The two horses were ready, and so were their riders. The animals flared their nostrils in the desert air and stamped their feet in anticipation. All the bets had been placed. Some five hundred Navajo spectators had taken their spots on the sides of the dusty track outside the American fort. They were splayed out on their bright-patterned blankets, reveling in the carnival atmosphere, shouting out encouragements and the occasional tame invective.
The excitement had been building all day. Since morning the Navajos had been streaming in from the rimrock country, women and children as well as warriors, on horseback and on foot, wearing their finest outfits and bearing serapes and jewelry to trade with the soldiers—whom the Navajos sometimes called “Something-Sticking-Out-From-The-Foreheads” because of the distinct visors protruding from their army-issue caps. There had been bartering and games and feasting through the midday, but in the afternoon the main event—the races—had begun. The Navajos were entranced by the spectacle of the track. Not only were they avid gamblers, they were a tribe with a proud history of horsemanship. Racing ran deep in their blood.
This was to be the last race of the afternoon, the most important race, the one with the fastest horses and the biggest stakes. “Large bets, larger than on the other races, were made on both sides,” recalled one witness. “The Indians, some of them mounted on fine ponies, were richly dressed, and all appeared to be there to see the race, and not with any hostile intentions.”
In lieu of money, the wagers were made in the form of hard goods: The Indians bet their fine blankets and silver wares, while the soldiers wagered U.S. government property taken from the fort commissary—barrels of bacon, hogsheads of molasses, and the like—an illegal practice that the fort commander, in the interest of entertainment, was willing to overlook. Most of the soldiers were watching from the gates of the fort, but others were mingling with the Indian throngs. Kegs of whiskey had been flowing freely through the day (some Navajos called the great casks “hollow-woods”), and now soldiers and Indians alike were good and drunk.
It was a bright crisp day in Indian country, early fall of 1861. Hints of autumn played on the air. The chamisa had taken on a blazing yellow, and the aspens were just beginning to turn on Mount Taylor, whose broad shoulders rose impressively from the malpais in the distant east. The papery dry leaves of the cottonwoods clapped softly in the wind, like a thousand gloved hands at an opera.
Fort Fauntleroy was one of several strongholds that the United States military had built in Navajo country, largely on the basis of information gleaned from the 1849 Washington Expedition and the resulting maps pieced together by army topographer James Simpson. The fort was set in a beautiful spot called Bear Springs—the same ancient gathering place tucked in the Zuni Mountains where Narbona had met with Alexander Doniphan in 1846 to sign the first treaty between the Navajos and the United States government.
The regimental surgeon at the fort, an Irish doctor named F. E. Kavanaugh, owned a fleet thoroughbred that he insisted could not be beaten. Kavanaugh had been racing him all summer and the horse had never lost. In anticipation of today’s contest, the soldiers posted at the fort had pampered and trained the champion, making sure it was in top form. To jockey his prized animal, Kavanaugh selected a lithe and small-statured New Mexican lieutenant named Rafael Ortiz, a fierce competitor who was always at home in a saddle.
But the Navajos had their own prized pony—a jittery little sorrel with a spirit for the track. Rumors circulated that Navajo medicine men had performed elaborate ceremonies to ensure victory for their animal, chanting over a fetish shaped in the image of a horse. A young Navajo boy, light and quick of reflex, would ride the sorrel that day, but stories differ about whose horse it was: According to one account the pony was owned by a large Navajo man the Americans called Pistol Bullet. Other accounts say the owner was none other than Manuelito, Narbona’s bold and truculent sonin-law, who had emerged as one of the great leaders of the tribe.
Manuelito was an expert horseman, a man attentive to good breeding and rich enough to own the best. If he was indeed there at the fort that day, watching his horse compete, enjoying a moment of peace, it was a rare appearance—and most likely he would have kept himself incognito. For Manuelito was the sworn enemy of the Americans. Consistently, emphatically, categorically, he alone among his tribesmen had advocated war. Known by his countrymen as Hastiin Ch’ilhaajinii, or Black Weeds, Manuelito hated everything about the Americans. They had slaughtered his cattle herds. They had murdered his father-in-law. They had stuck forts in the craw of the Navajo nation. To their every demand, his response was the same uncut rage. The people, he roared, must drive the bilagaana from the country.
