Barboncito - Navajo Leader

portrait of navajo leader barboncito
Barboncito, who lived from about 1820 to 1871, was a respected Navajo leader. He was also known as Hastiin Hastiin Daagi (Full-bearded Man), Bislahalani (The Orator) and the Beautyway Chanter.

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution Neg 55766

The Navajo leader Barboncito played a critical role in helping the Navajos return to their ancestral homeland in 1868. As the lead Navajo negotiator, he met with General William T. Sherman and ironed out the treaty that established the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners region. This made the Navajos unique--the only Indian nation to use a government treaty to return to their homeland.

For four years leading up to the treaty, nearly 9,000 Navajos had been imprisoned by the U.S. government hundreds of miles from their homeland at the hated Bosque Redondo Reserve in eastern New Mexico. Before the Navajo internment, Barboncito led a rare Indian attack on a U.S. Army fort when the Navajos almost overran Arizona's Fort Defiance in 1860. But when the Army retaliated with a pervasive and crushing assault on the Navajos in late 1863, Barboncito urged his followers to placate their enemy.

Plagued by bad water, bad soil, a dire shortage of firewood and repeated attacks by rival Indians, the once-mighty Navajos wilted at Bosque Redondo. Conditions were so bad that Barboncito fled the reserve on two different occasions (later returning both times). "I used to think at one time that the whole world was just like my own land, but I fooled myself. Outside my own country, we cannot raise a crop, but in it we can grow food almost anywhere. Our families and livestock get larger. Here they get smaller. We know this land does not like us," Barboncito told General Sherman.

page showing signatures on 1868 treaty
Signatures on the Bosque Redondo Treaty of 1868, including, at top, U.S. government representatives William T. Sherman and Samuel Tappan, and below, Navajo leader Barboncito and other Navajo leaders.

National Archives

Initially, Sherman offered Barboncito and the other Navajo leaders a reservation in Kansas. They declined, fearing it would be another Bosque Redondo. "When the Navajos were first created, four mountains and four rivers were pointed out to us, inside of which we should live, that was to be our country and was given to us by the First Woman of the Navajo tribe...Our God...gave us this piece of land and created it specially for us and gave us the whitest of corn and the best of horses and sheep," Barboncito told Sherman. "I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own."

The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Bosque Redondo treaty, which was signed in early June 1868. The new reservation was only a small fraction of the Navajos' original homeland, by mid-July, the first Navajos (or Diné, as they call themselves) began returning to the sandstone canyons of northeastern Arizona. It would take years of hard work and struggle for the Diné to re-capture their former prosperity.

In the years since their return, the Diné nation has more than tripled in size. It now encompasses more than 27,000 sqare miles in the Four Corners region and is the largest Indian reservation in the country. The Diné population on and off the reservation is about 332,000, including those of mixed race.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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