Cañon de Chelly and Bosque Redondo

We left the Navahos in their chronic state of war, that is to say, the state of robbing their neighbors and being robbed by them while the troops were absent, and of making peace when the troops marched against them. From the mass of conflicting testimony taken in 1865, in regard to the Indian history of New Mexico, and from other sources, it appears that one side made aggression about as often as the other, the common opinion being that the Navahos captured the greater number of sheep, and the Mexicans the greater number of slaves. The Navahos were preferred to other Indians for slaves on account of their tractable nature, intelligence, light skins, and the voluptuousness of the females. Dr. Louis Kennon, whose opportunities for observation had been good, testified, ” I think the number of Navajo captives held as slaves to be underestimated. I think there are from five to six thousand. I know of no family which can raise one hundred and fifty dollars but what purchases a Navajo slave, and many families own four or five the trade in them being as regular as the trade in pigs or sheep. Previous to the war their price was from seventy-five to a hundred dollars, but now they are worth about four hundred dollars. But the other day some Mexican Indians from Chihuahua were for sale in Santa Fe. I have been conversant with the institution of slavery in Georgia, but the system is worse here, there being no obligation resting on the owner to care for the slave when he becomes old or worthless.” Of course the Mexicans grumbled continually about the awful incursions of the savages, but there was little disposition on the part of the military to use any great violence against the Navaho nation. They understood the situation, having had the best of opportunities for hearing the Navaho side of the question; many of the officers had Navaho mistresses.

Occasionally there would be a rupture between the Indians and the soldiers, the most noted of these being the fight at Fort Fauntleroy, in September, 1861. This trouble arose over a horserace, on which there had been very heavy betting. The soldiers backed a horse ridden by Lieutenant Ortiz, one of the post officers, and the Indians the other. The Indians’ horse ran off the track after running about one hundred yards, the result, it was said, of a broken bridle, and they claimed a draw. The commanding officer, on the refusal of the winners to draw the race, gave orders that the Navahos should not be allowed to enter the post. The winners filed into the post, whooping and hallooing, with fifes screeching and drums beating, and as they did so a shot was fired, and an Indian killed. Who fired the shot is not certainly known, but it was said to be a sentinel, past whom the Indian was trying to make his way. The soldiers armed themselves, and attacked the Indians in a confused way, without any orders. Says Captain Hodt, of the 1st New Mexican Cavalry: “The Navahos, squaws, and children ran in all directions, and were shot and bayoneted. I tried my best to form the company I was first sergeant of, and succeeded in forming about twenty men it being very hard work. I then marched out to the east side of the post; there I saw a soldier murdering two little children and a woman. I hallooed to the soldier to stop. He looked up, but did not obey my order. I ran up as quick as I could, but could not get there soon enough to prevent him from killing the two innocent children and wounding severely the squaw. I ordered his belts to be taken off and him taken prisoner to the post. On my arrival in the post I met Lieutenant Ortiz with a pistol at full cock, saying, ‘Give back this soldier his arms, or else I’ll shoot you, G – d d – n you,’ which circumstances I reported to my company commander, he reporting the same to the colonel commanding, and the answer he received from the colonel was ‘That Lieutenant Ortiz did perfectly right, and that he gave credit to the soldier who murdered the children and wounded the squaw.’ Meantime the colonel had given orders to the officer of the day to have the artillery (mountain howitzers) brought out and to open upon the Indians. The sergeant in charge of the mountain howitzers pretended not to understand the order given, for he considered it as an unlawful order; but being cursed by the officer of the day, and threatened, he had to execute the order or else get himself in trouble. Tho Indians scattered all over the valley below the post, attacked the post herd, wounded the Mexican herder, but did not succeed in getting any stock; also attacked the expressman, some ten miles from the post, took his horse and mailbag, and wounded him in the arm. After the massacre there were no more Indians to be seen about the post, with the exception of a few squaws, favorites of the officers. The commanding officer endeavored to make peace again with the Navaho by sending some of the favorite squaws to talk with the chiefs; but the only satisfaction the squaws received was a good flogging. An expressman was sent shortly after the affairs above mentioned happened, but private letters were not allowed to be sent, and letters that reached the post office at Fauntleroy were found opened, but not forwarded. To the best of my knowledge the number of Navahos killed was twelve or fifteen; the number wounded could not be ascertained.”

