Navajo Wars

Navajo Wars

The Navajo Wars were a series of battles, often separated with treaties that involved raids by different Navajo bands on the rancheras along the Rio Grande and the counter campaigns by the Spanish, Mexican, and United States governments, and sometimes their civilian elements. The raiding and counter-raids began in the early 17th century and continued through 1865. It also was a fairly common practice for Navajo or their Apache kin to raid one Spanish/Mexican village and trade with another. And the reverse was equally true of the Spanish/Mexicans.

Spanish period

There are Spanish written records about the Navajo from 1571 to 1846. The records are not consistent with their use of names of non-pueblo cultures. Some names include: Querechose, Cocoye, Tacabuys, Quiajulas (Kyala), and Apache Navajos. And like any other document, the records do not always tell all the facts. For example, while later Spanish documents state all Pueblos were afraid of the raiding Navajo this was not true. Other records give lots of examples of Navajos trading with these Pueblos and forming alliances with some Pueblos against the Spanish.


  • 1582 Espejo-Beltrain "found here peaceful Indian mountaineers" called Querechos. This party did not linger around Acoma because the Querechose who carried on trade with the Pueblo were known to come to their aid in times of conflict.
  • 1630 Fray Benevides arranges a peace between the Tewas and Navajo.
  • 1638 Governor Luis de Rosa is said to have encouraged Navajos to raid the missions of his political enemy the Franciscan friars.
  • 1641-42 Franciscan friars mount a military campaign against Navajo, burning corn, taking prisoners and killing some.
  • 1644-47 Spanish fight Navajos living along the San Juan River.
  • 1659 Bernardo Lopez sends 40 Spanish Soldiers and 800 allies into Navajoland.
  • 1661 Lopez sanctions killing and capture of Navajos as slaves who came to Tewa to trade.
  • 1669 Spanish attacks Navajos near Acoma.
  • 1677-78 Navajos actively raiding Spanish pueblos. Spanish mount 3 different scorched earth and slave gathering campaigns.
  • 1680 Navajos probably join Pueblos. Start of Great Southwestern Revolt against Spanish.
  • 1691 Navajos alerts Pueblos and Apaches that Spanish force was on way.
  • 1696 Navajos said to be exciting other tribes, combined with Tewas in revolt.
  • 1698 End of Great Southwestern Revolt; Spanish boundaries remain constant.

American period

The U.S. military assumed nominal control of the southwest from Mexico by 1846. Military and civilian records show that civilians continued their raids into Navajo lands. Likewise, Navajo raided these same civilians. Slavery, the Civil War and civilian militias complicated the U.S. military response to the Navajo until the mid 1860s, which culminated in the Long Walk.


  • 1846 General Kerny punishes Navajo for attacking his column on its way to California, and a treaty is signed at Ojo del Oso (later became Ft. Wingate).
  • 1849 Military Governor Col. John Washington sends a force to Navajo land and Canyon de Chelly, and a treaty is signed allowing forts and trading posts in Navajo land in return for peace and annual gifts to the Navajo.
  • 1851 Col. Edwin Sumner builds forts and establishes Ft. Defiance in middle of Navajo land.
  • 1855 A treaty is signed at Laguna Negra by Manuelito and Zarcillos Largos for the Navajo and Henry Dodge (agent) and Governor Merriweather and General Garland.
  • 1858 Navajo demand that Ft. Defiance stop grazing their livestock on prime Navajo land. A servant of the commanding officer rapes a Navajo, and the Navajo take traditional revenge and kill the man. The military fights the Navajo seeking the murderers.
  • 1860 U.S. military, Mexican-Americans, Zunis, and Utes, all raid Navajo land.
    • January: Navajo kill 4 soldiers from Ft. Defiance.
    • April: Manulito, Barboncito and 1,000 Navajo attack Ft. Defiance. Others raid sheep and mules near Santa Fe.
    • May - October: 400 New Mexicans form a militia and raid Navajo land, followed by independent raids by citizens for captives.
    • September - December: 7 army expeditions kill 23 Navajo.
  • 1861 Civil War causes the Union troops to abandon Forts and head east.
    • February: Another treaty is signed at Ft. Fauntleroy (later Ft. Wingate).
    • February: General Canby says 31 citizens from Taos arrive at Fort with captive Navajos (taken from them by Canby) and need of rations.
    • March: Canby reports 4 more citizen groups have attacked Navajos for captives.
  • 1862 Confederate forces push up the Rio Grande, and raids on Navajos by civilians increase.
  • 1862 Union forces, assisted by some New Mexican militia, push the Confederate line back to Texas. Ft. Wingate is re-established at Ojo del Oso (formerly Fauntleroy). Citizens state Navajos and Apaches stole 30,000 sheep in 1862.
  • 1863 Navajos are continually raided by militia.
    • July: Col. Kit Carson starts his campaign.
    • September: Carson is ordered to direct 4 companies of New Mexican Militia at Ft. Wingate against Navajo and Mescelaro Apache.

Between September 1863 and January 1864, Carson and his men chased the Navajo, killing and capturing a few. Crops were burned, stock was confiscated, hogans were burned. Some of Carson's men marched through Canyon de Chelly destroying Navajo property. Without food or shelter to sustain them through the winters, and continuously chased by the U. S. Army, groups of Navajo began to surrender.

Starting in January 1864, many bands and their leaders — Barboncito, Armijo, and finally in 1866 Manuelito — surrendered or were captured and made what is called "The Long Walk" to the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Although a bitter memory for many Navajo, there is this firsthand account: "By slow stages we traveled eastward by present Gallup and Chusbbito, Bear Spring, which is now called Fort Wingate. You ask how they treated us? If there was room the solders put the women and children on the wagons. Some even let them ride behind them on their horses. I have never been able to understand a people who killed you one day and on the next played with your children...?" -Very Slim Man, Navajo elder, quoted by Richard Van Valkenburgh, Desert Magaine, April, 1946, p. 23.

See also


  • Kelly, Lawrence. Navajo Roundup, Pruett Pub. Co., Colorado, 1970
  • Lavender, David. The Rockies. Revised Edition. N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1975.
  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1987.
  • McNitt, Frank. Navajo Wars, Univ. New Mexico, 1972.
  • Smith, Duane A. Rocky Mountain West: Colorado, Wyoming, & Montana, 1859-1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
  • Williams, Albert N. Rocky Mountain Country. N.Y.: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1950.
  • Yenne, Bill Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West. Yardley: Westholme, 2005
  • Thompson, Gerald (1976). The Army and the Navajo: The Bosque Redondo Reservation Experiment 1863-1868. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0816504954.
  • Forbes, Jack D. (1960). Apache, Navaho and Spaniard. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press. LCCCN 60-13480.

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