Modern history


Chapter 40


James Carleton’s personality could not have contrasted more starkly with that of Carson. Yet in one respect they were oddly similar: Like his friend in Taos, Carleton had a curious knack for intersecting with history, for popping up in improbable, far-flung places where important things were happening.

In 1859, for example, Carleton happened to play a pivotal investigative role in one of the darkest and most controversial chapters in the settlement of the West. If his life’s work as a dragoon had been devoted to fighting and studying the Indian tribes of the frontier, this episode brought him face-to-face with the other great tribe of the West—the burgeoning Mormons of Utah.

It was spring of that year, and Carleton was stationed in Southern California, at a place north of Los Angeles called Fort Tejon, when he received orders to proceed with a contingent of dragoons to southwestern Utah to investigate an incident that had happened a little over a year earlier. A large caravan of Arkansas emigrants en route to California had passed through Utah when they mysteriously disappeared at a remote and beautiful stopping point, well known to many travelers, called Mountain Meadows. The caravan—the Fancher Party, as it was known, after one of its Arkansas leaders—numbered more than 120 men, women, and children. It was widely assumed that they had been massacred—by Paiute Indians, Mormon pioneers, or both—but the true facts were not known. No official investigation had been conducted, and no one had been punished for what was surely the most heinous crime, at least in terms of numbers, ever perpetrated on an American immigrant train.

Mountain Meadows was such an isolated spot that it took Carleton and his dragoons weeks of hard riding to reach it, crossing the southern Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, among other obstacles, as he followed the Old Spanish Trail eastward. When he arrived at the site in Utah late that May and began investigating, it was soon obvious to him that all the worst reports were true. Carleton had his men scour the terrain in quadrants, sifting the dirt, painstakingly working inch by inch. The picture that emerged was terrifying: Although most of the very young children had apparently been spared—seventeen juvenile survivors had been placed in foster homes among Mormons living in the area—all of the men, women, and teenage children had been shot, typically in the head, at point-blank range.

Carleton’s chilling report to his army superiors was the first reliable source on the tragedy that became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre—and remains a seminal document in the lingering controversy. By that point in his career, James Carleton was certainly inured to carnage, but he could not hide his shock at the crime scene. It was, he wrote, “horrible to look upon: Women’s hair, in detached locks and in masses, hung to the sage bushes and was strewn over the ground in many places. Parts of little children’s dresses and of female costume dangled from the shrubbery or lay scattered about; and among these, here and there, on every hand, for at least a mile…there gleamed the skulls and other bones of those who had suffered.”

Major Carleton began to interview pioneers in the area. Detective work suited him, and he was good at it. The Mormons who lived not far from Mountain Meadows insisted that the massacre had been committed entirely by hostile Paiutes. But Carleton, like the rest of the newspaper-reading nation, was deeply suspicious. The Fancher Party had been extremely well armed and led by experienced Indian-fighters, and the Paiutes were not known to be particularly fearsome warriors. Not only that, but the children survivors of the massacre reported that among the attackers, they saw white men dressed up and painted like Indians.

By cross-examining witnesses and closely studying the site, Carleton was able to determine, at least to his own satisfaction, that the Paiute role was minimal, that in fact the local Mormons had conceived and carried out the whole affair, apparently with the blessing of high-ranking church officials in Salt Lake—possibly Brigham Young himself. Utah had been seething with tension during the months leading up to the massacre; Mormons had good reason to fear that the U.S. Army was on its way from Fort Laramie to occupy Salt Lake City. All-out war seemed imminent. The polygamous Latter-Day Saints, recalling their history of persecution in upstate New York, Illinois, and Missouri, were in a state of high dudgeon, armed and ready to resist any encroaching Gentiles.

And then, along came the Fancher caravan. To the Mormons, these immigrants were not just any Gentiles: They were from Arkansas, and as it happened, a popular prophet within the church, Parley Pratt, had been murdered in Arkansas only a year earlier. Within the Mormon faith there was a doctrine known as “blood atonement”—which sanctioned the killing of Gentiles in situations when the church was threatened. However, Mormon law forbade the murder of “innocents”—which they defined as children up to eight years of age.

Perhaps, Carleton reasoned, this helped explain why the only survivors of the massacre were little children. On the day of the slaughter, the sobbing youngsters, their clothes spattered with the still-wet blood of their murdered parents, were sent temporarily to live among local Mormons—the very people, Carleton believed, who had made them orphans in the first place. These “foster parents” then had the temerity to charge the U.S. government nearly two thousand dollars to recover the costs they claimed to have laid out in “ransoming” the poor children from the Paiute Indians.