In the winter of 1800-61, Colonel E. R. S. Canby (soon afterwards General Canby) proceeded against the Navahos and inflicted severe punishment upon them until February, 1861, when an armistice of three months was agreed upon, and later this was extended to one year. In September Governor Connelly, Colonel Canby, and Superintendent Collins had a long talk with thirty of their leading men, in which the usual assurances of their peaceful intentions were given, but the peace was not lasting. They were not, in fact, in a condition that encouraged peace. Owing to constant hostilities, they had planted but little for three years, and much of what they had planted had been destroyed by the troops, as also many of their herds; they were obliged to steal or starve, and adopted the former alternative. In 1862 their agent reported that they had “driven off over one hundred thousand sheep, and not less than a thousand head of cattle, besides horses and mules to a large amount.” In these depredations he said they had “murdered many persons, and carried off many women and children as captives.” In consequence of this plundering, Governor Connelly made a call for militia in September, and some independent expeditions were also organized, but the latter were stopped by the authorities for the reason that these irresponsible companies invariably attacked friendly Indians and hostile ones indiscriminately. General Carleton assumed command of the district at this time, and took charge of all military operations. His forces were chiefly occupied with the Mescalero Apaches during the winter, but in the spring of 1863 he was ready for the Navahos.

General Carleton’s plan was to remove all who would consent to the Bosque Redondo, on the Pecos River, in Eastern New Mexico, and to place the others with them as fast as they were captured. This plan had the merit of sparing the innocent the horrors of war, at least. That General Carleton was actuated by motives of humanity in adopting it can scarcely be questioned. He said: “They have no government to make treaties; they are a patriarchal people. One set of families may make promises, but the other set will not heed them. They understand the direct application of force as a law; if its application be removed, that moment they become lawless. This has been tried over and over again, and at great expense. The purpose now is, never to relax the application of force with a people that can no more be trusted than the wolves that run through the mountains. To collect them together, little by little, on to a reservation, away from the haunts and hills and hiding places of their country; there be kind to them; there teach their children how to read and write; teach them the arts of peace; teach them the truths of Christianity.” If there were any fault in this plan it was only in their removal from their native country, but for the purpose of separating the peaceful from the hostile during the war this could not very well be avoided. The Navahos were given ample warning of General Carleton’s intentions. He notified part of the chiefs himself, and sent messengers among them to inform them that they might have until the 20th day of July, 1863, to come in, but that after that day every Navaho that is seen will be considered as hostile, and treated accordingly.”

Quite a number of Navahos accepted the proffered terms, and against the others the troops were kept operating from Forts Stanton, Craig, Canby, Defiance, and the post at Los Pinos; and the troops at all other posts were ordered to be constantly on the lookout for prowling bands of Navahos, which were liable to appear in any part of the country. They went everywhere in their expeditions. One band of a hundred and thirty warriors even penetrated the Mescalero country, southeast of the Kio Grande settlements, and, passing north, drove off cattle and sheep from the Bosque Redondo; they were followed by a few troops and some Mescaleros, and the property was retaken, with other plundered goods. The orders to the soldiers, everywhere, were to kill every male Navaho capable of bearing arms, whenever and wherever he might be found; women and children were to be captured and held as prisoners. These orders were often repeated, and the officers were urged to the utmost activity by praise to the successful, and reproaches to the unsuccessful. The following, issued to Colonel Rigg, commanding at Fort Craig, on August 4, 1863, is a sample of the instructions: “I have been informed that there is a spring called Ojo de Cibolo about fifteen miles west of Limitar, where the Navahos drive their stolen cattle and ‘jerk’ the flesh at their leisure. Cannot you make arrangements for a party of resolute men from your command to be stationed there for, say, thirty days, and kill every Navaho and Apache they can find? A cautious, wary commander, hiding his men and moving about at night, might kill off a good many Indians near that point.” Such orders seem harsh, and yet they afforded the only means of bringing the Navahos to terms. The great difficulty was to get any opportunity to fight them. They were separated in small bands, under their patriarchal system, and, being constantly on the move through a country with which they were thoroughly acquainted, they were usually able to avoid the soldiers, for whom they kept a vigilant watch. After a few weeks of slight success, the soldiers were further stimulated to activity by a bounty of twenty dollars for each good horse turned over to the quartermaster’s department, and one dollar for each sheep. The principal offensive force was that operating from Fort Canby, under Colonel Kit Carson, but, notwithstanding the ability and activity of that noted Indian fighter, the results obtained during the summer and fall of 1863 were not important, and Carleton consoled the colonel with the hope: “As winter approaches you will have better luck.” Still, as winter approached, success did not increase very materially, and the Navahos were still able to keep out of the way of the troops. It was therefore decided to strike them in the Cañon do Chelly, which was reputed to be their greatest stronghold, and Colonel Carson was ordered to prepare for this movement, which was to be made in January.

