Long Walk of the Navajos

In one of the cruelest and least successful attempts of the U.S. government to move Native Americans to reservation land, the Navajo people were attacked and harassed until they agreed to walk to an arid reservation hundreds of miles from their ancestral lands, only to be allowed to return to their original home, which had been plundered and reduced in area.

Summary of Event

What may have been the most significant event in Navajo history occurred around the time when the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was ending, when U.S. Army troops commanded by Colonel Kit Carson methodically raided and subdued the various bands of Navajos who lived between the Colorado, Rio Grande, and San Juan Rivers that encircled the Dinetah, Navajo ancestral lands in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. This event is also significant in broader U.S. history because it was one of the last major episodes in Carson’s public life, one of the earliest federal attempts to pilot an American Indian reservation policy, and the final military conflict between the Navajo people and the U.S. Army. Long Walk of the Navajos (1866)
Native Americans;removal of
Carleton, James Henry
Carson, Kit
Army, U.S.;and Long Walk of the Navajos[Long Walk of the Navajos]
[kw]Long Walk of the Navajos (Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866)
[kw]Walk of the Navajos, Long (Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866)
[kw]Navajos, Long Walk of the (Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866)
Long Walk of the Navajos (1866)
Native Americans;removal of
Carleton, James Henry
Carson, Kit
Army, U.S.;and Long Walk of the Navajos[Long Walk of the Navajos]
[g]United States;Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866: Long Walk of the Navajos[3680]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866: Long Walk of the Navajos[3680]
[c]Indigenous people’s rights;Aug., 1863-Sept., 1866: Long Walk of the Navajos[3680]

The Long Walk of the Navajos

After the Civil War began in April, 1861, the West was drained of most of its U.S. Army regulars. During that same month, the noted scout Kit Carson, who was serving as the Ute Utes Indian agent in Taos Taos, New Mexico , New Mexico, raised an American flag in the town plaza, signifying his personal allegiance to the Union. Shortly afterward, he was commissioned as a colonel in the First New Mexican Volunteers. Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers There is every indication that he intended to fight against the Confederate army, but after Colorado volunteers drove Confederate forces back from the Rio Grande in the Battle of Valverde Valverde, Battle of (1862) on February 21, 1862, no further Confederate incursions occurred in New Mexico Territory.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, who had assumed the position of commander of the Department of New Mexico in 1861, was obsessed with the idea of resettling the Native Americans of the New Mexico Territory. As U.S. settlers had entered the region in greater numbers after 1846, relations deteriorated as a result of thievery and cultural misunderstanding. Among the Navajos, the ladrones—the people who were poor in sheep and possessions—usually perpetrated the raids on the settlers, while the comparatively wealthy ricos suffered the reprisals. Initially, most ladrones were of the war party, while the ricos were pacific. However, years of suffering from counter-raids and reprisals drew even the rico Navajos into accepting the inevitability of armed conflict with New Mexican settlers.

As late as December, 1862, eighteen Navajo ricos traveled to Santa Fe Santa Fe, New Mexico to seek peace with General Carleton. Carleton rebuffed them, however, because he was preoccupied with exiling the Mescalero Apache Apaches to a barren stretch of the Pecos River Valley in eastern New Mexico known as Bosque Redondo (round grove of trees). This strategy was the beginning of Carleton’s dream of a “Fair Carletonia,” peopled with American Indians who would forgo their pagan habits and accept Christianity and Euro-American culture.

In April, 1863, after the Apaches were resettled, Carleton was willing to talk peace with Navajo chiefs Barboncito Barboncito and Delgadito Delgadito , but only on his terms: removal to Bosque Redondo or a fight to the death. The Navajo chiefs apparently tried to explain to Carleton that voluntarily leaving their land would violate their deepest religious beliefs, but Carleton would not relent. In June, Carleton set July 20 as a deadline. By that date, all Navajos were to present themselves at Fort Canby or Fort Wingate; those who remained at large would be considered hostiles.

