The Navajo “Long Walk” East in 1864-65

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 7477-7499:

Thousands more Navajos were now assembling at Fort Canby and Fort Wingate and preparing to head east. Nearly the entire Navajo nation had surrendered—or was on the verge of doing so. For most of the Navajos the march took about three weeks, depending on the weather, trail conditions, and the exact route followed. It was not a single migration, but a series of them carried out in many stages, the ungainly process stretching out over many months. But taken all together, it was a forced relocation of biblical proportions, one of the largest in American history—second only to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees. Throughout 1864 and on into 1865, nearly 9,000 Navajos would emigrate to Bosque Redondo; approximately 500 would die along the way.

The Navajos had their own name for the great exodus, one that was eloquent in its understatement: The Long Walk.

For most of the Navajos, the last desolate stretches of the march were the hardest. In those final miles the land grew sparer and flatter and less like home. The sunbaked ground seemed to crackle underfoot, and the uninviting country, whose elevation was several thousand feet below that of the Navajo lands, was studded only with cholla cactus, mesquite, and creosote. The featureless plain was uninhabited, although in the distance one might see the occasional javelina or pronghorn antelope moving in the heat shimmer. Finally, the marchers dropped down into the valley of the Pecos, and like an apparition, there it was—the bosque, a great clump of shimmering green, guarded over by a new adobe stronghold called Fort Sumner.

It did not look so terrible at first. A shady place along a not inconsiderable river, with loads of firewood and plenty of room to move around. It did not resemble a prison at all—there were no fences or walls, no guard towers, no captives shuffling around in irons. The Diné’s movements were to be policed only by “pickets”—small encampments of soldiers placed strategically, but loosely, along the perimeter. And what a perimeter it was: The reservation, the Navajos were told, was a giant parcel of land stretching out on both sides of the river as far as the eye could see. It was, in fact, forty miles square, an area nearly as large as the state of Delaware. The proportions of this alien place were at least familiarly huge—almost Navajoan—in scale.

Within days of their arrival, the Diné were put to work digging a seven-mile-long acequia madre on the east side of the river—with numerous lateral ditches—to irrigate the many thousands of acres of fields that Carleton planned to sow. Other Navajos helped army engineers build a dam six miles upriver to control the annual floods, while still others helped the soldiers construct the adobe brick buildings of Fort Sumner—the barracks, the sutler’s shop, the officers’ quarters, the jail. The Navajos were not unmindful of the fact that by doing so, they were only giving the bilagaana [< Americana] a more powerful and luxurious headquarters from which to rule over them.

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Filed under migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

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