The Navajos knew that Carson was coming to Canyon de Chelly, perhaps even before Carson did. Or at least they assumed that he was coming. Down through the ages, all manner of enemies had trespassed into the great gorge, but usually they would slink home, bewildered by its endless mazes, having caused little harm. The 1805 massacre at The Place Where Two Fell Off was a grotesque exception the Navajos seldom spoke of—a tragedy ascribable to witchcraft, perhaps, or some violated taboo.
In their heart of hearts the Diné had always regarded Canyon de Chelly as their last stronghold and sanctuary, the one place where they felt truly safe. When their wider world was in turmoil, when they could find no relief from pestilence or harrying foes, they had always fallen back here, to hide in the timeless folds.
Along the floor of Canyon de Chelly grew three thousand peach trees, gnarled and scabbed with insect boreholes and now ghostly in the depths of winter, their brittle branches creaking in the wind. These orchards were the pride of the Navajos, the trees hybridized from stock dating back to the Spanish arrival in New Mexico. The succulent fruit they bore helped feed the many hundreds of clansmen who streamed in each fall for elaborate rituals; for nine consecutive nights the people renewed themselves in ceremonial chants, watching their shadows flicker on the thousand-foot-high walls, their lips and fingers sticky with the sour-sweet juice of canyon peaches.
Not only was de Chelly a bountiful place, it was, the Diné believed, protected by supernatural powers no white man could touch. The four yei gods lived deep in the canyon, as did Spider Woman, the great Navajo goddess. Spider Woman was a lovable old crone, cryptic but wise, who gave Navajo women the gift of weaving and otherwise amused herself by inflicting harmless and often instructive mischief on her beloved people. She lived atop a nine-hundred-foot-tall pinnacle erupting from the floor of the canyon that is still known today as Spider Rock. From her commanding perch, Spider Woman surely would look out for the Navajos and protect them from any enemies who presumed to invade her realm.
Back in the summer, when Kit Carson was leading his first campaigns across the Navajo country, the Diné who lived in the vicinity of Canyon de Chelly began to prepare themselves for the coming onslaught. Many miles inside the canyon, near an important junction of two lateral gorges, stood a massive anvil of sandstone well known to the Navajos. Fortress Rock, as it was called, soared nearly eight hundred feet and was connected to the main wall of the canyon only by a thin stone bridge sagging from centuries of erosion. To use an urban analogy, it looked rather like a natural rough draft of New York’s Flatiron Building—a thin monolithic wedge standing at the confluence of three sharply angled thoroughfares. Any stranger who happened to pass by Fortress Rock would doubtless find it impressive if not menacing, but he would scarcely imagine that a path led up its sheer walls to the tableland at its summit.
Yet it was so: Long ago the Anasazi had chiseled a fretwork of toeholds and handholds, almost invisible, into the face of the rock. On top they had discovered that there was enough room for hundreds of people to camp. Various caves and fissures provided welcome places to hide. Scattered about the surface were pocks and bowls that functioned as cisterns to capture rainwater. Fortress Rock was protected from all sides, its parapets were invisible from the canyon floor and too distant from either canyon rim to be within arrow range.
The Anasazi had apparently used Fortress Rock as a secret haven to hide from their enemies; now the Navajos would do the same.
According to Navajo oral history, the Diné met at the base of Fortress Rock sometime in the late summer and discussed what to do. “A frightened feeling had settled among the Navajo people, a feeling of danger from enemies,” says Akinabh Burbank, one of a dozen storytellers poignantly captured in a 1973 oral history. “Now they were moving into our territory to search for us and kill us all.”
The women began to stockpile foods and supplies—smoked mutton, piñon nuts, wild potatoes, juniper berries, dried grain and peaches, blankets, and water-bearing vessels of all kinds. The men, meanwhile, made improvements to the old network of Anasazi toeholds, gouging them deeper, so that children and even elderly Navajos could safely pull themselves up. They shored up a particularly precarious passage of loose rock by building a sturdy wooden bridge. As it was related to historian David Roberts, the Navajos then scaled the last vertiginous heights by laying two trunks of ponderosa pine at sharp angles—trees they had hauled from stands in the Lukachukai Mountains, some twenty-five miles away—cutting the bark with notches to function like rungs on a ladder.
