“The Navajo’s “Long Walk” – an experiment gone wrong.

 June 1, 1868

On this day one of the U.S. Government’s least successful social experiments mercifully came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Bosque Redondo.

The treaty between Washington and the Navajo Nation promised lasting peace in exchange for return of the tribe’s traditional lands in Arizona and northern New Mexico and provisions enough to see them through the first winter.  

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Over a four-years period, as many as 10,000 Navajo men, women and children were force-marched at gunpoint to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Hundreds died during the 18-day trek that became known as “The Long Walk.”

Fort Sumner was founded in 1862, ostensibly to protect settlers in the Pecos Valley.  The Bosque Redondo, however, was created specifically to provide self-sufficient 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.

Thousands of Navajo made the “Long Walk”

Turns out, lots.  Problem number one; severely underestimating the number of Navajo.   Anticipating no more than 5,000 Navajo, double that number arrived,  quickly overwhelming the Army’s food supplies. Big problem number two;  no provision had been made for housing, forcing the arrivals to fashion rude structures of earth and sticks.

Perhaps the biggest problem, number three: a cultural blunder that placed the Navajo and their traditional rivals, the Mescalero Apache, together on 40 square miles of the barren Bosque Redondo.  Some 500 Mescalero had already arrived, casting the Navajo in the untenable position as interlopers.


Problem two: no housing at Bosque Redondo

Apparently Washington wasn’t really up on agriculture either.    Alkali soil and brackish water totally unsuitable for growing grain, made productive farming impossible.  The first year’s corn crop struggled to maturity.  But when cut worms destroyed the crops in subsequent years, Washington 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’s initial solution was to move the Navajo once again, relocating them to reservations in Oklahoma or Kansas.  Navajo head man, Barboncito, resisted, declaring 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.  The Federal government pledged to provide 13,000 sheep and supplies sufficient for the first the Navajo’s winter until crops could be planted.







Navajo’s Barboncito and Gen.William Tecumseh Sherman 

The treaty with Barboncito was apparently negotiated in good faith by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.   True to form, however, the promised provisions never materialized, mysteriously 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 but didn’tget to enjoy his success for long.  He died just three years later.   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. 

Grave of William “Billy the Kid” Bonny

Fort Sumner was decommissioned soon after the signing of Bosque Redondo and the buildings sold to local landowner, Lucien Maxwell, in 1870.   But it continued to make history.  William Bonny, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, was shot and killed by legendary lawman Pat Garrett on the Maxwell property in 1881 and is buried in Fort Sumner’s military cemetery. 

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 Navaho 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 – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.