For hundreds of years the Navajo had lived in the canyons and mesas between the Rio Grand and the Grand Canyon. They lived an agricultural life, herding sheep and growing corn crops before American settlers began encroaching on their land. After the Mexican War ended in 1848 homesteaders began to filter into the Navajo lands.
In 1850, Ft. Defiance was built about 30 miles southeast of Canyon de Chelly. The soldiers began to take over land that had traditionally been used by the Navajo for sheep. Pastures that were once used for grazing were displaced by the soldiers' horses. In 1855 Manuelito
, the leader of the Navajo community, refused to comply with the fort commanders orders to move his livestock. As a result, the fort commander killed 60 of Manuelito's horses and more than 100 sheep. The situation escalated until the Navajo attacked Ft. Defiance. Another peace treaty was seen as the only way to avoid a war.
In 1861, the Civil War began in the United States. As troops left to fight in the east the Navajo saw a chance to rid their country of the white enemy. Manuelito, Barboncito
and Herrero Grande joined forces and persuaded between one and two thousand Navajo, Ute, Apache and Pueblo warriors to attack the Fort Defiance. However, forewarned of the surprise attack, the fort's commander had the soldiers drive the warriors back with canons.
After this conflict, the U.S. government and the Navajo made another attempt at peace. This time the agreement included government promises of food for the tribe. When the supplies were delivered later that year a festive atmosphere accompanied the distribution. There was horse racing and betting between the Indians and the white soldiers. During the last race an army rider accused of cheating was allowed to win and the Navajo protested. The troops withdrew into the fort and the commander ordered the soldiers to open fire. More than 30 Navajo were killed, many of them women and children. A new wave of war erupted.
In 1863 General James Carleton began a renewed effort to eradicate the Navajo. In charge of the operation was Colonel Kit Carson. Knowing he couldn't defeat the Navajo militarily, Carson began to destroy the Navajo homes, crops and livestock. More than two million pounds of corn, a staple of the Indian diet, were burned. Forced to survive on nuts and berries many families, starving during the long winter months, began turning themselves in to the military. About 8,000 men, women and children were forced to make the "Long Walk" to Basque Redondo, a reservation in New Mexico about 300 miles away. Many died on the way of hunger and cold. Others drowned when they were forced to cross the Rio Grande during the spring floods.
The destination however was no better than the journey. They were given no wood for fires, the water was bitter and the soil not good for growing corn. What crops they did manage to grow were eaten by cutworms or devastated by hail. The Navajo endured this prison for four years during which time almost one quarter of their population died of disease and starvation.
Finally, in 1868, Carleton was removed from command. Barboncito negotiated with General William T. Sherman to be returned to their homelands. Afraid that they would be sent to Indian Country (Oklahoma), Barboncito persuaded Sherman to allow them to return to their home country. The Navajo were granted a 3.5 million acre reservation. With 25% of their population destroyed the Navajo were no longer considered a threat to the Americans. They returned home to try and rebuild their homes and their lives.