It was a public works project of great ambition as well as peril, one that took weeks to complete. Fortress Rock had always been a formidable place, but through their efforts “this thrusting fin,” as Roberts puts it, had become “the most sovereign of hideouts, the place of ultimate refuge.”
Now that the way up was deemed safe, the Navajos began to haul their supplies and foodstuffs to the top—everything they thought they’d need to get them through a long siege. Then, as winter closed in, the people began to assemble. “You can go to the safe place until the soldiers are gone—we still have time,” says Navajo storyteller Teddy Draper, recalling a story passed down from his grandmother. “Kill most of the livestock and prepare the meat. It is getting cold now, so we have to start. We must be on the top before it snows. The men have been working on the trails. The ladders have been put up. Be strong and prepare to defend yourselves.”
One day in December, as it started to snow, some three hundred men, women, and children, perhaps tipped off by a sentry that the bilagaana army was on its way, ascended to the top and pulled up their ladders and bridges. Hoping the evil might pass beneath them, they planned to dwell in silence for months—and, if necessary, make a last-ditch defense, like the doomed Jewish rebels who defied the Romans from the stone ramparts of Masada.
Some accounts say Manuelito was among the faithful on Fortress Rock, although that is doubtful, because he was also said to be somewhere in the Grand Canyon at that time, and also around Navajo Mountain, and also in the vicinity of Monument Valley. Manuelito, in short, was everywhere—and nowhere—his phantomlike ubiquity made possible by his fame and his great wealth in sheep. His roving defiance was a rallying cry, a source of hope to his people.
As December passed into January, the three hundred Navajos atop Fortress Rock tarried at their now smokeless camps and huddled in their blankets, trying to stay warm. They heard that the American soldiers had been spotted, that the enemy would arrive any day now. They made arrows and sharpened lances while keeping their ears tuned for untoward sounds down in the canyon.
And they waited.
Col. Kit Carson left Fort Canby on the cold, gray morning of January 6,1864. Six inches of snow powdered the ground. The nearly five hundred men under his command moved slowly, and the oxen groaned at the weight of the wagons. Most of the men were on foot, the snow crunching under their boots. They were draped in blankets or serapes, or buttoned up tight in wool greatcoats, their numb hands thrust deep in the pockets. They hated having to greet the New Year in such bleak surroundings, so far from home, in a wilderness so godforsaken. To pass the hours they invented their own battle song, a bit of doggerel that they belted out over the winter solitudes—
Come dress your ranks, my gallant souls, a standing in a row
Kit Carson he is waiting to crush the savage foe
At night we meet and march o’er lofty hills of snow
We’ll first chastise
Bold Johnny Navajo
Colonel Carson rode up and down the column, his jaws clenched in resolve. A few days earlier Carson had assured Carleton that he had “made all the necessary arrangements to visit the Canon de Chelly” and thought Carleton would be relieved to learn that the expedition he had so long insisted upon was finally happening. “Of one thing the General may rest assured,” Carson vowed to Carleton. “Before my return, all that is connected with this canon [canyon] will cease to be a mystery. It will be thoroughly explored [with] perseverance and zeal.”
Carson had divided his command into two units. Taking the larger contingent of 375 enlisted men and 14 officers, Carson himself would head toward the western mouth of the canyon, while a smaller party of approximately 100 New Mexico Volunteers under the command of Capt. Albert Pfeiffer would aim for the eastern end. The plan, which General Carleton played a large role in devising, called for executing a kind of pincer movement, with the two separate detachments traversing the chasm from opposite sides and reuniting somewhere in the middle. The idea was to stopper the canyon at both ends so that its denizens could not easily escape. It was a strategy, Carleton hoped, that would also allow him to achieve maximum shock value. He recognized the symbolic power that Canyon de Chelly held for the Navajos. If Carson could sweep the entire length of it, puncturing its aura of impregnability, the maneuver might demoralize the Navajos far more profoundly than the resulting casualties might suggest. In this sense, the thrust of the coming campaign was less purely military than it was psychosocial: By cutting into the soul of the nation, Carleton hoped to break the people’s collective will to fight.