Carleton’s realization of this latest twist in the crime finally set him off: “Murderers of the parents and despoilers of their property; these relentless, incarnate fiends, dared even to come forward and claim payment for having kept…these helpless children. Has there ever been an act which equaled this in devilish hardihood or effrontery?”

The longer he stayed at Mountain Meadows, the more sickened Carleton became. The murderers did not even have the decency to bury their victims. “The remains,” he said, “were dismembered by the wolves and the flesh stripped from the bones.”

Carleton’s men buried the remains of nearly forty members of the Fancher caravan—which was all he was able to find. To mark the site, they cut down several red cedar trees and fashioned a large cross. On the transverse beam, Carleton had his men carve: VENGEANCE IS MINE, SAITH THE LORD: I WILL REPAY.

Then Carleton erected a rock cairn and placed a solid slab of granite in the ground, on which he engraved a brusque inscription: HERE 120 MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN WERE MASSACRED IN COLD BLOOD EARLY IN SEPT. 1857. THEY WERE FROM ARKANSAS.

Carleton’s assignment to Mountain Meadows haunted him for the rest of his life. A new fury entered into his writings, his voice now often infused with an apocalyptic tone. The West was a more intractably violent place than he’d ever imagined, with more turmoil and strife, more intricate tribal clashing than his tidy sensibilities could stand.

His lengthy army report, reprinted for the Congress and published in papers all over the country, was an unsparing diatribe against the Mormon Church. “They are an ulcer upon the body-politic,” he wrote, “an ulcer which needs more than cautery to cure. It must have excision, complete and thorough.” When he returned to duty in California, Carleton had a conversation with a friend in which he went even further: “We might as well look this devil right in the face at once,” he said. “Give the Mormons one year, no more; and if after that they still pollute our soil by their presence, then literally make Children of the Mist of them.”

For two years Carleton’s memorial stood at the site, a raw and eloquent warning to wayfarers. But in 1861, Brigham Young brought an entourage to Mountain Meadows and ordered Carleton’s cross and cairn destroyed. As his subordinates took down the monument, rock by rock, the Mormon prophet said, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I have repaid.”


Shocked by his experience at Mountain Meadows, Carleton returned to Fort Tejon and remained there another year, immersing himself in California’s peculiarly complicated—and bloody—Indian relations. Only a decade had passed since the Gold Rush began, and yet already many California tribes were vanishing, their numbers decimated by disease, displacement, and white militias bent on outright extermination. The massive influx of Anglo-American immigrants, gold-crazed and land-hungry, had accelerated everything in California, including the course of Indian affairs. And so, as would later prove a general truism, California found itself well ahead of the national curve; the rapid demise of the tribes there was only a harbinger of the demise Native Americans would soon suffer throughout the West. The Indians’ predicament in the Bear Flag State became so dire so quickly that a number of officials began to show the first signs of an unfamiliar attitude toward the beleaguered tribes—an attitude that might be described as Christian compassion.

A new notion took hold: The tribes of California must be physically separated from white society as an alternative to their own extinction. They must be relocated on some clearly delineated parcel of arable land sufficiently watered by a river. There, they must be taught the rudiments of farming and animal husbandry. The government must not skimp—it must provide the Indians with modern tools, sound stock, and good seeds so that they might finally stop roving and settle down to earn an honest living as self-sufficient farmers, dwelling collectively on what amounted to a kibbutz. This communal farm must be closely guarded by an army fort, not only to prevent the Indians from straying into the white communities but also to keep ill-meaning white folks from venturing onto Indian land, bringing the scourge of alcohol and other vices with them.

The new policy was tantamount to apartheid, to be sure. But if it was predicated on the prevailing racism of the time, it was also fueled by an emerging humanitarian concern that whole tribes were truly on the brink of expiration—becoming, in Carleton’s alarming phrase, Children of the Mist.