Certainly he had tried. The last few years—1858, 1859, 1860—had been particularly violent ones, and always Manuelito had been at the center of the maelstrom, his steady, implacable voice urging his countrymen not to budge an inch. The Doniphan treaty, signed with so much optimism and goodwill, had proven scarcely worth the paper it was written on, as had the Washington treaty three years later. The old war was still very much alive. If the sheep-rustling Diné had not changed their ways, neither had the New Mexicans, who continued leading freelance raids into Navajo country to steal children and win spoils.
But over the last few years, it seemed, the war had escalated into something else altogether, a conflict of a different order of magnitude. The Diné now had enemies on all sides. They suffered nearly constant attacks not just from New Mexicans, but also from Utes, Comanches, Apaches, and other ancient foes—as well as from their new foe, the American soldiers, who inflicted their punishments with increasing vigor. It seemed to the Navajo that they were surrounded by wolves. Even nature had turned against them—for several seasons the Navajo country had broiled under a terrible drought. People were starving to death, selling their children for food, fighting amongst themselves. Their society was stressed to the breaking point. The medicine men had lost their touch, the old ceremonies didn’t seem to work. The Diné had reached the nadir of their tribe’s existence, a decade of doubt and struggle that they still call, to this day, the nahondzod, “the fearing time.”
The American military commanders in Santa Fe, even the more obtuse ones, recognized that the old war between the Navajos and the New Mexicans was a two-sided quarrel, with legitimate grievances flowing in both directions. But they almost always accepted the New Mexican version of the conflict—“chastising” the Navajos for their treaty infractions while looking the other way when Hispanic militias and ragtag vigilante groups marched west. As far as Manuelito was concerned, the Americans had become the bigger problem; if it weren’t for them, he thought, the Diné could hold their own in any war against the New Mexicans. Yet there stood the United States government, stubbornly insisting on playing the role of a one-eyed umpire.
Part of the problem was a lack of consistency. From year to year the Navajos had little idea whom they were dealing with; from their point of view, the Great White Father in Washington was restless and fickle, for he kept sending new emissaries to the territory. Since the American occupation of New Mexico, a dizzying succession of commanders had come and gone: Kearny, Doniphan, Price, Washington, Beall, Munroe, Sumner, Garland, Bonneville, Fauntleroy, and now, the current military governor, Col. Edward Canby. Each of these men had attacked the “Navajo problem” in his own way, with lesser or greater degrees of insight and militancy. But the Navajo conflict was a rat’s nest, a Gordian knot of troubles, and largely because of it, the 9th Military Department, as New Mexico was known, was considered a hardship post, a shit-hole, a quagmire. The territory’s myriad adversities wore a soldier down. Within the army, no one much cared for the place, and few were inclined to stay long enough to really understand the Navajos and the true nature of the conflict—let alone solve it.
If the cast of American leaders had been kaleidoscopic, the main themes were hammered out with an almost monotonous consistency: The Navajos must stop roaming and become sedentary, full-time farmers, working private plots of individually owned land. They must become town-dwellers, and preferably Christians, hewing to clear national boundaries. They must select a single chief to speak for all the Navajo people and answer for all their crimes. In short, the Diné must cease being what they were—an amorphous concatenation of seminomadic bands—and become a single political entity. Over time, the tone with which the American commanders issued their demands became ever more shrill: The Navajos must do all these things, or face extinction.
During the mid-1850s there was perhaps only one bright spot in the American-Navajo relationship. For a few brief years a truly competent man held the office of Indian agent to the Navajo people. His name was Henry Linn Dodge, a perceptive young man from Wisconsin who had lived for years in the territory. Dodge got his first exposure to the Diné in 1849, when he accompanied the Washington Expedition into the Navajo lands. Most Indian agents regarded their posts as mere sinecures, and many were extravagantly corrupt. But Dodge pursued his job with great zeal and a curiosity to match. Soon after his appointment in 1853, he moved his office deep into Diné country. He learned to speak Navajo. He traveled constantly without military escort and befriended all the headmen, attending nightchants and other ceremonials. He brought blacksmiths to teach Navajos metallurgy, bought them wagonloads of hoes and axes often with his own money, led numerous peace delegations to Santa Fe, and lobbied for the creation of schools and the building of mills on Navajo land. He fell in love with the Navajo people—he even married within the tribe (so it was widely said). The Navajos called him “Red Sleeves” and considered him a friend, perhaps the first bilagaana who ever bothered to understand them.