The snow was more than Carson had bargained for, however. What should have been a three-day march took six, and the oxen, already weak and straining, began to collapse. Along the way, twenty-seven of the beasts died, their hulking bodies capsizing in the drifts and soon freezing solid, their hooves pitched in the air.
On January 12, Carson arrived at the mouth of the canyon, near the present-day town of Chinle, Arizona, and promptly sent out reconnaissance parties in various directions, both along the rims and down in the canyon itself. Sgt. Andres Herrera, with a detachment of fifty men, intercepted a band of Navajos who were attempting to escape through a side canyon. Herrera attacked and soon the vast ochre walls echoed with gunfire. Herrera’s troops killed eleven Navajo warriors and captured two women, two children, and 130 goats and sheep. The battle for Canyon de Chelly had begun.
The next morning Carson began a more ambitious study of the south rim in preparation for his big offensive surge into the canyon, which he planned to undertake in a few days. For many miles he marched along the rim, peering down into the spectral depths, worrying over the puzzling landscape and the ease with which it could conceal snipers or ambushing parties. The idea of taking a party of men through the canyon went against his best mountain man instincts and offended his sense of caution. It looked to him like a trap.
Carson also began to wonder where Albert Pfeiffer and his company might be. Surely Pfeiffer had reached the eastern entrance of the canyon by now and had begun marching westward. Yet as Carson and his men scoured the canyon from its southern rim, they saw no sign of him.
Capt. Albert Pfeiffer was a colorful and somewhat tragic figure. Though a heavy drinker, he was one of Carson’s ablest officers. He had kind blue eyes and a stout build, and while he was an immigrant from the Netherlands, he had lived for some time in New Mexico and had, like Carson, married a local woman. Pfeiffer was tranquil by nature, except when he got into a tight situation. The possibility of combat threw him into a blind rage, causing him to curse wildly in Dutch and transforming him, said one contemporary, into “the most desperately courageous fighter in the West.”
Captain Pfeiffer was still recovering from a brutal incident that had befallen him several months earlier, down in Apache country, where he had campaigned with Carson in the Mescalero roundup. It seems that Pfeiffer suffered from some sort of skin problem—exacerbated by alcohol—that Carson repeatedly chided him about. “When will you have sense?” Carson admonished the Dutchman in a letter. “Can’t you try and quit whiskey for a little while, at least until you get your face cured? If your face ain’t well when I next see you, you had better look out.”
To cure his dermatological malady, Pfeiffer regularly soaked in a mineral hot spring not far from an army fort where he was stationed. One bright day he and his wife were bathing in the spring when a band of Apaches set upon them. Pfeiffer was seriously wounded by an arrow and his wife was killed. Half naked, Pfeiffer somehow managed to straggle back to camp, becoming badly sunburned in the process. Some accounts have it that the murder of his wife changed Pfeiffer forever, turning him into an inveterate Indian-hater.
Captain Pfeiffer and his company of one hundred rank and file reached the eastern end of Canyon de Chelly without incident on January 11, a day earlier than Carson entered the western end. Traveling lighter, and with most of his men on horseback, he had been able to keep a brisk pace. Pfeiffer wasted no time—he dropped down into the canyon, following the route of an ice-rimmed creek until it spilled into a deep gorge. Then he started plodding west.
But he had entered the wrong canyon. Somehow he had skirted the main branch of Canyon de Chelly and had instead entered Canyon del Muerto, a secondary though no less awesome artery of the de Chelly complex.
