Modern history


Chapter 43


They marched with nothing but the wretched clothes they were wearing. In a column that stretched for many miles, they tramped through the blustery snows of the high desert spring. Before they’d even passed out of Navajo country, tears of homesickness welled in their eyes. Faces that had always known suffering were now filled with new depths of anguish and sorrow—yet many faces were also touched with a faint hope. They trusted that any existence would be better than the life of paranoid squalor they’d been living for the past year. They had little conception of where they were going, or what sort of home to expect once they arrived. All they could do was keep on walking, toward the east.

East was the direction of hope, after all—the direction that every Navajo hogan faced to greet the morning sun. But east was also the direction from which the bilagaana had come. There was a paradox to this, and also an admonition: Ever since they could remember, the Diné had been told never to leave the confines of their four sacred mountains. If they did, the ceremonials would cease to work. Ancient chants would become meaningless, and even the best medicine men would lose their touch. And so, as the refugees filed out of Navajo country, past Acoma and Laguna pueblos, and down into the Rio Grande rift, they began to fear the consequences of drawing so close to the land of the sunrise.

For a short time, they could swivel their heads and take comfort in the sight of their familiar Blue Bead Mountain—Mount Taylor—rising over the brown plains, its broad shoulders still shawled in snow. But after another day or two of marching, the mountain began to grow wispier, its bold blues hazing into nothing, until it disappeared altogether. From then on, as they climbed mesas, plunged down bajadas, and inched across the prairie, they could see no more vestiges of Navajo country. And still they marched east.

Most of them were guilty of nothing more than being Navajo. The errant young men responsible for most of the raids represented but a small percentage of the tribe. Yet now the many would pay for the malefactions of the few; now all the Diné would finally suffer for the trouble caused by its most incorrigible members. It was the poorest Navajos, the ladrones, who had surrendered first. They were the sickest and weakest, the ones who had lacked the wherewithal to hold out. Now they had less than nothing—not their health, not their animals, not even a country.

Men like Manuelito were not among them. Manuelito was one of the ricos—he had sheep enough to eat and barter his way across Navajo lands, to keep on the move, to resist. “I shall remain here,” he told one army scout who sought his surrender through an intermediary. “I have nothing to lose but my life, and that they can come and take whenever they please.” Manuelito was a strong and defiant man, a man of uncommon pride. But he also had something that the ladrones did not have when they finally did the unthinkable and gave themselves up: He still had food in his belly.

Now they had food, too, if that’s what you called the rations the bilagaana provided along the march. The bacon was rancid and caused the Navajos to retch. They had coffee beans but no means to grind them. The daily ration of wheat flour was virtually useless. Although there was nothing particularly wrong with it, most Navajos had never seen flour before and didn’t know what to do with it. So they just stuffed it into their mouths, uncooked—and naturally grew sick.

General Carleton ordered his soldiers to treat their charges with “Christian kindness”—and reminded them that the goal was to transport them to Bosque Redondo as swiftly and safely as possible so that soldiers would never have to fight them again. If the guards mistreated them, the Navajos would desert and return to their country, and the wars would begin anew. The Navajos, Carleton said, were now “protégés of the United States—a people who, having given up their country, should be provided for by a powerful and Christian nation.”

Kindness may have been the policy, but as almost always happens in the escalating confusion of a refugee evacuation, the best intentions slipped. Army command devolved into chaos. Soldiers raped women, denied rations, and pushed elderly marchers to the brink of death. Cruel guards occasionally shot those who couldn’t keep up and left them to rot where they lay. And soldiers looked the other way as old enemies of the Navajos—the Zuni, the Jemez, and the New Mexicans—had their fun with the helpless trains of emigrants, stealing women and children away in the night. The slave raids became so prevalent that an American officer circulated a warning that all guards “must exercise extreme vigilance or the Indians’ children will be stolen from them and sold.”

Hundreds of Navajos succumbed to sickness, exposure, and exhaustion. The erratic spring weather for which New Mexico is famous only worsened the ordeal. On March 21 a blizzard fell on a party of nearly a thousand marchers. Army quartermasters were not prepared for the storm—they had not procured enough firewood or blankets to go around. Many of the Indians were nearly naked and soon developed frostbite. By the time this unfortunate column reached the bosque, 110 Navajos had died.


There is no indication that the author of all this misery, Gen. James Carleton, ever saw the forced relocation as it was actually happening. For the most part he stayed in his Santa Fe headquarters and kept his tireless pen scribbling. But he received constant updates and descriptions of the hegira that was sweeping across the vast territory he governed. The march was a beautiful metaphor, he thought, an image that epitomized the inevitable last stages of Manifest Destiny—an eastward-moving counterpoint to the greater westward migration of Anglo-Saxons.