His four-year tenure was a testament to the potential power of one-man diplomacy: While Dodge was agent, the Navajos remained substantially at peace, and reports of their raiding were scarce. For a brief time even the tenor of the talk about them changed. William Davis, a Harvard-trained lawyer and circuit court judge who was also a writer of some note and had made a trip with Dodge and other peace emissaries deep into Navajo country in 1855, theorized that the Diné may well be a remnant of the Lost Tribes of Israel (a fashionable anthropological topic of his day). “In many respects the Navajos are the most interesting tribe of Indians in our country,” Davis wrote in his perceptive study of New Mexico, El Gringo, published in 1856. “The modern doctrine of ‘Women’s Rights’ may be said to prevail among them to a very liberal extent. Women are admitted into their councils and sometimes control their deliberations. The Navajos are mild in disposition, and very seldom commit murder.” They were, Davis concluded, “a superior race of Indians.”
With Henry Dodge tirelessly soliciting on their behalf, the Navajos’ reputation as the incorrigible thugs of the Southwest was softening. But in 1857 this brief period of amity came to an abrupt end. While hunting in the Zuni Mountains, Red Sleeves was murdered, reportedly by Apache Indians.
Everything Dodge had worked for soon evaporated; the relationship between the Diné and the Americans never recovered.
The conflict between the bilagaana and the Navajos came to a flash point in the spring of 1858, when Manuelito insisted on grazing his cattle herds on the grounds of an American fort called Fort Defiance, deep in the Navajo red rock country, on the present-day border between Arizona and New Mexico. From the moment of its construction in 1851, the Americans had intended Fort Defiance, as its name suggests, to be an irritant and a provocation to the Navajos—and it was. When the American soldiers instructed Manuelito to remove his animals from U.S. property, the headman refused. “The water there is mine, not yours,” he reportedly said, “and the same with the grass. Even the ground it grows from belongs to me, not to you.” And so on May 29, soldiers marched out in the field and shot every last head of Manuelito’s cattle herd—some sixty in all—and left the carcasses to rot in the field.
A month after the herd was slaughtered, an anonymous Navajo came to Fort Defiance to trade with the soldiers. When no one was looking, the Navajo turned and fired an arrow into the back of a teenage black slave owned by the American commander, Maj. William Brooks. While the Navajo made a clean getaway, the stricken boy, whose name was Jim, attempted to pull the arrow out himself, but the shaft broke off with the arrowhead lodged deep in his body. Jim died of his wound several days later. Interpreting the incident (probably correctly) as a personal attack, Major Brooks threatened to obliterate the Navajos if they did not produce the murderer at once. A few weeks later the Navajos obliged, hauling in the corpse of the man they said was the culprit. But the fort surgeon conducted an autopsy on the cadaver and determined that the Diné were trying to pull a fast one: The body was that of a Mexican who met almost none of the physical descriptions of the murderer.
After that, the situation escalated into a fairly hot war, with the American army leading multiple forays into Navajo country to hunt down Manuelito. But like a Navajo Rob Roy, the shadowy headman stayed just a few steps ahead of the soldiers. Then in April 1860, Manuelito organized a thousand Navajo warriors and staged a full-frontal assault on Fort Defiance. Striking before dawn and armed primarily with arrows, he and his warriors occupied a number of the fort buildings, killed a United States soldier, and produced numerous casualties. However, Manuelito’s near triumph at Fort Defiance did nothing to change American policy in the end, but it cemented his reputation as the preeminent warrior of the Navajo.
