Modern history

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Chapter 13

NARBONA PASS

Narbona returned from the Hopi country after the great drought of the 1820s only to hear accounts of the massacre of the chiefs at Jemez, and he understood that little had changed: The old war was very much alive. But Narbona, now sixty-three years old, seemed to understand that ultimately the Navajos would never gain anything from this grinding conflict. The grand old warrior took a different tack—he began to preach peace. In 1829 he was invited to come to Santa Fe for talks, but fearing a trap like the one that had been laid at Jemez, Narbona insisted that the Mexican governor furnish him with a full military escort.

Although suspicious of the Mexicans, he decided that the journey was worth the risk. The ensuing conference in Santa Fe did not achieve any lasting results for the Navajo people, but by establishing himself as a peace leader, he was at least successful in protecting his own outfit—inoculating it, in effect—from further Mexican attacks. He made two other trips to Santa Fe, in 1832 and 1833, and for a time the hostilities seemed to quiet down.

But then in early February 1835, Narbona learned that the Mexicans were mounting a massive campaign against the eastern Navajos. Narbona and his people had kept the peace and refrained from raiding for many years, but certainly an invasion of their homeland called for war. Word reached him that a force of more than one thousand Mexican soldiers and armed civilians had left Santa Fe on February 8 and was aimed toward Navajo country. Among the invaders were a large number of Pueblo Indian warriors.

Narbona hastily gathered together 250 of the best Navajo warriors and raced to a little notch in the Chuska Mountains known as Beesh Lichii’I Bigiizh, or Copper Pass. He knew that the Mexicans would have to pass through this eight-thousand-foot-high rock defile if they were to penetrate Navajo country. When they did, Narbona and his warriors would be waiting for them, hiding in the tall pines on the ridgeline above.

The next morning a dust cloud appeared on the dun floor of the broad flat valley to the east. Soon the Mexican soldiers came into view, a long tattered scarf of men on horseback in the distance, riding along the frozen Rio Chaco. Their silver buttons shone in the morning sun, giving Narbona plenty of time to prepare. On this cold, gusty day in February, the invading army was marching headlong into an ambush. Precisely as Narbona had guessed, it was aiming for Copper Pass.

The long column of Mexicans was led by Capt. Blas de Hinojos, the comandante general of New Mexican territory. In raw numbers, his was the largest armed expedition that either Spain or Mexico had ever mounted against the Navajos, and his soldiers were exceedingly confident. But Hinojos’s men were an undisciplined band of mostly young men, scarcely more than a rabble. They marched jauntily through the pass without a care, singing songs, laughing, devoid of any sort of military order. American trader Josiah Gregg recorded that the Mexicans were “utterly unconscious of the reception that awaited them, [and] soon came jogging along in scattered groups, indulging in every kind of boisterous mirth.”

Concealed behind large gray rocks at the summit, Narbona told his men to wait in perfect silence until the Mexicans were right below them, in the narrowest part of the pass, where they would have to stretch out in a long, thin column. He compared the vulnerable file of men to the trunk of a tall tree. When the moment is right, he said, we will cut the tree into small pieces, just right for firewood. Several times the impatient younger warriors signaled their eagerness to initiate the fight, but Narbona calmly held them off. Down in the canyon, many of the soldiers had to dismount so their horses, already weary from their trek, could climb the steep path.

Finally the moment came. Narbona gave the signal, and the Navajos erupted in war-whoops, their haunting owl-like call. Arrows rained down upon the Mexicans. Those Navajos who had guns began to fire volleys into the startled ranks; others hurled rocks or shoved boulders down into the gorge. The horses began to scatter and stampede, trampling the men. As Gregg records it, the Mexicans were “thrown into a state of speechless consternation. Some tumbled off their horses, others fired their muskets at random; a terrific panic seized everybody.”

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of Mexicans were slain. A historian of the Mexican-Navajo wars later wrote that “they were felled like deer trapped in a box canyon.” One of the many soldiers killed was the leader of the expedition, Captain Hinojos. According to Navajo tradition, the captain of Jemez Pueblo, having become cornered by Navajo warriors, jumped off a precipice to his death rather than face capture.

In the end the Mexicans were routed. The final tally of casualties is not known, but by nearly all accounts it was a wholesale slaughter. Interviewed years after the incident, an elderly Navajo who had been a warrior at Copper Pass would say only, “We killed plenty of them.”

From that day on Copper Pass was known by a different name. Although Navajos seldom named landmarks after individuals, such was their pride in their resounding victory over the hated Mexicans that the people made an exception to their custom and gave the great defile a new honorific: Narbona Pass.

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