“The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers is a touching sight,” Carleton wrote. “They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with heroism; but at length, they found it was their destiny, too, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race.”

Carleton was so pleased with the progress of his Navajo campaign that late that summer he allowed himself an uncharacteristic vacation. He had long wanted to climb Baldy Peak, an enormous treeless slab that hovered over Santa Fe. More than twelve thousand feet high, roamed only by mountain sheep and the occasional bear, Baldy was then mistakenly thought by many to be the loftiest point in New Mexico. And yet despite its obvious allure, no white man had ever climbed it—or so Carleton had been informed.

So one day in August, the general and several of his friends set off for the majestic mountain and reached its summit in a few days. There was a beautiful little lake near the top, a cold blue tarn now known as Lake Katherine. From Baldy’s lichen-splashed boulders and high meadows of wildflowers, Carleton could gaze west and see the Navajo country. With the sweep of his eye he could take it all in, his newly won domain. He could see the spurred foothills and notched mesas where he was sure gold would be found (and in a few months, in fact, he would give a certain businessman-prospector named Albert Case Benedict the power of attorney to hunt “any ledge, lode, or vein of gold-bearing quartz” in the general’s name).

Perhaps, if he looked in the right place with his field glasses, Carleton could also see the “touching sight” of the dust clouds being kicked up by the Navajo refugees as they marched toward their new home at the bosque. Carleton lingered at the breezy summit of Baldy Peak only long enough to do what a conquering U.S. general might be expected to do when perched atop his conquest: He planted an American flag.


For a brief time Carleton seemed indeed to be standing on top of the world. The citizens of New Mexico loved him—they called him the “deliverer of the Southwest.” President Lincoln praised his efforts. The territorial governor created a special day of “prayer and thanksgiving” in his honor. The newspapers hailed him as a Roman god.

“Behold him!” one editor wrote, somewhat facetiously. “His martial cloak thrown gracefully around him like a toga, his teeth set firm, his Jove-like front. Carleton rules the land.”

The general was pleased to learn that thousands more Navajos were now assembling at Fort Canby and Fort Wingate and preparing to head east. Nearly the entire Navajo nation had surrendered—or was on the verge of doing so. For most of the Navajos the march took about three weeks, depending on the weather, trail conditions, and the exact route followed. It was not a single migration, but a series of them carried out in many stages, the ungainly process stretching out over many months. But taken all together, it was a forced relocation of biblical proportions, one of the largest in American history—second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees. Throughout 1864 and on into 1865, nearly 9,000 Navajos would emigrate to Bosque Redondo; approximately 500 would die along the way.

The Navajos had their own name for the great exodus, one that was eloquent in its understatement: The Long Walk.

For most of the Navajos, the last desolate stretches of the march were the hardest. In those final miles the land grew sparer and flatter and less like home. The sunbaked ground seemed to crackle underfoot, and the uninviting country, whose elevation was several thousand feet below that of the Navajo lands, was studded only with cholla cactus, mesquite, and creosote. The featureless plain was uninhabited, although in the distance one might see the occasional javelina or pronghorn antelope moving in the heat shimmer. Finally, the marchers dropped down into the valley of the Pecos, and like an apparition, there it was—the bosque, a great clump of shimmering green, guarded over by a new adobe stronghold called Fort Sumner.

It did not look so terrible at first. A shady place along a not inconsiderable river, with loads of firewood and plenty of room to move around. It did not resemble a prison at all—there were no fences or walls, no guard towers, no captives shuffling around in irons. The Diné’s movements were to be policed only by “pickets”—small encampments of soldiers placed strategically, but loosely, along the perimeter. And what a perimeter it was: The reservation, the Navajos were told, was a giant parcel of land stretching out on both sides of the river as far as the eye could see. It was, in fact, forty miles square, an area nearly as large as the state of Delaware. The proportions of this alien place were at least familiarly huge—almost Navajoan—in scale.

Within days of their arrival, the Diné were put to work digging a seven-mile-long acequia madre on the east side of the river—with numerous lateral ditches—to irrigate the many thousands of acres of fields that Carleton planned to sow. Other Navajos helped army engineers build a dam six miles upriver to control the annual floods, while still others helped the soldiers construct the adobe brick buildings of Fort Sumner—the barracks, the sutler’s shop, the officers’ quarters, the jail. The Navajos were not unmindful of the fact that by doing so, they were only giving the bilagaana a more powerful and luxurious headquarters from which to rule over them.