The Cañon de Chelly is one of the most remarkable works of nature in the United States. The Rio Chelly may be found, not very accurately traced, on any fair sized map of Arizona, in the northeastern corner of that territory. Its headwaters are in the Sierra Tunicha, of Northwestern New Mexico, and it flows thence almost due west, for some thirty miles, then swings abruptly to the north, and empties into the Rio San Juan near the northern line of Arizona. The line of its western flow indicates the position of the cañon, which extends throughout that distance, the northward bend of the river being just beyond its mouth. The main cañon is counted as beginning at the union of three small streams, each of which has a cañon of its own. They are the Cienega Negra (Black Meadow), or Estrella (Star), on the southeast, the Palo Negro (Black Timber), or Chelly Creek, on the east, and the Cienega Juanica, or Juanita, on the northwest. The most easterly entrance used by the Indians is near the head of Chelly Creek; by it, the bottom of that stream is reached above the junction of the others. It is not accessible for animals. The Cienega Negra enters about three miles below the head of the Chelly proper, and the Juanica half a mile lower. At places above the entrance of the last named stream the chasm is so narrow that one might almost leap across it, but the beholder involuntarily recoils from the dizzy view of over one thousand feet of unbroken descent to the yellow floor beneath. About half a mile below the Juanica there is another descent, where the wall of the cañon, there only seven hundred feet high, is broken and sufficiently sloping to permit a zigzag descent to pack animals. Below this point the walls increase in height to fifteen hundred feet, and the width of the Cañon from two hundred to three hundred and fifty yards. The next approach is by a side Cañon that enters on the south side, about eleven miles below the Juanica; it is commonly known as Bat Cañon, but the Indians and Mexicans call it Cañon Alsada, or Cañon of the High Bock, from a natural obelisk, one thousand feet high, with a base of one hundred and fifty feet, that rises majestically at the mouth of the Cañon, a hundred feet distant from the wall. This needle leans so much that it seems about to topple over. The Alsada entrance is the one commonly used in approaching from Fort Defiance, and the trail is cut deep in the sandstone by thousands of feet of men and animals that in past generations have followed it. The descent here is along ledges on the Cañon wall, so narrow that animals are always driven ahead, for fear they may slip and carry the owner over. Occasionally, below this point, there are lateral openings in the Cañon walls, but none of them extend more than a few hundred yards back, and there is no other entrance until about three miles above the mouth, where the Cañon del Trigo (Wheat Cañon) enters from the north. Below the Trigo the walls sink rapidly, and the Cañon opens out into a rolling country, barren and unprepossessing.

The formation is all sandstone, which is the “country rock” for miles in every direction. From above, at almost any point, the traveler comes suddenly on this mighty chasm, without any warning of its presence in the rock plain over which he is passing. The sudden view of the awful depths is startling beyond description. From below, the stupendous height of the walls, which often project above the head of the beholder, cannot be fully comprehended. The floor of the canon is comparatively smooth and very sandy, the general appearance being that of a river of sand flowing between the rock walls and circling around occasional islands of green. There is no detritus along the foot of either wall, as is common in other canons. The rocks are apparently disintegrating and gradually tilling the chasm, but the only agents in this work are the wind and the loose sand, and their progress is so slow as to be almost imperceptible. The particles of sand, whirled along in the air, are constantly eating away the walls and detached blocks of stone, and in the course of centuries have made a very wonderland of weird shapes and fantastic sculpturing. The amount of water in the Cañon depends wholly on the season. In years of drought there is none above the surface, but the sand is moist, and the Indians obtain what water they need by digging. In moderate seasons there is an occasional show of running water, which sinks again in the sand. In wet seasons there is a considerable stream, and about a mile below the Cañon Alsada there is seen a magnificent fall of water from the top of the Cañon, sheer a thousand feet, swaying in the wind and breaking by the resistance of the air, until it is completely lost in a fine mist at the bottom. The Navahos say the stream has decreased of later years, and the remains of ancient acequias indicate the truth of their tradition. There is a slight growth of underbrush throughout the Cañon, with grass at intervals, and now and then the cornfields and peach orchards of the Indians.

This place was inhabited long before Columbus set his sails to seek the Indies. Along its walls are perched the strange cliff dwellings of that ancient and unknown race which once peopled the present deserts of Arizona. Some of them are on ledges only forty or fifty feet above the Cañon floor, with parts on the floor, and others are six or seven hundred feet higher. How the higher ones were constructed is an unsolved problem, for there appears now no way of access to man but by ropes from above, or by broken flights of ladder like steps cut in the rock at various places, and these houses are built of stone and heavy wooden beams. The timber in them is in excellent preservation, and the whitewash on the interior walls looks as though it had been put on within a year, yet the Navahos say that these buildings were there, just as they are now, when their forefathers came into the country. The architecture is that of the Pueblos, with similar masonry, the usual fragments of pottery, and the universal estufa. The Navahos have never used them, and, so far as is known, have never been able to reach some of them, to which, indeed, there appears no feasible approach, except possibly by balloon. The enterprising archaeologist would probably find them just as the cliff dweller left them when he departed on his last migration.