Fort Tejon, where Major Carleton served, was the site of the first laboratory test of this new agricultural ideal—an experiment that in time would evolve into the United States reservation system. The farm created there was the brainchild of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, the colorful naval officer who had made a name for himself with Carson at the battle of Pasqual and who later accompanied Carson on his first transcontinental trip to Washington (the same man who piloted an ultimately unsuccessful program to introduce U.S. Army camels to the deserts of the American West). In the 1850s, Beale was appointed California’s first superintendent for Indian affairs. Progressive for his time, he was appalled by the slow genocide taking place before his eyes. He lamented that California’s Indians had been “driven from their fishing and hunting grounds, hunted themselves like wild beasts, lassoed, and torn from homes made miserable by want.”

So Beale set aside fifty thousand acres of decent land along a river bottom near Fort Tejon and persuaded nearly three thousand Indians (from the Emigdiano tribe and various other displaced tribes of the southern San Joaquin Valley) to settle there. Beale said he loosely based his idea on the Spanish mission system, which had for centuries kept many thousands of California Indians employed (others would say enslaved) in agricultural pursuits. “Surely,” Beale urged, “that which was accomplished by a few poor priests is not too great a task for the mighty republic of the United States.”

California newspapers lauded Beale’s visionary concept and advocated creating a network of similar reservation-communes up and down the Sierra Nevadas. “Either the whole Indian race in California must be exterminated,” argued an editorial in the California Alta, “or they must be brought together, organized into a community, made to support themselves by their own labor; and be elevated above the degraded position they now occupy.”

By the spring of 1854, Beale had forty plows working the ground every day at Tejon Farm—plows driven by young Indian boys who, after a little training, “showed so much dexterity and skill” that it seemed to Beale as though “they had done nothing else their whole lives.” The Indians planted 500 acres in barley and nearly 200 acres in corn. They dug irrigation ditches, raised barns, built houses. Beale’s dream took off, and for several years Tejon Farm showed great promise.

The experiment wasn’t cheap, however. Beale initially requested a federal appropriation of $500,000 and kept asking for more—sums that officials back in Washington considered outlandish. But the California papers, while recoiling at the staggering costs, continued to support Beale’s pilot project. The Alta argued that through Tejon Farm, and others like it, the Indians “could be transformed from a state of semi-barbarism, indolence, mental imbecility and moral debasement, to a condition of civilization, Christianity, industry, virtue, frugality, social and domestic happiness, and public usefulness.”

Tejon Farm failed, in the end, partly because Superintendent Beale imprudently set the reservation on land whose title was legitimately disputed by Spanish-speaking claimants holding prior land grants, and partly because Beale himself was fired from his post (for reasons of partisan politics) just as his pet project was beginning to take off. Still, Beale had tried something ambitious, and he’d demonstrated, for a short time at least, that a sweeping project in agricultural self-sufficiency could work.


James Carleton was influenced by the ideas being tested at Tejon. After he marched to New Mexico as a newly promoted brigadier general in the early fall of 1862, he almost immediately began to apply the Tejon model to the Navajo problem. Carleton saw a way to harness the anxieties that had been stirred up by the Confederate invasion and the still-hovering fear that the Texans might return. If the territory was already on a war footing, the whole society alert and inflamed, then why not direct all this ramped-up energy toward something useful? Carleton immediately declared a state of martial law, with curfews and mandatory passports for travel, and then brought all his newly streamlined authority to bear on cleaning up the Navajo mess. With a focus that bordered on obsession, he was determined finally to make good on Kearny’s old promise that the United States would “correct all this.”

“When I came here this time,” Carleton wrote, “it not only became my professional business, but my duty to the residents and to the Government, to devise some plan which might, with God’s blessing, forever bring these troubles to an end. These Navajo Indians have long since passed that point when talking would be of any avail. They must be whipped and fear us before they will cease killing and robbing the people.” He cited William Arny’s estimate that in 1862 alone, Navajos had plundered more than thirty thousand sheep from Hispanic and Anglo ranches, with total losses amounting to nearly $250,000. “To cure this great evil from which the territory has been so long a prey,” he concluded, “some new remedy must be adopted.”

General Carleton’s “new remedy” was to re-create the Tejon experiment on a much grander scale—and to do it at Bosque Redondo, the place that had so enchanted him when he surveyed the Pecos River in the early 1850s. The idea seemed to come to him fully formed, like Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, as though he’d been pondering it all his life. Bosque Redondo, he said, would be his “grand work,” and he wasted no time getting started. On October 31, 1862, within weeks of arriving in Santa Fe, he ordered the establishment of a new military outpost at the bosque, which he would call Fort Sumner.