Only a handful of Navajos complied with Carleton’s ultimatum, and Carleton responded by authorizing Kit Carson to begin scouting expeditions in August, 1863, to capture or kill Navajos, plunder their crops, and seize their livestock. Carson led several scouting expeditions and authorized some of his officers to do the same. He also employed Utes Utes as both guides and warriors in hunting the Navajos.

Actual military skirmishes between the First New Mexican Volunteers and the Navajos were rare throughout the remainder of 1863. By the end of the year, Carson had reported that seventy-eight Navajos had been killed and forty had been wounded. Perhaps more significant was that more than five thousand Navajo sheep, goats, and mules had been confiscated, and more than seventy-five thousand pounds of wheat had been destroyed or seized. The Navajos could hide from the scouting expeditions of volunteers, but they left behind their hogans and rancheros for the troops to plunder and seize. The Navajo people were not devastated by war, but Carson’s scorched-earth policy laid the foundation for the threat of mass starvation and, therefore, the likelihood of their ultimate surrender.

In January, 1864, scouting parties led by Carson and Captain Albert Pfeiffer Pfeiffer, Albert left Fort Canby, taking parallel routes through the Canyon de Chelly area north of the fort. Each party returned gunshots for the Navajo arrows that rained down on them from the upper reaches of the sheer red sandstone walls and ancient Anasazi ruins where Navajo men hid. The entire joint expedition resulted in only twenty-three Navajos being killed, but two hundred Navajos surrendered, and at least two hundred head of livestock were seized. The Navajo peach orchards along the canyon floor were also destroyed. After the troops returned to Fort Canby, great numbers of Navajos followed to surrender. They were starving, freezing, and dying from exposure. Carson’s march along the length of the floor of Canyon de Chelly seems to have proven that the Navajos could remain in relative safety along its ledges, but that the troops could destroy their crops and orchards and seize their livestock, thereby leaving them to starve or surrender.

By March, 1864, six thousand Navajos had gathered at Forts Canby and Wingate, several thousand more than even Carleton had expected. The first of a series of Long Walks commenced at that time. Although the U.S. Army provided the Navajos a limited number of carts and horses, Horses;and Native Americans[Native Americans] those conveyances generally carried blankets and provisions rather than people. Most of the Navajos walked the entire three hundred miles, a journey that took between eighteen and forty days, but Carleton’s plans provided for only eight days of government rations for the journey. There was actually a series of Long Walks from Fort Canby to Fort Sumner (Bosque Redondo), although the first, in March, 1864, was the largest. Although there is no army record of such deeds, many stories in Navajo oral tradition recount atrocities whereby the old or infirm or pregnant who could not keep up were summarily shot by soldiers.

Navajo war leader Manuelito.

(National Archives)

The Navajo evacuees never received the full promise of ample food, clothing, and shelter at Bosque Redondo. Carleton planned to make farmers of the hunter-gatherer Navajos, but there was not enough arable land in arid eastern New Mexico to support the more than eight thousand Navajos and Mescalero Apaches who were already at Fort Sumner. There was not enough grass for the herds of sheep and goats, leading to frequent raids of the government stock by Kiowas Kiowas and Comanches. Comanches Moreover, the few crops that were raised were plagued by insects and suffered from flood, drought, and hail. Government rations were meager and of poor quality—the flour the Navajos received often was full of bugs—and the food was foreign to the Navajos, who did not consider bacon a satisfactory substitute for beef. In addition, the Navajos had to live in close quarters with the Mescalero Apaches, Apaches their traditional enemies, and a bureaucratic war was being waged between the War Department and the Department of the Interior. Indian Agent Lorenzo Labadie Labadie, Lorenzo was ordered not to take charge of the Navajos under the aegis of the Department of the Interior, since technically, they were prisoners of war and should be quartered by the War Department. The Navajos suffered from hunger and cold while bureaucrats bickered.