By all accounts and photographs, he looked the part: Black Weeds was tall and dark with a distinct air of menace, the sort of man who made people, even other Navajos, edgy. His shoulders were broad, his chest muscular, his torso long and lean. He had a scar on the left side of his chest from a gunshot wound sustained in a fight with Comanches. He carried himself with great confidence, for he was one of the true ricos of the tribe, blessed with many thousands of sheep, numerous children, and at least two wives—Narbona’s daughter and a Mexican woman named Juanita he had stolen in a raid. His chin was scruffed with a wispy beard, and his facial features, chiseled and vaguely Asian, made him look like a Mongol chieftain. Nearly every photograph of Manuelito shows the scowl of an all-consuming wrath. A biography now taught in Navajo schools describes Black Weeds this way: “An angry fire burned within him, and he refused to put it out.”
He was born in 1818, a son of the Bit’ahni, or Folded Arms clan, and grew up in a place called the Bear’s Ears, in present-day Utah. Because his homeland was close to the mountain country of the roving Ute Indians, he grew up trilingual, fluent in both Navajo and Ute as well as Spanish. Even as a child he carried himself with a jaunty arrogance that made people notice. His friends teased him that even though he had not been on a single raid, he walked around as though he were a headman.
Young Manuelito replied, “I walk like a headman now so that when I become one, I will already know how to behave.”
In 1835, at the age of seventeen, he participated in his first great battle, the ambush on the invading Mexican army at Copper Pass organized by Narbona. He donned a war helmet, carried a buckskin shield, and painted serpents on the soles of his moccasins. He dipped his arrows in a poison made from rattlesnake blood and yucca-leaf juice. During the battle he made a name for himself by attacking and killing a Pueblo Indian in a hand-to-hand fight. He scalped his victim, and later chewed on the bloody skin so that he might draw power from it and become “a true warrior.” From his actions that day he won the nom de guerre Hashkeh Naabaah, or Angry Warrior.
He married Narbona’s daughter and lived with the great leader’s outfit. As a young man he traveled to Santa Fe with Narbona and watched him confer with Mexican leaders in the Palace of the Governors. An account in Navajo Biographies notes that during his sojourn in Santa Fe, Manuelito found an unexpected pleasure: “When he stepped boldly into the sunlight, he laughed to himself at the reaction of the timid citizens who jumped in spite of themselves at the sight of the imposing young Navajo. He held his face stern and solemn, never looking to the left or right. He could feel the shock of his appearance and delighted in frightening the passersby. He laughed later, ‘Those little Mexicans—they jump around like rabbits!’”
As he grew into full manhood, Manuelito came to think that his father-in-law’s efforts at peacemaking were wrongheaded, naïve, and ultimately ruinous for the tribe. He was present at Bear Springs when Narbona and Doniphan signed the first big treaty, and he was present when Col. John Washington’s men cut Narbona down.
Through it all, Manuelito had seen where diplomacy led. He had felt his world shrinking. He had watched his people’s pride wither under the politics of concession. And so he urged his countrymen: No more.
If Manuelito was an absolutist, other Navajos were willing to bend and accommodate. They frequented the American forts to trade and drink, to gather whatever sorry crumbs might be tossed their way. Some Navajo women became whores for the soldiers. Other Navajos hired themselves as quislings, spying on their own people or guiding military expeditions into their homeland. One man in particular, a notoriously clever Navajo traitor named Sandoval, became so good at playing both ends against the middle that his band acquired the name Diné Ana’aii, the Enemy Navajo—an aspersion by which his descendants are known to this day.
Despite what Manuelito said about them, the Americans weren’t all bad. In response to the drought, the fort commanders had pursued a policy of mercy (or at least one calculated to deter raiding) by dispensing rations to the hungriest Navajos. It was easier to feed Navajos than fight them, went the new catchphrase. From the gates of the fort, soldiers handed out supplies of meat and flour to the Navajo throngs. Ration day became a festive affair, a day of good cheer—one captain at Fort Fauntleroy sensed a new “friendly feeling” within the tribe. It was only natural that the Navajos and soldiers would hatch the idea of crowning the day with a series of horse races. The spirited contests seemed to symbolize the tentative détente.
