Manuelito: A Navajo War Chief

You all remember how the Indian chiefs went with me to see the great American chief, President Grant, in Washington, and what a long ride we had before we took a train. Well, during that trip we rested for two days at Fort Wingate in New Mexico, and here for the first time I saw some Navajo Indians. They are cousins of the Apaches, and the language of the two tribes is so much alike that they can easily understand each other. Some people have said that the word Navajo comes from the Spanish word for knife, but probably it is an Indian word meaning “well-planted fields.” There were about 7000 in the tribe and they lived in log huts and raised corn, but their chief living was from large flocks of sheep and goats. From these they got plenty of wool which they dyed in soft colors and from which the women made splendid blankets known the world over for their beauty. ‘These are the famous Navajo blankets you have heard about.

Now the Apaches and Navajos are cousins, but they have not always been friendly cousins, and just about this time they had been fighting each other rather hard. I am sorry to say that some of the white people thought it was a good thing for Indians to fight each other; it would help kill them off, they said. Of course it was a good thing for Indians to stop fighting white men, but the more they fought Indians the better. Now I thought this was all wrong, so I made up my mind to help the Indians to make peace with the Indians as well as with us. I had talked with my four Apache chiefs about this, and Santos was heart and soul with me. Pedro agreed with us, but Eskeltesela was doubtful, and Miguel made many objections. He said the Navajos had behaved badly to his Indians, had broken up their lodges and stolen their corn, and must be punished. Miguel had a good deal of the old war spirit left in him.

Well, here we were at Fort Wingate in New Mexico within ten miles of the principal Navajo village, and were resting for the night. We had taken the packs from our tired mules and let them loose to roll in the dust or run to the neighboring stream for water. We had unsaddled the horses and tied them near by. Our driver, Dismal Jeems, was getting supper and looked as happy as I ever saw him as he thought of the good things which would soon be ready. Then of a sudden we heard a loud whoop, as loud and long as any you ever heard in Buffalo Bill’s show. One-Eyed Miguel was quickest to catch the sound and he knew what it meant. “Indian horsemen!” he cried, and sure enough there they were. Navajos in full gala costume; the men with bright blankets, streaming hair, and feathered hats, the horses with braided manes tied with red and yellow. To see them charging toward us was enough to make our hearts beat very fast, but the Indians only laughed and said: “Good, good! it is only a Navajo visit!”

The brilliant Navajos rode up at a trot, halted all together and came to the ground at once, each holding his bridle and resting his right hand upon the pommel of his saddle. The leader’s horse stood waiting while he came toward me and stretched out his right hand, saying: “Buenos dial” (Good day).

This was Manuelito, the Navajo war chief. He was over six feet tall and weighed perhaps two hundred pounds. He was dressed all in deerskin with fringes on his coat and trousers and had on new leggings, buttoned at the side, and moccasins on his small feet. His hair was worn in many short braids and he had on a Mexican hat with a feather tucked into the brim and tassels hanging over. He wore many strings of beads around his neck, too, and was as fine a looking fellow as you ever saw.

Mr. Cook and Louis hastened to help Dismal Jeems, and we brought fresh stores from our packs and added a piece of canvas to our table-cloth. Then we sat down to supper and Manuelito was given the seat of honor at my right.

I think Miguel was not quite pleased at this, for he looked at me with a sly twinkle in his one eye and said, “Bad Manuelito, he has not been war chief of the Navajos very long.”

After the supper Manuelito shook hands again, said good night, and then they all mounted and were off, but not before we had planned for a council the following day at the Navajo village.

The next morning the sun rose clear and bright, and peace seemed to be in all that beautiful land. By eight o’clock we were in motion, but the Indians were thoughtful and in no haste to lead the way. It took us two hours to ride the ten miles. Some Navajo scouts met us half-way and guided us to a
good spring. Here was a pretty grassy knoll and we camped beneath a group of pine-trees whispering in the summer breeze.

The principal chief, Juanito, was an old man, lame and feeble. He limped over to pay his respects to me, but pretended not to see my Apache Indians. I asked him to be present at the council, but he whispered something about my having the wicked Miguel with me, and would not promise.

Everything was ready at the hour appointed for the council and I went to a small grove where a platform had been made of rough boards large enough for the Indian chiefs and myself. Mr. Cook, Louis, and Captain Wilkinson were with me, but the Indians did not appear. We waited and waited, till at last I remembered that neither party wanted to be first at the council. Then I asked Captain Wilkinson to go to Juanito and ask him to come and see me and bring his war chief with him.

Mr. Cook went to Miguel and told him I wanted to see him and the other chiefs, and Louis took my message to Santos. To be sure they all knew what it meant, and they came, watching each other carefully so that they should all arrive at the same moment. Miguel and Manuelito were both laughing when they stepped on the platform and soon all were talking cheerfully to each other. Santos took great pains to make friends with Juanito and I began to feel sure of a good peace.
All Indian councils are very ceremonious if you know what that big word means-and every one puts on his very best manners for the occasion.

Mr. Cook opened the meeting with prayer. I explained that the great chief at Washington had sent me on a peace mission and then Juanito said he always wanted peace, for he planted fields, raised sheep, ponies, and cows, and made blankets and many other things. His young men hunted in the mountains too, but the Apaches made wars. Then Manuelito-splendid fellow that he has-stood up and spoke, for he was the war chief. He said he was all for peace. Of course he had had to fight the Apaches, Miguel knew that, but now he wanted a solid peace and to be friends with Apaches and all the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona. Santos spoke in the same spirit and so did Miguel and the others.

After all had spoken Manuelito rose and asked to speak again. He had been thinking, and he said he was sure that he could stop all the badly disposed Navajos from hurting Indians or white men. He asked me to appoint twenty Navajo policemen and dress them in United States uniform, for then every Indian would know them and every white man would respect them. He asked me to give them the same pay as soldiers and then they would be proud and obey their leader and there would be no more trouble from the Navajos. This I agreed to do and Manuelito chose and commanded a fine body of Indians. So ended the council, but a month later on our return from Washington, we reached that same old Fort Wingate just before sundown and were met by Manuelito and his special policemen. They wore soldiers’ hats with grand army cords and tassels, blue blouses and belts with two pistols to show their authority.

“Buenos dias, signori Bueno – bueno,” cried Manuelito, as he sprang to the ground and with bridle in hand stood ready to embrace me. Nearby the Navajos had a bivouac, and that night we camped near them. In the morning Manuelito rode beside me and told me that peace had prevailed.

When, after riding ten miles, we reached a beautiful spring we lunched together beneath some shady cottonwood trees and then Manuelito bade us farewell. As he and his men rode away my eyes followed this splendid leader, and I rejoiced that so fine a man was using every energy to bring joy and happiness to all about him-a war chief no longer, but a man of peace.


Howard, Oliver Otis Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known. University of Nebraska Press. 1908.

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