This Cañon was not explored throughout until 1859, although the troops had often been in its vicinity, and the Navahos thought it afforded them an inaccessible retreat in time of war. Still it was not a place of retreat to which they all gathered, as was generally supposed, nor were there any fortifications in it, as rumor had declared. It is not probable that there were ever more than a thousand Indians living in it, for no large numbers were ever found there, and there was not the grass in it to support the large herds that they owned. Nine tenths, at least, of the Navaho nation made their homes at such other points in their extensive territory as afforded pasturage for their flocks; the Cañon de Chelly was merely the residence of a small portion of the tribe; but none of the whites knew just what was there, and the great chasm was regarded in all circles as the mysterious stronghold of the Navahos. The first recorded entrance into it by troops was made in September, 1849, by Lieutenant Simpson, of Colonel Washington’s expedition, escorted by Major Kendrick, with sixty men. They entered at the month, went a short distance up the Canon del Trigo, and then ascended the main Cañon for nine and a half miles, in search of the fortifications of the Navahos. To confirm the stories of the guides about an impregnable fortress on a plateau so high that fifteen ladders were required to reach it, they found nothing but the cliff houses, and, on returning, announced that the mystery of the Cañon de Chelly was solved. In 1858, Colonel D. S. Miles entered it at the Canon Alsada and marched to the mouth without any casualties, but he was so impressed with the advantages it afforded for attack from the summits of the walls that he reported: “No command should ever again enter it.” In July, 1859, Captain Walker, commanding an expedition against the Navahos, entered the Cañon half a mile below the entrance of the Juanica, and marched to the mouth. Two weeks later he returned to the head of the Cañon and explored it to the point of his former descent. In view of these explorations it seems remarkable that General Carleton should have written, after Carson’s expedition: ”This is the first time any troops, whether when the country belonged to Mexico or since we acquired it, have been able to pass through the Cañon (le Chelly, which, for its great depth, its length, its perpendicular walls, and its labyrinthine character, has been regarded by eminent geologists as the most remarkable of any ‘fissure ‘ (for such it is held to be) upon the face of the globe. It has been the great fortress of the tribe since time out of mind.” In reality, however, this misinformation was universal. No officer who entered the Cañon (judging from their reports) had any definite knowledge of what his predecessors had done. Carson surely should have been acquainted with the history of so famous a place, but, with an inaccuracy that is strikingly illustrative of the unreliability of traditional history, he reported that his troops had “accomplished an undertaking never before accomplished in wartime that of passing through the Cañon de Chelly from east to west.” 1

Colonel Carson started from Fort Canby on January 6, 1864, with a force of three hundred and ninety officers and men, for the mouth of the Cañon. Just before starting he sent Captain Pfeiffer, with one company, to operate from the eastern end. The depth of the snow on the divide between Fort Canby and the Pueblo Colorado was so great that his command was three days in reaching the latter place, a march that was usually made in one day. He had started his supply train on the 3d, expecting that the oxen would be recuperated by the time of his arrival, but the train had taken five days in making the twenty-five miles, and had lost twenty-seven oxen. Reorganizing, and leaving part of the train, he pushed on to the cañon, which he struck on the 12th, about six miles above the mouth. On the night of the 11th he sent out Sergeant Andres Herrara, with fifty men, as scouts. In the morning this party found a fresh trail, and, following it rapidly, they overtook the Indians just as they were entering the Cañon, and attacked them; they killed eleven and captured two women and two children, with one hundred and thirty sheep and goats. On the 13th Carson divided his force into two commands: one, under Captain Berney, was sent up the north side of the Cañon, and the other, under Captain Carey, accompanied by Carson, moved up the south side, with the view of ascertaining the topography of the country and the position of the Navahos, if they had undertaken to make a stand. The latter party found and captured five wounded Indians at the scene of Herrara’s fight. On the 14th they returned to the mouth of the Cañon and found Pfeiffer there, he having come through the Cañon successfully, without any casualty to his command; they had killed three Indians, and brought in nineteen women and children prisoners.

While returning to camp, Carson was approached by three Indians, under a flag of truce, who asked if they might come in with their families and surrender. He told them that they might if they came by ten o’clock the next morning, but not later. About sixty came in by the appointed time and acceded to the terms of surrender and removal to the Bosque. Says Carson: “They declared that, owing to the operations of my command, they are in a complete state of starvation, and that many of their women and children have already died from this cause. They also state that they would have come in long ago, but that they believed it was a war of extermination, and that they were equally surprised and delighted to learn the contrary from an old captive whom I had sent back to them for this purpose. I issued them some meat, and as they asked permission to return to their haunts and collect the remainder of their people, I directed them to meet me at this post [Fort Canby] in ten days. They have all arrived here according to promise, many of them, with others, joining and travelling in with Captain Carey’s command. This command of seventy-five men I conferred upon Captain Carey at his own request, he being desirous of passing through this stupendous Cañon.’ I sent the party to return through the Cañon from west to east, that all the peach orchards, of which there are many, might be destroyed, as well as the dwellings of the Indians.” About three thousand peach trees were destroyed in the Cañon; and one hundred and ten Navahos came in with Carey’s command. On January 23 Carson reported the results of the expedition as follows: “Killed, 23; captured, 34; voluntarily surrendered, 200; captured 200 head of sheep.”

