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Bosque Redondo — destination of the long walk

By Phyllis Eileen Banks

Last updated on Sunday, January 05, 2003

Some of the more than 8,000 Navajo who surrendered to Kit Carson during his 1864 campaign of destruction through their homeland. <BR>(National Archives [#111-SC-87976])
Navajo at Bosque Redondo

When you say "Bosque Redondo" it has a melodious, pleasant sound, but the reality is just the opposite. It was the scene of one of the saddest events in the nation's history.

General James H. Carleton was in command of the Military in Arizona and New Mexico in 1862. Settlers were in danger of marauding Indians, and Carleton made it his first priority to conquer the Mescalero Apaches and Navajos. His plan was to put them on a reservation under military guard, teach them farming and livestock raising to encourage self-sufficiency.

For almost 100 years the Bosque Redondo (round wood) had served as a trading post. Here the Spanish and Mexicans traded with the Apaches and Comanches. General Carleton had visited the area ten years earlier and recalled the trip. He felt the Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River would be a good site for the Indian reservation he had in mind. He obtained President Lincoln's approval, and 13,000 acres were set aside to establish the fort, named for General Edwin Vose Sumner, under whom Carleton had served. Unfortunately, Sumner died while the fort was being built.

Carleton put his plan for the reservation into action by ordering Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson to kill any Apache man who resisted and to take all women and children prisoner. Eventually 500 Apaches were brought to the Fort.

Carson then went to Canyon de Chelle in Arizona and gave the Navajos Carleton's order, "Surrender or die." He commanded his men to cut down all the peach trees that were growing in Canyon de Chelle, some 1,000 to 1,200 trees. The soldiers were also told to cut all wheat and corn. Thus the Navajos were starved into submission as they had no surpluses of grain or fruit.

Having gained control over them, Carson started them on the long walk to the Bosque Redondo, some 400 miles. Many died en route and more died when they arrived at the Bosque. The Navajos were certain dreadful things would happen to them because all their lives they had been warned against crossing three rivers. And they had crossed three rivers on their long walk:  the Rio Puerco, the Rio Grande and the Pecos.

The Apaches were already at the Fort and it was believed they spoke the same language as the Navajos. However, they did not, and conflict ensued as they were old enemies. Food was always in short supply, and that alone was enough to cause conflict. By the fall of 1864, there were about 9,000 Navajos at the Fort and by winter there was a shortage of firewood in addition to food shortages.

The Indians were ordered to plant trees by placing a live cottonwood branch into the moist earth banks of the many ditches. During their forced internment, they planted over 12,000 trees between December 1864 and April 1865. The trees were planted for future use as firewood and some planted at that time still stand. Corn, pumpkins, beans and wheat were raised, but often there were crop failures.

In 1865, all Mescalero Apaches strong enough to travel deserted the fort and returned to their own country in the Sacramento Mountains. But it was another three years before the U. S. Government acknowledged the Navajos' sovereignty over their homeland, and allowed them to leave the fort.

The Peace Treaty was entered into on June 1, 1868, and the Fort Sumner military experiment ended. A  column ten miles long left Fort Sumner on June 18, 1868, for the Navajo homeland in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. It included 7,304 Indians, 1,500 horses and mules, and 2,000 sheep, along with 50 Army wagons and a cavalry escort - an impressive and touching sight even to a hardened soldier; a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle to all who saw the Long Walk Home.

One hundred years later a group of Navajos from Arizona returned to Fort Sumner to reenact the signing of the Peace Treaty. A marker was placed near the Fort Sumner State Monument to commemorate that event, and Navajos bring stones to leave near the marker in memory of the Long Walk. There is a feeling of sacredness at the site.

In 1968, a portion of the Fort and the Bosque Redondo Reservation was declared a New Mexico State Monument. A three and one-half million dollar visitors center and exhibit is proposed by the state to capture the emotions, memories and history of that sad era. Some Navajos are reluctant to recall the event. However, President Peterson Zah of the Navajo Nation and President Wendell Chino of the Mescalero Apache Tribe have appointed tribal members to serve as project advisers. A Navajo architect, David Sloan of Albuquerque, has been hired to design the center.

Author Tony Hillerman says too few Americans are aware of those dark chapters in our National history . . . a memorial at Bosque Redondo would help to teach future generations of injustice done and of the courage and endurance of the Navajos and Apaches, our fellow Americans.

"Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain the eagle to the ground - he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up at the sky which is home - and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat and beans."
-- Written by a Navajo in 1865.

At dawn on June 18, 1868, the people began their long walk home.

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