The Long Walk

My new book Valley of the Broken is entirely fictional, but one of the events the story revolves around is unfortunately not. The terrible tragedy of the Navajo Long Walk did happen and has left a scar on the history of the Southwest. The relationship between American Indians and the United States Government has always been complex, and this region of the country was no different. During the middle 1800s, things went from bad to worse between the settlers migrating from the East and the many tribes and nations that lived in the Southwest. 

Under their leader, Manuelito, a large group of Navajo began to raid throughout the New Mexico territory in the 1850s and 60s. This was to protest the newly erected Fort Defiance, which was within the boundaries of Navajo territory. A full-blown conflict was close to erupting when the Civil War started. The need for Union soldiers drew attention and the military away from the Western United States. With most of the soldiers gone, the Navajo and Mescalero Apache increased their raids even more. 

Eventually, this drew some attention despite the Civil War. In 1862, General James H. Carleton was put in charge of the army in New Mexico and ordered to bring security back into the region. With the help of the well-known guide and Indian agent Kit Carson, Carleton decided to confront the Mescalero Apache first. They soon surrendered and were told to move to Bosque Redondo, a remote settlement that was later named Fort Sumner. Carleton told the Apache that they would be allowed to return to their original homes in the future but went back on this promise. Instead, the Apache became forced workers. It was their job to transform the area around Fort Sumner into a huge system of farms. Even though most of them had never farmed before, they were told to create irrigation systems, agricultural fields, and permanent homes.

Once the Apache were sent to Fort Sumner, Carleton created another military settlement, Fort Wingate. This fort was on the eastern border of the Navajo territory. He then met with Navajo leaders and demanded a complete surrender and that all the Navajo people move to Bosque Redondo. This would require a journey of 400 miles away from their plains homeland and into the arid highlands of New Mexico. Not only that, the Navajo would have to live in a community with their traditional enemies, the Apache. 

The Navajo leaders rejected the plan, so Carlton built yet another fort, Fort Canby, in June 1863. It was also located in Navajo territory. From this home base, Carson and his group of 700 men were ordered to ruthlessly harass the Navajo people. Carson told his soldiers to shoot Navajo men who did not peacefully surrender. They were also ordered to take all women and children into captivity, to destroy crops, and kill or capture livestock. The Navajo still refused to surrender, so Carleton told Carson to strike in the heart of the Navajo territory, Cañon de Chelly. Here Carson’s men were ordered to destroy crops, orchards, livestock, food stockpiles, and homes. 

This brutal campaign chipped away at the resilience of the Navajo people, especially as winter hit. By early winter of 1864, 3,000 Navajos had surrendered to Carson and his men. First, the captives were sent to Forts Wingate and Canby. While there, 126 of them died from dysentery and exposure. This was followed by a forced march of 2,000 Navajo people across New Mexico to Fort Sumner, an event now known as the “Long Walk.” Many Navajo, especially the elderly, the sick, and the young, died along the route. 

The first forced march was followed by another in April. This time, another 2,400 Navajo were forced to walk to Bosque Redondo during heavy blizzards and terrible conditions. Again, many died. One account in Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period tells the tragic end of one pregnant Navajo woman:

It was said that those ancestors were on the Long Walk with their daughter, who was pregnant and about to give birth … The daughter got tired and weak and couldn't keep up with the others or go further because of her condition. So my ancestors asked the Army to hold up for a while and to let the woman give birth, but the soldiers wouldn't do it. [One] soldier told the parents that they had to leave their daughter behind. "Your daughter is not going to survive, anyway; sooner or later she is going to die," [he] said ... "Go ahead," the daughter said to her parents, "things might come out all right with me.” But the poor thing was mistaken, my grandparents used to say. Not long after they had moved on, they heard a gunshot from where they had been a short time ago.

The refugees’ worries were not over once they arrived at the camp. It became immediately clear that there wasn’t enough food or supplies to support so many soldiers, Navajo, and Apache. Both tribes lived in near-starvation for the entire winter and spring.

In the end, Carson and Carleton relocated between 7,000-10,000 Apache and Navajo to Bosque Redondo. This was accomplished by 53 forced marches over a two-year period. 

Next, Carleton tried and failed to change the Navajo and Apache refugees into successful farmers. Unfortunately, he underestimated the amount of food that would need to be grown to feed the large population of the camp. He also didn’t realize that crops that grew well back East would produce much less in the arid New Mexican highlands. Lastly, he didn’t consider the long-standing hostility between the two enemy tribes. During Bosque Redondo’s four short years of existence, another estimated 2,380 people died.

Eventually, word spread about the terrible conditions at Bosque Redondo and public outcry forced officials to act. In 1866, the New Mexico Territorial Assembly, in a nearly unanimous vote, asked President Johnson to replace Carleton. It took two more years, but on June 1, 1868, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo was signed at Fort Sumner. The Navajo were then allowed to leave the camp and return to a portion of their former territory in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. This is one of the only Native American tribes that was allowed to return to its traditional territory by the United States government. 

I encourage readers to learn about this neglected part of American history. I grew up in Colorado and studied Western history during my school years, but I was still shocked to learn about the suffering that happened around where I lived. The Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Pueblo tribes, and others, all have their own unique tales of abuse, displacement, and anguish. 

One thread in Valley of the Broken is that evil does not happen in a vacuum. It continues to exist and grow if it is not recognized, repented of, and atoned for. Each of us has a part to play in bringing healing to our nation and all its inhabitants. Understanding our history is a good first step. Valley of the Broken is available now on Amazon. 


Sources and for Further Reading:

1. Bailey, Lynn R. The Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846-68. Pasadena: Socio-Technical Books, 1970.

2. Carter, Harvey Lewis. 'Dear Old Kit': The Historical Christopher Carson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

3. Gordon-McCutchan, R. C., ed. Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer? Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996.

4. Johnson, Broderick H. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk. Tsaile: Navajo Community College, 1973.

5. Kelly, Lawrence. Navajo roundup; selected correspondence of Kit Carson's expedition against the Navajo, 1863-1865.  Pruett Publishing Company, Boulder, 1970.

6. Roessel, Ruth, ed. (1973). Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press