A board of army officers sent ahead to study Bosque Redondo reported back to him that the remote site was unsuitable either for a fort or an Indian reservation. As pleasant as this green oasis might be, Bosque Redondo was too far removed “from the neighborhoods that supply forage,” they warned. “Building materials will have to be brought from a great distance. A large part of the surrounding valley is subject to inundations by spring floods.”

Worst of all, the board said, the Pecos River was alkaline and bitter-tasting, with crackly efflorescences of whitish powder deposited along its banks. “The water of the Pecos,” the report emphatically stated, “contains much unhealthy mineral matter.”

Carleton was livid when he read this naysaying report. He dismissed the numerous, and seemingly valid, concerns of his lieutenants and forged ahead. In November he ordered the building of Fort Sumner and then began to draw up war plans to conquer the Navajos and move them all to his beloved Round Forest.

“The only peace that can ever be made with them,” Carleton wrote superiors at the War Department, “must rest on the basis that they move onto the lands at Bosque Redondo and, like the Pueblos, become an agricultural people and cease to be nomads. Entire subjugation or destruction…are the alternatives.” His ultimatums sounded eerily similar to his characterization of the Mormon situation in the Mountain Meadows report: An ulcer upon the body-politic which needs more than cautery to cure. It must have excision, complete and thorough.

When he wrote about his plan for the Navajos, Carleton fairly effervesced. Bosque Redondo was, he said, “the best pastoral region between the two oceans.” The forced removal of twelve thousand people from their homeland might seem cruel at first, he acknowledged, but in the end “severity would be the most humane course.” Once the Diné were resettled on the Pecos, good things would happen. The idea, he said, was to gather the Navajos together “away from the hills and hiding places of their country, and there to be kind to them: to teach their children how to read and write: teach them the art of peace: teach them the truths of Christianity. Soon they will acquire new habits, new ideas, new modes of life; the old Indians will die off and carry with them all the latent longings for murdering and robbing: the young ones will take their places: and thus, little by little, they will become a happy and contented people, and the Navajo Wars will be remembered only as something that belongs entirely in the Past.” Within a decade, he predicted, the Navajos would be “the most delightfully located pueblo of Indians in New Mexico, perhaps in the United States.”

Carleton’s optimism was as infectious as it was naïve; almost all of the territorial leaders rallied around his cause. Through all his bloviating, the general was in fact adding a new conceptual layer to the ancient conflict. Before Carleton’s arrival, the vocabulary of the Navajo wars was centered almost entirely on the principle of punishment—punishment in a raw Old Testament sense. The army was there to “chastise” and “overawe” them, to make them “feel the power and the sting of the government.” But now a certain noblesse oblige had crept into the dialogue, a sense of white man’s burden. Instead of punishing the Navajos, Carleton proposed to teach them, to administer a kind of tough love so that they might become “a happy and contented people.”

His attempt to apply the Tejon model to the Navajo conflict was a forced endeavor from the start, the social equivalent of cramming square pegs into round holes. Carleton seemed not to perceive the glaring differences in the two situations—or if he did perceive them, to discount them. The Indians who came to Tejon had for the most part been unwarlike hunter-gatherers who had voluntarily agreed to take up a new agricultural existence there, at a place not far from their actual homelands. Having lived among the Spanish missions for generations, the methods of intensive cultivation, and the close living arrangements required to support a farm, were not alien to them. What’s more, they were a mishmash of small, weak tribes without a clear common past or a clear common future, their numbers dwindling fast. They had nothing to lose, and possibly much to gain, by embracing Beale’s experiment.

The Navajos were another matter. Theirs was a sprawling nation, wealthy in stock, obdurate in its ways, open to change but only on its terms. The Navajos were already farmers, it was true, but as sheep-loving seminomads they would never favor the compact methods used at Tejon. Having seen what happened to the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon, they were keenly suspicious of social density.

The main difference, though, was the sheer power of the Diné. Although politically amorphous, much like the tribes at Tejon, the Navajos had a stout and tenacious node of culture whose power radiated outward in all directions—a culture with a shared language and belief system and a sharp sense of identity steeped in myths. The proud Diné were not a people who could be easily coerced into doing anything, let alone starting an entirely new life.

