Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Kit Carson And A Trip Through The Navajo Nation

new mexico territory map

 The New Mexico Territory

Shortly after the Mexican-American War in 1848, the areas we now know of New Mexico and Arizona became the New Mexico Territory. The United States was ceded this land at the end of the war. The territory at first comprised of both present day Arizona and New Mexico  and then after the Civil War for a variety of practical and political reasons was broken up into two territories as shown on the map.

New Mexico Territory and the Navajo

Kit Carson lived in this era. He saw the territory as one big expanse and then was there when it divided. The challenge in the New Mexico Territory was to bring the Indians under some type of control The Navajo Indians were the dominant and most forceful of the tribes. The Apache Indians were also active. The main difference concerning the Navajo is that they were quite organized. Navajo families had a head man and they made their way mostly  through livestock, farming and weaving. Also another fact about native Americans was that they had centuries of experience to organize. Native Americans history however was filled with wars and battle against each other for land and property and the alliances among the tribes changed several times. This was the culture of Native Americans throughout much of the southwest. The Navajo Indians were also respected as warriors by both the Mexicans and the newly arrived Americans.

The Navajos congregated near the present Four Corners area in far northwestern New Mexico and far northeastern Arizona. This was essentially their base and it's the general area of the present day Navajo Nation.

The Navajo and the U.S. Military

general james carletonIn the period 1861-1862 the Navajo Indians started to run wild. They raided New Mexico all the way down to the lower Rio Grande River and even went across it into the Mescalero country. The situation turned to chaos. The Navajo trouble really had been going on for some time. Back in 1860 the Navajos even raided Fort Defiance at night with about a thousand warriors. A night attack was very unusual. ( Fort Defiance is in present day Arizona (picture below right). The man charged with putting things back in order was General James H. Carleton pictured at left. Carleton was at that time the military head in the New Mexico Territory.

Many Years of Discontent

The Navajo Indians had a strained relationship with the white authorities dating all the way back to 1848. An Indian agent in the area even reported to his superiors that the Navajo's have not been at peace with the authorities since 1848 and that they signed six treaties that they broke before the papers could even be filed.

In fact, 1849 a Colonel Washington met the Navajos in the area of Canon de Chelly west of Santa Fe. The Navajo's ended up chasing Washington all the way back east to Santa Fe. They stole livestock along the way and pursued the soldiers almost to the Santa Fe plaza itself. The Mescaleros to the south were also on a rampage having attacked and killed a mail transport party traveling between Fort Stanton in the south and Santa Fe.

Colonel Kit Carson and His Navajo Expedition

fort defiance
Carleton was tasked with putting together several cavalry companies to stop the mayhem and get the Navajos back to their land near the Four Corners. Kit Carson was now a colonel and residing in Taos New Mexico. Carson was asked to join the campaign. He was also asked to recruit both Ute Indian warriors and the best Mexican guides he could find.

The Navajo expedition was staffed with good, veteran officers. The companies were scattered all about from Fort Union in the northeast to Fort Wingate near Gallup. Kit Carson was thoroughly familiar with all the habits of the Navajos and was just the person to join the campaign.

As a side note, we learned from a previous post regarding Kit Carson's personality, he was overruled several times when he requested leave to go back and visit Taos and also was admonished for not sending in weekly reports. Kit Carson was never able to be comfortable with the strict military discipline of the U.S. Army. Desk jobs were not to his liking.

The first military detachments left from Los Lunas heading west to Forts Wingate and Defiance. Below left is an interesting picture of Apache scouts at Fort Wingate in the 1880's. The trip to Wingate near Gallup was about 100 miles. Kit Carson was commanding about 1,000 troopers and obviously didn't relish the administration that goes along with that responsibility. An amusing story told was that one of the troopers wanted to buy whiskey from a local sutler. The trooper realized that his commander couldn't read manuscript and he thereby had someone write up an order for the sutler to sell him the whiskey. He presented the order to Col. Carson for his signature and Carson just signed it. Word spread and soon several troopers did the same thing with Carson and all of a sudden the sutler had a booming whiskey business going.

apache scout photoThe Navajos had been stealing livestock for quite some time and the army offered rewards for cattle, sheep and horses captured by the troops. Examples were $20 for every horse and $1 for each sheep.

Several skirmishes took place over several months and the Navajo Indians were fairly worn out. Some came forward suing for peace. Others fought it out. The military was winning in large part because of their superior arms.

The overall goal of the expedition was to drive the Navajos to Bosque Redondo.  The term means "round wood" at it was essentially a reservation in southern New Mexico where the Apaches had already been driven to. The army's basic demand to the Navajos was " give up or die"and those were the orders carson had when he met up with the navajo leaders. What ensued was a long, almost 400 mile walk, to the Bosque Redondo reservation. Many died during the journey. Similar to the efforts with the plains Indians, the army wanted these native Americans to settle down and take up agriculture.

 In fact, at Bosque Redondo the Navajos planted some 1,200 trees some of which are still standing. Kit Carson was anxious to go back home to Taos since the army life was not his forte. While he liked to serve and help the military which he did often and bravely, he simply disliked the regimented life and the regulations a soldier had to endure. The Navajos stayed at Bosque Redondo until 1868 when a peace treaty was signed and they then traveled back to the area of northeast Arizona where the Navajo Nation exists today.

navajo nation flag
As we all know today, the Navajos enjoy their own government within the Navajo Nation whose capitol is Window Rock, AZ.

The Navajo Nation flag is at left. This area is located in the far northeastern corner of Arizona and has been and still is visited by thousands of tourists every year. Beautiful pictures can be taken of the Window Rock itself which is a unique geologic formation. There are several excellent books available on both the Navajos and Kit Carson's involvement with the Native Americans in the southwest.

Visit the Navajo Nation and the Glen Canyon Dam

The town of Window Rock is located a short drive northwest of Gallup, NM. Driving west through the reservation you'll have the opportunity to view "hogans" which were and still are lived in by the Navajo. If you have enough time on your Arizona vacation you might want to visit the town of Page Arizona outside the west end of the reservation. Page is the location of the Glen Canyon Dam which is a great family stop. They offer tours of the dam and have a lot of interesting reading matter available about it's construction.
Kids can also get Junior Ranger badges by visiting the Dam. The Google Map driving direction finder on this site can map it out for you well. Below are some good links to find additional information about the Navajo Nation.

The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers



Window Rock, AZ Map

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