Apache and Navajo War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Apache and Navajo warriors attacked white settlers and U.S. Army troops in reaction to increasing encroachment into the American Southwest and to the aggressive U.S. policies carried out by Native American agents and the Army. The ensuing war, and U.S. victory, marked the beginning of the removal of Indians from their homelands onto reservations to make way for westward expansion.

Summary of Event

After the Mexican War (1846-1848), Apache and Navajo communities viewed with alarm the steady intrusion into their lands by the U.S. Army and white settlers. The Apache and the Navajo sought a peaceful relationship with whites, even as the Indians increasingly faced the confiscation of their lands. Homesteaders and miners broke up the range, farmed the river bottomlands, hunted for game in the mountains, and killed Indians without fear of punishment. Soldiers killed Indian livestock and took their grazing lands. Apaches Navajos Native American wars;Navajos Native American wars;Apaches Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] [kw]Apache and Navajo War (Apr. 30, 1860-1865) [kw]Navajo War, Apache and (Apr. 30, 1860-1865) [kw]War, Apache and Navajo (Apr. 30, 1860-1865) Apaches Navajos Native American wars;Navajos Native American wars;Apaches Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] [g]United States;Apr. 30, 1860-1865: Apache and Navajo War[3380] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 30, 1860-1865: Apache and Navajo War[3380] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 30, 1860-1865: Apache and Navajo War[3380] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Apr. 30, 1860-1865: Apache and Navajo War[3380] Cochise Mangas Coloradas Manuelito Barboncito Delgadito Canby, Edward R. S. Carleton, James Henry

After Indians in turn raided settlements and stole livestock to recoup their losses, the settlers demanded protection from the Army. Between 1860 and 1865, the Navajo and the Apache attacked miners and other settlers, and, in retaliation, the Army, settlers, and other Indian tribes attacked the Apache and the Navajo. The battles would lead to the Navajo and Apache being driven from their lands and confined to the Bosque Redondo reservation.

The Navajo struck first. On April 30, 1860, more than one thousand Navajo warriors, led by headman Manuelito Manuelito and medicine man Barboncito Barboncito , attacked Fort Defiance after Navajo livestock were killed and their grazing lands were seized. Facing cannon fire, the Navajo withdrew into Canyon de Chelly. On September 9, 1860, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby Canby, Edward R. S. was ordered to Fort Defiance to command an expedition to force the Navajo off their lands.

On September 19, Canby launched the war against the Navajo with three columns of cavalry and infantry. The troopers searched Canyon de Chelly and the Black Mesa area until the end of October, encountering few Navajo. On October 23, the cavalry under Major Henry H. Sibley’s Sibley, Henry H. command found large numbers of sheep and horses belonging to Delgadito Delgadito , a wealthy Navajo chief, but found few Navajo warriors. The troopers killed five Navajo, took three women and two children captive, and seized two hundred horses and two thousand sheep.

On November 2, the exhausted soldiers headed back to Fort Defiance. There, Canby heard a report confirming that the wealthiest Navajo leaders had all fled westward with their livestock to escape the soldiers, the New Mexico volunteer militia, and the Ute Utes Indians. During the winter, Canby Canby, Edward R. S. deployed his troops in the vicinity of Forts Defiance and Fauntleroy, while the Utes and New Mexican trackers searched the country for the Navajo hiding places.

By the end of December, Navajo delegations, wanting to return to their fields and herds, made overtures for peace. Canby scheduled a council on January 12, 1861, at Fort Fauntleroy. Among the prominent Navajo leaders attending were Manuelito Manuelito , Delgadito Delgadito , and Barboncito Barboncito . The Navajo consented to Canby’s demands to stop the raids and help rid the tribe of ladrones (thieves). A general council to make the formal treaty was set for February 5, but the date was extended to await the arrival of chiefs and headmen.

On February 15, thirty-two Navajo headmen signed the treaty agreeing to cease their aggression against New Mexican settlers, to suppress the ladrones and indemnify losses due to Navajo thefts, and to abide under U.S. government authority. Fort Defiance was closed and troops moved to Fort Fauntleroy, leaving the Navajo at the mercy of continuous raids for livestock and captives by New Mexican militia and the Ute and Pueblo Indians.

Chiricahua Apache war leader Mangas Coloradas.

(Library of Congress)

The Apache, about three weeks after the initial Navajo strike, went on the warpath as well. On May 18, 1860, gold had been discovered at Pinos Altos in southwestern New Mexico. Hundreds of miners and desperados rushed into the lands of Chief Mangas Mangas Coloradas Coloradas and his band of Bedonkohes. Angered at the destruction of the mountains and grasslands, Mangas led raids against the miners. On December 4, miners attacked a Bedonkohe encampment on the Mimbres River, killing four Bedonkohe, wounding others, and capturing thirteen women and children. Mangas retaliated with merciless raids on settlers and miners. After the Army built Fort Bowie and started looking for Apache, Mangas waged war against the soldiers.

