Western Trips

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Fort Sumner New Mexico, The Bosque Redondo and the Long Walk

They called it "The Long Walk" and indeed it was. Several thousand Navajo Native Americans were forced to walk to Fort Sumner New Mexico in the Pecos River Valley from their homeland, some 350 miles.

The Navajo Forced March

The traditional Navajo homeland was in today's northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. Many died on this forced march.

When your vacation or western road trip takes you through New Mexico, particularly on Interstate 40, you may just want to take a short detour to one of the state's most historic sites. There's a lot to learn there about what happened to the Navajo Native Americans as well as about the events in New Mexico Territory during the 1860's.

The Long Walk event that ended there is really about a story of a government plan that proved to be ill conceived. The story you'll learn about at Fort Sumner is about a place called "Bosque Redondo". There of course are several New Mexico reservations but this one, because of what it represented, may be one of the most historic. The Bosque Redondo Memorial is an excellent addition to your New Mexico vacation planner and a site filled with history.

bosque redondo memorial
Fort Sumner NM is located about 160 miles west of Amarillo Texas and about 160 miles east of -Albuquerque. From Santa Rosa New Mexico which is directly on Interstate 40, Fort Sumner is about 45 miles south on U.S. Hwy 84. It's about a 45 minute drive from Santa Rosa and well worth the time.

History wise, there's really two stories that most people associate Fort Sumner with. One has to do with the Navajo forced march and the other has to do with Billy the Kid. You may recall that Billy the Kid met his end at Fort Sumner at the hands of sheriff Pat Garrett.

The Navajo people had a history of conflict with every country that ruled over it's land. The first were the conflicts with the Spaniards who first settled what is today New Mexico. The conflicts continued with the Mexican government after they expelled the Spaniards from North America. When the U.S. Government took over the area of Nuevo Mexico from the Mexicans in about 1846, the conflicts continued. The causes of these centuries long struggles were really no different than any of the other struggles between Native Americans and Europeans. Mostly it was about land, freedom and religion.

bosque redondo museum
Bosque Redondo Memorial
The religion factor was most prominent with the Spanish rule with the mission building and the outlawing of Native American religions and spirit worship. In fact, the Spaniards suffered their worst defeat during the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 where they were virtually driven out of Nuevo Mexico for twelve years.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial is located at the old site of Fort Sumner which at the time of the Long Walk was a U.S. military outpost. This is just a few miles southeast of the town of Fort Sumner and along the Pecos River.

The Long Walk for the Navajo occurred during 1864. This of course was the Civil War years. The United States had control of the New Mexico Territory for about fifteen years at that point and what took place with the Navajo's was nothing short of a mass deportation. In fact, it's noted that the area of Bosque Redondo was considered a very remote area and it was for this reason that the location was chosen for the Navajos. The military wanted them relocated as far as possible from their native lands.

What was called The Long Walk was a deportation event that had it's beginning in 1862 and 1863 when Kit Carson was ordered to advance on the Navajo settlements near today's Four Corners area and secure a surrender.

The action came after the U.S. Army was able to push the Confederates down the Rio Grande in 1862 thus freeing up the resources to address the Navajos. Carson was only partly successful. At first, no Navajos agreed to surrender. Not Kit Carson essentially followed what is known as a scorched earth policy.
kit carson home
Kit Carson Home and Museum, Taos NM
a one. It was only after a lot of pressure not to mention starvation that thousands did finally give in. While these thousands did indeed surrender to U.S. forces, others scattered to the mountains as far north as Utah and as far south as into Arizona. What ensued after that was anything but peaceful. Most books will tell you that

One of the best descriptions of the intensity of Kit Carson's Navajo Campaign was written by Herbert E. Gregory in, The Navajo Country, published in 1915. Gregory goes on to say, "After New Mexico and Arizona came into possession of the United States, a series of unsuccessful expeditions directed against the Navajos culminated in the campaign of 1863. During this year Kit Carson invaded the Navajo country, killed the sheep, burned the cornfields, and took possession of water holes, thereby forcing the surrender of the whole tribe. The number of prisoners held at Bosque Redondo was 7,300 which was believed to include the whole tribe and doubtless was 90 per cent of all the Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona".

native american arrows
Arrows on display at Bent Home and Museum
Kit Carson's legend is like the story of western expansion itself. He was one of the few that literally lived all aspects of America's expansion west. He was a trapper, a scout, a farmer and trader and he was called many time to serve his country.

