Modern history

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Chapter 45

THE CONDITION OF THE TRIBES

General Carleton was alarmed and even panicked by the crop failure of 1864, and he flew into a frenzy of activity to rush more food and supplies to the bosque. For all his character deficits, it cannot be said that the Christian general lacked a conscience. He realized that if he did not do something drastic, he would be responsible for the deaths of thousands. “These Indians are upon my hands,” he wrote. “I cannot see them perish either from nakedness or hunger.” Through a relentless campaign of personal persuasion and correspondence, Carleton succeeded in shipping tons of emergency foodstuffs to the bosque. Realizing that the whole experiment was in jeopardy, he wrote Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in Washington, pleading for more rations and materials. The Navajos, Carleton wrote, “will upbraid us for having taken their birthright and left them to perish. With other tribes we have acquired ever since the Pilgrims stepped on the shore at Plymouth, this has been done too often. For pity’s sake, if moved not by any other consideration, for once treat the Indian as he deserves to be treated.”

He ordered four thousand sheep and gave specific instructions on how to economize on the meat. “The whole animal, including what the butchers call head and pluck, must be used,” he wrote the commanding officer of the camp. The mutton was to be incorporated into stews, soups, blood puddings, and even haggis. When informed that Navajos did not traditionally eat soup, he insisted that they learn: Soup would be their salvation, and it must become their daily ritual. Said Carleton: “It must be inculcated as a religion.”

In the meantime, Carleton urged his officers at Bosque Redondo to try to buoy the spirits of the Navajos. “Tell them,” he wrote, “to be too proud to murmur at what cannot be helped. Tell them not to be discouraged but to work hard, every man and woman, to put in large crops next year, when if God smiles upon our efforts, they will, at one bound, be forever placed beyond want and be independent.”

From his Santa Fe headquarters, Carleton went into a kind of overdrive. He commissioned the planting of more than 12,000 trees. He ordered that every last glop of bacon grease be saved and reused. He requisitioned 13,000 yards of cloth, 7,000 blankets, 20 spinning wheels, 50 corn mills, and thousands of needles and spools of thread. Upon hearing that feral hounds had become a nuisance, he proclaimed that “all dogs found at large will be shot.” To make the farms work more efficiently, he arranged for the delivery of an enormous bronze bell; cast in St. Louis and weighing one thousand pounds, the bell was rung throughout the day to call the Navajos to work and mark the hours, much like steam whistles used in Northern factories, or slave horns on Southern plantations.

Carleton’s ideas for improvements kept flowing—he couldn’t help himself. “You must pardon me, for suggesting all these details,” he wrote one beleaguered officer, “but my anxiety is so great. Every idea which comes into my mind I will send to you and believe that you will enter into the spirit that animates me for the good of the Indians.”

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Carleton became increasingly preoccupied with locating Manuelito and coaxing—or forcing—him to surrender. If he could nab the most famous Navajo holdout alive, it would signify the end of all resistance and the triumph of the Bosque Redondo idea. In February 1865, General Carleton sent Navajo runners into Diné country to try to convince Manuelito to emigrate to the reservation. He had been hiding with his band of nearly one hundred warriors and a dwindling number of horses and sheep. But when the runners caught up with him near the Zuni trading post, Manuelito told them again that he would never go to Bosque Redondo. “My God and my mother live here in the west,” he says, “and I will not leave them. I could never go far from the Chuska Mountains where I was born.”

Hearing of Manuelito’s continued defiance, Carleton sent a terse dispatch back to the commander of Fort Wingate: “Try to get Manuelito,” he said. “Have him securely ironed. It will be a mercy to others whom he controls to capture or kill him at once. I prefer that he should be captured. If he attempts to escape, he will be shot down.”

However, a few months later Manuelito made a surreptitious journey to Bosque Redondo to see for himself what conditions were like. He hardly recognized his own people. Everyone seemed listless, melancholy, in a collective state of shock and depression. Among the Navajos, Bosque Redondo was known as Hwelte—their mispronunciation of the Spanish word fuerte, or fort—a word now synonymous in the Navajo language with “a place of suffering.” Diseases like smallpox and dysentery were rampant, but the Navajos did not know where to turn for treatment; the traditional healers, lacking their familiar herbs, were increasingly powerless, while the army hospital was a fearful place where, as one headman put it, “all who go in never come out.”

Crops were failing again, this time as a result of hailstorms and floods. The turnips had dry rot. Out in the fields, the farm machines sank in the mud. Some of the rations issued were found to be contaminated with ground plaster and rat droppings. Navajo urchins could be seen crawling in the corrals and stables, sifting the manure in search of undigested corn to eat.

