In the mid 1800s, Manuelito led the Navajos in some of the fiercest battles of the Indian wars with the U.S. He was born near Bear’s Ear in Utah and belonged to the Bit’ahni clan. His father, Cayetano, was a prominent Navajo leader. At 16, he married the daughter of Narbona, a Navajo peacemaker, and traveled with him on peace missions. He soon grew tired of peace negotiations, and despite Nabona’s teachings, became a warrior, believing the answer to the Navajos’ problems was to fight.
His first battle was against raiding Mexicans in the mid-1830s. He prepared for it with a cleansing ceremony in a sweat lodge. For protection, he painted snakes on the soles of his moccasins and carried a shield stretched with mountain lion skin.
When the fighting began, he attacked the Mexicans with a wild cry and shot at them with arrows. Fighting with the Mexicans was a Pueblo warrior. Manuelito jumped him as he raised his rifle and clubbed him to death. He took the warrior’s scalp and brought it back to his companions, chewing on it to prove his fierceness.
In 1837, the Navajo leader Ganado Mucho called for an attack on the Hopis on their mesas north of the Navajos. In that raid, Manuelito brought with him a rifle and arrows dipped in a poisonous mixture of rattlesnake blood, yucca leaf juice and prickly pear cactus pulp. Many Hopis were killed.
By the 1840s, U.S. settlers in the New Mexico Territory were threatening traditional Navajo lands. Manuelito joined Barboncito in a fight against the New Mexicans and began building a network of sub- chiefs who specialized in various aspects of war. Eventually he became one of the Navajos’ leading war strategists.
In 1846, Manuelito and 13 headmen signed the Bear Springs peace treaty to end fighting with the U.S. Not long after, Narbona, the peacemaker, was killed by U.S. soldiers. Manuelito threatened to drive all white men out of Navajo country, saying, “These Americans are arrogant and untrustworthy. I want nothing more of their bargains.”
He began raiding in New Mexico, attacking ranches and driving off hundreds of sheep and cattle. In July 1853, Maj. Henry Lane Kendrick told the Navajos that the U.S. would wage war against them if they continued their raids. Navajo peace leaders persuaded Manuelito to return the sheep and cattle he had stolen. Two months later, he attended a meeting in Santa Fe, where he listened to the officials’ warnings and Navajo pleas. By July 1855, another treaty had been drafted and Manuelito was named “head chief” by the U.S. Although he disagreed with the terms, which included turning over all wrongdoers to the authorities, he signed the document.
The following year, the Navajos were ordered to remove all their livestock from the grazing lands around Fort Defiance. Manuelito told the Indian agent Henry Dodge, “Your army has horses and wagons, mules, and many soldiers. They are capable of hauling in feed for their own livestock. We must take our sheep and cattle wherever there is good grazing, and that land around the fort has been ours for many years.”
He threatened the agent, saying he could muster a thousand warriors in less than a day.
He told the fort commander, Maj. William T.H. Brooks, “The water there is mine, not yours, and the same with the grass. Even the ground it grows from belongs to me.” Brooks replied that the Army would defend its rights to the hay camp, and he replaced Manuelito as headman.
Later that night, U.S. troops slaughtered all of the Navajo livestock that remained at the hay camp.
War eventually broke out. Manuelito escaped the Army’s attack on his camp south of the Ganado Valley, but his fields were burned and his hogans destroyed.
In February of 1860, Manuelito and 500 warriors burned all the haystacks around Fort Defiance, and two months later, he and Barboncito, along with a 1,000 warriors, attacked the fort. After a year of fighting, exhausted and weary, Manuelito and 32 headmen agreed to another treaty.
Three years later, Gen. James H. Carleton ordered the Navajos and Apaches to be rounded up and taken to Bosque Redondo, a small reservation in eastern New Mexico. Thousands of Navajos were captured and forced to walk 300 miles from their homelands in northern Arizona and New Mexico to the reservation. More than 8,000 Navajos made the “Long Walk,” many of them choosing to turn themselves in to the military rather than face starvation on their native lands. Many died.
Manuelito and his band were able to avoid capture by hiding in the Grand Canyon, but by 1866, frequent attacks by Utes, Hopis and New Mexicans had worn them down. Weakened, wounded and facing another winter, on Sept. 1, 1866, Manuelito and 23 companions rode to Fort Wingate and surrendered.
On June 1, 1868, a final treaty between the United States and the Navajos was signed. Gen. William Sherman appointed Barboncito head chief, Manuelito sub-chief of the eastern Navajos and Ganado Mucho sub- chief of the western Navajos.
After signing the treaty, Manuelito became convinced that education was the key to gaining Navajo independence and pride. In 1882, he became the first Navajo to send his children to an Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania. But when one son became ill and died, Manuelito decided that he had been wrong in encouraging education for his people.
In 1893, at age 75, the great Navajo warrior contracted measles and shortly afterward died of pneumonia.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society