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Fort Defiance

Fort Defiance is pictured at the turn of the century.

Fort Defiance is pictured at the turn of the century.

Fort Defiance, established in 1851, was the first military post established in what would become the Arizona Territory, and its post office, established in 1856, provided the future territory’s first postal service.

Between 1846 and 1868, seven treaties were recorded between Navajos and the U.S. government. The Indians signed most under duress. The treaty of 1850 was no exception: “The government of the United States will establish such military posts and agencies, and authorize such trading-houses, at such time and such places as said government may designate,” it read.

Hence, the groundwork was laid for construction of Fort Defiance, built in the heart of Navajo country, near both Canyon de Chelly and the present border with New Mexico. Soldiers stationed there nicknamed it “Hell’s Gate.” In all probability, the Navajos agreed with the assessment.

Peace between Navajos and the intruders who sought to “civilize” them was tentative at best.

During a time of excessively strained relations, the Indians sought to remove Fort Defiance from their land. Prior to daybreak on April 30, 1860, some 1,000 Navajos launched a carefully orchestrated attack. One observer noted that it was “the most daring attack by the Indians that has taken place since I was in the Army, and indicates a spirit that will become dangerous if not checked.” Had it not been for the Army’s superior firepower, the Navajos would have been successful.

When James H. Carleton, military commander of New Mexico, decided it was necessary to isolate Navajos on a reservation, he did not mince words about his motivation. “By the subjugation and colonization of the Navajo tribe we gain for civilization their whole country, which is much larger in extent than the state of Ohio, and, besides being the best pastoral region between the two oceans, it is said to abound in the precious as well as the useful metals.”

The commander’s first target, however, was the Mescalero Apaches. Using Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson to spearhead the attack, the Apaches were hunted down, killed or captured. By the spring of 1863, some 400 survivors were herded onto a semi-arid tract of land called the Bosque Redondo.

Upon realizing that the Navajos would not willingly abandon their homeland, Carleton turned to Carson to forcibly evict them. And he did just that. His campaign was brief, bloody, and effective. The result was what has come to be called the “Long Walk.”  By the spring of 1864, some 8,500 Navajos — men, women, children, and the elderly — were forced to walk some 300 miles to Bosque Redondo. Countless died of disease, exposure, and starvation.

Conditions within this 40-square-mile reservation on the Pecos were deplorable, and the government refused to recognize the bitter enmity between the Mescaleros and the Navajos. Food was scarce and both tribes were forbidden to hunt. Many more succumbed.

In the fall of 1865, the Apaches escaped en masse. Finally, in 1868, the government came to its senses and the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland. Of those who survived the trip home, the government gave each man, woman, and child three sheep or goats with which to start herds, and the Navajos promised to stop raiding. They kept their promise. Despite Carleton’s high praise of Navajo country, no one wanted it.  Consequently the tribe was unmolested.

In 1868, the year the Navajos returned to the Arizona Territory, Fort Defiance became the first Indian Agency for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, serving both Navajos and Hopis. In 1899, a separate agency was established for the Hopis, and Window Rock, seven miles south, became the central Navajo agency and, later, capital of the Navajo Nation.

Today, nothing remains of the original fort. But the town of Fort Defiance, which grew up around it, is an important Navajo community.

— Arizona Capitol Times archives.

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