Modern history


Chapter 41


The campaign began innocuously enough, with groups of soldiers steadily massing in Santa Fe and in Los Pinos, on the Rio Grande, and then filing slowly westward toward Navajo country. They did not seem in a hurry, nor were they fired with the familiar excitements, the war-whoops and revenge-lust, that ordinarily animated the seasonal slave expeditions into the land of the Diné. These soldiers moved with a solemn and methodical sense of purpose, as though they were conserving their energy. This time they knew they were not making the usual punitive sortie and then returning in shallow triumph with souvenirs and a few slaves. This time they knew they were going away for a long time, and that they were not coming back until they had broken the spirit of an entire nation, forcing twelve thousand people to give up nearly everything they’d ever known.

It was early July 1863. Day after day the sun shone with an impaling brightness, and all along the river the crops were taking shape in the wilting heat. Silty water trickled through the ditches and races to feed the thirsty stalks of beans and corn. It was siesta weather, the middays baking in a torpor that made the inhabitants along the Rio Grande live in the way of lizards, burrowing into the shade of their portales, snoozing under brush arbors with their flocks of sheep gathered about them in the shade of the flickering cottonwoods. Now the people roused from their naps and shouted out encouragement, some tipping their sweat-warped sombreros in salute as the soldiers threaded West.

Col. Kit Carson rode at the head of the column, of course. It’s not clear what Carleton said to induce him to stay on board, but it worked. Apprehensively, and with some reluctance, Carson was now embarked on the most ambitious assignment of his career.

All told, he would command nearly a thousand men, including U.S. Army officers, New Mexican volunteers, auxiliaries from a number of Pueblo tribes, and scouts recruited from among the Utes. Carson was especially proud of his Ute warriors, many of whom he knew personally from his days as an Indian agent. Hiring them had been his idea. He correctly surmised that the profound hatred the Utes held for the Diné would give them a heightened motivation, while their presence in the field as official allies of the bilagaana troops would disturb and demoralize the Navajos. “The Utes,” Carson wrote Carleton, “are very brave, and fine shots, fine trailers, and uncommonly energetic in the field. The Navajos have entertained a very great dread of them for many years. I believe one hundred Ute Indians would render more service in this way than double their number of troops.” In finally approving Carson’s idea, Carleton stipulated that he hire only the cream of the Ute warriors. “We will have none but the best,” Carleton insisted. “Our work is to be thorough, and we must have the men to do it.”

Carson often preferred riding in the company of the Utes than with either his white or Hispanic comrades. And so on July 7, when Carson left the Rio Grande with his long column of men, he trotted in the vanguard with some of his favorite warriors, including one of their leaders, a man named Kaniache. Carson was hot and uncomfortable in his army blues, the pain in his chest a frequent vexation, his thoughts doubtless clouded by the intricate conquest that lay before him. He was fifty-three years old, and showing his years. It had been especially difficult to pull himself away from Taos this time. During his short leave of absence following the Mescalero campaign, he had savored the pleasures of home in the springtime at the feet of his beloved mountains, the Rio Don Fernando running swift with snowmelt through the town. His family was still growing. Josefa was now pregnant with their sixth child.

Carson’s column filed past the pueblos of Laguna and Acoma and bored into the Diné lands. He turned his horses loose among the Navajo fields of corn and wheat and destroyed whatever the animals did not eat. Finally he made his way to Fort Defiance, the abandoned outpost set deep in Navajo country, where his men went to work refurbishing the now ruined buildings that had always been such a stark outrage to Manuelito. Defiance—along with its sister outpost, Fort Wingate—would serve as Carson’s headquarters during the long campaign, the place from which he would mount the countless incursions he knew would be required to bring the Navajos to their knees. His men worked long hours to restore the fort, and when it was deemed ready for operation, Carson christened it Fort Canby, after Carleton’s stalwart predecessor who, besides checking the Confederate invasion, had done much to lay the groundwork for the present hostilities with the Navajos.

On July 20, while Carson was at Fort Canby, an important if somewhat arbitrary deadline came and went. Six months earlier General Carleton had held a parley at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe with some eighteen Navajo headmen. The Diné leaders were apparently quite worried by alarming reports of Carson’s Mescalero roundup and rightly feared they would be next. During this summit, General Carleton struck an extremely aggressive pose with the Navajo delegation. The leaders, he said, had until July 20 to return to Santa Fe with assurances that the whole tribe would completely surrender and voluntarily move to Bosque Redondo. If the headmen did not present themselves by that date, Carleton would prosecute a war like none other that had ever been visited upon them, and he would force them to move.

