As stated in Part II, though the Navajo had been fighting New Mexican colonists for centuries, literally, and had demonstrated themselves indominable, there was a growing foreboding within wiser Navajo ranks of a new type of white man coming from the east with far superior weapons and numbers. But the final showdown with the United States was still decades away.
The year is now 1820 – 222 years after the first Spanish colony within New Mexico had been planted.
New Spain – Mexico – had been fighting for its independence since 1810. In 1820 Mexico won it. New Mexico was regarded as part of Mexico. The biggest change for New Mexico after independence was that Mexico opened up its borders to commerce with Anglo-Americans of the growing United States (which Spain had vehemently prohibited). A trade route between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri was established and called the Santa Fe trail. It was in the early 1820’s that Navajos first saw the Anglo-Saxon man.
A necessary part to this history is Texas’. Men of Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish descent started emigrating into the fertile river valleys of the Texas Colorado and Brazos in the early 1820’s. They came under the protection of a liberal Mexican constitution, and became Mexican citizens. However, the beginning of a century of instability of a national government at Mexico City produced a murderous tyrant named Santa Ana as president. He was hostile to the Anglo-Celts of Texas for seeing them as the vanguards of a landgrab backed by the United States – and he was probably right.
Santa Ana sent armies north to Texas in late 1835 to get rid of the Texians. They declared Texas an independent nation on March 2, 1836, and had formed themselves in small armies to repulse the Mexican invasion. On April 21, 1836 the Texians defeated Santa Ana at the Battle of San Jacinto and (somewhat) secured their independence. However, Texas claimed its southern border was the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed Texas’ southern border was the Nueces River, further north. This dispute was to serve as the cause of another war after Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845.
In 1846 American troops were sent down to the Rio Grande River to establish the claim that the southern border of the United States was now the Rio Grande. There they built Fort Brown. The proximity of the fort to Mexican soldiers at Matamoros led to shooting, as was hoped for by President James K. Polk, and war was declared on May 13, 1846.
American armies were sent to Alta California and Old Mexico. Another one of 2,500 Missouri volunteers marched along the Santa Fe Trail that resulted in a bloodless conquest of New Mexico. The winner of the Mexican-American War was never in doubt. American General Winfield Scott captured Mexico City on September 14, 1847. The result was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo wherein United States annexed the lands shown on the map below.
The Navajos were soon to fight that new enemy.
President James Polk annexed a huge chunk of land as a result of the war with Mexico. The Anglo Americans would now inherit the centuries-old conflict with the Navajos.
It was in this epic where Anglo-Americans were first introduced to the bloody nature of life in New Mexico. Whereas before Americans knew next to nothing of this centuries-old conflict between New Mexicans and Navajos, it didn’t take long for them to realize this was a serious thing. Thus, the American government, in an attempt to win over the loyalty of the 15,000 to 20,000 Spanish-speaking colonists in New Mexico, swore to protect them from Navajo raids.
Of course New Mexicans were just as guilty in perpetuating the blood feud. However, the Americans came to take the New Mexican side of the conflict without question. This cemented Navajo hostility towards Americans. Another factor was the fact that the Navajo had no chief. The Americans assumed they did. Thus the Americans felt betrayed when one band of Navajos would raid even though it was another band that made a peace treaty. Navajos in Arizona felt no obligation to follow treaties made by Navajos in New Mexico. Thus, many Americans thought the Navajos were the most treacherous Indians they’d ever encountered. But it was that their tribal structure was the most different.
Now, some on both sides saw the situation for what it was. They knew the violence was a tragic mistake. But the killing resumed, and the wise knew they were being pulled into a situation of unequalled violence. The 1850’s attested to this. It was going to get worse.
Then came the Civil War in 1861. Then came an invasion of New Mexico and Arizona by a band of Texans. Though they won a couple of battles in New Mexico, and though the Confederate flag flew over Tucson, by 1862 they were thoroughly routed from the Southwest, and never made another attempt to retake it.