This expedition has passed into the realms of romance, like many other events in New Mexican history, and the facts have been lost sight of in the rosy coloring of imagination. Illustrative of this I quote the following from a popular biography of Kit Carson that is introduced by what purport to be certificates to its accuracy by such well known New Mexicans as Colonel Ceran St. Vrain and Judge Charles Beaubien:

“The Navajo Indians were very troublesome. For a whole decade they had defied the government, and now, enlisted as savage cohorts of the rebels, they were especially dangerous. They numbered several thousand warriors, and roamed over an immense tract of country. General Carleton selected Carson to command two thousand picked men, consisting of Californians, Mexicans, and mountaineers, to operate against these Indians. The campaign was a most brilliant one. After a succession of skirmishes, Carson succeeded in getting the enemy into a bed or ravine, and had his own forces so disposed as to command every approach, and in doing this compelled the surrender of ten thousand Indians, being the largest single capture of Indians ever known. The entire tribe, men, women, and children, was disposed of by this magnificent operation. This greatly increased the fame of the mountain leader, and the official reports to the War Department very justly sounded his praises in flattering terms, but none too extravagantly.” This leads to the thought that if there be anything more unreliable than traditional history it is written history.

There is a generally prevailing impression, in regard to the results of Carson’s expedition, similar to the above statement, and possibly derived from it. The great success of the expedition was not in immediate effect, but in the ulterior results of the campaign, which Carson, with his keen foresight, anticipated. He said, in his report of January 23, 1864: “But it is to the ulterior effects of the expedition that I look for the greatest results. We have shown the Indians that in no place, however formidable or inaccessible in their opinion, are they safe from the pursuit of the troops of this command, and have convinced a large portion of them that the struggle on their part is a hopeless one. We have also demonstrated that the intentions of the government towards them are eminently humane, and dictated by an earnest desire to promote their welfare; that the principle is not to destroy but to save them, if they are disposed to be saved. When all this is understood by the Navajo, generally, as it soon will be, and when they become convinced that destruction will follow on resistance, they will gladly avail themselves of the opportunities afforded them of peace and plenty under the fostering care of the government, as do all those now with whom I have had any means of communicating. They are arriving almost hourly, and will, I believe, continue to arrive until the last Indian in this section of the country is en route to the Bosque Redondo.” This prediction proved substantially a true one. The Navahos came in so fast that General Carleton’s resources were taxed to the utmost to support them. By February 20, 750 had surrendered at Los Pinos and been forwarded to the Bosque. On February 24, 1650 were reported surrendered at Fort Canby. On February 24, 1800 more were reported from Los Pinos. By March 11,500 more had come in at Fort Canby and Carleton notified Carson that he could not take care of more than one additional thousand. By July 8, there were 6321 at the Bosque, and 1000 more at Fort Canby. The war was evidently ended; Fort Canby was ordered abandoned in August, and the troops went into Arizona. Carson was sent to the plains to tight Kiowas and Comanches, with: 200 Ute warriors, who had volunteered to go if allowed what they could capture.

The evil qualities of the removal and concentration began to show as soon as success had been attained. The number of Navaho had been underestimated by Carleton. Carson maintained that there were at least 13,000 of them, and, if any credit can be given to subsequent statistics, he was right, but Carleton insisted that there could not possibly be over 8000; there must not be; it would spoil the Bosque system if there were. The greatest number ever at the Bosque Redondo was between nine and ten thousand; the remainder of the nation lurked in their old haunts, or fell back to the desert regions of Arizona and Utah, to avoid the troops. Of course, under the system of voluntary surrender, the worst Indians, the ones whose surveillance was most desirable, did not come in; but the removal of the others left them plenty of room in their own country, and this, with the fear of the troops, kept them quiet. The troops attacked them whenever they met them, for several years afterwards. The expense of caring for the exiled Navahos was very great. The New Mexicans offered to relieve the government of a portion of this burden by a system of “binding out,” but the offer was declined; and also all the Navahos who had been kept at the army posts, “for whatever purpose,” were required to be sent to the Bosque. There was difficulty between the Navaho and the Mescaleros at their new home. They had been enemies of old, and there was nothing to bring about a reconciliation. This customs differed. The Mescalero women were chaste, but had no part in the control of the tribe; the Navaho women were very dissolute, and exercised a strong influence in the tribal government. The Mescaleros were the bolder warriors, but they were far inferior in numbers. The tribal jealousies were aggravated by petty aggressions and hectoring. The Apache accused the Navaho of trampling down their crops, and otherwise annoying them. The reservation authorities made the matter worse by removing the Mescaleros from the land they had been cultivating, and giving it to the Navahos. The Mescaleros then claimed the fulfillment of the promise to them of a reservation in their own country, and when this was refused they went without permission, and began hostilities.