Through a Spanish translator, Carleton told the Navajo leaders: “We have no faith in your promises. You can have no peace until you give other guarantees than your word. If you do not return to Santa Fe [by July 20] we will know that you have chosen the alternative of war. After that day every Navajo will be considered as hostile and treated accordingly. After that day the door now open will be closed.”

And so now that deadline had passed, and not a single one of the headmen had returned to meet with Carleton. This was all the general needed. Having satisfied the legalistic requirements of his Christian conscience, Carleton had the pretext he wanted for waging total war, a pretext that enabled him to couch the campaign not as an offensive at all, but rather as a diplomatically justified, and indeed almost obligatory, response to the Navajos’ failure to heed his explicit warning.

The coming invasion, in other words, would be all their fault. “The consequences,” as he later put it, “rested on them.”

Carleton drew up a brusque declaration of war bearing the dry, institutional title General Orders No. 15. “For a long time past, the Navajo Indians have murdered and robbed the people of New Mexico,” the document read. “It is therefore ordered that Colonel CHRISTOPHER CARSON, with a proper military force proceed without delay to the Navajo country and there…to prosecute a vigorous war upon the men of this tribe…”

Carleton trusted “the distinguished commander of the expedition,” as he called Carson, and gave him carte blanche to purchase supplies “to insure the cardinal requirements of health, food, mobility, and power.” But at the same time the impatient general was ever anxious to know all the nitty-gritty facts of the campaign, and to know them as quickly as the mails would permit. As soon as Carson left the Rio Grande and passed into the desolation of Navajo country, Carleton grew antsy for news and found himself unable to stifle his tendency toward micromanagement from afar. A nearly constant stream of letters issued from his goading pen—full of fussy reprimands and minute suggestions written in a formal hand so neat and razor-sharp it seemed turned out by a machine.

Miffed that Colonel Carson had not written him in a while, the general dashed off a note early in the campaign that made it clear he was to send regular, thorough updates. “Make a note of this,” Carleton snipped at Carson. “You will send me a weekly report in detail of the operations of your command. Let me know all about the crops destroyed, their extent and location; all about the stock captured; when, where, by whom, and the kind and number; all about the Navajos killed, and the exact number of captured women and children. Be sure and make timely requisitions for supplies. The value of time cannot be too seriously considered. Make every string draw.”

As if Carson wasn’t already feeling enough pressure, Carleton concluded his note with a reminder: “Much is expected of you, both here and in Washington.”


There was nothing glorious about Carson’s campaign: no great engagements, no fields of honor, no decisive victories. With the American invasion, the Navajos did what they had always done—they scattered, vanished, dropped into their thousand pockets and holes and abided in silence. And so, with no one to fight, Carson’s campaign became, of necessity, a war of grinding attrition. The pressure he applied through the summer and fall of 1863 was incremental, cumulative, merciless, and without relent. The goal, pure in its simplicity, was to make the Navajos feel the bitter burn of starvation, on the theory that hunger alone could bring them to accept conditions they would not otherwise entertain. Carson never used the term “scorched earth,” but that’s what it was, the first systematic use of it in the West—and more than a year before Sherman’s march across the South. If there was ever a grandeur or majesty to warfare, surely none could be found here.

On August 5, Carson left Fort Canby on his first scout, an exhausting march under “a broiling sun” that lasted twenty-seven days and covered nearly five hundred miles across the multifingered mesas where the Navajo and Hopi worlds merged. Along the way he captured perhaps a dozen Navajos and killed a like number, but Carson himself thought the expedition failed to inflict “any positive injury” on the Diné and achieved little of military value—other than making Carson appreciate how nearly impossible his task was.

For how could he make the Navajos surrender when he scarcely even saw them? This was a ghost country. Everywhere he went he found fresh evidence of habitation—smoldering fires, ripe animal dung, scattered belongings hanging in trees—but no people. Week after week he was reduced to playing an exasperating game of hide-and-go-seek. The long rides were dusty and throat-parching—“thermometer past endurance,” noted one soldier. Plainly, it was the kind of work better suited for a younger man. Said one sergeant who rode on one of Carson’s epic but ultimately unproductive slogs: “I have seen him reeling in the saddle from fatigue and loss of sleep, still pushing forward and hoping to come upon them.”

