Creating the reservation at Bosque Redondo was a monumental task. Although the primary purpose of Fort Sumner was to provide protection for settlers, the task of creating an Indian reservation at Fort Sumner would prove to be much more challenging than ever envisioned.
The first prisoners arrived at the fort less than a month after it was established. By March 1863, there were over 400 Mescalero Apache at the reservation. By the end of 1864, they would be joined by more than 8,500 Navajo. In addition to nearly 500 soldiers and 200 civilians who lived at the fort, the reservation had a population of nearly 10,000 people. Never in the history of New Mexico had so many people been together in one place. The Army only anticipated 5,000 would be there, so providing food, water, and shelter would be a serious issue from the start.
Work around the fort was constant. A large irrigation ditch, called an acequia madre would have to be dug to irrigate fields, a dam on the Pecos River would have to be built that was in constant need of repair due to errosion, buildings and shelters needed to be erected, crops had to be planted.
Mescalero were resentful that the work they did before the Navajos arrived were used by them, Navajo were fearful of having food withheld if they didn't work. Fighting between the Mescalero and Navajo, who had never lived in close proximity to one another, was constant.
The Mescalero and Navajo were essentially slave laborers. Then the environmental situation got worse. The interned people had no clean water, as the River was full of alkaline, and there was no firewood to cook with. But they worked hard to stay alive, doing whatever it took to care for their families at Bosque Redondo. They were survivors.
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“When they first moved to the Bosque Redondo there was hardly anything there. It was a new fort. They had to rebuild. They had to make adobes. They had to clear the land so they could do the farming, and when they did that our people were not used to that. They were warriors, they were hunters, they were fighters. They were brave and they had to come and grovel in the dirt.”
—Frederick Peso, N’de