DocumentCitationsKeywordsRelated Material

“Chester Arthur Tells about How the Navajo Were Corralled ”

by Chester Arthur

In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson, called Red Shirt by the Indians, came to Red Lake north of Fort Defiance to make a treaty with the Navajo. Carson brought four fat sheep for the feast and four wagons loaded with calico, men’s shirts, and brass wire, to give away when the treaty was signed. After they’d made their marks on the paper, Carson gave each chief a pair of pants, a big silver medallion of George Washington, and a gold-headed cane. But when the Navajos were lining up to receive their peace treaty gifts, some young Navajos stole the gifts off the backs of the wagons. Carson went off with the empty wagons, promising to return with four more loads. The Navajo prophet Nahtahlith scolded the young men for their thievery and told them he’d had a vision that the white men would come back with many soldiers and Mexicans and Utes, armed with guns to kill them. Navajo Chester Arthur tells what happened to the People after that:

~ ~ ~ ~

Navajo Riders“Navajo Riders,” Unidentified (Photographer)

That frightened the young men and they fled, but the soldiers did not come back. At first the Navajos were afraid and watched the trails, but as summer came on with lots of rain, they went back to their old homes and planted corn. Even around Fort Defiance, which the Indians had burned down, they planted more wheat than ever before. But just as it was ready to cut, Red Shirt and the soldiers came back.

All the Navajos ran away as the soldiers moved in and camped at the fort, for besides them there were many of their enemies, the Mexicans; and also many Utes and Zunis, all with guns. But the ten chiefs who had signed the treaty stayed on the cliff above the fort, and one day they saw Red Shirt with his escort riding north on the old Indian trail. So they ran down quickly to where he would pass and laid their canes and pants and medallions in the road.

When Red Shirt came and saw the presents, he knew why the chiefs had left them, and he hollered for them to come down. They were ashamed at first, but at last they came down and he asked them what these things meant.

“War,” they said. “You have come back with your soldiers.”

Navajo Blanket, 1860s“Navajo Blanket, 1860s,” Unidentified Navajo (Artist)

“Yes, my friends,” he said, “it is war. But at the same time I want you to stay. Sit down and smoke tobacco with me today and tomorrow we will fight. My government has given orders to kill you all unless you come in and surrender. So come in to the fort today or else take your families and flee to the wildest mountains.”

They smoked together and he said:

“I thank you, my friends, for trying to restrain your people from stealing. But there is only one way to do that now, and tomorrow we begin to kill them.”

He shook hands and the chiefs went away, and the next day the soldiers began. They rode out in small parties in every direction and killed all the Navajo sheep, goats, horses, and cows that they could find. They killed the herders with the sheep, little boys and grown men, and chased them through the rocks. The soldiers took the wheat to feed their horses and mules and cut down all the corn. The Mexicans and Utes and Zunis trailed the Navajos everywhere and robbed them and stole their women and children.

The Navajos went up into the Canyon de Chelly, but the Mexican soldiers followed them. They cut down their peach trees and corn and chased the Indians up over the rocks, so high that their bullets would not reach. Then they tried to starve them out. But the Navajos had taken many water bottles with them and had hidden lots of corn in the caves, and at night while the soldiers were asleep they would slip down and bring back more water. It was very hot in the canyon and the captain of the soldiers died, so they took his body and went away.

Every day the Mexicans and Utes would ride out over the country, and whenever they found sheep or pony tracks they would follow them and kill the herders. The rich Navajos who had many sheep and goats drove them west as far as Oraibi, where the Moqui [Hopi] villages are, and many went so far they took refuge in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But now from every side other Indians came in to fight them. Even the Paiutes and the Apaches had been given guns to kill them and chased them clear into the wild mountains. All their crops were destroyed, and when winter came the people began to starve.

But Nahtahlith, the prophet, did not wait to starve and die. When he left Fort Defiance he mounted his best horse and rode out to meet the Zunis, who were marching up Wide Ruins Wash. They saw him coming and surrounded him. Then he rode down their line, shooting his arrows until he had killed four men. A Mexican hit him with a bullet, and as they ran in to finish him he said:

“I thank you, my friends, for giving me a warrior’s death.”

“We thank you,” they said, “for coming to be killed.”

They filled him full of arrows and broke his arms and legs with rocks, taking the sinews out to make war medicine, for they had seen what a brave man he was.

The prophecy of Nahtahlith came true. Red Shirt was their good friend, but the young men would not listen to him. They were so bad that nothing could be done with them, and so they were destroyed. Those who escaped were driven to the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert, where they hid in the rocks like wild animals; but all except a few were rounded up and caught and taken away to Hwalte (Bosque Redondo).