Manuelito conferred with other headmen of the tribe. He spoke with Barboncito, the short, bewhiskered medicine man from Canyon de Chelly who was fast emerging as the most prominent leader of the Navajos at the bosque. Barboncito was in many ways the antithesis of Manuelito; he was a serene and reflective man, slight and wiry, with small agile hands, a diplomat by instinct, and an eloquent public speaker. But he was an old friend of Manuelito and had fought with him on that early April morning in 1860 when the Navajos attacked and nearly overran Fort Defiance. Barboncito made it clear to his old comrade that he saw no future for the people at Hwelte. “Here I own nothing but my own body,” he said. “I have no stock, I have nothing. In this place, I know the Great Father is a long way off.”

Manuelito was repulsed by the truly pathetic state of his people. He returned straightaway to Navajo country under cover of night, despite Carleton’s orders that soldiers “must kill all Male Indians found outside the Reservation without a passport.” Manuelito burrowed even deeper into the recesses of his homeland and tried to keep quiet. But his exile was taking its toll on both him and his followers. With so little food and so many spies hounding him from all sides, he knew he couldn’t hold out forever.

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Meanwhile, the four hundred Mescalero Apaches sharing the reservation with the Navajos had come to the end of their patience. Outnumbered by Navajos twenty to one, they were especially miserable at the bosque. They had refused to send their children to Carleton’s school and had completely given up trying to plant corn. Unlike the Diné, the Mescaleros had no tradition of agriculture and had come to view the work required to grow crops—while an interesting novelty at first—as beneath their dignity. At the most basic level, they did not understand the life Carleton wanted them to live; and to the extent that they did, they abhorred it.

One day at Bosque Redondo, Cadete, the great Mescalero chief, fell into a conversation with Capt. John Cremony about the Mescalero’s view of work. With frank eloquence, Cadete explained his people’s disdain for the white man’s mode of existence. “You desire our children to learn from books, and say, that because you have done so, you are able to build all those big houses, and sail over the sea, and talk with each other at any distance, and do many wonderful things,” Cadete told Cremony, who recorded the conversation in an 1868 article published in the magazine Overland Monthly:

Let me tell you what we think. You begin when you are little to work hard. After you get to be men, you build big houses, big towns, and everything else in proportion. Then, after you have got them all, you die and leave them behind. Now, we call that slavery. You are slaves from the time you begin to talk until you die; but we are free as air. The Mexicans and others work for us. Our wants are few and easily supplied. The river, the wood and plain yield all that we require. We will not be slaves; nor will we send our children to your schools, where they only learn to become like yourselves.

When Cremony tried to debate some of Cadete’s points, the captain found it “utterly impossible to make him comprehend the other side of this specious argument.” The Mescaleros’ hatred of the bosque was so palpable, and their rejection of its day-to-day life so complete, that Cremony thought they were unteachable.

One morning in early November 1865, the soldiers at Fort Sumner awoke to discover that the entire tribe of Mescaleros had bolted from the reservation. The Indians had carefully planned their nighttime breakout, scattering in all directions of the compass, then reconvening in the mountains of their homeland. To effect their escape—and also to pay a parting insult to their hated fellow tenants—the Mescaleros absconded with some two hundred horses owned by the Navajos. The army picket guards scarcely bothered to pursue them, and though embarrassed by the episode, Carleton didn’t press the matter.

The Mescalero Apaches never returned to the Round Forest.

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Increasingly, officials both in Santa Fe and Washington were beginning to view the experiment at Bosque Redondo as a tragic, and extremely costly, mistake. Carleton was spending nearly $1 million a year and yet the miserable Navajos had not made the slightest progress toward self-sufficiency. The place was cursed, it seemed. Endless bad news seemed to emanate from the bosque: a scurvy outbreak, measles, floods, more attacks by Comanches, more escapes, more crop failures. The alkaline water was now “saturated with animal and vegetable impurities,” according to the post surgeon. The soldiers stationed at Fort Sumner plainly hated the place and found Bosque Redondo a hellhole.

The growing consensus was that the Navajos should all be moved to another location, perhaps back to their own lands, but ideally to somewhere in Oklahoma, the preferred dumping ground for all Indians since the time of Andrew Jackson. Clearly the site on the Pecos, with its barren land and putrid water, was not working—it was literally killing the Navajos. Perhaps the most vocal of the critics was Dr. Michael Steck, New Mexico’s superintendent of Indian Affairs. An earlier proponent of the bosque, Steck gradually came to see Carleton’s policy as “terribly misguided.” He stepped up his attacks on Carleton in the press and even traveled to Washington to make his case, saying that the general would be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Navajos. Steck’s more sensible suggestion was to create a Navajo reservation on the Little Colorado River, within the old Navajo country itself. This was more or less what General Canby had had in mind in 1860. Steck thought that if Canby’s original plans “had not been broken up by the war, I have little doubt the Navajos would this day be at peace, and supporting themselves, instead of being an enormous tax upon the treasury.”

