Part 2: SelectionsDocumentCitations

“Bosque Redondo”

by Erna Ferguson

Erna Ferguson, a native New Mexican, wrote about the Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. She repeats a common misconception that the Navajo were unfamiliar with farming. In fact, they had long before adopted the crops of their Pueblo neighbors and become skilled farmers. Brackish water and insect infestations were largely responsible for the crop failures at Bosque Redondo. As a result, many Navajos nearly starved to death and died of disease during their captivity. Although General Carleton appealed for more humane conditions, the United States policy was disastrous for the Navajos.

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Navajos Shearing Sheep“Navajos Shearing Sheep,” W.T. Mullarky (Photographer)

At the end of February 1864, General Carleton reported the surrender of over three thousand Navajos, more than half the tribe. He demanded food and clothing for them all, and while waiting for Washington to act, he put his troops on half rations and ordered that no grain be fed to cavalry horses until the Navajos were fed. In appeal after appeal he pointed out that it was cheaper to feed Navajos than to fight them, and that the lands captured from them were worth more than any cost the captives could be.

“For pity’s sake,” he urged in one report, “if not moved by any other consideration, let us, as a great nation, for once treat the Indian as he deserves. Otherwise,” he prophesied, “this interesting and intelligent race will diminish and disappear.” The People had friends, even at court.

The whole tribe was never captured: a few old men still boast that their bands never surrendered. Still, enough of them were exiled to the Bosque Redondo to make an effective object-lesson. Many died on their way there. The first winter, when food came slowly and there was a shortage of firewood, killed many more. Many contracted diseases, especially children. Nearby tribes of unconquered Indians attacked them, and the government gave inadequate protection. Agents paid government money for good flour and fresh meat, accepted wormy flour and tainted meat, split the difference with the traders—and did not increase Navajo respect for government.

Worst of all, the Navajo could not farm. He had, during the Spanish era, made the dizzy leap from wild marauding savages to a pastoral people. He could not compress an equal development into three years and become, on demand, a farmer. When the Navajos first reached the Bosque Redondo, they had no idea what to do with the spades and hoes issued to them. They knew nothing of irrigation. Naturally, their crops failed.

So it became apparent, even in Washington, that the noble experiment of the Bosque Redondo was a failure. A commission was appointed, and in 1867 a new treaty was signed with the Navajos.