Now the moment had come, the day’s grand finale. Rafael Ortiz and the young Navajo rider nosed their horses up to the starting line. As was traditional at the fort, the racers did not wait for a gun to start; instead they relied on an informal honor system in which either rider could call for a restart if he thought his opponent had bolted early. Three times the Navajo boy turned back, but on the fourth attempt, the two riders sprinted across the dusty flats as the liquored crowds roared in delight.
At first the two horses kept pace with each other, but by the end of the first furlong the spectators could tell something was wrong with the sorrel. The Navajo rider was having trouble controlling his mount, and soon he veered completely off the track. Ortiz continued on, his thoroughbred galloping effortlessly across the finish line.
The Navajos were shocked and then outraged. Their inspection of the sorrel suggested foul play: Its bridle had been slashed, they said. Someone had sabotaged the horse. They demanded a rematch.
But the soldiers refused. Dr. Kavanaugh’s thoroughbred had won fair and square, they insisted. They collected their wagers and marched around the parade grounds with Kavanaugh’s horse, flaunting their victory. Said one participant: “A procession of the winning party went whooping and hallooing” to the sound of “drums beating, and fifes and fiddles screeching.”
The Navajos returned to their camp and sulked. Like so many other times since the Americans had arrived, the Diné felt they’d been double-crossed. There was much discussion about what to do next. Most thought they should cut their losses and go home. But a group of hotheads, drunk like their soldier counterparts, had other ideas. They rose up and stormed over to the fort. They swaggered over to the guardhouse, yelling insults and half-audible threats, demanding that their wagers be returned.
Then, from within the gates, the crack of a rifle pierced the afternoon air, and Fort Fauntleroy was plunged into chaos.
The officer in charge of Fort Fauntleroy, Col. Manuel Chaves, was a legendary Indian-fighter hugely admired within the territory, second in reputation only to Kit Carson himself. Short, stocky, and fierce-tempered, Chaves had a crinkled face of olive skin, a thick beard, and long raven hair that skimmed his shoulders. The forty-three-year-old Chaves hailed from a venerable family that dated back to the first colonists of New Mexico, and whose Portuguese and Spanish ancestors had won glory in crucial battles that drove the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.
Manuel Antonio Chaves was born along the bosque near Albuquerque and grew up in the tiny frontier settlement of Cebolleta on the contested edge of Navajo country (the same isolated village the young warrior Narbona had nearly destroyed in his great siege of 1804). As a young man, Chaves had traveled widely—St. Louis, New Orleans, New York City, even Cuba—but most of his life he spent in the open country of the New Mexican borderlands, living as a sheep rancher, occasional slave-raider, and, when called upon, captain of the local militia. He was a beloved, larger-than-life figure, a favorite son of the province. His bravery in the field of battle had won him a nickname: the Little Lion.
Ironically, the Little Lion had won his fame chiefly for fighting Navajos. Nearly all his life he had lived close to the Diné, had grown up with their outrages, had pursued and killed them. He could name more than two hundred relatives, including two of his own brothers, who had been slain by Indians—most of them at the hands of Navajos.
Chaves had nearly died in a Navajo clash. Only sixteen at the time, the pluck he demonstrated in the incident made him a household name throughout New Mexico. The year was 1834. His older brother Jose decided to lead a slave raid into Navajo country and invited young Manuel along as a kind of initiation rite. (The men from Cebolleta, capitalizing on their geographical proximity to Navajo lands, had long specialized in hunting slaves and had made it a considerable part of their local economy.) Departing from Cebolleta, the small, well-armed party traveled deep into Dinehtah, looking for some unsuspecting woman or child to capture. To their bewilderment they never saw a soul—the country seemed strangely flushed clean of people. But when they came to the rim of Canyon de Chelly and peered down into the great gulch, they found their answer: Thousands of Navajos were gathered on the sandy floor, reveling in an enormous ceremonial dance, their horses all herded together in a tight branch of the canyon. Alarmed by the large numbers of the enemy, Jose Chaves realized he was tempting fate. He directed the party to turn around and leave at once.
