In the previous post I orientated you to the Canadian Athabascan origins of the Navajos (and Apaches), the lands the Navajos came to inhabit, the reservation (Rez) they now inhabit, and some other things. Click on this sentence if you’ve not read it yet – and would like to.
Much of the Navajos before their first contact with the Spanish, most likely in 1541, is not well known. There are still many questions. Are they Mongolian in origin as some say? Along what path did they migrate to the Southwest from Canada? Are Athabascan tribes in Oregon distant relatives of the Navajo and Apache? Did the arrival of Navajos and Apaches in the Southwest help cause the relocation of the Ancient Puebloans – the Old Ones – to their modern lands? So on and so forth.
We’ll never know. That’s fine. The allure of the unknown is perhaps better than knowing. The allure is motivation for reading bookish adventures. It certainly was motivation for Dave Roberts to explore the wildest parts of the Navajo Rez in Arizona – which is perhaps literally the wildest land in the whole Lower 48 – and write about his search for Hoskinini’s Hideout during the Union’s brutal campaign against the Navajos in 1863 and 1864.
Again, the words of Roberts’ search in The Lost World of the Old Ones were a vicarious adventure. They were a free joy. I always encourage reading for experiencing this joy – in whichever subject – which also edifies the mind. Those who love the Southwest would appreciate many of Roberts’ books, which interweave history with exploration. (Though, there are others of this genre.)
But the fun of reading Roberts was accentuated for also knowing much of Navajo history. The significance of his search was clear. And perhaps I am making it clear to you, dear reader, by explaining the most significant happenings of what can be known of Navajo history, which, unintentionally, forced me to have one helluva politically incorrect opinion on (some) Indian wars…
The first Navajo contact with Spanish occurred during the 1540 Francisco Coronado expedition (who was looking for cities made of gold). Other Spanish expeditions also roamed across Arizona and New Mexico in the 1500s. But in the 1600s the Spanish started to plant colonies along the Rio Grand Valley in what’s now New Mexico. They subdued mercilessly the far more peaceful Pueblo Indians there. But New Mexican colonists never subdued the wilder Navajos.
They tried. Beginning in the early 1600’s, Spaniards ventured into the maze of colorful canyons, plateaus, mountains and vast horizons of the Navajo’s Dinetah. Some endeavored to subdue all Indians to Catholicism. Some hoped to snatch unaware Navajos, and turn them into slaves, as they’d done more easily with the Puebloans. Sometimes the Spaniards were successful. Mostly they weren’t. Navajo knowledge of their maze trumped Spaniards’ knowledge. Evasion was easy.
Navajos of course fought back. They sent war parties to kill colonists. This initiated over 250 years of killing, which I am saying roughly lasted from 1605 to 1865. Though Spaniards mercilessly subdued Aztecs, Mayas and Incas, they were never able to subdue Navajos, Apaches and Comanches. These tribes were good at warfare. And they were about to get better.
Remember, the Spaniards brought horses, cattle and sheep to the New World. The Navajos had never seen these animals before. Their imaginations were fired for seeing the power and mobility of the horse, and the increase of food supplies by possessing cattle and sheep. Though the Spanish undoubtedly initiated violence against the Navajos, it is not unwarranted to say Navajos came to kill Spaniards with the same impunity, which was fueled by their covetousness for animals. Thus, there comes a point where no one can say one side was good and the other bad. A blood feud is a blood feud.
The full history of that blood feud is not necessary here. I will say though that in 1680 the Pueblo Indians revolted against Spanish rule, and killed 500 colonists, and sent the rest back down to Mexico for twelve years (a history Dave Roberts also wrote about). In the process thousands of Spanish horses in New Mexico were taken by all tribes in the vicinity – Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Apache, Pueblo. Though they already had some in their possession before, as a result of raiding, it was nothing compared to the amount they now had.
Though the Spanish came back in 1692, and were never kicked out of New Mexico again, because they now faced Indians mounted on horses in numbers never seen before, the killing was greatly exacerbated. Warfare became deadlier over greater distances, between all parties. Though there were times of peace between Navajo and Spaniard, and even times of alliance to fight other New Mexican Indians, if you want to depress yourself, read the history of New Mexico in the 1700’s. Read of blood and slavery. As author Raymond Friday Locke says in The Book of the Navajo:
Navajo history of the period between the defeat of the Pueblos and the conquest of New Mexico by the United States in 1846 consists of little more than a long list of raids and counter-raids, of expeditions and punitive expeditions. With the exception of one notable period of uneasy peace between 1720 and the last quarter of the eighteenth century, The People (the Navajos) were virtually constantly at war with the Spaniards of the Rio Grande and occassionaly joined their Apache allies to raid Spanish ranches deep in Mexico…
So bold and strong did the Navajos become after the defeat of the Pueblos that Spanish contempt for the indios bárbaros was soon tempered by awe and they came to be known as Los Duenos del Mundo – Lords of the Earth. Navajo sheep flocks already numbered in the tens of thousands at the beginning of this period and increased yearly as The People looked upon the flocks of the Spaniards and Pueblos as theirs for the taking. On the other hand the Spaniards looked upon Navajo women and children as theirs for the taking and took as many of them as they possibly could…
Yes, depressing. However, fascinating. The lands of the United States that were formerly parts of the Spanish Empire have their own unique histories. New Mexico and Arizona – which were regarded as one province – have theirs.
Things changed forever in the 1800’s. A different white-skinned man, with a more powerful civilization far to the east of the Dinetah, was heading west to encounter the Navajos. They’d heard rumors of these different white men. They’d heard they were taller. They’d heard their weapons were more terrible than anything the Spanish had mounted against them. As the Anglos came closer the wiser Navajos had the terrible foreboding that their existence was to forever change.
And of course there was bloodshed.
Featured image taken from pr10.jpg (600×443) (bookofdaystales.com)