Agriculture at the Bosque did not result successfully; the crops usually promised well enough, but something always spoiled them. One time it was drought, another cutworms, another bad irrigation, or overflows, or hailstorms. The Indians were, of necessity, a great expense to the government. The cost of feeding them for seven months, March to September inclusive, in 1865, was $452,356.98. The cost for a year previous to this time averaged higher than this, but the exact figures cannot be given, on account of the large amount of stores transferred from other departments and not reported as to value. All this time it was well known that they could support themselves in their own country. The principal cause of their helplessness in their new homes was that they were a pastoral, not an agricultural, people. In their own country their chief food is goats’ milk and the roots of certain herbs of wild growth. Their flocks had been largely destroyed during the war. Tradition puts the number of sheep killed by soldiers at fifty thousand, but the Navahos say that the Utes and Mexicans stole the greater part of them. The Bosque did not afford grazing facilities for the sheep and goats they still had, and these gradually decreased in number. It has been proven since then that they can and will take care of themselves, very easily, if they can get ample pasturage; and, unless stock raising is to be considered a less civilized pursuit than agriculture, there is no reason why any forcible attempt should be made to change the natural bent of their industrial instincts.

The fitness of the Bosque Redondo for a reservation is something that has been the subject of great controversy and of misrepresentation on one or both sides. The following description of it, given by Captain Thomas Claiborne in 1859, when there was talk of establishing a military post there, may fairly be considered as impartial: “The Bosque Redondo is an elbow of the river [Pecos]; the molts of cottonwoods are mostly on the left bank of the Pecos, extending for perhaps six or seven miles, in clusters. The river is very crooked, and stretched from side to side of the valley, which, midway of the Bosque, is two miles or over wide. The appearance of the Bosque in that desert country is very agreeable. The lower half of the valley is tillable; the upper is filled with drift sand. A secondary mesa, twelve hundred yards wide and a mile and a quarter long, lies on the right bank of the river, about midway the Bosque, about thirty feet above the river bottom, and is curtained by sand hills about twenty-five feet higher than itself. A kind of redtop grass grows in the lower bottoms, mixed with bunch grass; the hills are covered with brown sedge grass; the mesa above spoken of is well covered with mesquite grass. The water of Pecos River is bad and the surrounding country is most desolate. The place is altogether unfit for a post.” That the water of the Pecos at this point is alkaline, and charged with certain salts, is unquestionable; this comes from the Aqua Negra, which debouches into the Pecos at Giddings’s Ranch, above the Bosque. The water of the Aqua Negra, however, has always been used, more or less, at Giddings’s Ranch, both by men and animals, without bad results, though it is somewhat diuretic. Dr. Warner, physician at Fort Sumner, testified that the water of the Pecos at the Bosque is wholesome. Cadéte (Gian-nah-tah), the Mescalero chief, testified: ” It is not good, too much alkali, and is the cause of the sickness in the tribe and losing our animals.” The Navahos sometimes said the water was all right, and sometimes that they thought it was bad, but they always unanimously expressed a preference for their old country.

The head of the opposition to the Bosque was Dr. Matthew Steck, a well known settler in New Mexico, at that time Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He favored giving the Mescaleros a reservation in their own country, as had been promised them, and opposed the removal of the Navahos to the Bosque. He advocated his views in New Mexico, and, when he found he could do nothing there, be went to Washington to secure the same ends. Carleton complained bitterly of this attempted interference with his plans, and insisted on the enforcement of the ultra-humane policy; that is, on compelling the Indians to do what the white man in authority in this case himself may think to be best for them. He said:
“Dr. Steck wants to hold councils with the Navajoes! It is mockery to hold councils with a people who are in our hands and have only to await our decisions. It will be bad policy to hold any councils. We should give them what they need, what is just, and take care of them as children until they can take care of themselves. The Navajoes should never leave the Bosque, and never shall if I can prevent it. I told them that that should be their home. They have gone there with that understanding. There is land enough there for themselves and the Apaches. The Navajoes themselves are Apaches, and talk the same language, and in a few years will be homogeneous with them.” He was proven to be mistaken as to the two tribes becoming homogeneous; whether he was wrong in other regards is a question about which people will differ; in brief, it is simply the question whether the concentration policy is the right one whether it is better to place Indians where they do not wish to be, oblige them to do things which they do not wish to do, and force them to abandon the pursuits by which they had formerly supported themselves.

General Carleton also accused Mr. Steck of acting from interested motives, but he did not specify in what regard.

