The weather on January 6, 1864 was not unusual, but maybe just a little unexpected. Deep snow covered the hills surrounding Canyon de Chelly, and a cold wind was making things difficult for renowned Indian fighter Kit Carson. He and his 400-strong “army” had been charged with the task of clearing the canyon and the surrounding country of Navajo tribal natives.
Carson launched what would become a 16-day relentless assault on the Navajo. Every “Hogan” was burned, corrals were torn down, food supplies stored for winter were destroyed, and wells and water holes were filled with rocks and soil and rendered useless.
Then, Carson sat and waited for survivors to surrender – which most did rather than face death by starvation. Tribal histories say they realized they could not survive the winter. “They had no livestock, their homes were in ashes, and crops destroyed, children clad in rags and afraid to light fires because they would attract Carson’s attention.”
When they surrendered at Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate, they were, to their surprise, welcomed with gifts of food and blankets and roofs to sleep under. And, they were told that more food and blankets and permanent homes awaited them at a place called Bosque Redondo near the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. The military had an outpost there called Fort Sumner.
There was what Kit Carson and the army regarded as a minor problem: how to get them from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner. Some tribal stories handed down verbally estimate the final number of Navajo assembled by Carson in what is now Southeast Arizona in March 1864 was “around 8,500 men, women and children.” Whatever the total, on the day they moved, they had no idea their new home was close to 500 kilometers away – and they had to walk every kilometer. At least, those who survived what the Navajo still call “the Long Walk” – would have walked every kilometer.
Tribal histories say: “Soon the Navajo’s moccasins fell apart and their blankets turned to rags…… (many) became sick from different foods the soldiers gave them. They didn’t know how to use flour or coffee beans. They mixed the flour with water and drank it and the coffee beans they boiled in stews … Old people and young people fell along the trail. If they did not get up the soldiers either shot them or left them to freeze to death.”
Before reaching the Pecos River, they had to cross the Rio Grande and many drowned there before the military guard allowed the walkers to make a few primitive rafts. The number of deaths on The Long Walk varies between 3,000 and 5,000 – depending on who is telling the story.
The Navajo remained incarcerated in Fort Sumner for close to four years when a new treaty was negotiated, and the survivors rejoined a small band of Navajo warriors who had avoided capture and refused to surrender. The Navajo had survived.
The Fort Sumner concentration camp site is, by all accounts, better visited today than it was 25 years ago when I took my youngest son to see this rare historic site and learn a little harsh American history. He listened to my Navajo story, but couldn’t visualize a concentration camp on what looked like an empty field with a fence around it. He drifted off to Fort Sumner’s small cemetery for another look at a gravestone claiming to mark the last resting place of Henry McCarty or William Bonney – better known as “Billy the Kid.”
Billy the Kid was a 21-year-old murderer with eight victims to his name when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed him at Fort Sumner in 1881 – and remains in the American psyche (and that of 10-year-old boys) a far more interesting historical happening at the old outpost than The Long Walk of the Navajos.
I think I owe readers a reason for reviving The Long Walk story. It was just curiosity. I got to wondering: How would Commander in Chief USA President Trump resolve his current troublesome problem of refugee “invaders” seeking food and a place to call home?
Late last Thursday afternoon via television he told me. At the first sign of trouble if/when the refugees reach the Mexico – USA border he would “use the rifle” to halt the cavalcade. And that brutal promised order from the Commander in Chief of the US Armed forces should be all his most ardent supporters need to trigger an already overdue farewell.