Usually all he came upon was a horse, or a few goats, or some other stray beast of the elusive Navajos. Almost invariably Carson seized these animals for his own use—or had them shot. One participant in the Navajo campaign recalled sighting a lone white horse on a distant mesa, and then watching a comrade dash up the steep slopes to dispatch the hapless animal. “With straining eyes and beating hearts we watched his career,” the diarist wrote. “He reached the unknown animal, halted and soon we heard the report of a Pistol and a poor broken down sore-backed old Navajo pony had gone where his fathers have gone before him—finis.

In his frustration over failing to encounter Navajos, Carson redoubled his efforts to achieve stealth. One soldier who served with the New Mexican Volunteers commented that “on the march Carson would never build fires if he wanted to surprise the enemy,” but would “creep up cautiously…The troops sometimes accused him of cowardice because he was so cautious.” Carson ventured out in smaller and smaller parties, hoping to surprise the Diné and flush them out. He would rise before dawn and take his Ute scouts with him, leaving some other officer in charge of the regiment. They would take off in furtive pursuit, and sometimes, if they were lucky, they would engage in a brief and unsatisfying battle. Before the rest of the command caught up, Colonel Carson and his Utes had finished fighting; the skirmish was over.

Capt. Eben Everett, the probable author of the only known diary kept during the campaign, described one of Carson’s morning raids. On the morning of August 28, the diary notes, “a party of some thirty men were sent off to go round by way of an Indian village. They joined us at Camp about 3 o’clock bringing with them one scalp of an Indian they had shot. From its appearance the original wearer…must have been an hombre grande.

It was on one of these sorties that Carson sustained his first—and amazingly, the only—casualty of the Navajo campaign. For reasons not entirely clear, Maj. Joseph Cummings, a brave but overly brash young officer, surged alone well ahead of the main column through a desolate canyon. Several hours later his body was found four miles ahead on the canyon floor, a rifle wound in his belly, the bullet apparently having severed his spinal cord. In his report to Carleton, Carson seemed to have little sympathy for Cummings. The major had shown precisely the sort of incautious behavior, blustery and ultimately pointless, that he detested: “Major Cummings left the command alone and proceeded up the cañon” when he was killed “by a concealed Indian,” the report dryly announced. In the end the major had acted “against positive orders” and was killed “as a result of rash bravery.” For reasons that were never disclosed, Cummings was carrying a rather astounding sum of cash—$4,200—the entire amount found on his person, undisturbed.

In the absence of actual Navajos to fight, Carson turned his men loose on the tribe’s unattended wheatfields and cornfields and melon patches. He threw himself into this dark work. His true talents lay more in pursuit than in despoliation, yet once his mind turned in a vandal direction, a certain wicked ingenuity expressed itself. He thought of everything, it seemed. He had his men destroy every pot and basket they stumbled upon, to deprive the Navajos of any means of carrying or storing food. Caches were dug up and plundered, and every stock animal encountered was either killed or appropriated. Carson had his Utes guard all the known watering holes and salt sources of the Navajo country, and in one case he explored the possibility of “turning off” a stream by choking it with boulders so as to divert its flow.

The weekly reports that Carson dutifully dictated to his adjutant for General Carleton’s benefit were, for the most part, plodding logbooks of destruction. There was a numbing quality to these accounts. By their droning dreariness one senses that he found as little pleasure reporting the grim deeds as he did performing them. Joyless though they are, Carson’s reports make it clear that the crop annihilation was adding up.

From Carson’s August logs: “Destroyed about seventy acres of corn.”…“The Wheat (about fifteen acres) we fed to the animals and the corn (about fifty acres) was destroyed.”…“Shortly after leaving camp on the 9th, destroyed about twelve acres of corn.”…“About 12 miles West of Moqui, fed to animals about an acre of corn found there.”…“While en route on the 16th destroyed about fifty acres of corn.”…“About five miles from camp, found and destroyed about ten acres of good corn. At the night camp some ten miles farther, found a patch of corn which was fed to the animals.”…“Packed on the animals all the grain not previously consumed by them or destroyed by the Command.”…“About 10 A.M., the command arrived at a large bottom containing not less than one hundred acres of as fine corn as I have ever seen. Here I determined to encamp that I might have it destroyed.”