In the winter of 1864-65, the Navahos at the Bosque were reduced to terrible straits through the destruction of their crops by cut worms. There was want all through that portion of the country from various causes. Neither the War nor the Indian Department was able to relieve them adequately. There was no relief from natural sources, for the acorns, cedar berries, wild potatoes, palmillas and other roots, mescal and mesquite, on which they could rely in their old home in times of famine, were not found at the Bosque. Cattle and sheep were issued to them for food, “head and pluck,” and the blood of the slaughtered animals was ordered to be saved to make “haggis and blood puddings” for the orphan children. To add to their distress these people, who make the most serviceable blankets in the world and usually have plenty of them, were destitute, by the ravages of their enemies, of both blankets and clothing. They had no houses, and, as substitutes, holes were ordered to be dug, in which they might be sheltered from the wind. In spite of all his efforts and ingenuity, General Carleton knew that they must suffer, and, on October 31, 1864, he directed the commandant at Fort Sumner to explain his good intentions to the Indians. “Tell them,” he said, “to be too proud to murmur at what cannot be helped. We could not foresee the total destruction of their corn crop, nor could we foresee that the frost and hail would come and destroy the crop in the country; but not to be discouraged; to work hard, every man and woman, to put in large fields next year, when, if God smiles upon our efforts, they will, at one bound, be forever placed beyond want, and independent. Tell them not to believe ever that we are not their best friends; that their enemies have told them that we would destroy them; that we had sent big guns there to attack them; but that those guns are only to be used against their enemies, if they continue to behave as they have done.”

With all his good intentions, General Carleton was inexcusable, under analogy of the laws that are daily administered in every state and territory of the Union. There is no excuse known for failure under such circumstances. When a man is restrained of his liberty, or deprived of any right, for the purpose of benefiting him, there is no extenuation except he be in fact benefited, or, at least, not injured. Good intentions never excuse a wrong; and though, as a war measure, placing the Navahos at the Bosque may be justified, keeping them there against their will, in time of peace, is clearly an infringement of natural right. Our government must actually benefit the Indians by the reservation system in order to justify itself. Still, General Carleton stuck to his theory, and said that if the Navahos were moved from the Bosque at all they ought to be sent to Kansas or the Indian Territory. In 18G5 the worms destroyed the crops again, and on July 18, after giving directions for husbanding all food, Carleton instructed the officer in command:

You should tell the Indians what a dreadful year it is, and how they must save everything to eat which lies in their power, or starvation will come upon them.” The Indians had been slipping away from the place in small parties since midwinter of 1864-05, and in July a large party, under Ganado Blanco (White Cattle), broke away forcibly, but they were pursued and driven back. In August Carleton concluded to let the few Coyotero Apaches on the reservation return to their own country, as they desired. In the summer of this year a commission, consisting of Senator Doolittle, Vice President Foster, and Representative Ross, visited New Mexico, and made a full investigation of the Indian affairs there, but nothing resulted from it.

In 1805 Felipe Delgado succeeded Mr. Stock as Superintendent; he was in harmony with General Carleton, and reported that, “It is fair to presume that next year their [the Navahos’] facilities will be greater,” etc. He had the good sense to recommend the purchase of sheep for them. In 1866 the crops failed again – this time, as Superintendent A. B. Norton and their agent reported, from bad seed, improper management, and overflows of the Pecos. There were reported to be 7,000 Indians on the reservation, and the cost of keeping them was estimated at $1,500,000 annually. In 1867 the crops failed, from bad management and hail storms, as reported; the Comanches attacked and robbed the Navahos several times; and many of their horses died from eating poisonous weeds. There were 7300 Indians reported as on the reservation and their property had become reduced to 550 horses, 20 mules, 940 sheep, and 1025 goats. In 1868 Superintendent Davis reported:

“The Navahos were located several years ago upon a reservation at the Bosque Redondo, by the military, and after expending vast sums of money, and after making every effort for more than four years to make it a success, it has proved a total failure. It was certainly a very unfortunate selection for a reserve; no wood, unproductive soil, and very unhealthy water, and the Indians were so much dissatisfied they planted no grain last spring, and I verily believe they were making preparations to leave as the Apaches did.”

Fortunately for all concerned, General Sherman and Colonel Tappan, Peace Commissioners, reached New Mexico in May, 1868. They satisfied themselves that the Navahos would never become self supporting or contented at the Bosque Redondo, and, on June 1, entered into an agreement with the tribe by which they were to be removed to their former country. The reservation then given them was included between parallel 37° of north latitude and a parallel drawn through Fort Defiance, for north and south lines, and parallel of longitude 109° 30′ and a parallel drawn through Ojo del Oso, as east and west lines. The Indians were to receive five dollars annually, in clothing, for each member of the tribe, and ten dollars for each one engaged in farming or mechanical pursuits. Each head of a family was entitled to select one hundred and sixty acres of land, if he desired to hold in severalty, and in such case he was to receive one hundred dollars in seeds and implements the first year, and twenty five dollars each for the second and third years. Buildings of the value of $11,500 were to be erected, and the Navahos pledged themselves to compel all their children between the ages of six and sixteen to attend school. A separate schoolhouse and teacher was to be provided for every thirty pupils; $150,000 was to be appropriated at once to the Indians, part of which was to be expended in the purchase of 15,000 sheep and goats and 500 cattle, and the remainder to be used for the expenses of their removal and in such other ways as should appear most beneficial.