Pfeiffer blundered ahead, employing teams of sappers, equipped with pickaxes, to break trail through ice and snow. It was extremely tough going, and one of the mules bearing a particularly heavy load broke suddenly through the ice and “split completely open.” With every turn, the canyon’s multifaceted walls bulked larger, enveloping them in an eerie silence. Some men chiseled their names or the letters U.S.A. in the sandstone facades—Kilroys visible to this day. The men found it impossible not to gape at the great opiates of rock and the half-hidden ruins and petroglyphs gracing the walls. But their reveries were quickly punctured when they realized that there were Navajo warriors all around them—perched on the rim, hidden in crannies, watching every move the Americans made. Some of them rose up, Pfeiffer wrote, “and jumped about on the ledges, like Mountain Cats, hallooing at me, swearing and cursing, and threatening vengeance on my command in every variety of Spanish they were capable of mustering.”
Along the way the soldiers captured eight Navajo women and children who were clearly surprised by Pfeiffer’s sudden appearance from the east and had apparently been expecting soldiers to come from the other direction—Carson’s direction. Pfeiffer could see they were desperately scared and impoverished—“in an almost famishing condition, half-starved and naked,” as he later described them. Elsewhere his men came upon the frozen corpses of several Navajos who had apparently starved to death—further evidence, it seemed, that the Navajos were in truly dire straits and that Carson’s long campaign of crop and livestock destruction had exacted a much more serious toll than the Americans realized.
Pushing deeper into Canyon del Muerto, Pfeiffer’s men encountered more and more resistance from Navajos who scurried high along the walls. Some of them presented their backsides to the Americans, and others tried unsuccessfully to detour the invaders into cul de sacs and side canyons. Now the Navajos could be seen on both sides of the canyon, “whooping and cursing, firing shots and throwing rocks down upon my command.”
Captain Pfeiffer had had enough: He ordered his men to open fire. “A couple of shots from my soldiers with their trusty Rifles caused the Red Skins to disperse and gave me a safe passage,” Pfeiffer writes. The volley killed “two Buck Indians and one Squaw who obstinately persisted in hurling rocks and pieces of wood at the soldiers.”
The following day, January 12, Pfeiffer and his men passed Fortress Rock and apparently had no inkling that three hundred Navajos were hidden on top—certainly no mention is made of it in Pfeiffer’s reports. But as is clear in the oral history of the Navajos, the sight of Pfeiffer’s soldiers threading through the canyon left a vivid impression on the refugees camped atop the monolith. Teddy Draper, recounting a story told by his grandmother, says in a published oral history that all the people “were instructed to stay quiet until the soldiers passed us by. From where I was they looked very small, but they were well armed and had good horses. They camped below us at the junction, but our men didn’t try to attack them.”
The warriors restrained themselves, Draper says, only because their leader, a wealthy headman named Dahghaa ’i, informed them that many more bilagaana soldiers had been sighted “at the mouth of the canyon. Their chief commander’s name is Bi’ee’ Kichii’ii—Kit Carson—a very pure White Man.”
As the bleak winter sun slipped behind the canyon walls, the Americans ransacked an old hogan for wood. Bonfires were soon crackling, and the men wrapped themselves in their bedrolls. That night some of the Navajos on Fortress Rock couldn’t resist the temptation to harass the sleeping soldiers with a constant stream of catcalls. Wrote Pfeiffer, “At the place where I encamped the curl of the smoke from my fires ascended to where a large body of Indians were resting over my head, but the height was so great that the Indians did not look larger than crows, and as we were too far apart to injure each other, no damage was done except with the tongue.”
Pfeiffer’s men struck camp early the next morning and kept moving through the bitter cold. At every bend Pfeiffer kept expecting to run into Carson’s men—he thought surely by now he would have seen signs of the larger detachment. Seizing more Navajo prisoners as he went—he now had a total of nineteen—Pfeiffer worked his way through Canyon del Muerto until he reached the place where it junctions with the main branch of Canyon de Chelly. It was only then, as he gazed back at this other, even more massive chasm, that he began to suspect his error. Not knowing what else to do, he continued marching west.
