Monday, October 17, 2022

The True story of the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation

During our trip to the Southwest, my husband and I visited the Bosque Redondo Museum at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. We drove a long way across the desert following our GPS directions, passing the Billy the Kid museum before reaching Bosque Redondo Museum. Until the 1990s, the focus of tourism at Fort Sumner was the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid and a brief history of the fort. A letter from a student who had been on a school field trip to the site insisted the truth needed to be told. And so the Navajo (Diné) and the Mescalero Apache ( Ndé) joined together to tell the story of the so-called reservation. 


The oral history and recorded eyewitness accounts, along with photographs, depicted what really happened at Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation, and Fort Sumner became part of the museum’s displays. From 1863 to 1868 almost 10,000 Native Americans were interned at Bosque Redondo. 

Brigadier General James Carleton

Brigadier General James Carleton was put in charge of ending Indian attacks on settlers and the stealing of cattle. And with the help of Lieutenant Commander Kit Carson,(Made famous by the dime novel accounts of his heroics against the natives), he massacred many Navajo and Apache and destroyed their villages. 

Kit Carson and his men destroyed the native’s food sources. They cut down fruit trees and killed livestock to prove they could defeat them with ease. When the natives surrendered, they were corralled with only the clothes on their backs. Their forced walk began.

The two very different tribes were forced on The Long Walk—over 400 miles from their homeland. Far from their land that was ideal for hunting and gathering what they need, they had to survive on a million-acre area of desolate desert. During the march, those who could not keep up were shot. And those who survived the trek were undernourished and weak. After arriving at Bosque Redondo, the army forced the natives to build the adobe fort, brick by brick. The Apache and Navajo were given unfamiliar food consisting of coffee beans, flour and rancid beef. The army commander forbid them to sing or pray in their native language, or in any way maintain their culture.

Kit Carson

But the Navajo were determined. Their beautifully woven blankets were a sign of prosperity among the Navajo, and the women took great pride in weaving them. They took the army issued blankets and strange clothing, unraveled the thread, and wove it into blankets and native dress. They did what they could to retain their pride even as the soldier’s abused them, treating them more like animals than humans.

The meager food and the lack of wood for heating and cooking during the bitterly cold winters led to illness, and high infant mortality. The Natives were left to their own resources to build homes. Without wood to build traditional hogans, the Diné resorted to digging holes in the ground and covering them with blankets.

The Apaches were kept on the other side of the Pecos River to keep the peace between the two very different tribes. Although the soldiers enjoyed pitting them against each other.

Carlton had a plan for this camp and is quoted as saying, "this severity in the long run will be the most humane course that could be pursued toward these Indians." He believed the government would teach the hunting-and-gathering Mescalero bands the arts of agriculture, thereby keeping them from marauding outside the reservation.

When a smallpox-like disease spread through the fort, it ravaged the captives. 1500 deaths resulted from exposure, starvation, and sickness. Records were loosely kept, and it is believed there were even more deaths.

In 1865, close to 350 Mescalero made their escape and returned to their sacred Sacramento Mountains. Nearly 1,000 Navajos also fled, but more than 7,000 remained.

The story is recorded that nine Navajo tended the fires the night the others fled, fooling the army in to thinking they were all there. Every one of the Navajo took off in a different direction in an attempt to confuse their captors.

Carlton was so enraged he ordered all those who escaped to be shot on sight. Kit Carson took on the challenge. But, there were not enough troops to follow the escapees for very long. Most disappeared and were never found. Their bravery gave hope to the 7,000 who remained behind.

As the Civil War required more and more resources, the army reduced the number of men at Camp Sumner and the amount of supplies available for the natives. Conditions became worse.

The Navajo appealed to the United States government to allow them to return to their native lands. An investigation was conducted regarding the success of the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation. The committee was appalled at the conditions the Navajo and Apache lived in. The experiment to change these hunter/gathers into farmers was ruled a failure and Carlton was fired. A treaty was signed with the Navajo in 1868, allowing them to return to their native land. They walked the 400 miles with light feet and hearts as they made their way home.

I left the museum in a somber mood. Here was the first internment camp ever in the United States. Tagging the word reservation to the end of the title didn’t make it so. But the resiliency of those who suffered there amazed me. The Navajo eventually created a written language that is still spoken today. Despite their ill-treatment by the US government, their descendants continued their warrior spirit by serving in the United States Armed Forces. The greatest example is the Navajo Code talkers during World War II who created a code from their language that was never broken by the Japanese.

Have you ever visited the Bosque Redondo Museum? What did you think of it?


Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her website and sign up for her newsletter and receive some free short stories as a thank you. 



Angelina’s Resolve: Book 1 of Village of Women

Proving her skills are equal to a man’s may cost her more than she ever imagined.

Modern-thinking Angelina DuBois is determined to prove her cousin Hiram wrong. He fired her from the architect firm she helped grow when her father’s will left the business to Hiram. Using her large inheritance and architectural degree, she sets out to create a village run by women—Resolve, Kansas.

Carpenter and Civil War veteran Edward Pritchard’s dream of building homes for Chicago’s elite must be put on hold until he gains references. Serving as a contractor under Angelina’s well-known DuBois name provides that opportunity. But can Angelina trust her handsome new carpenter to respect her as his boss? Will the project take Edward one step closer to his goals, or will it make him a laughingstock? Can these two strong-willed people find love amid such an unconventional experiment? 





1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting today. I admire the student who insisted that the Indians' story be told, I'd like to know more about that young person. I'm glad the government finally realized the error of their ways, but so much damage had already been done. I don't wonder that you left the museum feeling less than happy!