The Navajo — who called themselves Diné, The People, were pastoralists and orchardists. They were also raiders. For generations, they had preyed upon the settled peoples of New Mexico: Spanish, Mexican and Pueblo. The Utes of southern Colorado were persistent enemies. The Navajo raided for sheep and other livestock, and for slaves, which they sometimes kept and sometimes traded to other peoples. The New Mexicans, in turn, raided the Navajo and took Navajo women and children as slaves.
It was a rough neighborhood, and Jack McGowan tells me that his guide into Canyon de Chelly, Davidson, did not attempt to elide the Navajos’ dangerous nature.
“These were hardcore people,” Jack said. “It was us-against-them, be it territory or slaves or horses.”
By the mid-19th Century, the Americans who now administered the New Mexico Territory (which encompassed modern New Mexico and, up to 1863, most of Arizona) were determined to civilize this wild land and that to do they must contain the nomadic raiders of the mountains and deserts — Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache, Navajo.
In 1863, with the Confederate threat to New Mexico and California defeated, the U.S. Army turned to addressing the “Indian problem.” The task of civilizing the New Mexico Territory fell to General James Henry Carlton.
General Carlton was a man of ambition and vision, all bent toward what he perceived as a mission of civilization. He was also hardheaded and once he had conceived of a mission and a plan, he was impervious to information and advice that contradicted his settled beliefs. Carleton determined to tame the nomadic raiders of his territory and concentrate them at Bosque Redondo on a bend of the Pecos River in far eastern New Mexico. There, they would learn to become sedentary farmers.
His adamant determination to realize his “civilizing” mission would lead to a profound tragedy.
When Carleton determined to round up the Diné, he handed the task to a man he knew would pursue this duty, no matter how arduous — Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson.
Though he stood only 5’4″ in his moccasins, Kit Carson is a giant among the Frontier Partisans. A teenaged runaway, he trekked the Santa Fe Trail into the Southwest frontier, and became part of an elite Mountain Man fraternity as a Free Trapper. When the beaver trade cratered, he became a hunter and a rancher, and the principal guide for the great Western exploratory expeditions of John C. Fremont. His work with Fremont made him famous.
He served as a scout, courier and guide for the U.S. military in the Mexican War, and later became an Indian agent and a U.S. Army officer.
Carson was a beloved figure to his compañeros, no better and more loyal friend— but he was a hard man, and when the chips were down, he was a killer. Carson earned his spurs in a harsh, unforgiving environment, and was imbued with the Rocky Mountain Free Trappers’ harsh, unforgiving doctrine: Don’t fuck with us.
In the excellent Kit Carson & The Indians, Tom Dunlay examines the complex relationship of the Mountain Men of the 1820s-1840s with the various tribes that inhabited and roamed over the Rocky Mountain region and the Southwest. Some tribes like the Flathead and Shoshone were consistent friends and/or allies; some like the Blackfoot and the Arikara were consistent threats; others were opportunistic and could go either way depending on circumstances and vulnerability.
The Mountain Men’s doctrine derived in part from circumstances and in part from a backcountry heritage with deep cultural roots. Dunlay notes:
“Chivalry as understood by the readers of Sir Walter Scott had nothing to do with it, although the actual knights, or Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers might have understood it very well. It was the backcountry code of retributive justice, the refusal to let somebody get away with something at your expense.”
Their retaliation was harsh. Carson recounted an episode in which a party of trappers and some of their Cheyenne allies were raided by Crows, who stole some horses. The trappers and the Cheyennes trailed the Crows, caught them napping and secured the horses. But that was not enough for Carson and his men. They attacked the Crows in their log-fortified encampment and killed several.
“We were determined to have satisfaction, let the consequence be ever so fatal,” Carson recalled.
Hard man though he was, Carson was no Indian-hater. He married an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass and it is clear that he loved her deeply and was devastated by her death. He served as an agent to the Utes of southern Colorado, and was quick to defend them. He was blunt in his assessment of the cause of most of the trouble between whites and Indians:
“…the aggressions of the whites.”
It is profoundly ironic that the war of attrition he waged upon the Diné makes him today an avatar of that aggression.
Carson set upon his mission with grim determination. Hampton Sides describes the scorched earth campaign:
“There was nothing glorious about Carson’s campaign: no great engagements, no fields of honor, no decisive victories. With the American invasion, the Navajos did what they had always done — they scattered, vanished, dropped into their thousand pockets and holes and abided in silence. And so, with no one to fight, Carson’s campaign became, of necessity, a war of grinding attrition.”
Through the summer and fall of 1863, Carson’s 1,000-strong column, led by his Ute scouts, destroyed crops, spoiled water sources, slaughtered livestock — starving the Navajos into submission. But in order to truly break the resistance of the Diné, the soldiers had to penetrate the fastness of the great Navajo stronghold of Canyon de Chelly.