And so on, and so on. In the end Carson’s men leveled and burned untold thousands of acres of crops—by his estimation nearly 2 million pounds of food, most of it in its prime, ready for harvest. The impact of this obliteration had a built-in time lag; it would not really show itself until the autumn, when the Navajos would face the coming cold in the grip of inevitable famine.

Carson only had to be patient. At one point in his August logs, he pondered the fate of a particular band whose cornfields had just fallen under his blade and torch. “They have no stock,” he writes in a tone devoid of either pleasure or remorse, “and were depending entirely for subsistence on the corn destroyed by my command on the previous day.” The loss, he predicts, “will cause actual starvation, and oblige them to come in and accept emigration to the Bosque Redondo.”


In fact, a small number of Navajos did come to Fort Canby to accept emigration, but unfortunately it was at a time when Carson was still away on his scout. On August 26, four Navajo men appeared outside the fort. According to one eyewitness, they arrived “under a flag of truce” and “represented that they came to sue for peace, and that their tribe or band, numbering from seventy-five to one hundred souls, was outside the Fort and wanted to come in as friends.”

But the commanding officer of the post in Carson’s absence, an overbearing major named Thomas J. Blakeney, thoroughly bungled this golden opportunity to accept the very first group of Navajos to surrender on Carleton’s terms. Instead of offering amnesty and kind passage, Blakeney rudely mistreated the four Diné emissaries. First, they were imprisoned and put to work burying “offal and dead dogs.” Then at least one of them was shot dead while two of the others, apparently fearing they would be next, managed to escape for the hills.

Only one of the four Navajos was left at the fort when Carson returned on August 31 from his long reconnaissance. Carson interviewed him, a plainly scared old man of about seventy years named Little Foot, and believed his story. Taking pity, Carson gave Little Foot twelve days to return to the fort with his people—although after what had happened, the colonel saw slim reason for optimism that the Navajo would actually come back. “From all I can learn,” Carson reported to Carleton, “these Indians came in with a flag of truce, and I cannot but regret that they were not better received and kept until my arrival…. I cannot blame these people for distrusting the good faith of the Troops at this Post, from the manner in which their Messengers have been received. I deplore it the more as I now have only one way of communicating with them—through the barrels of my Rifles.”

If he’d had a chance to parley with this first group, Carson firmly believed, he would have been able to patiently explain all of Carleton’s terms and win them over with food and other gifts. Had the proceedings gone well, he thought, it might have set off a chain reaction of mass surrenders, possibly obviating the need for a protracted campaign. Instead, Carson was now facing the exact opposite situation: The two emissaries who had escaped were doubtless telling their people, and other bands they met, not to surrender, that they would be shot and mistreated if they did—that, in fact, this was a war of extermination.

Carson, for all his strengths, had one serious flaw as a commander: Still unfamiliar with army protocol, he was not an effective disciplinarian. And because he did not have a firm hold on his command, the sort of imbecilic cruelty demonstrated by Blakeney was regrettably more the rule than the exception. In truth, most of the officers Carson had to work with were none too swift. Time and time again they demonstrated themselves to be a uniquely inept and unruly bunch. Overworked and underpaid, many of them drunks, a good number of them immigrants fresh from places like Ireland, England, and the Netherlands, they hated having to do this depressing work in a desert wasteland when they could be digging for gold in California or fighting Rebels back east. Even General Carleton, who had handpicked most of the men of higher rank serving with Carson, admitted that he was “greatly embarrassed for want of good officers.”

Lawrence Kelly, who made a thorough study of Carson’s command in his excellent book Navajo Roundup, noted that nearly half of the officers serving on the Navajo campaign were either court-martialed or forced to resign. Lawrence observes that, among other things, Carson’s officers were charged with “murder, alcoholism, embezzlement, sexual deviation, desertion, and incompetence.”

Lt. David McAllister was caught in bed with an enlisted man while he was officer of the day at Fort Canby. Capt. Eben Everett was court-martialed for “being so drunk as to be wholly unable to perform any duty properly.” Lieutenants Stephen Coyle and William Mortimer were forced to resign after they bloodied each other in “a disgraceful fight” in front of enlisted men. John Caufield was charged with murdering an enlisted man and held in irons until convicted by a military court. Assistant Surgeon James H. Prentiss was charged with stealing most of the “Hospital Whiskey and Wine and applying it to his own use.” Lt. Nicholas Hodt was found to be “beastly intoxicated” and “in bed with a woman of bad character.” Another officer was found to have offered to secure prostitutes for his men, boasting in all seriousness that he was the “damdest best pimp in New Mexico.”

