Friday, March 26, 2021

The Navajo Wars: Prelude to the darkest years of the Diné.

In 1863, while the United States was pre-occupied with the Civil War, the Southwest was pre-occupied with "Indian trouble". 

The troubles between foreign settlers and various Indigenous cultures had been going on since the 1600s, when the Spanish wandered up from Mexico to conquer and pillage. 

Deep in a canyon in what is now known as Arizona, the Diné, or Navajo stood on the rim of a deadly change in their history. 

Canyon de Chelly, known as Tséyi to the Diné, had been home to various culture groups over the millennia, including whoever built the White House ruins, and for centuries, it had been the home of the Navajo. 

White House ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

It was a nearly impenetrable fortress and deadly to anyone who thought they could go in on a raid, and come out alive. It is 1000 feet deep, and its three major canyons (de Chelly, del Muerto, Monument) cover 131 square miles of ravines, rivers, orchards, and farms.

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

By the mid 19th Century, Anglos east of the Mississippi wanted more land. And the West, according to Manifest Destiny (a doctrine that taught that the West was ordained by God to be conquered and owned by white Christians) was for the taking. 

Lincoln was under pressure from all sides, and it was up to the Army to handle the nearly constant problems (as perceived by Anglos) of Indians. 

In the Fall of 1863, General Carleton gave the following order to Kit Carson, "Henceforth every Navajo male is to be killed or taken prisoner on sight....

Say to them 'Go to the Bosque Redondo or we will pursue and destroy you....We will not make peace with you on any other terms. This war shall be pursued until you cease to exist or move. There can be no other talk on the subject.'"

Canyon de Chelly, AZ

No subtlety there, no age limit for the males, and the phrasing was blunt. "This war shall be pursued until you cease to exist or move".

By the autumn of 1863, a merciless "scorched earth" campaign had been waged by Kit Carson and the Army all across the Navajo Nation, or Dinétah, including the burning of over 3000 peach trees in Canyon de Chelly, the cultural home of the Navajo people.

As winter set in, the Navajo people were starving, their water supplies were severely compromised, but they'd been promised food, water, blankets, and safety if they surrendered to the Army, at various forts throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

The Army used the Ute tribe's hatred of the Navajo to speed things along with raids and battles that demoralized the Navajo even before the US soldiers engaged.

The Navajo leadership knew that the options were to fight a war in which they'd be outnumbered and slaughtered, escape north and west, or be forced to surrender.

On January 12, 1864, Kit Carson and his warm, well-fed, and lethal forces were done waiting. Numbering less than 400, they were ready and willing to take on the hundreds of weary and broken Navajo soldiers and civilians who had everything to lose.

By January 14, 1864, Kit Carson's Army had taken the canyon, but that was just the beginning of the Navajo's nightmare.


Jennifer Major is a West Coast Canadian living on Canada's East Coast where the lobster is fresh and the winters last way too long. She and her husband have 4 offspring, all over the age of 18, and a new Labrador puppy who likes to eat boxes and phone cords.


  1. Welcome to HHH! Thanks for the post. This is a sad period of history. I wonder what would have happened if we had tried a more peaceful coexistence with the natives.

  2. Thank you!

    That is a really good question. I wish I knew what to say, because things would be so different if we did.