On January 27, 1861, Coyotero Apache had raided John Ward’s ranch in southeastern Arizona, taking cattle and capturing the son of Ward’s mistress. Ward thought the culprits were Cochise Cochise and his band. On January 29, Lieutenant George Nicholas Bascom and fifty soldiers were ordered to search for Cochise and recover the boy and Ward’s cattle. Reaching Apache Pass, Bascom invited Cochise to parley. The unsuspecting Cochise, knowing nothing of the raid, brought his wife and children and several relatives with him. Bascom had Cochise’s tent surrounded and threatened to hold him and his family hostage until he returned the kidnaped boy and Ward’s property. Cochise escaped by slashing a hole in the tent. He began to capture whites to exchange for his family, but Bascom was unyielding.

On February 8, Cochise and the Apache attacked the soldiers at Apache Springs, driving off Bascom’s horses. After several skirmishes, Cochise withdrew into the mountains, leaving four white hostages dead. On February 18, the troops found the bodies. Enraged, Bascom killed the six warriors he was holding and hanged their bodies from four oak trees. He released Cochise’s wife and children. Cochise and the Apache went on the warpath, wreaking havoc on wagon trains, stampeding horses and cattle, and murdering settlers. Cochise Cochise joined forces with Mangas Mangas Coloradas Coloradas, and they enlisted other Apache in a relentless war against soldiers and settlers. From 1861 to 1862, they spread terror throughout southern New Mexico and Arizona, raiding, torturing, and killing white settlers.

In the spring of 1862, General James Henry Carleton Carleton, James Henry became military commander of the southwestern territory. Having vanquished the Confederates, Carleton was now determined to drive out the Apache and Navajo. On September 27, Carleton ordered Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson to reoccupy Fort Stanton with five companies of New Mexico volunteers. Then, on October 11, Carleton sent Carson orders to move against the Mescalero Apache first and then attack the Navajo. His orders were to kill all the men and take the women and children captive. By February 1, 1863, the Mescalero Apache were subdued. Many escaped to Mexico, but by mid-March, four hundred Apache were interned at Bosque Redondo on the lower Pecos River.

In October, 1862, Carleton had authorized the building of Fort Wingate in Navajo land near the headwaters of the Gallo. In early 1863, Carleton transferred troops from Apache country to Fort Wingate. Delgadito and Barboncito Barboncito went to Santa Fe to negotiate for a treaty, but Carleton refused. He ordered Carson to begin the attack upon the Navajo. On June 23, Carleton Carleton, James Henry sent word to Delgadito Delgadito and Barboncito Barboncito that war was commencing and that the tribes should come to Forts Canby or Wingate for transfer to Bosque Redondo. Resisters would be killed.

Carson and his troops attacked Navajo settlements, scattering livestock, destroying stored grain, crops, and orchards and leaving the Navajos destitute. On October 21, a Navajo peace delegation arrived at Fort Wingate. They were told to surrender or face destruction. Only 180 surrendered.

On January 6, 1864, Carson mounted the final assault on the Navajo. Reaching Canyon de Chelly on January 11, his troops destroyed the Navajo hogans, the stored food, and the orchards and livestock. Some Navajo fled to other tribes, but many were forced to surrender or starve. Carson gave them ten days to surrender at Fort Canby. In March and April, more than four thousand Navajo left Fort Canby on their Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo. On May 14, the war against the Navajo was suspended.


Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, American Indian tribes in the American West would fight a losing war against the U.S. Army and white settlers, as the United States established authority over the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Mexican War.

Maintaining thousands of American Indians in a limited space at Bosque Redondo was expensive not just in monetary terms. Crop failures, starvation, disease, and the destruction of family life also forced the government to reconsider how reservations should be organized and managed. After four years at Bosque Redondo, the Navajo were able to return to New Mexico and reclaim a part of their homelands, lands that would become the largest and perhaps most successful American Indian reservation in the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aleshire, Peter. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Apache Wars. New York: Facts On File, 1998. A study of the mutual hatred, violence, and injustices between the Apache and whites. Part of the Library of American Indian History series and written for younger readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, L. B. A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846-1868. Pasadena, Calif.: Westernlore, 1978. A detailed history of the conflicts between the Navajo and whites during the mid-nineteenth century American West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Arrell Morgan. The American Indian: Prehistory to the Present. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1980. Chapters 12 through 17 explore the westward expansion of the United States and its effect on American Indian populations
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNitt, Frank. Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972. Detailed account of Navajo struggles against the U.S. Army and American Indian enemies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogle, Ralph Hedrick. Federal Control of the Western Apaches, 1848-1886. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970. Analyzes U.S. and Apache conflicts and treaties as well as government subjugation of the Apache.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sonnichsen, C. L. The Mescalero Apaches. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972. An insightful analysis of Apache history and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trafzer, Clifford E. As Long as the Grass Shall Grow and Rivers Flow: A History of Native Americans. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000. A historical study that examines U.S. government policies concerning American Indians.

Congress Passes Indian Removal Act

Mexican War

Apache Wars

Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

Long Walk of the Navajos

Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty

Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act

Red River War

Nez Perce War

U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier

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Categories: History