Carleton wanted a bumper crop that first summer, to get the Navajos on the road to self-sufficiency. And to the soldiers’ surprise, the Navajos seemed to throw themselves into the work with relish. They understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. Agriculture was something they knew and loved. They put in crops of wheat, sorghum, rice, and turnips—but mostly corn, the Navajo staple. By July the cornfields by the river stood lush and tall, the healthy stalks waving brightly in the prairie wind. Carleton was enormously proud to hear about the corn, and he wrote to his superiors that after the harvest “there is no reason why the Navajos will not be the most prosperous and well-provided for Indians in the United States.”


Kit Carson had savored his short leave of absence in Taos. Over the winter, Josefa gave birth to their sixth child, a daughter, whom they named Rebecca. After two months at home, Carson returned to Fort Canby in the spring of 1864 to oversee further mass surrenders of the Navajo. Then, in May, he applied for a new assignment as “superintendent” of the bosque.

Although it was a lackluster administrative post that seemed ill suited to his talents, Carson had in fact campaigned for the job. In a report he wrote at the conclusion of the Navajo campaign, he proposed that the reservation should have a person in charge who was “well versed in Indian character—who knows these people, and by whom he is known, and in whom they have confidence.” The superintendent would “supply their wants, settle their disputes, stand between them and the citizens in their limited intercourse, and instruct and direct their labors. One in fact to whom they could look for council and assistance in every and all emergencies.” Carson thought this post should be filled by a paternal figure, kind but firm, someone capable of retraining the Navajos “without their being made to feel it.” The Navajos, Carson argued, “should not be prematurely forced into the habits or customs of civilized life,” but on the other hand, neither should they be “allowed to retrograde.” In the end, the superintendent should, by steady example, “teach them to forget the old life [while] reconciling them to the new.”

Carson got the job and served as superintendent of Bosque Redondo during its promising early months, when the Navajos were planting their first crops and entering into their new life with at least some measure of hope. He proved a benevolent and fair-minded comandante. The Navajos were in awe of him. Like their own great war god, Monster Slayer, Kit Carson had accomplished something of legendary proportions, something no Navajo thought possible among mortals. It seemed to them that he had thrown a magical lasso around their people and hauled them in. And so out of fear and respect, they gave Carson a new name: Rope Thrower.

During the summer of 1864, as the corn grew tall and radiant, Carson worked tirelessly on behalf of the Diné, pleading for more supplies and medicines, goading the soldiers, hearing the Navajo grievances. He understood how fragile the bosque idea was and recognized that the first few months would set the tone for the whole tenuous experiment. The Navajos, he knew, were watching him for any sign of bad faith. “It is of utmost importance,” he wrote Carleton, “that every promise however trifling should be religiously kept in every particular, else the naturally suspicious mind of the Indian will be alarmed, and distrust will speedily follow.”

Despite his good intentions, Rope Thrower proved ineffective in his new post. Carson was many things, but he was not a bureaucrat. He quickly grew to hate his position, chafed at the rules, seethed at the inefficiency and corruption he saw all around him. He missed Josefa terribly, just as much as he had during his campaign in Navajo country. They were still a world away from each other—the bosque lay some two hundred miles from their home in Taos. Sitting at his desk, shuffling papers he could not read, making requests for food and equipment that the financially strapped, war-torn government would seldom honor, he toiled for three months in misery. Not since he was a saddlemaker’s apprentice had he felt so trapped in a job for which he had no liking—or competence. It was, he wrote, “not the position I contemplated occupying.”

Carson complained to Carleton that he had “no real power or control over the affairs of the Indians, except a moral one.” The job required delicacies of domestic politics that were clearly beyond him. He found that he was regularly colliding with other army and civil authorities, especially the post commander of Fort Sumner. “I expected to order where I now have to request,” Carson groused, “nor do I think it is a position befitting an officer of my rank in the service.” Over the summer Carson tried to resign on several occasions, but Carleton would not accept, assuring him that “there is no disposition to place you in a position beneath your rank.”

Part of Carson’s hatred of his job, no doubt, stemmed from increasing doubts about the long-term feasibility of the bosque. Already, he was beginning to see cracks in Carleton’s shining experiment.

