Modern history

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Chapter 26

OUR RED CHILDREN

On the cold, dazzlingly bright morning of November 21, Col. Alexander Doniphan met at Bear Springs with an assembly of fourteen Navajo headmen. Narbona showed up as he said he would, although he was not feeling well enough to speak and entered the encampment borne on a litter. A red rock mesa formed a natural wall, and a cool stream coursed through the gently sloped landscape of piñon and juniper. The site was perfectly familiar to Narbona, for Bear Springs had for centuries been a gathering place of the Diné.

Some 500 Navajos and 300 Americans now congregated in the surrounding hills to watch the proceedings.

Colonel Doniphan rose and spoke first. An enormous man with a stentorian voice and the bearing of a poised trial lawyer, he had won over many juries back in his hometown of Liberty, Missouri; this was another trial, of sorts, and he intended to win it.

“The United States,” he began, “has taken military possession of New Mexico and her laws now extend over the whole territory. The New Mexicans will be protected against violence and invasion, and their rights will be amply preserved. But the United States is also anxious to enter into a treaty of peace and lasting friendship with you, her red children, the Navajos. The same protection will be given to you that has been guaranteed the New Mexicans. I come with ample powers to negotiate a permanent peace between you, the New Mexicans, and us. If you refuse to treat on terms honorable to both parties, I am instructed to prosecute a war against you. The United States makes no second treaty with the same people; she offers the olive branch, and if that is rejected, then she offers powder, bullet, and steel.”

Then a young Navajo headman rose to speak. His Spanish name was Zarcillos Largos, an eloquent man whom John Hughes describes as “very bold and intellectual.” Largos represented the younger members of the tribe who thought it dishonorable for the Navajos to relinquish their age-old fight with the New Mexicans. “Americans!” he exhorted. “We have waged war against the New Mexicans for years. We have plundered their villages and killed many of their people and made many prisoners. We had just cause for all this. You have lately commenced a war against the same people. You have great guns and many brave soldiers. You have therefore conquered them, the very thing we have been attempting to do for so many years. You now turn upon us for attempting to do what you have done yourselves. We cannot see why you have cause of quarrel with us for fighting the New Mexicans on the west, while you do the same thing on the east.”

Colonel Doniphan rose again and tried to explain his country’s position. It was clear to him that the Navajos did not understand the American idea of surrender. “It is the custom of the Americans,” he said, “that when a people with whom we are at war gives up, we treat them as friends thenceforward. New Mexico has been attached to our government. Now, when you steal property from New Mexicans, you are stealing from us. When you kill them, you are killing our own people, for they have now become ours. This cannot be suffered any longer.”

Largos did not like the sound of this, but eventually he relented. “If New Mexico really be in your possession,” he said, “and it be the intention of your government to hold it, we will cease our depredations. We will refrain from future wars upon the New Mexican people. For we have no cause of quarrel with you, and do not desire any war with so powerful a nation. Let there be peace between us.”

And so the fourteen headmen present were assembled—Narbona, Largos, and the others. Doniphan had prepared a handwritten treaty, five paragraphs long, that proclaimed “permanent peace, mutual trust, and friendship.” The names of the fourteen Navajo leaders had been affixed to the bottom. Because none of the Navajos could read or write in any language, Doniphan devised another method for obtaining a signature: He had each man touch the index finger of his right hand to a pen that a soldier held, marking an X alongside each printed signature.

It is doubtful the Navajos had much of an idea what they had signed. Yet it seemed a hopeful time nonetheless, a moment of optimism. The Americans and the Navajos had concluded their first treaty, and nothing terrible had happened. They said they were friends—and seemed to believe it.

Confident that they had more or less solved the Navajo conflict, Colonel Doniphan and his eager Missourians prepared to head south, for Mexico. They were briskly moving on to their next assignment: To invade Chihuahua and take its capital city. Like nearly everything the Missourians had done since leaving Fort Leavenworth, there was a naïve quality to their busy actions in the Navajo country, and at the same time a kind of impudence. They would effortlessly conquer vast lands and fix ancient problems in short order. And, they thought, everyone would love them for it.

Narbona and the other Diné, meanwhile, would go home to sit out the winter season. They would tell their ancient myths and hold their councils and sweat in their lodges. Their world still seemed rich and familiar, and they had plenty to eat.

A treaty had been signed. But so far as the Navajos could tell, not a single thing had changed. Certainly the younger men of the tribe saw it that way. On November 26, less than a week after the treaty had been inked, a band of Navajos killed a New Mexican shepherd not far from Socorro, then ran off with 17 U.S. government mules and more than 800 sheep that had been purchased for American troop consumption. Two poorly armed Missourians, privates Robert Spears and James Stewart, rashly took off after the raiders. Six miles to the west their bodies were found, bristling with twenty-two arrows, their heads hideously smashed in by rocks.

Spears and Stewart were the first American soldiers to be killed by Navajo Indians.

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