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“Letter to Captain Ben C. Cutler, Headquarters, Navajo Expedition, Fort Canby, NM, January 23, 1864”

by Kit (Christopher) Carson

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, US citizens were suffering from the bad times known as the Great Depression. Under the new president, Congress passed laws aimed at speeding up economic recovery and helping people in need. One of these acts created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA gave people jobs building highways, streets, bridges, and parks. It also hired writers, actors, and musicians to create and perform new works. Nationwide, about 8.5 million people found jobs through the WPA.

Between 1936 and 1942, writers working with the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project, a department of the WPA, fanned out across New Mexico. They gathered information and wrote several thousand pages describing the state’s landscape and people, reporting on social and economic conditions, and recording folklore and oral histories. Many of these WPA files, including the one below, ended up at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, where anyone can go in and read them.

This is a letter that Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson wrote to Captain Ben C. Cutler. Carson’s letter describes the events of his expedition to round up the Navajos at Canyon de Chelly in 1864 and send them to Fort Sumner.

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Kit Carson’s Letters
Regarding the capture of the Navajos and taking them to the Bosque Redondo Reservation.

Headquarters, Navajo Expedition
Fort Canby, N.M. January 23, 1864

Captain Ben C. Cutler, A.A. General,
Hdqrs. Dept. of New Mexico, Santa Fe, N.M.

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report for the information of the General Commanding that on the 6th inst., I left this post on an expedition to the Canon De Chelly with 14 commissioned officers and 375 enlisted men. Owing to the depth of snow on the mountains which divides the valleys of this section with those of the Pueblo Colorado, it took my command three days to reach that place, a distance heretofore accomplished in one day. While enroute on the 8th inst., my escort killed one warrior. On my arrival at the Pueblo Colorado, I was joined by the ox train and its escort under Major Jose D. Sena, which I had sent forward on the 3rd with the expectation that he would have time to recuperate his animals before the arrival of my command. In this I was disappointed, as it took his command five days to make twenty-five miles, and with a loss of twenty-seven oxen. This made it necessary for me to lighten the loads and leave one wagon, to enable me to accomplish my object, which I did, leaving behind ten days rations for my command and twenty-five men as a guard.

On the 12th I arrived at the west opening of Canon de Chelly. In the morning I made a detour to the right of the line of march with my staff and escort, and struck the canon about six miles from the mouth. Wishing to reconnoiter a little previous to commencing operations, I proceeded up the canon on the south side some four or five miles, but could find no means of descending to the bottom of the canon, the height of the sides averaging about one thousand feet and nearly perpendicular. I saw several Indians on the opposite or north side of the canon, about out of range of our small arms. Shortly after my return to the camp, Sergeant Andres Herrera of Co. AC, whom I sent out with fifty men the previous night, returned bringing in two women and two children prisoners and one hundred thirty sheep and goats, and having killed eleven Indians. As I expected, at daylight he discovered a faint trail, and following it rapidly overtook the Indians as they were about to enter the Canon de Chelly—when he immediately attacked them, with the result above stated. This is the second occasion which I have had to record my sense of the energy and ability displayed by the Sergeant in the successful carrying out of my orders, and I respectfully recommend him to the favorable notice of the General Commanding . . . .

While enroute on my return to camp I was joined by three Indians with a flag of truce, requesting permission to come in with their people and submit. I told them, through my interpreter, that they and their people might come unmolested to my camp up to 10 o’clock A.M. next day, but that after that time if they did not come my soldiers would hunt them up, and the work of destruction recommence. Accordingly, next morning, before the time appointed, sixty Indians arrived. They had made known to them the intention of the Government in regard to them, and expressed their willingness to immigrate to the Bosque Redondo. They declared that owing to the operation of my command that they are in a complete state of starvation, and that many of their women and children have died from this cause. They also stated that they would have come in long since, but they believed it was a war of extermination, and that they were agreeably surprised and delighted to learn the contrary from an old captive whom I had sent back to them for this purpose. I issued them some meat and they asked permission to return to their haunts and collect the remainder of their people. I directed them to meet me at this post in ten days. They have all arrived here according to promise and many of them with others joining and traveling in with Capt. Carey’s command. This command of seventy-five men, I conferred upon Capt. Carey at his own request, he being desirous of passing through this stupendous canon. I sent orders to the party returning through the canon from west to east, that all the peach orchards, of which there were many, should be destroyed, as well as the dwellings of the Indians. I sent a competent person with the command to make some sketches of the canon which, with a written description of the canon by Capt. Carey in the shape of a report (marked AB), I respectfully enclose.

“This evening (the 15th) Capt. Berney returned with his command, having accomplished the object of his scout, with usual energy and ability. His party surprised and killed two Indians and captured four . . . .”

“. . . In summing up the immediate results of my operations on this expedition, I find the following: Killed, 23; prisoners, 34; voluntarily surrendered, 200 souls; captured, 200 head of sheep.”

In addition we have thoroughly explored this heretofore unknown stronghold, and Canon de Chelly has ceased to be a mystery.

ABut it is to the ulterior effects of the expedition that I look for the greatest results. We have shown the Indians that in no place, however formidable or inaccessible in their opinion, are they safe from the pursuit of the troops of this command; and have convinced a large portion of them that the struggle on their part is a hopeless one. We have also demonstrated that the intentions of the Government toward them are eminently humane, and dictated by an earnest desire to promote their welfare; that the principle is not to destroy, but to save them if they are disposed to be saved.

When all this is understood by the Navajos generally, as it soon will be, and they become convinced that destruction will follow on resistance, then they will gladly avail themselves of the opportunities afforded them of peace and plenty under the fostering care of the government; as do all those now with whom I have had any means of communicating. They are arriving almost hourly, and will I believe continue to arrive until the last Indian in this section of the country is enroute to Bosque Redondo. The benefits to the Government, and the Territory, of the wise policy induced by the General commanding with regard to these Indians cannot be too highly estimated. That any treaties hitherto made with the people—so long as they are permitted to remain in their country, were entirely disregarded as soon as the force applied to them was removed and both from inclination and from want they recommenced to murder and rob the citizens. The policy of placing them on a reservation changes all this. The force will still bear upon them; and their want will be supplied until such time as they, by their own industry, are able to supply themselves . . . .

I am Captain, very respectfully,

Your most obedient servant,

C. Carson
Colonel 1st N.M. Vol., Commanding.
Fort Canby, N.M. April 10, 1864.