For one thing, the Navajos were not getting along with the Mescalero Apaches, the small tribe with whom they shared the reservation lands. Carleton had put the two tribes together on a mistaken premise: He believed that because they were Athapaskan cousins speaking more or less the same language, they would easily mix. In fact, their hatred for one another had run hot for centuries. Predictably, the Navajos and the Mescaleros soon fell to fighting and had to be constantly policed by armed guards. For Carson, the nearly constant feuding between the two tribes caused endless headaches.

Among other problems, the Mescaleros claimed that at night the Navajos were digging up their graves and clipping fingernails, toenails, and hair, which the Diné medicine men were then using as a powerful shamanic charm. “These nocturnal forays,” notes bosque historian Gerald Thompson, “were the cause of serious and repeated complaint.”

Then there was the problem of housing. General Carleton insisted that the Navajos build apartment-style dwellings much like those in which Pueblo Indians lived. For Carleton, physical concentration was a paramount goal: The sooner they could be brought close together, the easier it would be to watch them, control them, teach them, Christianize them. As with everything else at Bosque Redondo, Carleton personally immersed himself in the nitty-gritty details of the design of these apartments; with all the flower beds and luxuriant courtyards he planned, “no Indian village in the world would compare with it in point of beauty.”

But when Carson put them to work building the first of his planned apartments, the Navajos balked. They could not, would not, live this way. It went against their very nature. If a person died in one of the rooms, the whole building would have to be abandoned: It was chindi. They would prefer to build hogans, but if there wasn’t enough wood for true hogans, they would just as soon live in primitive dirt hovels dug into the ground and spread out over many hundreds of acres.

Their refusal to live in a pueblo was so adamant that eventually even the colossally stubborn Carleton abandoned the idea. They could dwell in hovels, he said, but he insisted that they build them close together in long, organized rows. Superintendent Carson proposed to the Navajos that when someone died in one of lodges, the relatives of the deceased could simply vacate the now ghost-haunted structure and build another one at the end of the row. This scheme worked for a time, but really, the Navajos had no interest in living in a grid—a more haphazard pattern was more to their liking. And so, over time, they drifted back to their old nomadic lifestyle, constantly moving around the barren landscape of the reservation in small family groups, living along matrilineal lines. Yet now the wandering was aimless, without its original point of grazing vast herds of sheep. They moved, it seemed, for the sake of moving, for that is what they had always done.

The Navajos were equally adamant in their refusal to embrace Carleton’s other “civilizing” schemes. With the help of the Catholic bishop in Santa Fe, Jean Baptiste Lamy, Carleton established a church with a full-time priest as well as a school to teach the Navajos reading, writing, and math. But the Navajos could not understand the Judeo-Christian universe—its male monotheism was forbidding to a tribe with so many female gods, its stories of a chosen people half a world away had no relevance, and rituals like communion and confession seemed beyond strange.

The elementary school, on the other hand, seemed to work—at least at first. The Navajo parents sent their children in droves, but this was only because Carleton gave each pupil a meal ticket for daily attendance. Once this incentive was abolished, however, the children stopped coming. The Navajo saw no use for queer marks on a page or a blackboard—and anyway, most of the parents were skeptical of the purpose of the schooling and instinctively resisted any attempt to indoctrinate their children in the white man’s ways.

The failure of the school was a major setback for Carleton, for all along his emphasis had been on the children. The adults he had all but given up on. The traditional life the old folks brought from the Navajo country—“their savage desire to roam about and lead a life of idleness,” as he put it—was too deeply ingrained to change. But in “this spacious tribal reformatory,” the children could be shaped, he felt, and thus the government owed a special responsibility to them. He often waxed sentimental on the subject of “civilizing” Indian youth. His optimism for their future was nearly as strong as his contempt for the defunct mores of their parents.

Carleton took pity on the children, especially the ones who had been orphaned by Carson’s scorched earth campaign. When an order of New Mexico nuns, the Sisters of Loretto, created a new orphanage, he personally brought in the first Navajo child, a little girl. The nuns named her Mary Carleton in his honor.


A host of other problems began to mount at the bosque, problems that kept Superintendent Carson endlessly busy. Many hundreds of Navajos developed dysentery and other intestinal illnesses as a result of drinking the alkaline waters of the Pecos. Although they had no choice but to drink from it, some Navajos thought the river was poisonous, infected with evil spirits.

The American soldiers also found the water repugnant. “The Rio Pecos,” one soldier wrote home to his wife, “is a little stream winding through an immense plain, and the water is terrible, and it is all that can be had within 50 miles; it is full of alkali and operates on a person like castor oil—take the water, heat it a little, and the more you wash yourself with common soap, the dirtier you will get.”