Carleton sent Carson to Bosque Redondo later in 1864 to serve as supervisor there, but Carson left in disgust after three months, disappointed and embarrassed at the failure of the federal government to provide the stipulated terms of surrender. Carson resigned his commission and returned to Taos, where he died in 1868. Meanwhile, individual Navajo bands remained in the Dinetah, most notably one led by Manuelito Manuelito , withstanding famine, Famines;Native American military attack, bad weather, and Navajo treachery. Finally, after repeated attacks by Utes Utes and Hopis deputized by the U.S. Army, Manuelito and twenty-three followers surrendered at Fort Wingate on September 1, 1866.

It soon became evident that Carleton’s dream of a Fair Carletonia was an abject failure. Carleton was relieved of his command in April, 1867, although it was not until April, 1868, that Manuelito, Barboncito Barboncito , and other Navajo headmen traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask President Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] for permission to return to their ancestral lands. Johnson agreed only to establish a peace commission.

In May, 1868, the Taylor Peace Commission Taylor Peace Commission (1868) arrived at Bosque Redondo with the expectation of offering the Navajo land in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to the east. Ironically, General William Tecumseh Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh
[p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Navajos[Navajos] , the architect of his own scorched-earth policy in Georgia several years earlier, was the Taylor Commission member who first became convinced that the Navajos should instead be allowed to return home.

On June 1, 1868, the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Navajo Tribe of Indians was signed, and the westward Long Walk began by the middle of the month. The initial treaty stipulated only 3.5 million acres for the Navajos (the present-day size of the reservation is 15 million acres) but consecrated Canyon de Chelly as sacred ground to be administered solely by the Navajo tribe. Thus, the Navajos returned to their once and future home, after four years in exile. They never again engaged in military conflict with the U.S. Army.


Although the Navajo reservation comprised only a small part of their previous holdings, the Navajos were happy to return home. However, they soon found that their troubles were far from over, as they struggled to make a living in a land that had been devastated by Carleton and Carson. All their homes had been razed, they had no livestock, and their fields had been destroyed. Fort Wingate and Fort Defiance served as distribution centers for the rations that the government eventually agreed to issue to help them, but there were many delays and shortages. More stable conditions were finally established, however, and the Navajos enjoyed a short period of prosperity and growth during the 1870’s.

Further Reading

  • Amsden, Charles. “The Navajo Exile at Bosque Redondo.” New Mexico Historical Review 8 (1933): 31-50. Dated but still significant article concerning the Navajos on the Bosque Redondo reservation.
  • Dunlay, Tom. Kit Carson and the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Balanced study of Carson’s relations with the Indians. Dunlay shows Carson as capable of using violence but also as able to denounce injustice against Native Americans.
  • Frink, Maurice. Fort Defiance and the Navajos. Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1968. Written for young adult readers, this brief book has a chapter on the relocations of the Navajos.
  • Kelly, Lawrence C. Navajo Roundup: Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition Against the Navajo, 1863-1865. Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1970. Collection of personal letters and U.S. Army general orders, especially those of General E. R. S. Canby, Brigadier General James Carleton, and Colonel Kit Carson.
  • McPherson, Robert S. The Northern Navajo Frontier, 1860-1900: Expansion Through Adversity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Well-documented study of the clash of cultures in the Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.
  • Trafzer, Clifford E. As Long as the Grass Shall Grow and Rivers Flow: A History of Native Americans. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000. Broad study of the many conflicts arising from U.S. government Indian policies.
  • _______. The Kit Carson Campaign: The Last Great Navajo War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Perhaps the definitive text on the Long Walk of the Navajos, this study is well researched and thoroughly annotated. Contains many useful illustrations and several maps.
  • Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. General history of U.S.-Native American relations that includes a chapter with a useful discussion of the events leading to the Long Walk.

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