What’s more, Bosque Redondo was nearly four hundred miles from Navajo country, set on an enveloping prairie that seemed a world away from the fabulous red rock universe the Navajo knew and loved. Carleton’s plan would thus require a forced relocation on a scale not undertaken since the 1830s, when the Cherokee of the Southeastern United States were made to embark on their bitter Trail of Tears exodus to Oklahoma. If Carleton hoped to corral the Navajos and put them on a farm at Bosque Redondo, he would have to fight. The Diné would never leave their land willingly.

History frowned on his project, certainly. Through the ages, battling the Navajos had consistently shown itself to be tricky and ultimately unsatisfying work, like trying to gather up beads of mercury. The Spanish, through all their efforts, had never been able to exact a lasting punishment on the Diné, and neither had the Mexicans. So far the Americans, during their nearly twenty years in power, had proved similarly ineffectual. What made the mutton-chopped schoolmaster general from Maine think he could do any better?

Carleton had spent his life hounding Indians and honing his ideas on how to do the grim business better, more efficiently. He had a notion about how to bring the Navajos to their knees. It would require a different sort of warfare, a kind of persistent guerrilla activity combined with a ruthless scorched-earth policy—to chase and starve them into submission, to burn their crops, kill their animals, and bring the war to every man, woman, and child in every desolate fold and box canyon. The cumbersome, fussily costumed dragoons of Kearny’s day would never be effective against the Navajos, Carleton realized. “Those wolves of the mountains,” as he called the Diné, would detect a traditional cavalry force many days in advance.

Instead, General Carleton’s men would have to move in the shadows. “An Indian,” he noted, “is a more watchful and wary animal than a deer. He must be hunted with skill; he cannot be blundered upon; nor will he allow his pursuers to come upon him when he knows it, unless he is the stronger.” Carleton had learned much from his study of the Russian Cossacks, and he strenuously argued that the modern U.S. Cavalry should adopt some of the methods of this elite unit in fighting Indians in the West. Like the Cossacks, Carleton insisted that his troops should always travel light and keep after their quarry day and night, moving “not in big bodies, with military noises and smokes, and the gleam of arms by day, and fires, and talks, and comfortable sleeps by night; but in small parties moving stealthily to their haunts and lying patiently in wait for them; or in following their tracks day after day with a fixedness of purpose.”

In fighting the Navajos, the central strategy had to shift; no longer was the goal to exact a swift punishment and then leave; rather, it was to hector them constantly through all seasons of the year, to demoralize through relentless pressure. “The purpose now,” he wrote, “is never to relax the application of force with a people that can no more be trusted than you can trust the wolves that run through their mountains.”


One more rationale, slightly hidden, propelled Carleton’s enthusiasm for flushing the Navajos from their country: He smelled gold.

Perhaps he had spent too much time in California watching other men amass great riches. Perhaps he fancied himself competent enough as a geologist that he could, at a mere glimpse of terrain, infer the presence of precious metal. Perhaps he just let his imagination get away from him. Whatever the case, the general got it into his head, on the basis of no particular evidence, that the Navajo country held the next national mother lode.

The fact was, James Carleton was embarrassed by New Mexico—embarrassed by its poverty, its lack of luster, its low standing in the halls of Washington, where no one seemed to favor elevating the territory to the status of a full-fledged state. According to the prevailing sentiment on Capitol Hill, New Mexico, with its Indian troubles and general squalor, was nothing but a drain on the national budget. For years lawmakers had floated serious proposals to return the territory to Mexico: Why squander any more blood and treasure on such a hopeless cause?

If Carleton was ashamed by New Mexico’s backwardness, he also must have envied his Union colleagues in the East, who were making frequent appointments with glory on the great battlefields of the Civil War. To get ahead in military circles, Carleton realized he would need to do something fairly spectacular in New Mexico—something that would doubtless come with a high price tag. He would need to find a justification, something tantalizing to convince Washington skeptics, already overburdened by the Civil War, that his ambitious projects were well worth the cost.

What if New Mexico held subterranean value? Colorado and California had both had their strikes, why not here? It wasn’t an altogether crazy idea. One had only to look at the territory’s severe geology, its dormant volcanoes and thrusted mountains and otherworldly cinder cones to suspect that something valuable might be down there. In truth, people had been mining New Mexico for centuries. The mythic Seven Cities that first attracted Coronado had never materialized, but there were great stores of silver along the Gila, seams of coal and turquoise in the Ortiz Mountains, and large amounts of copper tucked into innumerable wrinkles and drainages.

