Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American (Bastard) Blogging: James H. Carleton

This post starts a new era in Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging. The first Tuesday of the month will now be reserved for one of America's forgotten bastards. There are two reasons for this. There are lots of American bastards worth remembering for their bastardry. Also, there are certain stories that I want to tell that I can't without focusing on the bastard as opposed to the good guys.

Today's subject fits both of these categories. James H. Carleton was a Civil War colonel who led a group of California volunteers west to drive the Confederates out of Arizona and New Mexico. He did this successfully in 1862, linking up with the forces under General Edward R.S. Canby in New Mexico. OK, whatever.

James H. Carleton is the first topic of Bastard Blogging because of his actions in New Mexico after 1862. Carleton was placed in command of Union forces in New Mexico in August 1862, once anyone important to army was sent to battles farther east. Carleton had a mission--subdue the Indians. To some extent, the US Army had reason to be concerned about Indians in the Southwest. For 200 years, the Navajo, Apache, Comanche, and Ute peoples had raided the small Hispano towns and Indian pueblos of New Mexico. The US didn't feel that it could incorporate the area into the nation with these raids continuing. As the Navajos began feeling the brunt of American power in the 1850s, they had to engage in more desperate raiding and by 1862 were actually stealing army cattle from Socorro County, New Mexico.

This is where Carleton comes into the picture. In 1862, Carleton ordered Kit Carson to round up the Mescalero Apaches and move them to a new reservation he founded in eastern New Mexico, the Bosque Redondo. The Mescaleros were only a small group of Apaches--the major raiding groups were in Arizona. But they were an easy target for Carleton.

As for the Bosque Redondo--it is located near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Incidentally, this is the same town where Billy the Kid was killed, thus giving this god-forsaken place two interesting historical references. And god-forsaken it was. Bosque Redondo was located on the banks of the Pecos River, about 100 miles west of the Texas line. Along the Pecos were cottonwood trees and some water. But that is all the place had going for it. Beyond that slight sliver of green was nothingness. Just nada. Even today, there is nothing out there at all. But Carleton, perhaps driven by ego, probably driven by malice, most certainly driven by a dislike of Indians, saw this spot as the solution to New Mexico's Indian problems. He wrote, "The Bosque was the best pastoral region between the two oceans. Within ten years, the Navajos would be the happiest and most delightfully located pueblo of Indians in New Mexico, perhaps in the United States." Hmmm...the best pastoral region between the two oceans? In eastern New Mexico? Yeah, I don't think so.

By early 1863, the Mescalero Apaches were rounded up and struggling to survive on the Bosque Redondo. At that point, Carleton turned his attention to the Navajos. Carleton sent Carson out to defeat the Navajos and send them from their homeland in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo. Following a brutal campaign that included the burning of Navajo homes, fields, and orchards, most of them had surrendered. Thus began the Navajo Long Walk. In the middle of the winter of 1864, they started walking to Bosque Redondo, which was approximately 400 miles away. This happened in several different parties. However, the largest party, about 2500 Navajos, left on March 4, 1864. Soon thereafter a large winter storm raced through the area. Carleton wrote, "The weather was very inclement, with terrible gales of wind and heavy snow. The Indians were nearly naked; and, besides, many died of dysentery occasioned from eating too heartily of half cooked bread made from our flour, to which they were not accustomed." Not that Carleton cared about any of this. When the Navajos couldn't keep up they were either left to die or shot, including a pregnant woman who was killed when she went into labor on the trail. Approximately 10% of the 2500 on this march died on the trail, which one could follow by looking for the frozen bodies lining the way.

After they reached the Bosque Redondo, things weren't any better. The place was overcrowded--over 8000 Navajos were living there by 1865. Food supplies were terrible. People were literally living in holes they dug in the ground at first. Eventually they managed to build shelters with sticks and other things they found on the ground. Firewood was scarce as the few cottonwoods lining the banks of the Pecos were by no means sufficient to support over 8000 people. The soil at the Bosque Redondo was not made for intensive farming. Indians suffered, starved, and died.

Carleton thought he was doing the right thing. He was a vanguard of the new reservation movement that would either assimilate the Indians or kill them off. He wrote that the Army, "will be kind to them; there teach their children to read and write; teach them the arts of peace. Soon they would acquire new habits, new ideas, new modes of life; the old Indians...would die off, and carry with them all the latent longings for murdering and robbing." Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Indian policy through most of American history, Carleton was full of lies and half-truths. The Army--not exactly kind to the Indians. If "new modes of life" including living in holes in the middle of nowhere, I guess the Army did teach the Navajos new modes of life.

Not surprisingly, the Bosque Redondo was a disaster. In a small way, the Navajo were lucky. News of their plight got to Washington just after the end of the Civil War, when the ruling Republican Party still pretended to care about minorities. 10 years later, it is unlikely anything would have been done to help them. But in 1867, Carleton was removed from his post and the Department of the Interior took over the Bosque Redondo. Carleton of course did not receive any sort of meaningful punishment for what he did to the Navajos. William Tecumseh Sherman visited the place to see what could be done. His conclusion: "I found the Bosque a mere spot of green in the midst of wild desert, and the Navajos had sunk into a condition of absolute poverty and despair."

In 1868, the Interior Department closed the Bosque Redondo, giving the Navajos a new reservation on their own land in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The Mescaleros had simply walked away after the Navajos arrived and Carleton was too busy dealing with the mess he had gotten himself and 8000 Navajos into to do anything about it. There they remain today, holding the largest piece of reservation land in the nation, largely because the US government at the time thought this land was so worthless that they were happy to expand the Navajo reservation. Then in the 1950s, uranium was discovered out there and a whole new happy round of exploitation began. But that's for another post.

Happy Tuesday!