A new superintendent of the camp, A. Baldwin Norton, was appointed in early 1865, and upon surveying the premises, rendered his verdict in no uncertain terms. “If they remain on this reservation, they must always be held there by force, and not from choice,” Norton wrote. “The sooner it is abandoned and the Indians removed, the better.”

But Carleton would not entertain any criticism of his pet project. He was nearly obsessed with the bosque—Gen. William Sherman said he was “half-crazy on the subject.” He argued that the future of New Mexico rested on the long-term success of his experiment, and on whether the United States government “has the determination and ability to hold this formidable tribe.” Virtually a dictator now, Carleton was able to squelch dissent by maintaining a state of martial law throughout the territory, even though the threat upon which he’d originally justified it—a possible reinvasion by the Texans—had never materialized. Carleton’s many arrogances made him more and more enemies, and the newspapers began to attack and ridicule him. The Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican called him “this curse, this clog upon the territory.”

A satirist in the Santa Fe Gazette penned a popular poem that made fun of Carleton’s quixotic experiment on the bosque—

Fair Carletonia dressed in flowery pride,

Where the swift Pecos rolls its rushing tide,

Here captive tribes no longer sad but gay,

In honest labor pass the lengthened day.

By interest bound; but by the bonds confined,

The once wild Indian curbs his roving mind,

Bends his whole will at once to earnest toil,

And draws abundance from the virgin soil.

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In April 1865, Lee and Grant signed the armistice at Appomattox and the Civil War ended. Suddenly the environment in Washington changed. Political leaders, having focused for four years on the miseries and devastations of the war, awakened to the reality that yet another war was taking place out west. Two months later Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, chairman of a committee investigating the hydraheaded muddle that was U.S. Indian policy, led a congressional junket to the Southwest. In large part he was coming to study the Chivington massacre at Sand Creek as well as the spiraling disaster at Bosque Redondo.

Senator Doolittle interviewed Kit Carson at great length and even spent the night in the Carson home. After dinner the senator pressed him for stories from his old trapping days, and though it took some prodding, Carson did not disappoint. He kept the whole entourage up “far into the small hours of the morning,” Doolittle said, with tales of being treed by grizzlies and the like. The senator was smitten. “Knowing him as a bear-hunter and an Indian fighter,” Doolittle later wrote, “you can hardly imagine the impression which this most unassuming man with a voice almost feminine in accent and expression made upon us.”

In their official interviews—recorded by congressional stenographers and later cleaned up into a lofty prose that could not have been his—Carson had much to say on the subject of Indian affairs. Doolittle clung to his every word, and Carson’s ideas were prominently featured in the massive report the Doolittle Committee later produced, entitled The Condition of the Tribes, now a classic of Western studies. “I came to this country in 1826,” Carson began modestly, “and since that time have become pretty well acquainted with the Indian tribes, both in peace and at war.”

His thinking on the subject of Indians had evolved over the past several years. He now seemed to believe that most of the troubles “rose from the aggressions of whites.” Carson had nothing but criticism for Chivington and his actions at Sand Creek, which apart from being a cold-blooded mass murder had done nothing to make the people of Colorado more secure; on the contrary, it had set off a chain of aggressions among the tribes of the southern plains, threatening to consume the whole region in war. (Doolittle clearly agreed and soon would describe Chivington’s attack to the secretary of the interior as a “treacherous, brutal, and cowardly butchery, an affair in which the blame is on our side.”) Unable to continue a military career due to his failing health, Carson seemed more interested in playing a role of diplomat to the tribes of the southern plains. “In view of the treatment they have received,” he told Doolittle, “I think that justice demands that every effort should be made to secure peace with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes.”

As for Bosque Redondo, Carson had little praise for it, but neither did he see an alternative. The conflict between the New Mexicans and the Navajos was “an hereditary war,” one that “had about always existed” with “continual thieving back and forth.” At least Carleton’s reservation at Bosque Redondo had broken the ancient cycle of violence. “If they were sent back to their own country tomorrow,” Carson told Doolittle, “it would not be a month before hostilities would commence again.”

Carson moved on to discuss other tribes—Comanches, Jicarillas, and his beloved Utes—and through it all sounded a clear note of alarm that Indians as a race were fast heading for extinction, “due in great measure to their intercourse with white men.” They had nowhere to go—white settlers were now everywhere, pressing in from all sides. “Civilization,” he said, “encircles them.”

