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The Long Walk Trail of the Navajos - Part 2
Copyright (c) Jay Sharp

Glenwood Gazette publish date: April 2011

 

 

 

 

ARTICLES BY JAY SHARP
 
 

With their children and elderly dying from starvation and exposure, ragged and emaciated Navajos surrendered first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, primarily at Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate.

In a February 27, 1864, letter (printed in L. C. Kelley's book, Navajo Roundup) to Adjutant General of the Army, Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, the self-congratulatory Carleton reported that, "What with the Navajoes I have captured and those who have surrendered, we have now over three thousand, and will, without doubt soon have the whole tribe. I do not believe they number now much over five thousand all told. You have doubtless seen the last of the Navajoe War; a war that has been continued with but few intermissions for one hundred and eighty years; and which, during that time, has been marked by every shade of atrocity, brutality and ferocity which can be imagined …

"I beg to congratulate you and the country at large on the prospect that this formidable band of robbers and murderers have at last been made to succumb…"

Scott Smith, Manager of the Fort Sumner State Monument, believed that the Navajos dispatched from Dinetah to Fort Sumner numbered, not the 5000 estimated by Carleton, but somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000, according to notes he gave me in August of 2002.

The military swiftly found itself overwhelmed by Navajo captives. It could not adequately feed, provision or transport them. At Fort Defiance, according to Trafzer, the troopers had virtually no blankets to give to the threadbare Indians, who suffered and died from the cold. The soldiers could not offer medical care to their charges, who died of diseases. The army commissary gave wheat flour to the Indians, who tried to eat the strange new food raw or as gruel. They died of dysentery. The military had too few wagons to transport all the old, crippled and young the 400 miles to Fort Sumner. Many of the infirm would have to walk.

Carleton's soldiers marched the Navajos eastward, not as a single column of refugees all at once, but rather as more than 50 fragmented caravans of the damned over a period of nearly three and one half years, from August of 1863 to December of 1866. Lieutenant E. E. Latimer delivered perhaps the smallest number, five, to Fort Sumner on November 7, 1863, according to Scott Smith's notes. Captain John Thompson delivered the largest number, 2400, on April 13, 1864, completing a trek of 41 days.

"The route of the Long Walk was marked by the frozen corpses of Indians, who, too fatigued to go on, had crawled to the wayside to die," said Lynn R. Bailey in his book The Long Walk.

The Navajos mourned as their sick, lame and malnourished collapsed beside the trail, abandoned and left where they fell. The refugees struggled to survive on inadequate rations, for instance, a pound of beef or bacon, a pound of flour, a handful of coffee beans each day. They fell on their spent and dying horses, butchering the animals for the meat. Clothed with no more than rags, they froze in the snows of winter. Weak and exhausted, they drowned in crossings of swollen streams. Defenseless, they lost their belongings to thieves and their children to slavers. On some marches, they watched scavenging coyotes, vultures and crows - harbingers of death - track the caravans, waiting for the next victim. Sometimes, after they left a relative dying beside the trail, the Navajos heard the crack of a soldier's musket in the distance, to the rear of the column.

In a letter to his wife, Lieutenant George H. Pettis, who escorted a party of Navajo refugees to Fort Sumner in February of 1864, reported that he had left Los Pinos "in charge of 243 Navajo Indians, 81 of whom were men, the balance were women and children; the Indians comprised all ages, from the old man or woman of a hundred years, to the sucking babe…"

He arrived at Fort Sumner on February 22, having been "on the road 15 days, long weary days, most of the time in the mountains, three ranges of which I crossed over-the total distance in that time was 242 miles. While in the mountains we experienced very cold weather and some of the time having no water, but what we obtained by melting snow, and part of the time, we had not wood either to keep us warm, or melt our snow… I had fed the last of the Indian provisions the day before [the caravan arrived at Fort Sumner], and my company were quite out of provisions. Four of the Indians died and were buried on the road…" (I have a copy of Pettis' letter, courtesy of Scott Smith.)