Perhaps an even bigger problem than the bad water was the lack of firewood. Within a few short months the great trees of the bosque had been chopped down to construct the various buildings of Fort Sumner. Now the Navajos had to venture farther and farther away to collect fuel—and usually the only wood they could find was the scrubby, poor-burning mesquite whose deep roots they painstakingly clawed from the ground, often with their bare hands. Later, work details of soldiers and Indians would venture twenty or thirty miles north, cut down stands of piñon, and float the wood downriver.

To control the abuse of food distribution, the army issued paper ration tickets each day, but the Navajos were able to copy the designs printed on them and generate fraudulent tickets by the thousands. Hoping to combat these forgeries, the army then started manufacturing metal tokens. But the young Navajo blacksmiths, who had only recently learned their craft under American tutelage at the bosque, proved singularly adept at counterfeiting the tokens. The army had to send to Washington for coins whose intricate patterns were finally beyond the Navajos’ duplication skills.

Syphilis ran rampant throughout the reservation and the army post alike, the epidemic spread by soldiers who found they could enjoy the services of a Navajo girl for the price of a meal ticket or a pint of cornmeal. Symptoms of the disease were everywhere—strange rashes, patchy hair loss, blindness, the sudden ravings of mental illness. Syphilitic sores were so common that many of the soldiers found it difficult to sit on a horse. The 1st California Cavalry, the outfit to which many of the Fort Sumner soldiers were originally attached, reportedly had the highest incidence of venereal disease of any unit during the Civil War, with army surgeons treating at least 50 percent of the ranks each year.

One officer wrote that the Navajo women “lack the slightest idea of virtue” and suggested that they be kept “as far from the fort as possible,” but his recommendation came to little avail. Some Navajo parents coerced their young daughters—as young as twelve or thirteen—to prostitute themselves so their families could have something to eat. Over time, many Navajo women who frequented the soldiers’ quarters became pregnant; according to Gerald Thompson, a number of these women, ashamed to be carrying the child of a bilagaana soldier, “lost their lives in crude attempts at abortion.”

Another constant worry for the Navajos was the threat of raids from Comanche Indians. Bosque Redondo was set on the edge of Comanche country, and once these ancient enemies of the Navajo realized how vulnerable the reservation was to attack, they went on the warpath. The Comanches would swoop in the predawn hours and steal sheep, horses, women, and children. And because Carleton would not allow the Navajos to be adequately armed, they were virtually helpless to defend themselves.

It was an odd reversal of fate: Now the Navajos had become victims of the same menace they had once so successfully visited upon the New Mexicans. The soldiers at Fort Sumner sometimes gave chase to the raiding Comanches, but usually to no avail. The problem became so grave that by late summer General Carleton began to draw up plans for a major military expedition against the Comanches.

The one success story, it seemed, was that bumper crop of tasseled corn basking in the summer heat. The great furrowed field, and the promise it held, was the only thing that kept Bosque Redondo together. There lay the pride and future—if there was any—of Carleton’s “grand work.”


Only a few weeks before harvest, a soldier inspecting the crop noticed something strange. Little worms, fuzzy and writhing, had infested the stalks. Shucking one of the ears, the inspector saw trouble: The kernels were nubbed and stunted almost beyond recognition, the silk lusterless, the ears rotten. Moving down the long rows, he saw that this ravenous pest, whatever it was, had eaten its way over the whole field. “The cursed insects seem to devour all the grain from the ear,” one puzzled officer wrote General Carleton.

What made the scourge surprising, and so pernicious, was that the worm did its work out of sight, deep inside the husk, offering no outward clue of the damage it was causing. As the seemingly healthy stalks grew tall, the ears were slowly being destroyed from within.

After more investigation, the insect was determined to be a cutworm, and it spelled disaster. Army agronomists were at a loss to explain where it had come from, and so were the Navajos. It was as though an Old Testament plague had descended upon them. Not uncommon elsewhere in the United States, the cutworm had never been a problem in the West before; it seemed to have arrived suddenly and opportunistically, with the first introduction of large-scale monoculture.

When Carleton learned about the cutworm, he became frantic. He urged the soldiers to go into the fields and try to remove the worms from each individual husk by hand—a laborious and of course completely impractical idea born of desperation. He ordered his men to set out pans of molasses at strategic points in the hope that the sweet, sticky liquid would attract the egg-laying moths and drown them.

He tried everything he could think of to arrest this “visitation from God,” as he called it, but it was no use. The corn crop of more than three thousand acres was ruined. The first test had failed. And now, with winter around the corner, it seemed likely that the Navajos would starve.

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