Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the Union Army broke off into mobile units, and redeployed against Apache and Navajo communities. These Native peoples had been resisting the U.S. Army’s attempts to build forts and travel through their territories since the 1840s. When the Civil War came to New Mexico, they siphoned off horses, cattle, and weapons from Union and Confederate camps. In September 1862, the new commander of the Department of New Mexico, James Henry Carleton, declared war on these new enemies and tapped Carson to lead the campaigns.
“All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them,” Carleton instructed Carson in a letter, before sending him to fight Mescalero Apaches in the fall of 1862. Women and children would be taken prisoner. Carson was not to engage in any peace talks, only violence. “We believe if we kill some of their men in fair open war,” Carleton told him, “they will be apt to remember that it will be better for them to remain at peace than to be at war.” Carleton planned to send the survivors to live on reservations guarded by Union Army soldiers, and force them into full-time farming and Christianity.
Carson followed orders. After a successful campaign against the Mescaleros, he rode across the Navajo homeland in the summer and fall of 1863 with 400 troops, burning crops and hogans (Navajo homes), and taking as many sheep as he could find. The point of this “hard war” strategy was to starve the Navajo out, forcing them to surrender to the Union. It worked perfectly; in January 1864, Carson led the first 270 Navajo prisoners out of their homeland and toward the Rio Grande.
This was the first of many forced removals, collectively known as the Long Walk. Over two years, the Union Army forced as many as 10,000 Navajo people to travel 300 miles, from what is now Arizona to Bosque Redondo, a “reservation” on the Pecos River in central New Mexico. Bosque Redondo, overseen by Union soldiers posted at nearby Fort Sumner, was a disaster from the start. Poor water, spoiled rations, a lack of wood, and a series of insect infestations that destroyed corn crops resulted in mass malnutrition and rampant disease. The Navajo began to call the reservation “Hwéeldi,” Land of Suffering. By 1868—when they were able to negotiate a return to their homeland—more than 2,000 Navajo had died either on the Long Walk or at Bosque Redondo.
The Long Walk was a pivotal moment in Navajo history, a traumatic period that marks all that came before and after for their people. Since 1868, Navajo peoples have continued to struggle with the federal government over land rights and resources. These fights have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s determination to open Native lands to extractive industry, and by the coronavirus pandemic. In May, the Navajo Nation had the highest per capita infection rate in the U.S., and continues to be a major hot spot. As in the 1860s, the Navajo story today is one of suffering and survival. This is one of the stories that should be told in plazas and in front of capitol buildings across the West, rather than the myths embodied by laudatory sculptures of soldiers and frontiersmen.