“You ask how they treated us? If there was room the soldiers put the women and children on the wagons. Some even let them ride behind them on their horses. I have never been able to understand a people who killed you one day and on the next played with your children…?”
– Very Slim Man, Navajo elder.
On today’s date, July 7, 1863 troops commanded by Colonel Kit Carson began a campaign to (above, Navajos, circa 1866) force the Navajo Indian tribes of the American Southwest into reservations. While the campaign was successful, the reservation was a total failure, and in the process Carson’s name became symbol of evil among the Navajo people.
The Navajo Problem and Kit Carson
The Navajo Indian tribes were related to the Apaches, and had by the 1860’s been living in more or less continuous strife with settlers in and around their native lands for nearly a century. The Navajos were fighters, but had learned some amount of small scale farming as well as sheep raising and weaving from the Pueblos, and the Mexicans. But by the 1860’s
the new government of this area, which roughly composed what is now the state of New Mexico was the United States which was then embroiled in the Civil War. Seeing this diversion, the Navajos began raiding and looting American and Mexican settlements. The U.S. government, which had problems elsewhere, and was therefore short of patience, determined to deal with this Navajo problem once and for all. Towards that end they enlisted Kit Carson (above). Carson was the most famous trapper and guide in the country owing to his travels with the explorer John C. Fremont in the 1840’s. Fremont’s flattering depiction of Carson made him into a heroic figure: “He was a man of medium height, broad-shouldered and deep-chested with a clear steady blue eye and frank speech and address; quiet and unassuming.”
Carson’s Removal Campaign
Carson, who was now a Colonel in the U.S. Army took the field on today’s date in 1863 at the head of the 1’st Cavalry of New Mexico Volunteers, marching into high plateau country filled with high peaks and deeply cut canyons. His mission was to round up the Navajos by any means necessary, and force them onto a reservation on the Pecos River next to Fort Sumner called the “Bosque Redondo” – which was Spanish for “round grove of trees”. Neither Carson nor the Navajos realized what was in store for them over the coming months: the doom of the Navajos as a free people. The Navajos lived in arid country which could barely support them under the best conditions. And even though he had a reputation of being sympathetic to many of the Indigenous American tribes with which he had dealt, Carson waged a brutal campaign designed primarily at starving the Navajos into submission. There were no large battles during this campaign, just a series of raids and counter-raids in which Carson conducted a ruthless scorched earth policy of destroying everything he could lay his hands on: burning any and all crops, all Navajo dwellings (called “hogans”) and any livestock possessed by the Navajos.
(Above: Navajos on “the Long Walk”)
“The Long Walk”
With the Navajos being too scattered and ill-organized to defeat him, by January of 1864, the last of the starving, dispirited survivors surrendered. Then in the spring, with thousands more Navajos on his hands than he was expecting Carson received orders to march them across the New Mexico Territory to the Bosque Redondo. Navajos were forced to walk some thirteen miles a day at gunpoint from what is now Arizona to eastern New Mexico. Some 53 different forced marches occurred between August 1864 and the end of 1866. At least 200 died during the 18-day, 300-mile trail. About 8,000 to 9,000 people were packed into an area of 40 square miles, with a population that reached 9,022 by the spring of 1865. This treacherous march has since become known in the Navajo culture as “the Long Walk”, and as a part of that tradition the name of Kit Carson has become a symbol of evil among the Navajos. And what was worse is that this resettlement was a complete failure. The crops failed at the Bosque Redondo, and the Mescalero Apaches with whom they were obliged to share this reservation were constantly raiding the Navajos, and vice-versa. Finally, the U.S. government admitted that the whole thing had been a mess, and signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo on June 18, 1868 which returned the Navajos to their native lands in New Mexico wherein they have flourished peacefully ever since.
An excellent discussion on why it was that Kit Carson became the leader of this act of genocide against the Navajos can be found at http://wildwesthistory.blogspot.com/2013/02/christopher-kit-carson-his-puzzling.html . It is a Blog by Darla Sue Dollman, and it is entitled “Christopher “Kit” Carson: His Puzzling Involvement in the Navajo Long Walks”. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in further discussion on this troubling topic.
“The Great West” by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, New York, 1958
“The Indians” by Benjamin Capps; part of “The Old West” Series by Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1973.