Colonel Washington’s troops were camped in a bleak, windy dustbowl near a spot called Badger Springs. The views were sweeping—to the north, the mighty Shiprock could be seen clawing at the sky—but this place was not much of a campsite. They found no wood to burn other than the trunks of a few prickly shrubs. The engineers discovered that they could obtain a little water by digging deep pits in the ground, but it was highly alkaline and had, according to Dick Kern, “very much the taste of a ‘bad egg.’” Because Colonel Washington could find no grass or any other suitable forage for his horses and mules, he had earlier in the day ordered his men to cut the green stunted corn from a nearby Navajo field.
Understandably, the Navajos who lived in the vicinity interpreted the theft and trampling of their cornfields as a hostile action. Soon a group of them entered the camp to lodge a complaint with Washington. With them, they brought fifteen horses and mules and a number of sheep to deliver up to the army, as Colonel Washington had gotten the word out that his troops were here to demand the return of stolen property. These Navajos were emissaries of Narbona, and much of the livestock had come directly from Narbona’s own flocks and herds. Washington accepted the animals, but the Navajos’ protest about their cornfields came to nothing. Among the natives streaming into camp were a number of women, who, Simpson noted, “wore blankets, leggings, and moccasins—the blankets being confined about the waist by a girdle.” Simpson seemed mildly shocked that these women “bestrode their horses a la mode des hommes.” One of them, he observed, “had a child at her breast confined on its back to a board, the upper portion canopied by a frame of willow-work to protect its head from the weather.”
The next morning, August 30, Washington’s army broke camp and made another westward march, this one of about fifteen miles. Kern noted that as they traveled, there were “multitudes of Indians around us,” and it was clear they were growing angry and restless. Most were warriors armed with lances and spears and sinew-backed bows. Simpson thought they were “quite a formidable group,” noting that their “helmet-shaped caps were set off with bunches of eagle feathers.” Some of the warriors, he observed, “were almost naked—one of them entirely so, excepting his breechcloth, his whole person at the same time looking ghastly on account of a kind of whitewash with which he was covered.”
By the middle of the day the Navajo numbers had swelled to several hundred, and they were stirring up huge contrails of dust as they rode in the vanguard. Colonel Washington was growing antsy with all these warriors whooping in his midst, and at one point he ordered his artillerymen to remove two mountain howitzers from the backs of the mules and prepare them for firing in the event of an attack. Lieutenant Simpson had a bad feeling about the day, noting that a “dark, portentous cloud” was hovering over one of the peaks in the distant Chuska Range, with “forked lightning darting vividly athwart it.” The thunderclouds continued to mount, and it began to pour. Washington finally had to halt the march and hunker down for a violent hailstorm.
Washington made camp that afternoon on the north fork of Tunicha Creek, on a piece of land littered with Anasazi potsherds. The valley of the nearby Chuska River was rippling with healthy corn, “extensive and luxuriant fields,” as Simpson described them, “finer than any I have seen in this country.” Although these fields were not irrigated, they took advantage of water that seeped and trickled under the soft soil. The stalks were planted deeply, not in furrows but in dense clumps—a water-conserving method the Navajos had practiced for centuries.
Feasting his eyes on this bountiful crop, Colonel Washington again ordered his foragers to go out and seize corn from the Navajo fields. When it became apparent that the Navajos intended to resist the troops, Washington sent extra soldiers to “enforce the order.” He justified stealing the corn by arguing that the Navajos would eventually have to reimburse the U.S. government for the considerable costs of the expedition now mounted against them, a twist of reasoning that only further infuriated the Navajos, who could only stand by and watch as their winter foodstuffs were ravaged.
Tension was building around the camp. Hundreds of angry Navajos, possibly as many as a thousand, now surrounded the bivouac site, galloping their horses this way and that, thronging in agitation. Washington allowed a few representatives to come into camp for a talk. Once assembled, the colonel told them, through his Spanish interpreter, to go out into the countryside and gather as many chiefs as they could find to represent the Chuska region. He said that his army had entered their territory to chastise them for their constant raids and thefts. But he held out that the United States of America would be their friend as long as they were willing to come back tomorrow and sign a peace treaty. The headmen agreed to meet at noon the next day, noting that the aged Narbona would be present. Before they left, Richard Kern overheard one of the thoroughly miffed and confused Navajo headmen asking Colonel Washington—“If we are friends, why did you take our corn? It is hard, but all we can do is submit.”
At midday the next day, several hundred Navajos rode over to Washington’s camp. As a whole they were, Simpson thought, “gorgeously decked in red, blue, and white, with rifles erect in hand,” presenting a “spectacle that was very imposing.” From the milling crowd, three elders emerged and introduced themselves by their Spanish names. They were Archuleta, Jose Largo, and, finally, Narbona.
All eyes fell on Narbona, the most famous of the Navajos. Although he was past eighty, Narbona was still a formidable presence. Simpson described him as “quite old and of a very large frame, having a grave and contemplative countenance not unlike, as many of the officers remarked (I hope the comparison will be pardoned), that of President Washington.” That day he wore a handsome chieftain’s wool blanket, dyed in the bold geometric patterns of the Navajo. Dick and Ned Kern collaborated on a wash drawing of Narbona, giving him an air of solemn dignity.