But it was gold that most interested Carleton, and he was sure New Mexico would provide it. He wrote to Gen. Henry Halleck, “A country as rich if not richer in mineral wealth than California extends from the Rio Grande, northwestwardly, all the way across to Nevada.” In other words, Navajo country. It was, Carleton said, “a princely realm…a magnificent mineral country. Providence has indeed blessed us, for the gold lies here at our feet to be had by the mere picking of it up.”

Where Carleton obtained his evidence for these claims was not clear—he seems to have simply wished it into being. The more salient point was this: There might be gold in Navajo country. To ensure the safety of geological exploration, and the inevitable onrush of miners once a strike was made, the Diné would have to be removed. He wrote one of his superiors that among his endeavors since arriving in New Mexico was an effort “to brush back the Indians, so that the people could not only possess themselves of the arable lands…of the territory, but, if the country contained veins and deposits of precious metals, they might be found.”

In another letter to General Halleck, Carleton went further. On the Gila River, he claimed, there had been found “one of the richest gold countries in the world.” The discovery’s potential value was so great, Carleton argued, that it would forever redeem the forlorn territory in the eyes of the nation—and might provide the hard bullion needed to help win the Civil War back east. “Do not despise New Mexico, as a drain upon the government,” he wrote. “The money will all come back.”

In his high position, Carleton understood that it would be unseemly for him to hunt for gold himself, but he encouraged friends and subordinates to head out for Navajo country on their own, to scoop up the riches before news of a big strike would spread to the nation and attract the mining hordes. Carleton wrote a captain named J. G. Walker: “If I can help others to a fortune, it will afford me not quite as much happiness as finding one myself, it is true—but nearly as much. My luck has always been not to be at the right place at the right time for fortunes.”


If Carleton thought it inappropriate for an august general to pan for nuggets, neither did he think it right or necessary for him personally to engage the Navajos in the field. Carleton was odd in this way: A finicky micromanager, a man whose mind swam in details, he had invested heart and soul in his Navajo Plan—and indeed was gambling his whole army career on its success. Yet he showed no interest in directing the details on the ground or witnessing firsthand the historic events he hoped to set in motion. He would be an absentee conqueror, running the war from the safe remove of his Santa Fe headquarters, leaving the drudgeries of battle to his field commander.

And there never was any doubt who his field commander would be: Kit Carson. The two men were friends, of course, and had shared colorful campaigns together. But the truth was, Carleton genuinely needed Carson, just as General Kearny had needed him sixteen years earlier and Fremont had needed him before that. Carleton needed Carson’s tracking expertise, his popularity among the territory’s inhabitants, his knowledge of the Navajo and their riddled lands, and his good reputation among other tribes of the region. Carson’s success at Valverde had proven that he wasn’t merely a phenomenal scout; he could actually command troops in the field. Even Carson’s fame could be of use, lending an aura of national legitimacy, and a certain storybook sheen, to Carleton’s homegrown project.

Carleton regarded Carson as uniquely qualified for the campaign—as a godsend, almost—and he was content to leave the conquest of the Navajos in Carson’s able hands. Although Carleton could never be the writer he had aspired to be as a young man, he had ventured west just as Dickens had advised, and now in his lofty position he could write history by making it, with the real-life Kit Carson as his central hero. “The world-wide reputation of Colonel Carson,” Carleton gushed in one letter, “gives a good guaranty that anything that may be required of him, which brings into practical operation the peculiar skill and high courage for which he is justly celebrated, will be well done.”


As a sort of warm-up to the coming Navajo war, the general ordered Carson to lead five companies of the 1st New Mexico Volunteers on a focused campaign to round up a tiny but nettlesome band of Apaches called the Mescaleros. A tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers centered in the Sacramento and Sierra Blanco mountains of southern New Mexico, the Mescaleros numbered little more than five hundred people. Their name derived from the pulpy, fibrous mescal plant at the core of their diet. But far from being sedate root-diggers, the Mescalero Apaches had a well-deserved reputation for ferocious fighting and expert raiding. Along the principal roadways of southern New Mexico, they had taken advantage of the disarray caused by the Texan invasion, attacking wagon trains and ranches with unprecedented viciousness, committing outrages disproportionate to their numbers. The problem with the Mescaleros bore the hallmarks of the Navajo conflict, on a miniaturized scale.

