The Long Walk of the Navajo

Not really a history but a recounting of the forced march of thousands of Navajos from their homeland to a "reservation" at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, presented in four parts from varied historical sources.


The Long Walk of the Navajo, Part 1

 On August 30, 1849, several hundred mounted Navajo warriors climbed toward a high pass in the Chuska Mountains. A seventy-some-year-old man rode at the front. Many of the warriors behind him agreed with his mission, and a lot didn’t. They called the old man Narbona Primero. He and a good number of the warriors had traveled far to discuss coexistence with Colonel John Washington, local military leader of the “New Men,” Americans that replaced the Mexicans, who had previously controlled the region.

The two sides sat down for what was supposed to be a peaceful dialogue, but turned out to be a memorable day of mourning and only the first step of what became known as “The Long Walk of the Navajo.”

Everything seemed to go well during the exchange between Washington and Narbona. The two men had agreed on major provisions of a new treaty, but the latter, though influential, lacked command authority. Navajos recognized no central leader. Narbona had gained his position as a spokesman because of wealth and advanced age, as well as his proven ability to deal with white men.

An up-and-coming rival, Sadoval, defying Narbona, mounted a horse and rode directly into the peace talks to disrupt them. An attending American officer insisted the horse belonged to him. Colonel Washington, perhaps angered by the intrusion and frustrated by the way the conference had progressed, demanded that Sadoval return the horse. When Sadoval refused, the standoff degenerated into a melee, and American forces fired cannon into the Navajo delegation.

Afterward, Narbona lay mortally wounded. To add insult to injury, one of the American soldiers reportedly scalped the old man.

According to Navajo tradition, Narbona’s sons carried the body away, wrapped it in a knotted death blanket, and hid the remains in a rocky crevice, the old warrior’s final resting place.

To the dismay of area residents, the deadly fracas dashed any hopes of peace among whites or any of the other Indian tribes with whom the Navajos had warred. A son-in-law of Narbona, Manuelito — known to the Navajos as Haskeh Naabaah, or Angry Warrior — cast all caution to the winds and embarked on a devastating series of raids against the Americans, the Mexicans, and other Indian enemies.

Navajo land, which encompassed parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado exploded into a battleground. Raids, depredations, and massacres raged, first by one side then another. American settlers lived on the front lines and they demanded their government bring an end to the strife.

In response Washington politicians dispatched a mighty force to establish Fort Defiance, north of Window Rock, Arizona, and Fort Wingate, east of Gallup, New Mexico. The placement of troops, commanded by men, many unsympathetic to Native concerns and rights, only served to escalate the enmity.

Within ten years, ceaseless violence nudged Barboncito — known to the Navajos as Hozhooji Naata, or Blessing Speaker because of his attempts to secure a lasting peace — to loosely join forces with Manuelito in resisting the Americans.

The last straw came when the U.S. Cavalry, led by Major Thomas H. Brooks, slaughtered animals owned by Manuelito in a disputed area near Fort Defiance. The move ignited a wildfire.

American forces hoping to follow up on the raid with a decisive victory, enlisted the aid of the Zunis, longtime enemies of the Navajos, in an attack on Manuelito’s stronghold, located on the Little Colorado River, south of Ganado. Though the Army and the Zunis missed Manuelito, they destroyed his village and remaining livestock.

Yet the war had only begun. A fighting force of about 500 Navajos, under the command of Manuelito, attacked Fort Defiance in February, 1860, but were repelled. The retaliatory raids against Navajo villages by Zunis and Americans succeeded in cementing an alliance between Barboncito and Manuelito. In April of the same year the two men led about 1,000 warriors on a full-scale assault of Fort Defiance, but the United States Cavalry turned back the Navajos and chased them into the nearby mountains.

Now, however, the loosely affiliated Navajos had pieced together a real army under the combined leadership of two well-respected men: Barboncito, a man that sought resolution outside of battle, and Manuelito a feared warrior, who believed armed conflict best served Navajo interests.

The United States government responded to the attacks with ruthless vengeance. Local cavalry leaders strengthened ties with traditional Navajo enemies like the Zunis, the Utes, and even the Mexicans, who had ceded the entire territory in the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Navajos faced raiders and battles from all sides. Quite a number decided peace offered the path of greatest hope, but Manuelito rebuffed any hint of appeasement.

Maybe if the Civil War hadn’t broken out on April 12, 1861, the Navajos might have settled for a truce and talks to establish a long-term peace, but the Civil War, waged mainly in the eastern part of the United States, drained Army resources from the West, and chaos reigned in the land of the Navajos.

Almost no one, who lived in the area, escaped the carnage. Surely, everyday people, Navajo or otherwise, must have seen no relief until one side exterminated the other.



Navajo Man wearing lynx head cap from photo taken in 1905

Richard Combs