Like the Apaches, who are thought to have preceded them by two centuries, the Navajos broke off from other Athapascan-speaking peoples in what is now western Canada and migrated to the Southwest.
The approximate date given for the Navajo establishing a homeland between the three rivers—
the Rio Grande, the San Juan, and the Colorado—is A.D. 1050.
Also like the Apaches, the Navajos were originally a nomadic and predatory people who supplemented a hunting and gathering subsistence with raiding—
at first on Pueblo peoples, and then on the Spanish. Unlike the Apaches, however, the Navajos, because of contact with the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish, experienced a revolution in life-style and economy.
First of all, they adopted many of the customs—activities such as weaving, pottery making, and farming—
of the villagers in their midst, many of whom fled to their sometime predators during times of warfare with the Spanish (see "The Pueblo Rebellion and Other Rebellions Against the Spanish" ).
Second, the Navajos refrained from immediately eating the sheep they obtained in raids on the Spanish, as the Apaches were wont to do;
instead they slowly built up their herds for both sustenance and wool, becoming in the process master sheepherders.
The Navajos could now support themselves without raiding and pillaging.
But they were still a rugged people.
When Mexicans swept northward on one of their frequent slave raids for Navajo children, the Navajos fought back and then sought revenge through raids of their own on Mexican settlements.
Continuing the common, deadly cycle, Mexican soldiers would then come to punish them,
and they would have to leave their villages for the roaming and raiding life of their ancestors until the troops were gone.
And, as the fledgling United States increasingly turned its attention westward in the first stirrings of Manifest Destiny in the early 19th century,
the Navajos sometimes attacked Anglo-American explorers and traders who intruded upon their domain via the Santa Fe and Gila trails.
Then, during the American usurpation and occupation of the Southwest, the Dine, as the Navajos called themselves, meaning "The People," challenged the United States Army.
In 1846, during the Mexican War that was precipitated by the American annexation of Texas the year before, Colonel Stephen Kearny led a force of 1,600 men,
including Missouri volunteers under Colonel Alexander Doniphan, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, along the Santa Fe Trail into the Mexican province of New Mexico.
During his capture of Mexican towns, including Santa Fe which fell with no Mexican resistance,
Kearny informed the inhabitants—Mexicans and Anglos alike—that henceforth as United States citizens they would be protected for the Indians, who would be punished for any raids upon them.
The Navajos, who as Indians were not considered citizens, were given no such reassurances regarding the still-frequent Mexican slave raids to which they were subjected.
As a result, because of a shortsighted lack of diplomacy, the new conquerors let the Indians know that they were outsiders,
and that American rule would be no more fair than Mexican rule.
The whites soon followed with a military campaign.
That winter, Colonel Doniphan organized his Missouri volunteers into three columns, totaling 330 men.
The Navajos had not yet demonstrated hostility towards American troops. Doniphan’s premise for the operation, however, was the continued marauding by Navajo bands stealing livestock from Mexican and Pueblo Indians.
Ironically, the very next year, Pueblo peoples and Mexicans joined together in a revolt against the American occupiers,
even assassinating the new territorial governor, citing as their reason the appropriation of their livestock by the Missouri volunteers (see "Tiwa" ).
Doniphan’s troops had a difficult time campaigning in the treacherous high country of the lower Colorado Plateau in the winter months.
Few Navajos were engaged in battle or even sighted, and Doniphan’s operation became more of a wilderness exercise, with the harsh elements as the enemy.
But the Navajos took notice, their scouts reporting back to the tribe’s sacred stronghold, the deep and jagged Canyon de Chelly near the present-day Arizona-New Mexico border.
They realized that the Americans were here to stay. They signed a treaty that year and another in 1849.
The patterns of raids and counterraids continued, however, and, during the 1850s, the military launched a number of inconclusive campaigns against the Navajos.
A point of contention between the army and the Indians was the pastureland around Fort Defiance, in a valley at the mouth of Canyon Bonito.
The soldiers wanted the land for their horses. When Navajo herds continued to graze there, as their herds had been doing for generations, the soldiers shot them.
The Navajos then raided army herds to recoup their losses, whereupon the soldiers attacked them.
On April 30, 1860, the Navajos under Manuelito and his ally Barboncito stormed Fort Defiance itself and nearly captured the post before being forced back.
In retaliation, Colonel Edward Canby led troops into the Chuska Mountains in search of Navajos.
The Navajos harassed the column’s flanks, but disappeared into the craggy terrain before the soldiers could counterattack.