General Carleton decided that the Mescaleros would be the first captives he would send to the freshly consecrated Bosque Redondo—the guinea pigs, in effect, the first experimental participants in his “grand work.” He ordered Colonel Carson to pursue the Mescaleros and give them no quarter until they completely surrendered. They would all have to move to the bosque before winter set in. For the Mescaleros, at least, Bosque Redondo was not an entirely alien place; it was not so very far from the heart of their homeland—less than a hundred miles—and Mescaleros had favored its shady banks for centuries as a summer gathering place.

Carleton made it clear that this precursor to the Navajo campaign was to be an all-or-nothing proposition, and he insisted that Colonel Carson wage it with ruthless efficiency. The Mescaleros, he said, “must be brought to their brutal senses.” He gave Carson a chilling order: “All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them. The women and children will not be harmed, but you will take them prisoners. If the Indians send in a flag and desire to treat for peace, say that now our hands are untied, and you have been sent to punish them for their treachery and their crimes; that you have no power to make peace; that you are there to kill them wherever you find them.”

Carson was appalled by Carleton’s shoot-on-sight policy and refused to obey it. In fact, he accepted the surrender of more than a hundred Mescalero warriors who sought refuge with him. Nonetheless he made quick work of the Mescalero Apaches—the campaign was effectively over in a month. In November 1862, Carson sent five of their defeated leaders to Santa Fe to negotiate with General Carleton. One of them, a headman named Cadete, spoke for the delegation in offering an unconditional surrender: “You are stronger than we,” Cadete said in a passionate mingling of Spanish and his own tongue. “Your weapons are better than ours. We are worn out. We have no provisions, no means to live. Your troops are everywhere. Our springs and waterholes are occupied by your young men. You have driven us from our last and best stronghold, and we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are men and braves.”

Carleton promptly ordered the whole tribe to Bosque Redondo—which, in truth, was not entirely a banishment, the bosque being one of their favorite spots on earth. For them, the bitter pill was not the place of their exile, but rather the manner in which they would have to spend it: Carleton informed them that their existence as roving hunters and root-gatherers was over. They were to become farmers now, a fate unimaginably odious to them. Unlike the Navajos, the Mescalero Apaches considered agriculture contemptible work, a form of slavery in itself, a close niggling activity far beneath the dignity of a free mountain people.

But General Carleton gave them no alternative. By late November the vanquished Mescalero Apaches began to spill from the mountains with their few belongings strapped to their backs and marched to their new life on the Pecos. Delighted with how quickly his plans were taking shape, Carleton dashed off an almost jaunty note to his superior in Washington, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas: “You will feel pleased to learn that this long dreaded tribe of murderers and robbers has been brought to so promising a condition.”


Carson returned from the Mescalero campaign only to learn that Carleton intended for him to pursue the Navajos without delay. But now that he had seen up close what such a merciless campaign would be like, Carson shied from the assignment. If the Mescalero roundup had been an unqualified success, Carson had taken no pleasure in it. He had joined the Union Army to repulse the Confederates, not to fight Indians. He wanted to be back home in Taos with Josefa and their kids. He wasn’t feeling well—his horse accident in the San Juans had taken a toll. He was feeling odd pains in his chest, and found it difficult to sit a horse. He knew that fighting the Navajos would be hard, cold, bitter work, more ambitious by many orders of magnitude than the Mescalero roundup, and he wanted no part of it.

Carson wrote Carleton a letter of resignation dated February 3, 1863. By serving in the army and fighting the Texans at Valverde, Carson said, he had proved his “devotion to that Government which was established by my ancestors.” Carson vowed that if the Texans ever returned to New Mexico, it would be his “pride and pleasure” to fight under General Carleton. But, Carson said, “At present I feel that my duty as well as happiness, directs me to my home & family and trust that the General will accept my resignation…. I am sorry that I am obliged to dissolve our Official conexion, butit shall ever be my proudest thought that I have had the honor and happiness of serving under Brigadier Genl Carleton.”

It was not that Carson disagreed with the basic outlines of Carleton’s Indian policy. On the contrary, during his tenure as an agent for the Utes, Carson had increasingly come to see the wisdom of establishing reservations for Native American tribes—physical separation, he felt, was necessary for the Indians’ own good.

Carson believed that most of the Indian troubles in the West were caused, as he once flatly put it, “by aggressions on the part of whites.” Most of the raids, by Utes and other tribes, were visited upon the settlements only out of desperation—“committed,” he argued, “from absolute necessity when in a starving condition.” White settlers were increasingly encroaching on Indian hunting grounds. Describing the situation among the Utes and Jicarilla Apache, Carson wrote in a dictated report that “their game is becoming scarce, much of it having been killed by the settlers, and a great deal of it driven from the country…they are unable to support themselves by the chase and the hunt.”