The three hundred people sequestered on top of Fortress Rock were safe for the moment—the threat had passed them by. But several weeks later a well-armed party sent by Carson would return and lay siege to the citadel. The soldiers opened fire, killing or wounding some twenty warriors who’d given away their position by hurling stones from an alcove midway up the face. After the battle the Americans camped at the base of Fortress Rock beside a stream called Tsaile Creek and attempted to starve the beleaguered Navajos into final submission. But unknown to the soldiers, the Navajos on top were already slowly perishing from thirst; the snows had melted away and the natural cisterns had run dry.
So one moonlit night in February 1864, the Fortress Rock exiles devised a plan that is frequently described in Navajo oral histories: They formed a human chain along the precarious toehold path, all the way down to Tsaile Creek, where several American guards lay sleeping. A group of warriors crept out onto a ledge twenty feet over the stream and dangled gourds from yucca ropes, dipping the containers into the cold running water. Working through the night, they filled gourd after gourd—right next to the slumbering Americans—and steadily passed the vessels from hand to hand back up the sheer rock face to the summit. By dawn they had replenished their stores.
This legendary effort—which Navajos who live around Canyon de Chelly insist to this day is entirely true—allowed the three hundred refugees on Fortress Rock to outlast the siege and slip from Carson’s long reach. They were never captured.
Carson spent the entire day of January 13 reconnoitering the length of Canyon de Chelly from its southern rim. He ignored several trails that followed lateral gorges down into the canyon. He did not seem at all interested in descending into the deep rift, even to satisfy a passing curiosity, even just to say he’d been in it. His tentativeness could have been a mark of his oft-described sense of military caution, or it could have been, as some have speculated, that Carson was genuinely queasy about the place. In his younger years Carson occasionally had shown a superstitiousness that made him heed odd hunches and omens. He was the kind of wide-open outdoorsman who instinctively steered clear of crowded rooms or constricted places. Perhaps this explained why he had put off for as long as possible the one campaign that most people—Carleton, especially—regarded as imperative. And perhaps it explained, now that he was finally here, why he stuck to the rim: Canyon de Chelly spooked him.
Carson puzzled over the whereabouts of the other detachment. He was “very anxious about the safety of Captain Pfeiffer’s command.” With morning slipping into a dull gray afternoon, Carson’s apprehensions grew. But around dusk, when he returned to his base camp just west of the canyon’s wide mouth, Carson was greatly surprised and relieved to find Pfeiffer’s company waiting for him. The men embraced each other in camp, comparing notes and drinking coffee around the fires. Although the junction of the two commands hadn’t exactly followed the plan, it had at least happened—and without a single American casualty.
And then another piece of good news fell into Carson’s lap. A small group of Navajos straggled into camp under a flag of truce and offered themselves up. They were weary, starving, and cold, they said, and they’d had enough of this war. Their spokesman told Carson that all of the people in his band, numbering more than fifty, would like to go to Bosque Redondo.
They were pitiful wretches, and Carson treated them kindly, offering them food and drink. But when he sat down for a council with them, Carson spoke in ultimatums: “You have until tomorrow, when the sun reaches its height,” Carson said. “If you do not come in by then, my soldiers will hunt you up and destroy you.”
The next morning, well before Carson’s deadline, a file of sixty refugees tramped in from the canyon and turned themselves in. They offered their complete submission; they were ready to go wherever Carson wanted them to go.
Carson made sure that they were fed and given blankets. Then he listened to what their spokesmen had to say.
“Because of what your soldiers have done,” one of the Navajos said, “we are all starving. Many of our women and children have already died from hunger. We would have come in long ago, but we believed this was a war of extermination.”
When Carson assured them this was not so, they seemed “agreeably surprised and delighted.” Carson went on to explain what Bosque Redondo was, and why the United States government was moving them there. “The government wants to promote your welfare,” Carson told them. “The point is not to destroy you but to save you, if you want to be saved.”
Hearing all this, the band of huddled Navajos indicated that they would go farther afield into their country and convince more to come out of hiding. For hundreds of miles in all directions the people were famished, demoralized, and scared. They would gladly give themselves up if they knew they would not be killed by doing so.