Doolittle asked why so many New Mexicans were against Carleton’s plan to keep the Navajos at the bosque—what was the real source of the growing criticism? Carson answered with what to Doolittle must have seemed a refreshing honesty. It was because the New Mexican slave traders no longer had reservoirs of slaves to draw from, because the markets were drying up—“because they [the New Mexicans] cannot prey on them as formerly,” Carson said.

Doolittle could not help noticing, however, that Carson had his own Navajo servants helping out Josefa around the house. And perhaps, Doolittle also saw little Juan Carson, the Navajo boy who seemed to run around the house just like any other family member. During the weeks ahead, the senator would learn that several thousand Navajos were serving as slaves or peons throughout the New Mexico Territory—nearly one-third of the census of the entire tribe. In Santa Fe alone there were more than five hundred Navajo servants working in both Spanish and Anglo homes. It was New Mexico’s dirty little secret. Doolittle was finally absorbing the uncomfortable truth that the United States, having fought a bloody war in large part to banish the evil of chattel slavery, still had slavery flourishing in various pernicious forms in the West.

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The congressional entourage moved on to Santa Fe to question Gen. James Carleton. The general was happy to unburden himself of all his theories on Indian affairs, and also to provide the congressional aides with reams of documents and copies of his personal correspondence. Carleton defended his bosque experiment tenaciously, insisting that the Navajos were being treated “with great kindness.” Over time their steady exposure to agriculture and sedentary society would show the Navajos “the evils to which their course of life tends.”

Reservations—functioning like “islands in a great sea…inviolate to the encroachments of whites”—were the only hope of saving the Indian, Carleton said. Although he had so far been unsuccessful in converting the Navajos, he still believed Christianity would play an important role in their transformation. “The natural decay incident to their race must find its remedy in a power above that of mortals,” Carleton wrote in a follow-up questionnaire to Doolittle.

However, Carleton was not optimistic about the future of American Indians. Reservations might slow their demise, but ultimately it was their destiny to die out in the divine battle for survival of the fittest. “In their appointed time,” Carleton wrote, “God wills that one race of men—as in the races of lower animals—shall disappear off the face of the earth and give place to another race, and so on in the Great Cycle traced out by Himself, which may be seen but has reasons too deep to be fathomed by us. The races of the Mammoths and Mastodons, and the great Sloths, came and passed away: The Red Man of America is passing away!”

Doolittle was impressed by Carleton, if not exactly enamored of him. But during his time in New Mexico, the senator had heard an earful about the serious problems at Bosque Redondo, and before he left the territory, he paid a reservation a visit. Conditions there were alarming enough that he recommended that the Department of the Interior conduct its own separate inquiry into the bosque—which it soon did.

Both at home and within the army, criticism of Carleton began to mount: allegations of financial irregularities, political favoritism, invasions of civil liberties. People had grown weary of his high-and-mighty posturing and his insufferable lectures. Mainly, though, the criticisms centered around his beloved bosque—the spiraling costs, the failed crops, the unwarranted deaths.

Then, in September 1866, the general received notice that he would be removed from his command by early spring. Carleton protested and asked that a board of inquiry review the case, but General Grant denied his request. The territory rejoiced, and the Weekly New Mexican fairly screamed good riddance to “this man Carleton, who has so long lorded it amongst us.” Two months later, control of the reservation was officially transferred from the military to the Indian Bureau, which fell under the Department of the Interior.

Carleton was to assume a new post in Louisiana, but continued to argue vehemently that the Navajos should stay at Bosque Redondo. Having invested so much in the experiment, he could not turn loose of it, even as he was exiting the stage. In a sad way, it represented his life’s work. Until his death, in fact, he seemed blind to the horrors he had wrought. Three thousand Navajos—one out of every three captives held there—died at Bosque Redondo.

Carleton also failed to acknowledge in his correspondence this conspicuous fact: No gold was ever found in Navajo country.

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The bosque’s architect was gone, but life there crept miserably on for another year. The same week Carleton received his transfer orders, Manuelito—wounded and starving to death—staggered into Fort Wingate on the edge of Navajo country and gave himself up. He and his band of two dozen emaciated followers had been eating berries and sucking on palmilla roots. One of Manuelito’s arms had an infected bullet wound and now hung limply at his side. Manuelito was soon removed to Bosque Redondo, the last of the great Navajo headmen to capitulate.

In the spring of 1868 the Navajos refused to plant altogether. The irrigation ditches ran dry, the fields lay fallow. The Diné had given up. They spent their days gathered around the issue house—“like steel filings around a lodestone,” according to one account—waiting for the daily dole.

Yet in late May there were rumors circulating through the reservation that an important bilagaana was coming to the bosque. He was from the place they called Washington and knew the Great White Father himself. Barboncito, the Navajo medicine man, had been told that this leader, whoever he was, planned to make important decisions about the future of the Navajos.

Their fate would rest in his hands.

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