to FortSumner where a new peace treaty would soon allow them to return to their former territory. Soon after the Mescaleros were settled in Fort Sumner, Carleton reversed his promised plan to return them to their homelands, saying that incoming gold and silver seekers in southern New Mexico and Arizona would be in danger of conflict with the Mescaleros if they were allowed return to their homes. Carleton had a strong belief that the future development of New Mexico lay in the exploitation of mineral resources, especially gold and silver mines which he expected would be found in both the Apache and Navajo territories. Carleton quickly put the 400 Mescalero Apaches incarcerated at Fort Sumner to work, transforming it from simply an Army fort to an Indian reservation. He provided them with some seeds and tools and had they begin to dig a two-mile long irrigation ditch to bring water to Fort Sumner from the Pecos River. 

With the Apaches pacified at Fort Sumner, in the spring of 1863 Carleton turned his attention to the Navajos. First he established a new fort, Fort Wingate, on the eastern border of their territory. Then, meeting with Navajo leaders in April he demanded that all the Navajo tribe voluntarily relocate to Bosque Redondo; otherwise the Army would move without mercy against them. Carleton was asking them to completely uproot the entire tribe from their traditional homelands and move to an unknown isolated and quite barren “reservation” 400 miles away on the eastern plains, and to live in close proximity with one of the their enemies, the Apaches. The Navajo leaders rejected his proposal.

Under General Carleton’s orders in June 1863 Kit Carson with more than 700 men under him began the next phase of the war with the Navajos by first establishing yet another fort, Fort Canby, in Navajo country. Then in July he began a campaign of harassment against them. This time, according to Carleton’s directive, it was to be done systematically and in Indian style, for “an Indian is a more watchful and a more wary animal than a deer. He must be hunted with skill….” (Bailey, p. 160). Carleton’s use of the word “animal” here is a sorry indication of his inhumanity towards the Indians, as was borne out in his subsequent actions. Carson’s men had orders to shoot to kill any Navajo men who did not turn themselves in and to take all women and children into captivity. Although there is no evidence that they wantonly killed any Navajos, they began a systematic campaign to destroy Navajo crops and kill or capture their livestock. Carleton even authorized a bounty to be paid to soldiers for each horse, mule, and sheep they captured from the Navajos. 

By late fall, in spite of these efforts, Carson’s campaign had not achieved success. The Navajos were still raiding and only 180 of them had surrendered voluntarily. At this point Carleton ordered Carson to strike at the Navajo homeland of Canon de Chelly where Carson’s troops destroyed their crops and orchards, as well destroying or taking their livestock and food caches and burning down their homes. With the onset of winter the Navajos were severely weakened by the loss of so much of their means of sustenance, and the ravaging of Cañon de Chelly finally broke their spirit. By February 1864 nearly 3000 Navajos had surrendered. They were incarcerated at Forts Canby and Wingate where in little over one week 126 of them died from dysentery and exposure, while over 2000 began the infamous forced march known as the “Long Walk” across New Mexico to Fort Sumner, in which many more perished. In April another 2400 Navajo men, women and children began their forced march to Bosque Redondo in the midst of heavy snow falls and blizzards which blocked the roads, and many more perished. Soon over 6000 Navajos as well as the 400 Apaches were camped at Bosque Redondo, and Carleton quickly realized that the new arrivals were in danger of starvation. He was able to get enough emergency supplies from Colorado to tide them over the winter on a strictly rationed diet. Near-starvation conditions prevailed for many of them.

Carleton’s goals were twofold: to defeat the Navajos and make New Mexico safe for further settlement and exploitation of mineral resources and to civilize and Christianize both the Navajos and the Apaches – to transform them into sedentary farmers. However he vastly misjudged both the large size of the Navajo population (reaching over 9000 captives) and the agricultural potential of the land. In October 1863 John A. Clark, Surveyor General of New Mexico wrote to Dr. Michael Steck, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, that he estimated there were only 4000 acres of arable land in the Bosque Redondo reserve. Although the estimate was later increased to 6000 acres, it was far less than would be needed to support the large Navajo population and the Mescalero Apaches. Steck, an initial supporter of Carleton’s plan, became an opponent, arguing that the Navajos should have a reservation in their own homelands in western New Mexico, that it was completely impractical to resettle them in Apache territory on inadequate lands.