Hunger, Carson realized, had been his greatest ally, and it had exacted a mean price. Peering into the squalid crowd of 60 faces, he must have seen the faces of 8,000—10,000—12,000 more. He now recognized the scope of what he had done—and saw for the first time what his soldiers had reduced these people to. The meaning of “scorched earth” was sitting right in front him.
Carson felt no cause for rejoicing—only the beginning of a kind of relief. The Navajo tribe was still a long way from surrendering, but on that cold morning, something had given. The first group of Diné had voluntarily come in for the first important surrender. At last Carson was able to have a face-to-face discussion with Navajos instead of “communicating with them through the barrels of my rifles.”
He trusted these Navajos when they promised to go out and persuade their clansmen to surrender. As willing emissaries to their own people, they could be far more effective than any number of military expeditions at turning the tide of the war. He told them to return to Fort Canby within a week with as many people as they could gather. Carson would be there himself to greet them, and they had his word that no one would be harmed.
The following day, Carson prepared to leave for Fort Canby. He wanted to be there to receive the expected influx of prisoners as smoothly and cordially as possible; he understood that a careful diplomacy was of paramount importance now—there could not be a repeat of what had happened a few months earlier under the brutish command of Major Blakeney.
Carson would take only a small detachment with him and leave the bulk of the command at Canyon de Chelly in the able hands of Albert Pfeiffer and Asa Carey. He instructed them to stay in the canyon and clinch the victory. The surrender of the first sixty Navajos had changed his whole outlook. It was as though he’d caught a glimpse of the fighting’s end. Fired with a new impatience, he wanted his men to redouble their ruthlessness and press every advantage. Suddenly, it seemed, Carson had got religion—he was almost starting to sound like Carleton. “Now,” he wrote, “is the time to prosecute the Campaign with vigor.”
Carson ordered Carey and Pfeiffer to proceed through the bowels of Canyon de Chelly—the main branch this time—and lay waste to everything: every hogan, every brush arbor, every animal, every store of grain. It was to be more scorched earth, in other words, only this time the work was to be carried out right in the high church of the Navajos. Any Diné who willingly surrendered was to be treated kindly, but holdouts and those attempting to escape were to be summarily shot.
While they were at it, Carey and Pfeiffer could do a little scouting and exploring and even bring along a field artist to make sketches and maps. By venturing to the far eastern end of the chasm, they would fulfill Carson’s earlier promise to Carleton—“…all that is connected with this canon will cease to be a mystery.”
Carson seemed especially grateful to delegate this assignment to Pfeiffer and Carey, for he was thereby relieved from having to venture into the canyon himself. Other commanders would have leapt at the chance to be the first American to penetrate the full length of Canyon de Chelly in wartime—and would have insisted on personally leading his troops on a mission with such glorious historical overtones. But Carson was more than happy to give his subordinates all the credit. In fact, even though his name would be forever associated with it, Carson would never set foot in Canyon de Chelly.
Before he left, however, Carson came up with a diabolical idea, a parting gesture of pure aggression. Probably General Carleton had had a hand in suggesting it, but Carson was the one who issued the command: He ordered his captains to chop down every peach tree in Canyon de Chelly.
As it turned out, Pfeiffer and Carey found that destroying the orchards was impractical in the bitter cold weather, but by summertime Carson’s men would faithfully execute his order. The fabled orchards came under the saw and the torch. Thousands of peach trees, the pride of the Diné, were hacked down.
It’s hard to fathom how this played on the Navajo psyche. To obliterate the grand old orchards was a final thumb in the eye, as if to say, “Everything that you are, everything that you have, is forever disgraced.” The Navajos would never forgive him for it.
Carson swiftly marched back to Fort Canby, and by late January the Navajos started streaming in, first in twos and threes, then by the dozens, and finally by the score. As they’d promised, the sixty Navajos Carson had met in Canyon de Chelly had broadcast the desirability of surrender to their clansmen. Now, they said, thousands more were on their way. “They are arriving almost hourly,” Carson wrote Carleton, “and will I believe continue to arrive until the last Indian in this section of the country is en route to the Bosque Redondo.”
