Kit Carson’s Civil War: The Navajo Round Up

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Ray Shortridge

Part two in a series.

Kit Carson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Kit Carson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In April, 1863, Brigadier General Henry H. Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson to round up the Navajo Indian Tribe and intern them at a reservation in the Bosque Redondo.[1] This was Carson’s first major independent command. Since the Navajo would not go willingly, the army’s strategy, developed by Colonel Edward Canby, was to destroy the tribe’s economy by seizing or killing their sheep and horses, and confiscating or destroying their crops. Carleton allocated Carson some 736 men of the First New Mexico Volunteer Regiment, organized into six mounted companies and three of infantry. Carleton ordered Carson to “prosecute a vigorous war upon the men of this tribe until it is considered at these Head Quarters (sic) that they have been effectually punished for their long continued atrocities.”[2]

On July 14, 1863, Carson marched his regiment west into the heart of Navajo country. Near Ojo del Oso (future site of current Fort Wingate), he found fields of wheat grown by the Indians and appropriated forty thousand pounds of the grain to feed to his livestock.

Upon arriving at Fort Defiance, Carson confiscated an additional one hundred thousand pounds of wheat to feed his livestock. En route, his Ute scouts killed one Navajo and stole twenty sheep. Three independent parties of Ute Indian scouts marauded the Navajo country and captured eleven women and children. Carson recommended that the army allow the Ute Indians to enslave Navajo children, but Carleton, in the first of only two direct orders to Carson during the campaign, vetoed it.[3]

On July 22, 1863, Carson led a reconnaissance to Pueblo Colorado, near present day Cornfield, Arizona, where he built a fort. His force of seventy men and the Ute Indian scouts encountered one small party of Navajo Indians and killed three men. Later, the Ute scouts killed eight more Navajo men[4]

On August 5, 1863, Carson commenced his first of three punitive raids into Navajo country. He marched his detachment, now reinforced to three hundred thirty three enlisted men and four field and staff officers, south east from Pueblo Colorado about ninety miles toward the Zuni pueblos. Along the way, he came across several Navajo wheat and corn fields and confiscated some crops and destroyed the rest. Carson sent women and children prisoners under guard to Fort Defiance.[5]

Near Zuni, Carson learned that a large number of Navajo Indians were near the Hopi Indian pueblos. On August 8, 1863, he led his force toward the Hopi mesas, more than one hundred miles to the northwest. They captured two Navajo women and three children, along with twenty five head of horses and over a thousand sheep and goats.[6]

On August 16, when leaving Hopi for Pueblo Colorado, Carson’s force destroyed fifty acres of Navajo corn. Later they captured one woman and five horses.

Carson completed his first raid by advancing north to Canyon de Chelly on August 20, 1863, from Pueblo Colorado. At Canoncito de los Trigos, he destroyed a ten acre field of corn and fed the corn from another patch to his horses. His force destroyed “large quantities of pumpkins and beans, the latter quite ripe” and carried away “all the grain not previously consumed by them [pack animals] or destroyed by the Command.”[7]

During the rest of the first raid, Carson’s soldiers and bands of roaming Ute Indians killed several Navajo Indians and destroyed more crops. Before returning to Pueblo Colorado, he observed that there are very few Indians in the Canon [de Chelly], and these of the very poorest. They have no stock and were depending entirely for subsistence on the corn destroyed by my command…the loss of which will cause actual starvation…[8]

Carson led a second raid consisting of ten officers, three hundred ninety five enlisted men, and one hundred ninety two horses from Pueblo Colorado toward the Little Colorado River on September 9, 1863. He picked up guides from Zuni Pueblo and marched west. His report detailed moving from one brackish spring to another, sending patrols south to the White Mountains, and scouring the valley of the Little Colorado for eighty five miles.[9]

On the return to Pueblo Colorado, Carson destroyed a small village but discovered no Indians. A party searching for lost mules was attacked and, in the fracas, killed one Navajo Indian. Carson refitted at Fort Canby, the rebuilt Fort Defiance, during October, sending out infantry patrols to harass the Indians continuously.

The third and last raid of the winter began on November 15, 1863. In deep snow, Carson and a few other mounted officers along with five companies of dismounted cavalry left Fort Canby for the Hopi country. A detachment “overtook a small party of Navajoes (sic), two of whom he [Sergeant Andres Herrera] killed, wounded two, and captured fifty head of sheep and one horse. En route the party came on a village lately deserted which they destroyed.”[10]

Carson pushed west past the Hopi villages to the canyon of the Little Colorado River. He “captured one woman and child, about five hundred head of sheep, and goats, and seventy head of horses, and destroyed another Indian Encampment.” With his horses giving out, Carson returned to Fort Canby with, in his mind, little to show for twenty-two days of marching.

While his troops and horses rested, Carson led a force to recover stolen mules and ordered another officer to scout the country to the west. He reported on the results of his tactics:Judging from the appearance of these captives, the generality of the Navajos are completely destitute. They are almost entirely naked, and had it not been for the unusual growth of the Pinon-berry this year, they must have been without any description of food. This is owing to the destruction of their grain amounting to about two Millions of Pounds by my command…which they depended on for their Winter’s Sustenance. The dread of being discovered by my Scouting parties which are continually in the field, prevents them building fires for warmth…[11]

Following only the second direct order from Carleton, on January 6, 1864, Carson led fourteen officers and three hundred seventy five men from Fort Canby to the west entrance of Canon de Chelly. A company under the command of Captain Pfeiffer entered the east entrance and then march west through the defiles to meet the main force.

The tactical results of the sixteen day Canon de Chelly strike were twenty three Navajo Indians killed, thirty four captured, and two hundred Indians who voluntarily surrendered, as well as seizing two hundred head of sheep. Carson sent many Navajo Indians back to their bands to spread the word that he was not there to exterminate the tribe, but they had to surrender and walk more than three hundred miles to Bosque Redondo.

Carson pointed out the strategic accomplishment:We have shown the Indians that no place, however formidable or inaccessible, in their opinion, are they safe from the pursuit of the troops…and have convinced a large portion of them that the struggle on their part is a hopeless one. We have also demonstrated that the intentions of the Government toward them are eminently humane…that the principle is not to destroy but to save them, if they are disposed to be saved.[12]

Carson’s first independent command achieved its objective to round up the Navajo Tribe. During the winter and spring of 1864, approximately eight thousand Navajo Indians took the three hundred mile “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo. Operating more than two hundred miles away from Carleton, Carson received only two direct orders during the campaign from headquarters in Santa Fe as he carried out his mission.

[1] For a narrative of the century-long struggle between the Spanish, Mexicans, Americans and the Navajo, see: Frank McNitt, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals, (Albuquerque, NM, 1990).

[2] General Orders No. 15; Head Quarters, Dept. of New Mexico, Santa Fe, N.M., June 15th, 1863. in Lawrence Kelly, Navajo Roundup, Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition against the Navajo, 1863-1865, (Boulder, Co, 1970), 22.

[3] Carson to Carleton in: Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 30-31.

[4] Carson to Carleton in: Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 28-29.

[5] Carson to Cutler in: Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 39.

[6] Ibid. 39-40.

[7] Carson to Cutler in: Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 42.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carson to Cutler, Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 54.

[10] Carson to Cutler, Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 75.

[11] Carson to Cutler, Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 92-93.

[12] Carson to Cutler, Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 100.

3 Responses to Kit Carson’s Civil War: The Navajo Round Up

  1. I believe the Name of Brigiadier General Carleton was James, not Henry.
    That is Brigadier General James H. Carleton.

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