Narbona was so decrepit with arthritis that he had to be helped down from his horse and carried to the council place. As a sign of goodwill, he told Washington, he was handing over another herd of animals—several hundred in all. He said that he believed in making peace with the New Men, that his own people, the Chuska Navajos, had never made war on the Americans—although it was true that a state of war had long existed with the New Mexicans, and many wrongs had been committed by both sides. He said that as much as he advocated peace, there were young hotheads and thieves (ladrones, he said) in his tribe whose actions could not always be stopped. Narbona also made it clear that he was not a spokesman for the entire Navajo nation, that no man had such authority, that the Navajo people were comprised of many different bands, and that each had its own autonomy and its own territory.
One of the Navajos present was a young man who could safely be called a hothead and, perhaps, a thief. He was Narbona’s son-in-law—proud, strapping, dark-complected, known by the Spanish name of Manuelito. A fierce warrior fast ascending to prominence among the Navajos, Manuelito loved and respected his father-in-law, but he was suspicious of Narbona’s calls for peace. A youthful rage boiled within him. Manuelito was tall, with a surly face and smoldering dark eyes. He thought Narbona was going too far in appeasing the white man, and he refused to believe that these new conquerors were any match for the Navajo. Astride his horse, Manuelito watched closely and listened as James Calhoun, the Indian Affairs agent, led the discussion, with Colonel Washington at his side.
CALHOUN: Tell them they are lawfully in the jurisdiction of the United States now, and they must respect that jurisdiction.
INTERPRETER: They say they understand it.
CALHOUN: Tell them that after the treaty is made, their friends will be the friends of the United States, and their enemies the enemies of the United States. Are they willing to be at peace with all the friends of the United States?
INTERPRETER: They say they are willing.
Narbona and his two fellow headmen said they could agree to every point proposed by Calhoun and Colonel Washington, except one. Washington insisted that Narbona come with him to the Navajo stronghold of Canyon de Chelly, where he intended to hold an even bigger council, with representatives from the entire Navajo nation. But Narbona refused, disavowing all connection to the Navajos “over the mountain” while also making it clear that he could not undertake such a long journey in his fragile state of health. After Washington pressed the matter, Narbona finally agreed to appoint two younger chiefs to go to Canyon de Chelly in his stead.
The council broke up to everyone’s apparent satisfaction, and for a moment matters between the Navajos and the United States of America seemed hopeful. But then one of the New Mexican militiamen spotted a horse among the Navajo warriors that, he insisted, was his. The militiaman was sure of it, he said. The natives had stolen his horse a few months ago, and now he demanded it back. The Navajos did not dispute that the horse had been stolen, but they indicated that it had passed through so many different hands that it was impossible to ascertain the true owner now—and that, in any case, something like a statute of limitations had taken effect. There was a brief scuffle, and charges were shouted back and forth.
When Colonel Washington got wind of what was happening, he sided with the New Mexican’s version of events. The colonel demanded that the Navajo hand over the horse. At this the Navajos “demurred,” as Simpson described it. Tempers were flaring all around. After all the abstractions lofted by Colonel Washington, negotiations had finally reached a concrete topic that the Navajos understood with clarity and passion: a horse. The situation had become a tense standoff.
“Unless the horse is restored,” Washington threatened through an interpreter, “you will be fired upon!”
By this point the accused horse thief had taken off for the hills—riding, of course, the very mount at issue. Not knowing what to do, Washington then told the officer of the guard, a Lieutenant Torrez, to seize another horse in reprisal, any horse he fancied. When Torrez moved toward the throng of mounted Navajos to pick out a horse, the Indians sensed immediately what was happening. In a flash they wheeled about and galloped away—“scampering off,” Simpson wrote, “at the top of their speed.”
At this, Colonel Washington ordered, “Fire!”
Shots ripped through the crowd, as army marksmen posted around the perimeter of the council site fired their muzzle-loading rifles. Artillerymen, meanwhile, turned the enormous bronze barrel of the six-pound field gun—the thunderwagon—and in a close triad of concussions, they blasted the field. Then Washington ordered mounted soldiers to pursue the retreating Navajos, but it was impossible to catch them, for they scattered in all directions and disappeared into a distant ravine.
When the dust settled, Colonel Washington found that none of his own men had been hurt, although Simpson noted with much regret that a few mules had been lost in the “hurry-skurry.” The field was now empty but for seven Navajo bodies. Some of them were wounded, some of them apparently lifeless.
Upon closer inspection, Washington learned that one of the writhing forms in the grass was none other than Narbona. The great patriarch was sprawled in a pool of blood. Shrapnel from the thunderwagon had apparently sliced into him, and now he had four or five gaping wounds ranging over his crippled body.
A few minutes later, Narbona lay still.
If their leader’s death was not insult enough to the Navajos, then what happened next proved to be the final indignity. A New Mexican souvenir hunter walked up to the old man’s corpse, leaned down, and raked a sharp knife across his forehead.
In his diary, Dick Kern did not suggest that Narbona had done anything to cause the attack, but neither did he express any moral outrage over the incident, which may have been one of the most decisive events in the history of Navajo relations with the U.S. government. But Kern did admit that he was furious with himself for not having the presence of mind to secure the head of Narbona for his friend and patron back in Philadelphia, the skull researcher Dr. Samuel George Morton.
“He was the chief of the Nation, and had been a wise man and great warrior,” he wrote Dr. Morton a year later. “His frame was immense. I should think his height near 6 ft. 6 in. He was near 90 years old when killed. I very much regret that I had not procured Narbona’s cranium, as I think he had the finest head I ever saw on an Indian.”