In the process, a Union general named Carleton, who had previously been in California, was called to New Mexico to reinforce Union troops should Texas once again invade the Southwest. Carlton, before he was ordered to New Mexico, had been furthering plans to establish reservations in California with the isolated band of disappearing Indians there.
Upon finding green land on the Pecos River called Bosque Redondo, he became enchanted with the idea of a full scale resettlement of Navajo’s from the Dinetah onto the Pecos. Here they would learn agriculture. Here they would forever give up raiding. Then, there would finally be peace in New Mexico. Though many subordinates opposed Carleton’s idea, believing that Bosque Redondo was incapable of supporting a large population, Carleton nonetheless furthered his plans.
Carlton was an idealist. One, he genuinely thought he’d improve the quality of life of the Navajos, and establish a plan of reservation that would be applicable for all the Indians of the West. Two, undoubtedly he wanted to experience some glory in this Civil War, which he was not able to experience as a late-comer to the battles of New Mexico, which were not to reoccur with Confederates. Three, he also believed the Navajo lands to be brimming with gold, and their removal could undoubtedly cause him to become gloriously rich. The above is speculation, but warranted.
A fantastic book ironically named. Most people have no idea who Kit Carson was. But, before the Cowboy, there was the mountain man who found paths from the Rockies to the Pacific. Kit Carson was one. His story is epically American.
Enter Kit Carson. He deserves more mention than these few paragraphs. He was one of the most famous men of the American West. He started as a fur trapper. Then became a guide for military explorations of the American West. He was a hero in 1846 during the Mexican war. His fame was only compounded in later decades as people wrote extravagantly untrue novels of Indian and outlaw fighting featuring Kit Carson. Those novels were called “Blood and Thunders” – and Carson hated them.
Carleton deemed Carson the perfect man to lead the final charge in removing the Navajos to Bosque Redondo. But a new type of war was needed. Carleton was a student of history. He read about the Russian Cossacks’ scorched Earth policies during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. He had Carson employ it in America.
Carson, though hesitant to enact such a brutal campaign never seen before in North America, was nonetheless a loyal soldier. He was also convinced that such tactics were necessary for the final end of centuries of bloodshed. Without going into full detail of Carson’s campaign against the Navajo in 1863, he destroyed everything of theirs he could. He burned crops. He burned orchards. He killed Navajo livestock. He poisoned wells. He destroyed all Navajo dwellings. Though at first it seemed his campaign was futile, for a lack of any decisive military engagements, by December 1863 he could see the horrific effects on the Navajo. Blood and thunder were successful.
Thousands of Navajos surrendered at to American forts. He starved them into submission. By 1864, the Navajos began their horrific Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, the Long Walk being considered by the Navajos as their darkest chapter.
But some Navajos never surrendered. A Navajo named Hoskinini led a group of about 100 into some of the most confounding landscapes on the planet. But they had to be smart to avoid Kit Carson and his Ute Indian scouts who were highly capable of tracking to the most remote locations.
Where did Hoskinini hide? No one really knows. BUT ENTER DAVE ROBERTS. He went looking for it.
Understanding this chapter of Navajo history, and having seen the spell-binding landscapes south of what’s now Lake Powell where the Navajos hid, I was entranced to turn the pages of this chapter of The Lost World of the Old Ones. This was reading at its finest. This was living vicariously at its finest.
The clue that Roberts had to guide his searches was “a grass creek that was well watered”. That was what Roberts was looking for. So as he described his route in the book, and I got out my Arizona road atlas by DeLorme, and did what I followed his adventures.
Some of the wildest parts of the United States are within the Navajo Rez, especially along the Arizona-Utah border. Near Navajo Mountain is one such place.
Look at the above image. That’s a close-up of where Roberts went. That river you see is the Colorado. But it’s flooded to form Lake Powell – created by the second giant dam on the Colorado at Page, Arizona. And I’ll rehash the experience in the next post…
Image of map of Mexican Cession taken from the-treaty-of-guadalupe-hidalgo1-n.jpg (720×540) (slideserve.com)