At the same time, Carson believed there was no stopping the tide of Anglo-American immigration. As historian Tom Dunlay has pointed out, not even in moments of introspection did Carson question the legitimacy of American expansion into the West, a process that he, along with Fremont and a few others, had done more to set in motion than any American alive. Whites were here now—it was simply an irreversible fact. And their presence put the traditional life of all the Western Indians in jeopardy. Native Americans would have to change, he believed, or they would all die out. Predicted Carson, “If permitted to remain as they are, before many years they will be utterly extinct.”

And so, more or less in keeping with the Tejon model, Carson had throughout the 1850s advocated with growing vehemence the creation of reservations for the Utes and other tribes, at places located far away from all Anglo or Hispanic settlement, where they might learn the arts of cultivation and husbandry while holding on to their own traditions. As he put it, the Indians must be “set apart to themselves.” He truly believed that mingling with whites was ruining their culture. “They should not be allowed to come into the towns,” Carson insisted, “for every visit an Indian makes is more or less an injury to him.” In their encounters with whites, he said, “Indians generally learn the vices and not the virtues” of settled living. Perhaps the biggest problem was liquor—Carson had seen alcohol rip the soul from whole bands of once-proud Indians. “They become accustomed to the use of ardent spirits,” he said, and soon become “a degraded tribe.”

If at all possible, though, Carson preferred creating reservations within, or at least in the vicinity of, a given tribe’s ancestral lands. “In all cases of locating reservations,” he once said, “it would be best to show some deference to the expressed wishes of the tribe.” Euro-Americans, particularly in the boom-and-bust West, were relentlessly mobile. They blew about in the wind—deracinated, it seemed, always in search of better fortune. Miners, traders, trappers, merchants, missionaries, they thought nothing of moving great distances and starting all over when new opportunity struck. The hunger to push on, particularly in a westward direction, was an attribute of the (white) American. But Carson knew enough about Indian culture to recognize that even among nomadic tribes, the familiar landmarks of one’s homeland were profoundly significant—in fact, they were sacred—and one strayed from them with great trepidation. Homeland was crucial in practical terms, but also in terms of ceremony and ritual, central to a tribe’s collective identity and its conception of the universe.

Certainly this was true of the Navajo. They constantly moved about, it was true, but it was a localized nomadism; they seldom traveled far from their outfit. There were taboos against leaving the confines of the four sacred mountains. Carson understood that to uproot the Navajo from their ancient ground and move them hundreds of miles ran the risk of demoralizing the tribe so completely that it could smother all chances of a reservation’s success.

Yet, by experience and association, Carson had plenty of other reasons to want the Diné far removed to a reservation. As an Anglo who had happily married into a Hispanic society, he had doubtless adopted some of the biases and perspectives of his in-laws; living as he did in a Spanish-speaking household with many extended relatives under his roof, it would have been difficult for him not to become, in a sense, Hispanicized in his outlook. During all his years in New Mexico the Hispanic population had regarded the Navajos, often with good reason, as Public Enemy Number One. The Navajo conflict was, Carson said, “an hereditary warfare” that had “always existed.”

As an Indian agent, Carson had become a friend and advocate of the Utes, and the Utes had always considered the Navajo their archenemy. Over the years Carson had also befriended many people from Taos Pueblo, who likewise viewed the Navajo as an age-old nemesis. So in the simplest terms, Carson’s tribal fidelities prejudiced him against the Diné. Throughout his life Carson had always been a loyalist, unwavering in his allegiance to any person or group with whom he had, for better or worse, thrown in his lot. One can imagine that the loyalist in him must have welcomed the opportunity that Carleton now laid at his feet: to remove the scourge of his people, to vanquish the foe of his friends.

Still, Carson begged off. He was just plain tired. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He wanted some taste of a normal home life.

But James Henry Carleton was not an easy man to turn down, any more than Stephen Watts Kearny had been. Carleton refused Carson’s resignation and went to work on him, pulling out all the stops on his peculiarly forceful personality. As a patriot, as a soldier, as a friend, Carson must see this through. It would be the crowning achievement of his career. The people of New Mexico were counting on him.

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