“The Long Walk” – a social experiment gone really wrong.

June 1, 1868

On this day, arguably one of the U.S. Government’s worst social experiments mercifully came to an end.

The signing of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo began the Navajo Nation’s return to its traditional lands in Arizona and northern New Mexico.

Known evermore as “The Long Walk,”  beginning in 1864 more than 50 forced marches herded Navajo men, women and children to New Mexico’s Fort Sumner.  The effort was largely organized and carried out by famous frontier fighter, Kit Carson (right, 1860) over a four-years period.   Nearly 10,000 made the brutal 18-day trek.   Hundreds died and many more were captured and enslaved by bandits en route.

Early 1860s Fort Sumner

Fort Sumner was founded in 1862, ostensibly to protect settlers in the Pecos Valley.  The Bosque Redondo, however, was created specifically in the hope of providing cost-free internment for Native Americans.  They would be taught modern farming methods, the plan purported, removing them from the rolls as hostile combatants and wards of the government.   What could possibly go wrong.

Too many Navajo for the supplies

Turns out, plenty.  The government severely underestimated the number of Navajo.   Anticipating no more than 5,000, double that number arrived quickly overrunning the Army’s food supplies.  In addition, no provision had  been made for housing, forcing the arrivals to construct crude shelters of sticks. 

Navajo shelters at Bosque Redondo

A serious cultural blunder also placed the Navajo and their traditional rivals, the Mescalero Apache, together on 40 square miles of the barren Bosque Redondo.  Some 500 Mescalero had arrived first, casting the Navajo in the untenable position as interlopers.

Apparently Washington needed to brush up on agriculture, as well.   Alkali soil and brackish water made the area unsuitable for growing grain.   The first year’s corn fields struggled to maturity.  But when cut worms destroyed the crops in subsequent years, the government  became “alarmed” over the increasing expense.

The majority of the Navajo soldiered on despite terrible conditions but the Apache soon fled.  Declaring they were not farmers and didn’t care to be, they simply disappeared en masse one night.

A variety of government delegations soon began trooping through Bosque Redondo.  Historians say some came out of compassion.  Most, however, were only looking for ways to staunch the flow of money.

Washington quickly went to its standard fall-back solution – relocation. Proposing to move the remaining Navajo to reservations in Oklahoma or Kansas,  tribal head man, Barboncito, (right) said no.  He would go only to “a country that was his own.”  In exchange, he said, his people would live at peace with the United States in perpetuity.  In response the Federal Government pledged to provide 13,000 sheep and supplies sufficient for the first winter until crops could be planted.

The treaty was apparently negotiated in good faith by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. (Right)   True to form, however, the sheep and supplies never materialized, disappearing somewhere between Washington D.C. and Fort Sumner.

Barboncito has been credited with winning the return of his people to their traditional lands and achieving a lasting peace.   He didn’t get to enjoy his success for long, dying just three years later.   But the modern Navajo Nation remains his legacy, occupying more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.  It is the largest Native American jurisdiction in the U.S. 

Fort Sumner was decommissioned soon after the signing of Bosque Redondo and the buildings sold in 1870 to local landowner Lucien Maxwell. (Left) 

But it continued to add to its notoriety.  Maxwell’s daughter, Paulita, was said to be the girlfriend of William Bonny, a.k.a. Billy the Kid.   After failing to win clemency from territorial governor, Lew Wallace, Bonny escaped authorities in a bloody jail break, taking refuge at the Maxwell’s.

He was shot and killed there by legendary lawman Pat Garrett (left)  three months later on July 14, 1881, and is buried in Fort Sumner’s military cemetery.  

William”Billy the Kid” Bonny’s grave site at Bosque Redondo

The  Bosque Redondo Memorial Museum, Billy the Kid Road, Fort Sumner, NM, was designed by Navajo architect David Sloan.  An interpretive trail recounts the history of Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo and includes memorials to the Mescalero Apache and Navajo people. 

Facilities include a museum shop, conference room, riverside picnic area, the Old Fort Site Trail and the River Walk Trail.  Admission is free and the museum is wheelchair accessible.  Hours are 8:30 to 4:30 Wednesday through Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. For more information go to bosqueredondomemorial.com or call (575) 355-2537. 

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.