The genesis of the Navajo's "Long Walk" had its origins in the Mexican-American War in 1846. President
James K. Polk led the U.S. into the Mexican War and sent an army to occupy an area that would later be
designated the New Mexico Territory.
The Americans defeated the Mexican army and advanced in triumph to the far end of the Santa Fe Trail. The
end of the war brought more hardship to the Navajo Tribe. The Americans began to force their rule on the
Navajos, who had been raiding the livestock of the New Mexico settlers to feed their families. The land that
had always fed the Navajo had been rapidly shrinking as first the Mexican and then American settlers poured
into their homeland.
The Indians continued to take jaunts outside Navajo land in the northeastern part of Arizona, in order to raid
White ranchers. However, in the army's Indian policy records of the 1860s, indicated that they believed silver
and gold could be found in the red earth that the Navajo's called home.
In a report written by Kit Carson in 1854, stated taht "In regard to the new Silver Leads I am not sufficiently
posted yet to say much about them but will advise you of the first favorable opportunity I hear of" (NARA, RG
98, Letters Received, Carson to Carleton 4/12/65). Antoher report by a trooper stated that: "There is a report
here that gold has been found in large quantities on Little Red River."
Whatever motivated the Indian Removal of the Navajo, Brig. Gen. James Carleton conceived a solution: Confine
the tribe to a reservation near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, in an area known as Bosque Redondo.
The job of rounding them up fell to the army scout, Kit Carson. Carson was ordered to enter the Canyon de
Chelle in Arizona and give the Navajos General Carleton's order, "Surrender or die."
The Navajo Indians evaded capture and refused to fight the soldiers sent to subdue them, so Carson's troops
destroyed their crops and seized their livestock.
Carson had his men to cut down over a thousand peach trees that the Navajos had been growing for years. All
of the wheat and corn fields growing in Canyon de Chelle were also destroyed. General Carleton wanted to
starve the Navajos into submission. To this day, Navajo Indians have not planted trees. They say the soldiers
will come to cut them down.
Eventually the beleaguered tribe gave in, but it was the Navajo's in the Eastern part of Navajo lands, while
many in the western areas were able to hide in various canyons and mountains.
In 1864 and into 1865, the nearly 8,000 captured Navajos and a smaller number of Apaches, were forced out of
their homes in the red-rock country and set forth on a trail of tears reminiscent of the Cherokees' "Trail of
Tears." Most were starving and many were sick.
The "Long Walk" took a path that included crossing three rivers; the Rio Puerco, the Rio Grande and the Pecos.
Navajo mythology had long warned the Navajos not to cross these three rivers or their People would suffer a
terrible fate. This terrified the Navajos who had to cross these
Hundreds of Navajos died on the "Long Walk," and thousands more died at the Bosque Redondo Reservation
over the next few years from starvation and disease.
It got so bad that General Carleton, the architect of this tragedy, wrote to Washington, D.C., for help in
feeding his captive Navajos, lest they all die and "upbraid us for having taken their birthright and left them to
Carleton continued in his letter: "With other tribes we have acquired ever since the Pilgrims stepped ashore at
Plymouth Rock, this has been done too often. For pity's sake, if moved not by any other consideration, for once
treat the Indian as he deserves to be treated."
Rescue finally arrived in the unlikely person of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who visited Fort Sumner in
1868. Taking pity on the Navajos, Sherman let them go home.
In his last years, Kit Carson, told friends, that most troubles with natives "rose from the aggressions of
whites." He said the Navajos "...once owned all this country, yes, Plains and Mountains, buffalo and everything.
But now they own next door to nuthin, and will soon be gone."
The Navajo survived the Bosque Redondo Reservation, and the trek home to Navajo Land. However, like the
Cherokees and their "Trail of Tears," the Navajo will never forget the "Long Walk." It has become part of
their world view, their culture, and even their jewelry and artworks.
Below: Photo of Navajo Indians imprisioned in the Reservation at Fort Sumner, 1864.
Armstrong, N.M. (1996). Navajo Long Walk.
Bruchac, J. (2002). Navajo Long Walk : Tragic Story Of A Proud Peoples Forced March From Homeland.
Lake-Thom, R. Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies.
Locke, R. F. The Book of the Navajo. 2002.