Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Navajo: The Long Walk

By Kristy McCaffrey

The "Long Walk" was the incarceration of the Navajo Indians at Bosque Redondo—near Ft. Sumner in New Mexico Territory—from 1864 to 1868, after which they were released and allowed to return to their lands in northern Arizona Territory.

James H. Carleton
In 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton asserted the authority of the Federal government within the Arizona territory. He designated himself military governor, contending that Arizona was in a chaotic state with no civil officers to protect life and property. He acted swiftly and harshly against Confederate sympathizers as well as desperadoes. Soon promoted to Brigadier General, Carleton spent the next four years attempting to subdue the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona. Practicing a policy of extermination, he felt that the lines of communication to the increasingly valuable west coast needed to remain open. This mostly affected the Apache Indians in southern Arizona.

Because of the treachery of both the military and the Apache, no one could be trusted, and extermination and ejection from the land was practiced on both sides.

Kit Carson
During this time, the Navajo became more aggressive. Due to troop removal to aid the Civil War in the east, they believed they were defeating the white man. In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson was appointed by General Carleton to organize an expedition against them. Carleton notified the Indians that they had until July 20, 1863, to surrender and go to the Bosque Redondo Reservation in New Mexico. If they refused, every Navajo male capable of bearing arms was to be killed. The Navajo didn't take the threat seriously.

With 700 troops at his command—along with Ute Indian scouts who were eager to fight and were highly effective in tracking the Navajo, whom they considered their enemy—they managed to kill or force into surrender all Navajo outside of their stronghold, Canyon de Chelly. A small number managed to escape and flee south. All means of livelihood for the Navajo were destroyed—cornfields torn up and thousands of sheep slaughtered and left to rot in piles. Carson managed to break the spirit of the Navajo. So began "the Long Walk."

The Long Walk wasn't a single event. From 1863 until 1866, well over 50 treks took place from northern Arizona to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Sometimes there were just a handful of individuals, other times there were hundreds. The trip took several different routes, beginning in the Fort Wingate area (New Mexico), heading toward Albuquerque, and then branching south to the Bosque. If the Navajo survived the journey, they faced utter desolation at the Bosque. It was flat, barren, and the nearby water in the river alkaline.

They were incarcerated with Mescalero Apaches, an old enemy, leading to inevitable clashes. They also suffered repeated attacks from the Comanche. The soil was unproductive and couldn't support them, forcing the government to provide them with rations. A smallpox epidemic further demoralized the Navajo in 1865, costing more than 2,000 lives.

In a rare move, the War Department concluded that the Navajo could not be self-sustaining on the Bosque. In 1868, the Navajo were permitted to return to a defined portion of their homeland, and they were provided with liberal federal assistance to help them gain their footing again.

The Long Walk inflicted enormous suffering and trauma on the Navajo, and is still spoken of today. But it also focused the spirit, dedication, and loyalty that the Navajo have to their lands and their culture. Today, they are the largest federally recognized Native American tribe in the United States.


  1. What horrific things were done to the First Americans. It's a shameful episode in our history. I had not heard of the Long Walk until I read this article. I'm so glad to see that, in the end, the federal government allowed them to return to their home and assisted them to get back on their feet. Great historical piece, Kristy. I enjoyed the pictures, too.

    1. Sarah,
      Thanks for stopping by. It was shameful but in the end the Navajo were allowed to return home. That was rather rare in U.S./Indian dealings.