It was another standoff, but, wanting to tend their fields and herds, and feed their people, the Navajo leaders agreed to parley.
A truce was reached at a council in January 1861.
It was short-lived.
During the Civil War, with many soldiers heading east to fight in one army or another, an incident occurred on September 22, 1861, surrounding a horse race between Navajo and army mounts at Fort Fauntleroy (Fort Lyon since the war).
Navajos claimed that a soldier had cut their horse’s bridle rein, but the soldier-judges refused to run the race again; the Indians rioted and were fired upon with howitzers.
Twelve Navajos died in the melee.
Meanwhile, Union and Confederate troops fought for New Mexico.
By the spring of 1862, the graycoats had been driven eastward out of the region, and more bluecoats, the California column under General James Carleton, had arrived from the west to occupy the territory.
Carleton, appointed as new commander of the Department of New Mexico, turned his attention to pacifying Indians.
He chose Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson, former trader, scout, Indian agent, and Union soldier, as his commander in the field.
Their solution to the persistent marauding of both Apaches and Navajos was the removal of the Indians from the areas of extensive Mexican and Anglo-American settlement along the valleys and trails.
Bosque Redondo, meaning "Round Grove of Trees" referring to a stand of cottonwoods on an otherwise barren flat of the Pecos River Valley,
was chosen as the site of relocation for both Apaches and Navajos (see "Apache" ).
There, in the isolated eastern part of the territory, the Indians would be watched by the garrison of the heavily fortified Fort Sumner.
After contending with the Mescaleros in 1862 and early 1863, Carleton and Carson turned their attention to the Navajos.
Carson sent overtures to his former friends. Some of the chiefs—
Delgadito and Barboncito—having observed the effective army campaign against the Apaches, were in favor of peace, but not at the expense of trading their ancestral homelands for a piece of infertile soil on the Pecos lowlands,
300 miles to the east, at close quarters with their occasional enemies, the Mescaleros.
They chose instead to follow the path of the militant Manuelito, who sought no accommodation with the army since the horse race debacle.
Carleton sent an ultimatum to the Navajos on June 23, 1863, giving them one month to report to army posts.
The deadline passed. Kit Carson mobilized his force of New Mexico volunteers—Anglos, Mexicans, and a handful of Apache and Ute scouts.
Rather than attempt to track down the Navajo warrior bands in the tortuous canyon and arroyo country,
forcing engagements as previous campaigns had tried to do, Carson launched a cruel but effective scorched-earth offensive against Dinetah, meaning "Navajo Land."
His men relentlessly marched from the Continental Divide to the Colorado, destroying fields, orchards, and hogans, and confiscating livestock, the soldiers living off the Navajo produce when necessary.
During the six-month sweep, Carson’s soldiers reportedly killed only 78 of the estimated 12,000 Navajos, with few casualties themselves,
but they thoroughly disrupted the Navajo way of life and crushed Navajo spirit.
Then, in January 1864, Carson moved on the supposedly impregnable Canyon de Chelly itself, from where the Navajos had made successful stands against the Spanish in earlier times.
Carson blocked the steep-walled canyon at one end, sending troops under Captain Albert Pfeiffer to work through it from the east.
The Indians formed pockets of resistance, some throwing rocks on Pfeiffer’s column from the canyon’s rims.
But before long, the soldiers had flushed out the defenders and taken the sacred Navajo stronghold.
By mid-March, nearly 6,000 half-starving, dejected Navajo people had surrendered to army bases.
The removal began—the "Long Walk" of the Navajo—the Southwest’s version of the Southeast’s "Trail of Tears."
Soldiers escorted 2,400 in the first forced march across 300 miles of New Mexico, about 200 of whom died en route.
By the end of the year, 2,000 more Navajos had given themselves up, making 8,000 in all, the largest tribal surrender in all the Indian wars, and more were herded east.
The remaining 4,000 under Manuelito fled towards the western limits of their domain.
Manuelito himself, the most intransigent of all the Navajo chiefs, eventually succumbed to the war of attrition, surrendering at Fort Wingate on September 1, 1866.
Bosque Redondo proved a disaster for the Navajos—infertile soil, scarce supplies, disease, hostile Mescaleros.
Finally, in 1868, after General Carleton had been transferred and a delegation of Navajo chiefs, including Manuelito and Barboncito,
were allowed to travel to Washington to plead their case, officials finally relented and signed a new treaty with the Navajos, granting them a reservation in the Chuska mountains.
The Navajos made their way back to their
homeland over the trail of their Long Walk and, never making war on whites
again, they began to rebuild their lives.