Carleton’s plan to make the Indians into instant agriculturalists appeared at first to be succeeding. By summer of 1864 they had nearly 3000 acres of land under cultivation with corn and wheat. But suddenly an infestation of cutworm destroyed most of the corn crop, and at the same time the wheat was destroyed by a series of severe storms. Again rations for the Indians had to be cut to twelve ounces of breadstuffs and eight ounces of meat per day, to ward off the threat of famine. As Steck and others had predicted, it was a mistake to expect the Navajos and Apaches to live together peacefully. Friction between the two tribes continued to grow, compounded by the almost total lack of interest among the traditionally nomadic Mescaleros in learning the art of agriculture. Finally the resentment of the Apaches came to a head and 335 of them, virtually the entire tribe, left the reservation in November 1865 returning to their homelands in southern New Mexico.

In the spring of 1865 almost 6000 acres were placed under cultivation through the hard labor of the Navajos, and Carleton over-optimistically expected a harvest of nine million pounds which would have eliminated the need for the government to supply food (the cost of feeding the Navajos then running at $62,000 a month).  But again the results were disastrously low. The corn was again hit by cutworm and the total harvest of all crops amounted to less than 500,000 pounds. With the severe conditions prevailing, it was not surprising that Navajos were also starting to abandon the Bosque Redondo, in spite of Army efforts to prevent them from doing so. The Army could not effectively patrol the 40-square mile reserve. It was estimated that by April about 900 Navajos had gone missing and many more continued to abandon the Bosque, in spite of Carleton’s threat in August that “I will caused to be killed every Indian I find off the reservation without a passport.” (Bailey, p. 216). 

The hardships of the Navajos increased in 1866 as the harvest was again a failure producing only 3000 bushels of corn and thus requiring the government to expend more than $582,000 for a nine-month period. The harvest of 1867 was equally disastrous thanks to a serious drought followed by devastating hail storms. Adding to the difficulties of the Navajos was the lack of fuel wood in the high prairie environment surrounding Bosque Redondo. Navajos had to travel as far as twenty miles to find cedar and mesquite root for fuel. Any foraging beyond the confines of the Bosque placed them in danger of another of their enemies, the Comanches, who considered the Bosque Redondo to be in their territory. By 1866 public opinion in New Mexico was turning against Carleton and his “experiment” to subjugate the Navajos. In January of that year the Territorial Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a memorial sent to President Johnson asking that Carleton be removed, and in September he was replaced by General G. W. Getty. 

The suffering of the Navajos at Bosque Redondo continued through bureaucratic wrangling and delays until May 1868 when finally a treaty was signed with them at Fort Sumner and they were allowed to return to their homelands. Their pathetic impoverished condition moved the peace commissioners, General William T. Sherman and Colonel Samuel F. Tappan to allot them $150,000 for rehabilitation, plus 15,000 sheep and goats and 500 head of cattle, as well as token payments to each tribal member. Clearly this was a small but symbolic acknowledgment by the government that the Navajos had been severely mistreated through the forced march and incarceration at Fort Sumner. In June 1868 the Navajos left the Bosque Redondo forever and returned to their homelands in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona.


Sources Used:

Bailey, Lynn R. The Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846-68. Pasadena: Socio-Technical Books, 1970.

Carter, Harvey Lewis. 'Dear Old Kit': The Historical Christopher Carson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Gordon-McCutchan, R. C., ed. Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer? Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996.

Johnson, Broderick H. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk. Tsaile: Navajo Community College, 1973.

Kelly, Lawrence. Navajo roundup; selected correspondence of Kit Carson's expedition against the Navajo, 1863-1865.  Pruett Publishing Company, Boulder, 1970.



Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo 1864

The roundup and incarceration of Mescalero Apaches and the Navajo People at Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo.

(c) William H. Wroth. All rights reserved.

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