The Bosque Redondo Story
On October 31, 1862, Congress authorized the construction of Fort Sumner, located on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. General James Henry Carleton initially justified the fort as offering protection to settlers from the Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche.
The Bosque Redondo Memorial Historic Site, also created by Carleton, is the location of the forced internment of more than 9,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache people from 1864 to 1868.
The story of Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation is one of Manifest Destiny, sadly at the expense of two Native American tribes.
During the winter of 1863-64, New Mexico Volunteers, aided by the Utes, ravaged the countryside at Canyon de Chelly in eastern Arizona.
The soldiers carried out General Carlton’s orders by killing or capturing Navajo, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, burning hogans and contaminating water sources. Most Navajo were starved into submission and surrendered.
The Navajo were forced to leave their beloved land and were force marched a distance of over 400 miles, to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Several marches took place between 1863 and 1866 as almost 9,000 people were captured or recaptured.
This time of suffering is remembered by the Navajo People as “The Long Walk.”
The Mescalero people came from a life in densely forested mountains, where food, water and supplies were abundant in the eastern mountains of New Mexico.
In a report in 1863, General Carlton said his troops had brought 415 Mescalero prisoners to the Bosque Redondo.
The beautiful, nomadic life of the Mescalero was gone. Imprisonment degraded the warriors and denied them their religion, dances and ceremonies. Their farming attempts at the Bosque Redondo failed due to poor water conditions and cutworms. An epidemic of a smallpox-like disease spread throughout the fort and many lives were lost.
On November 3, 1865 the majority of the Mescalero Apache deserted the fort and began their exodus back to their own country. As the normal evening campfires burned, they slipped into the night.
It became obvious to government officials that General Carlton’s Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation was a failure.
In June of 1865, a Joint Special Committee, called the Doolittle Committee, visited the reservation to investigate conditions. The issue of Bosque Redondo was extensively debated in Congress but no action was taken while the Navajos continued to suffer and die at Fort Sumner.
Finally a treaty between the United States and the Navajo Nation was signed on June 1, 1868 which allowed them to return to their homes in the Four Corners Region.
An unidentified Navajo wrote in 1865,”Chain the eagle to the ground –and he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up to the sky which is home – and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat and beans.”
Looking to the Future
Since the six years of confinement in the 1860s, the Navajo have become one of the largest and most prosperous American Indian cultures.
With a population of 325,000 and a land base of 25,000 square miles, the Navajo are known by art collectors around the world for their weavings and silverwork. Navajo history, language and culture are now proudly taught in their schools, assuring an appreciation of past sacrifices and present –day successes.
Today the Mescalero Apache tribe is involved in the development of recreational facilities on the reservation for the tourist industry. The tribe has staked its future on attracting tourists and sportsmen to the reservation and providing facilities for them.
In addition to developing economic, health care, and community services, the Mescalero, now numbering about 4,000, are maintaining their cultural heritage with school curriculum including Apache culture, language and heritage.