Carson sat down and dictated his report on the Canyon de Chelly campaign, but his account seems to have been hyped and prettified by his adjutant: “We have thoroughly explored their heretofore unknown stronghold,” Carson declared. “We have shown the Indians that in no place, however formidable or inaccessible, are they safe from the pursuit of the troops of this command; and have convinced a large portion of them that the intentions of the Government toward them are eminently humane.” Carson ticked off the vital stats of the Canyon de Chelly mission: “Killed, 23. Prisoners, 34. Voluntarily surrendered, 200 souls. Captured, 200 head of sheep and goats.”
Meanwhile, the floodgates had been opened: By the first week of February 1864, more than 800 Navajos had arrived at Fort Canby. In a few weeks the number swelled to 2,500, with thousands more en route. A reporter for the Weekly New Mexican, seeing all these prisoners awaiting transfer to the bosque, wrote that “daylight is dawning…. Carleton is accomplishing much.” The Santa Fe Gazette reported that “there are at this moment a hundred campfires sparkling amongst the hills [around Fort Canby] and within five hundred yards of this post. These fires are built by peaceful Navajos who have been arriving daily in large numbers. It is a happy omen.”
Actually, the tide of refugees was more than the army could handle. There wasn’t enough food at Fort Canby and Fort Wingate to feed the teeming masses. Carson expressed his alarm to Carleton that the Navajos could well starve, and that the meager army ration was not enough. “I would respectfully suggest to you the propriety of giving to the Indians while at the forts and while en route to the Bosque Redondo, a sufficiency to eat,” Carson argued. “It is while here that we must convince them of the kind intentions of the Government towards them, otherwise I fear that they will lose confidence in our promises, and desert.”
But Carson would not stay long enough at Fort Canby to see the worst of it. Now that he had gathered far more than the general’s quota of one hundred prisoners, Carson was entitled to take his leave of absence and return home. The first week of February he departed with an initial convoy of 253 prisoners. Carson, their conqueror and now advocate, escorted them without incident as far as the Rio Grande. From there he turned north for Santa Fe, while armed guards marched the prisoners the remaining three hundred miles to Carleton’s new reservation on the Pecos.
In Santa Fe, Carson was greeted as a god. People saluted him, embraced him in the muddy streets. The plaza was thronged with celebrants. In six short months he had done something that no field commander over nearly three hundred years of history had been able to do.
General Carleton was fulsome in his praise, calling Carson’s triumph the “crowning act in a long life spent fighting the savages among the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains.” In a glowing report the general sent to superiors in Washington, Carleton pointed out that Canyon de Chelly had been “the great fortress of the Navajo tribe since time out of mind. Colonel [John] Washington and many other commanders have made attempts to go through it, and had to retrace their steps. It was reserved for Colonel Carson to be the first to succeed.”
What’s more, Carleton was so encouraged by the huge numbers of Navajos streaming into Fort Canby—now four thousand and growing—that he declared a “suspension of arms.” On February 27 the general confidently wrote to Washington: “You have doubtless seen the last of the Navajo war.” As usual, Carson felt uncomfortable with the public’s adulation and was quick to point out that it was Carey and Pfeiffer who had actually made the historic penetration of Canyon de Chelly.
The truth was, Carson was in no shape to celebrate his victory—even if he was inclined to accept it as such. He was near exhaustion and in increasing pain. He did not know it yet, but something was growing inside his chest that was slowly killing him. His horse accident years ago in the San Juans had apparently caused the formation of an aneurysm on his aorta—a tiny balloon that was steadily expanding and would prove immediately lethal should it burst. He knew something was not right. As Tom Dunlay described it, “An enemy he could neither outwit nor outfight was on his trail.”
He wanted no more of the Navajo wars. “The state of my health warns me,” Carson wrote, “that I can no longer render my country efficient service.” As quickly as he could slip from the clutches of the adoring capital, Carson sped home to Josefa.