Photos by LTC John Umberger
The Navajo Long Walk: 140 Years Later – Part 2 (part 1 can be found in this issue Vivacini! 02 November 2012) by LTC John Umberger (photos by J.Umberger)
Published in the November 9th issue of Vivacini! To experience a “real magazine”, read the article in the flipping book version here: Vivacini! 09 November 2012.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 it had a serious impact on both the New Mexico Territory and the Navajo
people. Officers and men at Army forts in the territory took sides and left to join the Confederacy or fight for the Union, abandoning many forts in the process. Ft. Stanton, built to keep the Mescalero Apaches on the reservation, closed. With the decrease in the number of troops in New Mexico, Apache and Navajo raids increased. The Navajo hoped to regain
lost land, livestock and captives. The Confederacy also took advantage of these circumstances.
In 1862, the Confederates invaded New Mexico hoping to control the Southwest and seize the rich gold fields of California. The Confederate advance ended at the battle of Glorieta Pass, also known as “the Gettysburg of the West.” To prevent a future attack, the Union reinforced New Mexico with volunteers from California. Brigadier General James Carlton with his “California Column” assumed command of the Department of New Mexico.
Carlton was a man of his times—a firm believer in the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” . . . the American “right” to conquer Mexican and Native American lands and expand to the Pacific Ocean. For many years, the westward rush of expansion
stalled in New Mexico because of the fierce resistance of the Apache and Navajo tribes. Carlton also believed that the Navajo homeland contained vast natural resources to exploit. As military commander, Carlton announced that his policy
was to remove the Mescaelro Apaches and the Navajo to a reservation and “destroy” those who resisted.
In early1863, Carlton established a 40-square mile reservation on the eastern plains of New Mexico and built Ft. Sumner to control it. The reservation, Bosque Redondo or “round grove” was named for the groves of cotton wood trees that lined the banks of the Pecos River. “Go to Bosque Redondo, or we will pursue and destroy you.”
By the fall of 1863, Carlton had raised the 1st Regiment of New Mexico Volunteers for his campaign against the Mescalero and Navajo. General Carlton gave command of the regiment to Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson—well known as a mountain man and Indian fighter who previously served as the Indian Agent to the Ute Reservation. The Ute were traditional enemies of the Navajo. Rather than fight these elusive warriors, Carson launched his first campaign against the Mescalero Apaches with a “scorched earth” strategy. He and his men destroyed the lodges, crops and livestock
of the Mescalero in their strongholds around Sierra Blanca, their sacred White Mountain. With little chance to survive the coming winter, 424 Mescalero, Jicarilla and Gila Apaches surrendered and made the trek to the Bosque Redondo.
Carson next focused his campaign on the Navajo homeland called “Dine’tah,” that occupied the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. On Sept. 19, 1863, General Carlton sent the following order to Carson:
“Say to them, ‘Go to the Bosque Redondo, or we will pursue and destroy you. We will not make peace with you on any other term . . . This war will be pursued against you if it takes years . . . until you cease to exist or move.’”
Using the same strategy, Carson burned crops, hogans (Navajo traditional homes), and destroyed their flocks of sheep and herds of horses. In December 1863, the first 500 Navajo endured the forced march to the Bosque Redondo.
The Battle of Fortress Rock
I began my personal “Long Walk” with a visit to Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, Arizona, deep in the heart of Dine’tah. As I walked the trail, a chase vehicle followed nearby carrying extra water—it was also prepared to rescue me in case of an emergency. The truck was driven by one of my history students, Dennis Garcia. During the day, I walked, Dennis
drove and at night we camped out.
Canyon de Chelly was the site of Carson’s first attack against the Navajo. He’d invaded the canyon in July and August 1863 but withdrew due to the size of the canyon and the fact that he had not captured a sizable number of Navajo. He retreated and launched another major attack in January and February 1864.
I visited Canyon de Chelly in the summer and again in the winter; I was fortunate to be guided around the canyon by Navajo guides Timothy Shirley and Bobby Van Winkle. On a warm day in May, as Dennis and I approached the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, we passed through Navajo National Forest. The forest’s deep stands of pinon pine offered
cool shade at an elevation of over 6,000 feet. Beyond the forest, we descended into a broad valley with red rock mesas to the west and a large expanse of green grazing land that led to the eastern end of the canyon.
To the Navajo, the very heart of Dine’tah is Canyon de Chelly. For centuries, Navajo retreated to their sacred canyon in times of trouble. It was from a giant rock spire in the canyon that Spider Woman first taught Navajo women to weave. With its many sided canyons and secret passages, no enemy had ever seized or held the canyon.
In 1852 the Army, in an effort to control the Navajo, built Ft. Defiance 30 miles from the eastern end of the canyon. Due to the Navajo resistance, all food and supplies for the fort traveled via the military wagon road from Santa Fe. In January and February 1864, Colonel Carson led a raid deep into the heart of Canyon de Chelly, his soldiers destroyed food supplies, burned hogans and killed livestock.
The Navajo had obtained seeds from early Spanish settlers and planted over 6,000 peach trees in the canyon bottom. According to Navajo guide Timothy Shirley, Carson and his men destroyed every tree. Hard pressed, the Navajo retreated to Fortress Rock—a giant stone tower deep in Canyon de Chelly.
In the early morning, Dennis and I arrived at Justin’s Stables at the west end of Canyon de Chelly. With our guide, Timothy Shirley, we planned to ride to Fortress Rock. Timothy was born and raised in Canyon de Chelly—the adopted son of a medicine man’s family. Shirley later attended boarding school in Utah.
Even though in his 60s, Timothy still broke and trained horses for Justin’s Stables. Although he walked with a limp from an old injury, it was hard to keep up with Timothy either on foot or in the saddle. We trotted into a dry wash that led to the canyon. Soon the walls on our left and right grew higher and higher. As we rode, Timothy told us
stories about the history of the canyon and the Navajo:
“The ancient Anasazi lived in the canyon from 200 AD until they suddenly left around 700 AD. Th e Navajo used to live in north central New Mexico and southern Colorado until the 1700s. By then they were under constant attack by the Ute. Around 1700, the Navajo moved west and into Canyon de Chelly for better protection.”
After five hours, we arrived at Fortress Rock. Timothy told us,
“During Carson’s (January 1864) raid, the Navajo held out on top of Fortress Rock until the beginning of February.”
He then guided us to the east side of the Fortress and showed us where the Navajo were able to climb to the top. It was a two-hour ride back to the stables. The canyon was hot and dusty. A strong wind blew in front of us and behind us, driving stinging sand into our faces. Dennis and I were glad to be out of the saddle, but sorry to end this incredible journey through time
Look for Part 3 in the next issue (Novemer 23rd) of Vivacini.
LTC John Umberger, a retired Army offi cer lives
with his wife Judith, in Roswell, NM. Umberger
is a professor of history and social science at New
Mexico Military Institute in Roswell.