by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
“The tribulations of James S. Calhoun:
New Mexico’s first Territorial Governor”
Army scouts in the early 1860s recommended the village of Agua Negra located at the confluence of the Rio Pecos and the Agua Negra, south of present-day Santa Rosa, for the location of a reservation for Apaches and Navajos. General James H. Carlton, however, settled on Bosque Redondo, also along the Rio Pecos, near what would become Fort Sumner.
According to historian Robert Julyan, Bosque Redondo had been used by Indians for generations — it was sometimes referred to as Council Grove — before the arrival of Europeans perhaps as early as 1541. In 1851, a trading post was established there and in 1862 a fort was constructed on the same site and named for Colonel Edwin Vose Sumer. The purpose of the army post was to provide housing for a military contingent which would supervise the forty square-mile “reservation” called Bosque Redondo that surrounded it.
General Carlton ordered the roundup of the Apaches and Navajos and in 1863 New Mexico volunteer troops, augmented by Ute and Pueblo Indians, under the command of Christopher “Kit” Carson, invaded Navajo country and began a scorched-earth war and forced many of the Navajo the people into submission.
Eventually, some 7,000 to 9,000 (depending on the source) Navajo people were marched about 300 miles to the east and held at Bosque Redondo, along with about 1,000 Apaches. It should not be supposed that all Navajos were incarcerated at Bosque Redondo. It is impossible to know exactly how many were not captured and remained free in their homeland, but the number is believed to have been significant.
(It should be noted that General Carlton’s campaign was the continuation of a program of Indian removal which dated back to the Andrew Jackson presidential administration [1829-1837] when the Indian Removal Act was passed . One historian characterized Jackson’s Indian policy as “harsh” and another stated that Jackson had “hatred of the Indians”. In 1838-1839 Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, used federal troops to remove about 15,000 Cherokees from Georgia, even after the Supreme Court had ruled in Worcester v. Georgia  that such an effort was illegal. The Indians were marched west to what is now Oklahoma on what came to be called the “Trail of Tears” during which about one quarter of the Cherokee people died.)
The plan at Bosque Redondo was to re-orient the Indian people toward a peaceful agrarian way of life. The plan was ill-conceived. The Indian people involved, the Apaches in particular, were not farmers, and even if they had been, the land along the Rio Pecos was not arable. The water supply was poor, the heating and cooking fuel supply was entirely inadequate, disease was rampant and little could be done to address any of those problems. Estimates vary widely regarding the number of deaths the Navajos suffered at Bosque Redondo. According to one writer, the Navajo name for Bosque Redondo was “hweeldi” which translates as “place of suffering.”
By November 1865, every Apache able to walk or ride a horse, left the reservation and promptly returned to raiding.
General Carlton was reassigned in 1866 and by 1868 those in power in Washington, D.C. recognized that the Bosque Redondo “experiment” was a failure. A peace commission under the direction of General William Tecumseh Sherman traveled to Fort Sumner where they entered into peace negotiations with seven members of the Navajo leadership, including Barboncito.
At the conclusion of three days of negotiation in late May 1868, General Sherman said to the assembled Navajos: “We have marked off a reservation for you, including the cañon de Chelly and a part of the valley of the San Juan, it is about (100) one hundred miles square. It runs as far south as cañon Bonito and includes the Chusca mountain [sic] but not the Mesa Calabesa you spoke of; that is the reservation we suggest to you, it also includes the Ceresca mountain [sic] and the bend of the San Juan river [sic], not the upper waters.”
Barboncito replied: “We are very well pleased with what you have said and well satisfied with the reservation. It is the very heart of our country and is more that we ever expected to get.”
The treaty was signed on June 1, 1868. It was ratified by the United States Senate on July 25, and signed by President Andrew Johnson on August 12. By then, many, if not most, of the Navajo people had returned to their homeland. They may have been destitute and in rags, but they were home.
It should be noted that earlier New Mexico historians, Bancroft and Twitchell in particular, praised Carlton for his dealings with the Navajo, but both acknowledged that the Bosque Redondo experiment was a complete failure. Most modern historians do not give Carlton any credit at all.
(Historian Robert Julyan notes that there was another Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, located in Valencia County near the town of Peralta.)
Don Bullis is the author of ten books on New Mexico.
Go to www.DonBullis.biz for more info. His latest book, Unsolved: The American Valley Ranch Murders and other New Mexico Mysteries, is scheduled for publication in early October 2013. A book-signing event will be held at Eastern N.M. Univ. on Friday, Oct. 4, in the campus union.)