But they were too late. Diné scouts had spotted them, and soon hundreds of warriors appeared. They knew that these invading Nakais, as the Navajos called New Mexicans, had come to hunt slaves. So the warriors attacked with righteous fury. The Chaves party was assailed by a storm of arrows. Young Manuel fought as best he could until he lost consciousness. The Navajos, satisfied that they had killed every last man, finally ceased fire. After taking the party’s guns and ransacking the supplies, they returned in triumph to the canyon.
Manuel awoke several hours later to discover that he had seven arrow wounds. He was disoriented and desperately weak from blood loss. Everyone in the party, including his brother, was dead. Manuel took measure of his predicament: He was more than two hundred miles from home, in a hostile country he did not know, sixteen years old and lacking a weapon, with several thousand Navajos encamped close by. Manuel buried his brother in a shallow grave, then started trudging south by southeast. After two days of walking in desolate desert country, he came to a familiar place—Bear Springs, future site of Fort Fauntleroy. In the cool spring water, he washed his wounds and assuaged his hunger by sucking the sour pads of prickly pear cactus. Feverish, his arrow punctures hot and swollen, he somehow summoned the strength to continue walking. At times he lost consciousness and frequently fell into hallucinations, but a few days later young Manuel Chaves staggered into Cebolleta, the sole survivor of the expedition.
Chaves later fought with distinction alongside U.S. troops in the 1847 counteroffensive against the Taos insurrectionists, but he was a volunteer, not a career army regular. In 1861 it was an unusual arrangement for a territorial volunteer, even one as accomplished as he, to command a U.S. fort of such importance. But these were unusual times: Back east, the Civil War had begun. News of Fort Sumter had finally reached New Mexico, and soldiers were steadily departing the territory in droves and heading east for reassignment. To take their place, New Mexican volunteers had been hastily raised to man outposts like Fort Fauntleroy and keep a lid on hostilities as best they could.
While these new Hispanic recruits temporarily solved the manpower crisis, their presence in Navajo country had less-than-savory implications. Professional U.S. soldiers could at least claim some level of objectivity in the conflict. Not so with the New Mexicans. Their hatred of the Navajo was personal, ancestral, seemingly irreconcilable—and the Navajos, of course, felt the same way. The two groups, locked in their age-old antipathy, were the Southwestern equivalent of Jews and Arabs, or Turks and Greeks: There was too much bad blood between them, the patterns too firmly ingrained.
Photo Insert 2
“God in a war-torn country”: Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, commander of New Mexico and architect of the Navajo Long Walk.
“Much is expected of you, both here and in Washington”: Colonel Kit Carson, field commander of the Navajo campaign.
Odd fellows: A gathering of Masons in the Santa Fe hall, 1865. Carson (center) is seated beside Carleton (right) in front.
“No command should ever again enter it”: The great sandstone chasm of Canyon de Chelly.
Masada of the Southwest: During the winter of 1863–64, starving Navajos took refuge atop Fortress Rock, deep within the Canyon de Chelly complex.
“I have nothing to lose but my life”: Navajo headman Manuelito, son-in-law of Narbona, was one of the last to surrender to the American army.
“Severity will be the most humane course”: A soldier counts Navajo prisoners at the Bosque Redondo reservation.
“We know this land does not like us”: Navajo headman Barboncito, whose passionate eloquence may have swayed Sherman to abandon the Bosque Redondo experiment.
“I believe you have told the truth”: General William Tecumseh Sherman decided the fate of the Navajo people.
“Compadre, adios”: Kit Carson photographed during an 1868 trip to the East, a few months before his death.
“A class of men as antiquated as Ulysses belonging to a dead past”: Kit and Josefa Carson grave site in Taos.
The captain of adventure: Cover of The Fighting Trapper, published in 1874, one of the scores of “blood and thunder” dime novels starring a largely fictionalized Kit Carson.
Putting New Mexican recruits in American uniforms, furnishing them with good weapons, and stationing them at a volatile place like Fort Fauntleroy thus had shades of the fox guarding the henhouse: It was only a matter of time before something dramatic would happen, especially with a ferocious fighter like Manuel Chaves left in charge.