These colorful disciplinary notes go on and on, bearing sad testimony to the morale problems that clearly prevailed among this confederacy of dunces.

To his credit, Carson pursued an investigation into Blakeney’s actions, and the officer was soon dismissed, with an examining surgeon claiming that the unpopular major suffered from a “nervous debility” and a bad case of indigestion. When Carson described the Blakeney incident to Carleton in his next report, the general promptly shot back a curt letter: “You are right in believing that I do not wish to have Indians destroyed who are willing to come in. Nor will you permit an Indian prisoner once fairly in your custody to be killed.” However, Carson was not to let this minor setback deter him from the main task at hand—nor was the colonel to slacken the ferocity of his rhetoric when he next encountered Navajos willing to talk. Carleton reminded Carson to tell the Navajos that “you have deceived us too often and robbed and murdered our people too long to trust you again at large in your country…. This war shall be pursued against you if it takes years, until you cease to exist or move. There can be no other talk on the subject.”


In the fall, Carson embarked on two more ambitious scouts, but these, too, were seeming failures. Mules and horses collapsed in alarming numbers while others were cleverly stolen in the night by unseen Navajo rustlers. His Ute warriors deserted upon learning that General Carleton would not permit them to keep the booty or slaves they captured along the way. At one point Carson came very close to catching the great warrior Manuelito—or at least a man described by the Hopis as Manuelito—but the prize refugee slipped away, living with his people on secret stores of corn he had presciently stashed throughout the Navajo lands.

After a series of smaller scouts in late November produced similarly underwhelming results, Carson became truly fed up and not a little embarrassed. He was not a man used to failing, certainly not on this scale. One can sense the undertones of rising frustration in his letters to Carleton. He wrote the general that given the sorry state of his horses, he did not think he could continue to prosecute the campaign through the winter. He thought it more prudent to wait “until the weather opens sufficiently” before resuming “extended operations.” At times, it sounded as though he was giving up.

And in fact, he was—at least temporarily. Carson formally requested a two-month leave of absence that would begin on December 15. He wanted to see Josefa, who was approaching her due date. From the field, Carson had been sending her dictated letters whenever he could. One of them survives:

Beloved Wife—

Do not worry about me, because with God’s help we shall see each other again. I charge you above all not to get weary of caring for my children, and to give each one a little kiss in my name…. I remain begging God that I return in good health to be with you until death.

—Your husband who loves you and wishes to see you more than to write to you

In his request for a leave, Carson did not explicitly mention his concern about Josefa’s pregnancy; he said only to Carleton that he needed to attend to “some private business of importance.” In any case, Carleton denied Carson’s request, claiming, “I have not the authority to grant you a leave.” Winter was not the season to relax pressure on the Navajos, the general insisted. “Now while the snow is deep is the true time to make an impression on the tribe.” Carleton ended his note with a prissy addendum: “Please forward no more applications for leaves of absence.”

Carleton was willing to cut a quid pro quo deal with his colonel, however. Carson could come home for a brief visit, the general said, “as soon as you have secured one hundred captive Navajo men, women, and children.” It was an incentive package that captured the irritating paternalism lodged so deeply within Carleton’s personality: Perform your task, and then you can go see your wife.

But there was one more caveat. Through all his exhausting scouts, Carson had carefully stayed away from the stronghold of Navajo country, Canyon de Chelly. Back in September he had paused at the tantalizing western mouth of the canyon, but steadfastly refused to go in. Perhaps he was daunted by the scale of the chasm itself—which he regarded as “stupendous” and “impregnable”—or by the considerable logistics that would be required to mount a campaign through it, something no army had ever successfully done in wartime. Perhaps he was aware of the fact that an American colonel named Dixon S. Miles, after scouting a section of the canyon in 1858, had ominously proclaimed, “No command should ever again enter it.” Whatever the reason, Canyon de Chelly was a dread subject for Carson.

Now Carleton had other ideas. Carson would not only have to reach his quota of one hundred captives, but he would have to do it by invading Canyon de Chelly in the dead of winter—and traversing every twisted mile of it.

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