In a report (published by Kelly) to Carleton's Assistant Adjutant General, Captain Joseph Berney, who escorted refugees to Fort Sumner during the early months of 1864, reported that during the march from Fort Defiance to Los Pinos, "the Indians suffered intensely from the want of clothing, four were entirely frozen to death…" and during the march from Los Pinos to Fort Sumner, "I lost fifteen Indians on the road, principally boys, three of which were stolen, two strayed from my camp on the Rio Pecos, and ten died from the effects of the cold…"


Fort Sumner today, with restored foundations

 

In perhaps the most detailed report (also published by Kelly) by the military, Captain Francis McCabe, who led a punishing march to Fort Sumner in the spring of 1864, said that he left Fort Defiance "with eight hundred Navajo prisoners…"

"I…received rations for the Navajoes for eight days (as far as Fort Wingate) consisting of one pound of meat or flour, and half a pound of bacon to every indian [sic] woman and child. On leaving…I directed an officer of my Company to move in advance of the prisoners with a Guard of fifteen men, and I also directed a rear Guard of Non commissioned Officer and fifteen men to be detailed daily…

"I placed as many of the women, children and old people as possible in wagons, and had one empty wagon placed every morning under control of the Officer of the day…to receive such sick and aged indians as might have given out on the march.

"The main body of the Indians traveled between the advance Guard and the train [of wagons], and in advance of my company… On the second days march a very severe snow storm set in which lasted for four days with unusual severity, and occasioned great suffering amongst the indians, many of whom were nearly naked and of course unable to withstand such a storm."

McCabe reached Fort Wingate on March 29th, obtaining "a fresh supply of rations for the indians; but only in the proportion of half a pound of flour, and half a pound of beef to each…"

That would have to last until the party reached Los Pinos, where McCabe finally managed to secure adequate supplies and rations. After a delay of several weeks and an addition of 146 new prisoners at Los Pinos, McCabe pushed on for Fort Sumner, arriving there on May 11.

He claimed, "…the Navajoes were greatly delighted and expressed great satisfaction with what they saw."

During the journey, however, McCabe lost more than 150 of his prisoners. Nearly 50 escaped. More than 100 died. Kit Carson, hearing of the loss of Navajo life, notified Carleton that the deaths were attributable to "want of a sufficiency to eat. I respectfully suggest to you the propriety and good policy of giving the Indians … while en route to Basque Redondo, sufficiency to eat."

If McCabe's Navajos were "greatly delighted…with what they saw" when they arrived at Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo, they would soon come face to face with reality. Under the watchful eye of Carleton's soldiers, the Navajos shoveled out miles of irrigation ditches, which often washed away under floodwaters from the Pecos River. With their bare hands, they grubbed mesquite shrubs to open fields, where their crops would fail under successive sieges by insects. In the absence of building materials, they tried to raise shelters of sticks and worn hides and cloth, which offered little protection from the fierce winds of a prairie winter storm. Unable to grow sufficient crops for food, they tried to survive on military rations of rancid bacon and weevil-infested grains. They quarreled with the Mescaleros, long-time enemies whom Carleton imprisoned at the same camp. They suffered raids by the Comanches and Kiowas, from the plains to the east.


Mescalero Apache, whose ancestors were also imprisoned at Fort Sumner with the Navajos. The two tribes were bitter enemies.

"My dear wife," Pettis said in his letter, "this is a terrible place… The Rio Pecos is a little stream winding through an immense plain, and the water is terrible, and it is all that can be had within 50 miles; it is full of alkali and operates on a person like castor oil, -- take the water, heat it a little, and the more you wash yourself with common soap, the dirtier you will get." "Fair Carletonia," Fort Stanton and the Bosque Redondo came to be called, in derision.

Two thousand Navajos died there, according to an article, "Long Walk of the Navajos," published by S. J. Reidhead in Wild West Magazine, December 2001.

Some felt touched by the anguish of the Navajos. Soldiers tried to adopt Navajo children and give them better homes. Some officers did all they could to comfort their charges during their harsh journeys, according to Ackerly. Kit Carson requested that two young women prisoners be given bright red blankets, rather than the usual dull gray ones. "And they got them," according to a report by Pettis, quoted in E. L. Sabin's Kit Carson Days: 1809-1868.

Sensing potential disaster and fearing personal embarrassment, Carleton wrote in a letter (published by Kelly) to Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General, U. S. Army on March 12, 1864: "The Exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers, is not only an interesting but a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years. They have defended their mountains and their stupendous [canyons] with a heroism which any people might be proud to emulate.

