The Pecos River meanders across the grasslands of eastern New Mexico. It was there, 150 miles east of Albuquerque, Gen. James Carleton established Fort Sumner in 1862. The fort was one in a series of fortifications established to protect the people of the territory. It was also the place Carleton chose to relocate the Mescalero Apache and Navajo in his attempt to curtail violent encounters between Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos.
Today, Fort Sumner is one of New Mexico’s historic sites, including the memorial to Bosque Redondo, preserving one of the darkest moments in the state’s history.
The Navajo and Apaches were nomadic people who had migrated to the Southwest sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries. With the arrival of the Spanish in 1598, the Navajo adapted much of Spanish culture, include horses, sheep, and cultivation of wheat and peaches. In fact, the Navajo planted more than 3,000 peach trees in Canyon de Chelly and depended year around on the fruit, fresh and dried.
The Spanish — and later Mexicans — also brought slavery to the area. They captured and sold Navajo women and children in and around Mexico City. In retribution, the Navajo sold Mexican women and children into slavery, often to the same people in Mexico who trafficked in Navajo slaves.
The deprivations resulted in constant warfare of raiding and killing. Navajo and Mescalero saw the Hispanic and Anglo ranchers and farmers as invaders and usurpers of their homelands. Ranchers and farmers considered the Indians a threat to their lives and property.
The government believed its duty was to subdue and restrict the nomadic lifestyle of the Indians and confine them to reservations, even though it continually reneged on treaties. The region was socially, economically, and politically unstable, a situation not improved by the Civil War.
Gen. James Carleton arrived with his California Column too late to run Confederates out of the territory, so he turned his attention to ending Indian deprivations. In 1862, he ordered Col. Kit Carson to take five companies of the First New Mexico Volunteers to establish Fort Sumner on the Pecos and round up the Mescalero.
Carlton’s orders were specific: “All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them. … If the Indians send in a flag and desire to treat for peace, say to the bearer … the Mescalero broke their treaty of peace, and murdered innocent people. … You have been sent to punish them for their treachery and their crimes; you have no power to make peace; you are there to kill them wherever you can find them… .”
Mescalero Chief Cadete in a meeting in Santa Fe told Carleton, “We are worn out. We have no more heart. … You have driven us from our last and best stronghold. … Do with us as may seem good to you but do not forget we are men and braves.”
Carson rounded up more than 400 Mescalero and herded them north from Sierra Blanca to the reservation called Bosque Redondo.
Now that might have seemed like a workable solution, but the Pecos at Bosque Redondo was “hell on earth” to the Mescalero. In a letter to his wife, Lt. George Pettis wrote, “This is a terrible place. … The Rio Pecos is a little stream winding through an immense plain. The water is terrible. It is full of alkali and operates on a person like caster oil, and it is all that can be had within 50 miles.”
Still, the Mescalero might have made a go of it, if Carleton had not decided to march 9,000 Navajo from their homeland more than 400 miles to the Bosque. Hundreds died on the march during the winter of 1863 – 64, following Carson’s scorched-earth campaign. He had killed all the livestock he found, burned crops, contaminated water holes, and had his men cut down the orchard of peach trees. The Navajo call this The Long Walk, and it was as dastardly a deed as marching the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears.
Bosque Redondo was seriously overcrowded. There was not enough wood for fires, not enough resources for shelters and, of course, bad water. Crops failed when irrigated with the alkali river. When plants did grow, they were consumed by insects. Hundreds more died.
In November 1865, the Mescalero had had enough. One night, they simply walked away from the reservation. Carleton ordered all Mescalero found by troops be killed. No one knows exactly how many were executed. The rest found refuge in their mountain stronghold.
By 1868, it was obvious the Bosque Redondo was a total failure. Carleton was reassigned to the Texas gulf coast. Gen. William Sherman negotiated a treaty with the Navajo chiefs, lead by Barboncito, granting them a reservation in their traditional homeland, the place where they reside today.
Sherman guaranteed their land if the Navajo agreed to stop raiding. Of course, the government had to take some back for a transcontinental railroad, and Navajo children would have to be sent away to boarding schools, where they were no allowed to speak Diné, their native language, nor wear their traditional clothing.
This is the story told at the Bosque Redondo Memorial. The building — incorporating both the Apache tipi and Navajo hogan in its architectural concept — houses informative panels, photographs, and artifacts that inform visitors of the trials and tribulations of the people forced to live here — the Navajo and Mescalero as well as the American troops, all of whom found the site unbearable. Highlighting the memorial are murals painted by Shonto Begay, who focused on The Long Walk, and Mike Scovel, who illustrated the military presence at Bosque Redondo.
The site includes the table-size rock where the treaty was signed. There is also the travel shrine — an unusual pile of rocks, carried there by Navajo in 1971 from different parts of the reservation to memorialize the people who were exiled and died here.
The town of Fort Sumner today is a couple miles north of the river. The original fort was washed away in a flood in the late 1800s. A reconstructed adobe foundation of a fort building and a reconstructed barracks building constitute the historic site of Fort Sumner.
This is a solemn place, informing the grave mistakes made by territorial leaders — Anglo, Hispanic, and Indian alike. But for the wind communicating with the cottonwoods, it is a place of silence. Still, if you listen to the silence, it will talk to you. If you listen to the wind, it will speak to you.