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Navajo Conflicts

In the 17th century, the Navajo lived in the area between the Little Colorado and San Juan rivers in northeast Arizona, but they ranged well beyond that region. The Navajo were a predacious tribe of some 50 clans who, frequently with their Apache allies, regularly pillaged the Pueblo and later the Spanish and Mexican settlements in New Mexico, principally for livestock. Then came the Americans, who arrived in Santa Fe in August 1846 with the intent to make the territory home. Navajo leaders met with American soldiers that November and concluded the Bear Springs Treaty. However, persistent quarrels with American soldiers provoked organized hostilities. Punitive expeditions against the Navajo were only temporarily successful. Meanwhile, Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, which concluded the Mexican War. Having lost, Mexico was compelled to relinquish half of its territory, including Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. The Navajo homeland was part of this vast cession of land. Navajos now existed within the formal jurisdiction of the U.S. government. In 1851, Fort Defiance was erected in Navajo country. The first U.S. fort built in what would become Arizona Territory (1863), its purposes were to thwart the Navajo, labeled as one of the "wild tribes," and encourage Anglo-American settlement. The Americans also attempted to assign the Navajo to a reservation, but they refused. In 1858, Manuelito, a Navajo chief, discovered 60 head of his livestock shot by U.S. soldiers. Outraged, he confronted the commander at Fort Defiance and told him the land belonged to him and his people, not to the soldiers. Soldiers from the fort, augmented by 160 paid Zuni warriors, torched Manuelito's fields and village. The chief then resolved to drive the soldiers off the land and commenced to rally other Navajo leaders for war. In 1860, more than 1,000 Navajos attacked Fort Defiance. They nearly overran it, but superior gunfire forced a retreat. This would lead to the U.S. Army's policy of "total war" against the Navajos. In 1863, U.S. forces under newly arrived Kit Carson waged a full-scale campaign against the Navajo and ultimately swept up about 8,000 of them. Carson drove the Navajo from their lands by destroying their means of subsistence, using his "Scorched Earth Policy." His soldiers killed livestock, poisoned wells, burned crops and orchards, destroyed hogans and other buildings. Thousands went into hiding in the deep redoubt of Canyon de Chelly. By winter, Carson's men erected a blockade at the canyon entrance, fired at anyone trying to leave, and in March 1864, rounded up thousands of starving natives. These and other Navajos were compelled to walk to a reservation, Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumter in New Mexico. Navajo history records this crushing forced expulsion in a spring blizzard as the Long Walk, on which many died or were killed. The Navajo were confined to the reservation until 1868. The tribe endured relentless hardships from crop failures because of bad soil, and introduced diseases, as well as assaults by other Indians. In 1868, a new treaty was concluded, whose terms permitted the Navajos to move to a reservation established at Four Corners,* their former territory, and provided them with cattle and sheep. In return, the tribe consented to live peaceably with the American settlers.

*This is the only place in the United States where four states intersect at one point: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. See also Indian Wars.