Under this liberal treaty the tribe was removed in 1868, and since then there has been a continuous improvement in their condition. They had very bad luck with their crops for several years, but their herds increased steadily. By 1873 they were reported to have 10,000 horses and 200,000 sheep and goats. In 1872 an Indian police force was organized at the agency, on recommendation of Captain Bennett, and placed under command of Manuelito, their war chief, providing, for the first time in their history, for a control of offenders by tribal authority. It was discontinued in 1873 for a short time, but was soon put in force again, with beneficial results. A few years later the Indians abandoned it on account of the small pay given to the policemen. About fifteen men are now employed, and they appear to be all that are needed. In 1870 the Navahos were reported as self supporting, notwithstanding they had lost 40,000 sheep by freezing during the past winter. In 1878 their agent said: “Within the ten years during which the present treaty with the Navahos has been in force they have grown from a band of paupers to a nation of prosperous, industrious, shrewd, and (for barbarians) intelligent people.” They were reported at that time as numbering 11,800, and owning 20,000 horses, 1500 cattle, and 500,000 sheep; they were tilling 9192 acres of land, and obtained ninety-five per cent, of their subsistence from civilized pursuits.

In fact, they were increasing so rapidly that there was an urgent call for more room, and, as there was desert land to spare in all directions, it was given to them. By executive order of October 29, 1878, there was added to their reservation the land between the northern line of Arizona, parallel 110° of west longitude, parallel 36° of north latitude, and the western line of the reservation. Still there was a call for more land, and on January 6, 1880, they were given a strip fifteen miles wide along the eastern side of the reservation, and one six miles wide along the southern line. In the latter year three windmill pumps and fifty-two stock pumps were put in at different points on the reservation, which have stopped much of their wandering in search of water, and added greatly to the value of their grazing lands. Their march of improvement has not stopped, and in 1884 the nation, estimated at 17,000, cultivated 15,000 acres of land and raised 220,000 bushels of corn and 21,000 bushels of wheat; they had 35,000 horses and 1,000,000 sheep. In 1884 the reservation was extended west to 111° 30′, and the northern boundary was made the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. By this addition the reservation encloses the Moqui Pueblo reservation on two sides, and the agencies for the two have been consolidated. This order, increasing the reservation by 1,769,600 acres in Arizona and Utah, was supplemented by one taking away 46,000 acres in New Mexico; the reservation as now established includes 8,159,360 acres, mostly desert land.

With their advancement in wealth the Navahos have made but little progress in civilization, and their condition is one that might well call for more extended mission work than has been done among them. The government is maintaining an industrial school at present, and the Presbyterian Church, to which they were assigned, has established a mission school two or three times, but it has been discontinued through the failure of Congress to furnish a suitable building. The Navahos, however, have repeatedly asked to have schools established, and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions has recently decided to establish a school, whether the government complied with its promises or not. There were twenty-five reported, in 1884, as being able to read, but the report is not very reliable; only five were reported as able to speak English in 1883. Their manners, customs, and religion are practically unchanged, except that they have adopted civilized clothing to a large extent. They still plant with sharpened sticks, but this has been conceded by farmers to be the best way of planting in their country; seed must be planted deep in order to obtain moisture to insure growth, and ploughing only makes the ground dry. They never wash their sheep, and still chop the wool from them with case knives, pieces of tin, or anything else that will cut, obtaining about one pound from each animal. 2 Their horses are seldom used except in travelling; three fourths of them are never broken, and are of no use whatever, except in the purchase of wives. Attempts have been made to introduce improved looms among them, but the women adhere tenaciously to their old modes. About fifty of the men were induced to build houses, in 1884, but the vast majority still adhere to their temporary hogans and desert them when a death occurs. Their morals are as loose as ever, except that the consumption of liquor has decreased materially. These are the chief signs of advancement, and yet it has been said repeatedly that the Navahos afforded the best material for civilization among our Indian tribes. After forty years of our guardianship they are still barbarians – self supporting while kept separate from the whites, but as helpless and as easily swindled as children, except in the most ordinary business dealings, and scarcely better fitted for the duties of citizenship than when we first knew them. They were always among thieves, and thus far Christianity and civilization have passed by on the other side. Possibly that is why they are now so prosperous.Citations:

  1. Carson’s report has never been published. I quote from the manuscript copy on file in the office of the War Department, at Washington, to which the department has courteously afforded me access.[]
  2. A large number of sheep shears were sent to them in 1885, and will probably be used.[]

History, Navaho,

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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