His military service spanned all the way back to the Fremont expedition to California to the events in the early 1860's regarding the Navajo. Most books concerning Carson will say he was quite atypical for a mountain man. He was gentlemanly and treated people with respect. At the same time, Carson could be violent if he encountered violence headed his way. Kit Carson many time was quoted as saying that he would like to just settle down as a rancher but each time he headed in that direction the U.S. military had some sort of need for his services.

The Navajo Forced March and the Civil War in New Mexico

One of the things I find interesting when describing western historical events is in what overall atmosphere they took place. None of these events occurred in a vacuum and the New Mexico native story is a good example.

In this case, during the Civil War and about fifteen years after the Mexican cessation of New Mexico, there were numerous concerns in the west. Because of the Civil War's need for more troops in the eastern battlefields, the plains and near west were more dangerous. Raids picked up along the Oregon Trail and along the Bozeman Trail up into Montana. A good number of army troops who had been stationed on the western frontier were back east. The Indians had a much easier time raiding white settlements during the Civil War.

Texas was a perfect example of this with the Comanches. People were still traveling on the Oregon Trail either heading to California or to Virginia City Nevada with the Comstock strike. The New Mexico Territory was assaulted by the Confederacy, especially in the southern section and in present day southern Arizona. There were even secession efforts in this southern section of the territory. There was a lot happening. As I had mentioned, the U.S. really didn't take decisive action against the Navajo until after they were able to take care of the Confederate threat. It was during this confusing and militarily active time that Kit Carson was summoned to round up the Navajo.

indian corn
New Mexico Indian corn from the Bent Home and Museum
To demonstrate just how ill conceived the deportation to Bosque Redondo was, the Navajo forced  presence at this reservation south of Fort Sumner lasted only some five years.

During Kit Carson's last year, 1868, he was known to have lobbied Congress for the freeing of the Navajo from Bosque Redondo. He believed that what transpired in 1863 and 1864 was a mistake and did all he could to influence it's reversal.

Kit Carson died in Colorado at Fort Lyon the very same year the treaty was signed. The treaty allowed for the Indian tribe's return to its homeland. The Treaty of Bosque Redondo had numerous provisions, including an end to the raids that had ravaged the Southwest for centuries.

kit carson guns
Firearms once owned by Kit Carson
According to the Bosque Redondo website regarding the detention of both Navajos and Apaches at this reservation, "The Bosque Redondo Memorial celebrates these two cultures’ dignity, resilience, endurance, courage and strength, in the face of extreme hardship, isolation, sickness and death, to emerge from Bosque Redondo to become the admired and proud people they are today".

There's a lot of history concerning the Native story  to be learned at this excellent memorial. The people at the memorial state, "We invite you to walk with us as we look into the Navajo and Mescalero Apache cultures and trace the history of the events that led to their terrible incarceration at Bosque Redondo, their incredible survival, and emotional return to their respective homelands".

Two related and interesting articles are the story of the Navajo Code Talkers who played such an important role for the U.S. during World War Two and the story of the original Hubbell Trading Post located on the Navajo reservation.

You may also enjoy our Western Trips visit to historic Fort Garland in southern Colorado.

When your western vacation or short road trip takes you to this part of New Mexico, south of Santa Rosa, I would encourage you to add this stop to your trip planner. It's the type of historic stop that's great for the entire family.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

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