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Bosque Redondo was an experiment in social engineering and was the brainchild of General Carleton. He envisoned Fort Sumner as a gigantic agricultural experiment where the latest farming techniques could be developed and utilized to bring reservation land into productivity. His purpose of the reservation was for it to be self-sufficient, while turning Mescalero Apaches, who were hunters and gatherers, and Navajos, who were pastoralists, into modern day farmers. The experiment was doomed to failure from the beginning.

General Carleton’s illusion that the Bosque Redondo would spawn a farming community of thriving transplanted Native American prisoners was disastrous. His troops sarcastically dubbed the reservation “Fair Carletonia.”

General Carleton was a strict taskmaster however, and although the Native American prisoners were sick, ill-fed and unfit for heavy manual farm labor, and fields were improperly irrigated, he nearly realized his dream of a bountiful harvest. By mid-summer 1863 the corn alone was expected to yield twenty-five to thirty bushels per acre, a minimum of 75,000 bushels. Considering the extraordinary handicaps under which the Indians worked, this was an astonishing accomplishment.

When it seemed Carleton would realize his dreams, nature dealt a lethal blow. The reservation’s 3,000 acres of planted agricultural land was struck by an inch-long cut worm, or “army worm”, that destroyed the crops. The following year, another promising crop was again insect-infested and destroyed. Demoralized, the Indians would refuse to plant again.

With crops failed, food was always in short supply. Rations were instituted. The reservation was virtually without subsistence. The water was undrinkable, there was a shortage of firewood, conflicts between the two Native American cultures was constant, and they were always in danger of being raided by other hostile Indian tribes outside the reservation.

“Fair Carletonia” was on the brink of ruin.

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“Every Indian—man, woman, or child—able to dig up ground for planting, should be kept at work every moment of the day preparing a patch, however small. What with ploughing, spading and hoeing up ground, with the labor of the troops and the Indians, you must endeavor to get at least three thousand acres. It will surprise you to see how much can be done if the bands are properly organized, and all the officers go out and set the example of industry.”

—General Carleton to Major Davies

 

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