But, when at length they found it was their destiny, too, as it had been that of their bretheren [sic], tribe after tribe, away back towards the rising of the sun, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race, they threw down their arms, and, as brave men entitled to our admiration and respect, have come to us with confidence in our magnanimity, and feeling that we are too powerful and too just a people to repay that confidence with meanness or neglect…" Carleton pled with Thomas to rush provisions, clothing, agricultural implements, tools and cooking utensils to the captives at Fort Sumner at rapidly as possible.

Johnny Navajo - O Johnny Navajo.
We'll first chastise, then civilize, bold Johnny Navajo!

Exploring the Trail

If you begin at the community of Fort Defiance, in northeastern Arizona, you would follow State Highway 12 south through Window Rock to U. S. Highway 264, which you would follow east to the Navajo village of Yah-ta-hey. Turn south on U. S. Highway 491 (formerly Highway 666), following it to Gallup and Interstate Highway 40, where you will turn east. Within eight or 10 miles you will pass near the site of Fort Lyon (or, the second Fort Wingate), a few miles south of the highway.

Except for Fort Sumner, few of the military installations that figured prominently in the Navajos' Long Walk have been developed into significant tourist attractions, but you can parallel a significant part of the route by following modern highways.

At Grants, you will pass just north of the original Fort Wingate, located near the village of San Rafael. Continuing east on IH 40, you will come to the intersection of State Highway 6 about nine miles out of the village of Mesita. You can follow SH 6 to Los Lunas, then turn north on SH 47 to Peralta, or Los Pinos. You can continue on SH 47 north past the Isleta Pueblo into Albuquerque.

From Albuquerque, you can trace the Santa Fe Route by following IH 25 and U. S. Highway 84 into Santa Fe, or you can trace part of the Mountain Route by taking IH 40 east through Tijeras Pass, then turning north on State Highway 14 into Santa Fe. You would then follow IH 25 east to Romeroville, which is near various branches of the Long Walk. From Romeroville, turn south on U. S. Highway 84 to IH 40, turn east to Santa Rosa, then turn south on U. S. Highway 84 (again) to Fort Sumner.


Window Rock, a mountain sacred to the Navajos. Located in northeastern Arizona, in the Dinetah, it is near the modern tribal capital.

While it doesn't overlay the Long Walk exactly, the route, roughly 420 miles long by modern highway, will give you a sense of the mesas, canyons, lava flows, river basins, mountain ranges and prairie lands which defined the trail. You should consider beginning your journey with a visit to Canyon de Chelly, the majestic, spiritual heart of Dinetah. Following the trail, you should stop at Window Rock, the Navajo Tribal Headquarters, to see the massive sandstone hill with the circular opening that gave the site its name. At Gallup, you will find some of the best trading posts in the Southwest. At the Laguna Pueblo, the small mission church interior is an exquisite blend of Catholic and Pueblo spirituality. Near Grants, you will pass through the northern margin of the Malpais Lava Beds, a national monument that stands as a record of primal natural violence in the desert only a few centuries ago.

North of Los Pinos, you should stop at the Isleta Pueblo to visit the mission church, one of the most famous of Spanish Colonial times. It was to this church that Senora Maria Jesus de Ágreda - the fabled "Lady in Blue" - a mystic Spanish nun of the 17th century, traveled spiritually (by what the Church called "teleportation") to assist in the celebration of a mass.

The attractions from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, by IH 25 are well-known, but you would find the alternate route, through Tijeras Pass and up State Highway 14, will take you through several quaint villages with delightful histories. East of Santa Fe, not far north of IH 25, the ruins of the Pecos Pueblo, a prehistoric and historic trading site, recall the cultural mixing of village farmers, Plains Indian raiders, Spanish conquistadors and Santa Fe Trail merchants.

Finally, at Fort Sumner, you will find near the Pecos River and its alkaline waters the reconstructed foundations of walls of military installations, a museum of the Navajo Long Walk period, and - with good timing - a guided tour and living history demonstrations, reminders of a sorrowful period in the legacy of a people.

 
         
 

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