The report of the rifle boomed across the grounds of Fort Fauntleroy and echoed off the distant canyon walls. Alarmed, soldiers seized their weapons and scurried about the grounds of the fort in great confusion. As one witness described it, “Every man ran to arm himself. Companies did not regularly form, but every man ran wherever he thought fit.” The word was, one of the drunk Navajos had tried to force his way past the sentinel guarding the entrance of the fort. The sentinel fired and killed the Indian on the spot.
In the field outside the fort, hundreds of Navajos scrambled for cover. It is unclear who gave the order, or if it was simply a spontaneous thing, but the soldiers aimed their rifles and started firing into the crowd, drilling bullets into the backs of the fleeing Indians. In twos and threes, the Navajos dropped in their tracks. Other soldiers chased after their victims on foot and ran them down with bayonets—not only warriors, but women and children.
An eyewitness, Capt. Nicholas Hodt, later described the sickening scene to an investigative committee set up by the U.S. Congress: “I saw a soldier murdering two little children and a woman. I hallooed immediately for him to stop. He looked up but did not obey my order. I ran 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.”
Outraged, Hodt arrested the soldier and ordered him to hand over his cartridge belts.
Out of the chaos, Col. Manuel Chaves asserted his authority: But instead of calling his troops to order, he only escalated the action. He ordered an artillery sergeant to bring out the mountain howitzers and open fire. Captain Hodt said the sergeant “pretended not to understand the order given, for he considered it unlawful. But being cursed by the officer of the day, and threatened, he had to execute the order or else get himself in trouble.”
Howitzer shells arced and exploded over the field, sending shrapnel in all directions. Screaming Navajos ran in wild patterns across the valley below the post. It was a wholesale slaughter: More than 20 Indians, many of them women and children, lay dead in the field. Scores more were wounded, and 112 were taken prisoner.
After the shelling subsided, Captain Hodt brought the man he’d seen murdering the Navajo children to Lieutenant Ortiz (presumably the same lieutenant who had raced Dr. Kavanaugh’s thoroughbred). He described to Ortiz the atrocity he had witnessed out in the field and explained why he had disarmed and arrested the man. Ortiz responded by pulling out his own pistol, cocking it, and aiming it at Hodt, shouting: “Give this soldier back his arms, or else I’ll shoot you, God damn you!”
He reluctantly obeyed, but reported Ortiz’s actions to Colonel Chaves. Hodt received no satisfaction from the Little Lion, however. On the contrary, Chaves said that Lieutenant Ortiz “did perfectly right” and thought the soldier who killed the two children deserved “credit,” not censure. Case dismissed.
Later realizing that things had perhaps gotten a bit out of hand, Chaves went to work on damage control. In his report to authorities in Santa Fe, he stated “with great regret” that the Navajos, without provocation, had “attacked the guard of the post,” and that his men were only acting in self-defense. He tried to cover up the incident, or at least control the rumors emanating from it, by not allowing any letters to leave the fort for weeks.
But it was a massacre, pure and simple, and when authorities in Santa Fe found out about it, they suspended Chaves from command of Fort Fauntleroy. Briefly, Chaves was held under house arrest in Albuquerque in preparation for a court-martial hearing, and Kit Carson was sent there to conduct a preliminary investigation. The army, it seemed, was less concerned with the colonel’s possible role in the mass slaughter of fleeing Navajos than with the revelation that Chaves had permitted his soldiers to wager government property on horse races.
The trial never came to pass. With the storm clouds of the Civil War looming on the horizon, and with the ranks of the U.S. Army in consequent disarray, the incident at Fort Fauntleroy was all but forgotten. Charges were dropped and, if anything, the Little Lion won public adulation for taking such a hard line against “attacking” Navajos.
Never again would there be horse races at Fort Fauntleroy. The shaky truce was over. The massacre would have a profound influence on the Diné, moving them deeper into the “fearing time.” From that point on, the tribe would increasingly see the wisdom of Manuelito’s path, especially now that U.S. troops were abandoning the frontier forts to prepare for the invasion of a Confederate army that was rumored to be advancing from San Antonio. The Americans were clearly distracted. Something was pulling them away—Manuelito and the other warriors could sense a new opportunity. Now, they said, was the time to strike.