El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter V:

One of the first items on Col. Edwin V. Sumner's agenda when he reached Santa Fe in July 1851, was to superintend to Indian affairs within his jurisdiction. As commander of the Ninth Military District, Sumner assumed control of a vast territory comprising present-day Arizona and New Mexico and portions of Utah and Texas. Sumner quickly established military posts to protect frontier settlements. Fort Defiance, situated north of present-day Gallup at Cañon Bonito, was authorized in 1851 by Col. Sumner. Fort Defiance, Sumner hoped would act as a deterrent against Navajo forays on the Rio Grande or pueblo settlements. [1]

In actuality, the erection of Fort Defiance failed to awe the Indians into submission. Its presence was more a symbolic deterrent than actual. Navajos persisted in raiding settlements up and down the Rio Grande corridor. Col. Sumner retaliated in 1851 with a summer campaign. The elusive Navajos managed to avoid clashes with Sumner's superior force and the army returned to Santa Fe with negligible results. In 1852, the military conferred with some of the Navajos at Jemez Springs. The gist of the talks swirled around the American's request for the cessation of Navajo strikes. The conference failed because the Navajos simply refused to attend as promised. On May 27, a dejected Sumner penned a note to Secretary of War, C. M. Conrad, stating it would be in the government's best interest to return New Mexico to the Indians and Mexicans. [2]

American efforts to induce the Navajo to sign a peace treaty persisted. Finally, in 1855, the American government assembled a significant number of Navajos at Laguna Negra, located about 14 miles from Fort Defiance. Several Navajos were prominent in the peace negotiations who acquired "chief" status from the government. Zarcillos Largos, Manuelito, Barboncito, and Ganada Mucho represented the Navajos. Governor David Merriwether, Brig. Gen. John Garland, the military district commander, and Navajo agent, Henry L. Dodge, presented the U.S. Government position. An uneasy truce prevailed until 1858. Then the fragile treaty caved in, precipitated by a series of cultural misunderstandings.

At the root of the problem stood grazing privileges. Manuelito complained to officials at Fort Defiance that the Navajo would no longer permit the soldiers to pasture their livestock on lands ensconcing the post. The treaty of 1855 stipulated the government could graze its animals on adjacent Indian land outside the garrison. Manuelito argued the Indians needed the grasses for their livestock, pointing out that the military possessed many wagons in which to haul provisions. Serving eviction notice on the soldiers, the Navajos proceeded to pasture their sheep and cattle closer to the fort. Major William T. H. Brooks, commanding at Fort Defiance, ordered soldiers to chase away the livestock. When the Indians resisted, a skirmish erupted with the big loser, the Navajo cattle. The Navajos demanded payment for the cattle, which the Army rejected. [3]

In August troops from Fort Defiance launched another expedition against the Indians. The latest confrontation between the races had been touched off by the circumstances involving the death of Major Brook's black servant who had died at the post in a scuffle with a Navajo. The Navajos justified the act claiming the servant had molested a Navajo woman, an act punishable by death according to Navajo code of ethics. When the Navajos refused to hand over the offender, Col. Thomas "Little Lord" Fauntleroy ordered retribution. Fauntleroy targeted Manuelito's village for attack. Although the army succeeded in surprising the village, Manuelito escaped the snare. The military remained active through December, but the results were minimal. Fifty Indians were purportedly slain, and the military orchestrated another worthless treaty with the Navajos.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Territorial Legislature became impatient with the scenario. Navajo resistance continued, while the regular army seemed hapless to prevent the attacks or retaliate in kind. A public outcry for formation of militia to deal with the "Indian menace" grew proportionately larger. Army officials worried over a war to exterminate the Indians.

On April 30, 1860, violence shattered the cool morning at Fort Defiance. Estimates of one thousand or more Navajos under the combined leadership of Manuelito and Barboncito spearheaded an assault on the hated fort, making it one of the few recorded incidences in the history of the Indian Wars in which Indians attacked a fort. The strike nearly succeeded in overrunning the garrison before being repulsed. So audacious were Navajo forays that one came within eight miles of Santa Fe. Colonel Fauntleroy and Maj. Edward R. S. Canby cooperated in an operation to trap the Navajos, but they failed in their mission.

This latest chapter in the Army's ineptitude prompted New Mexico's citizens to raise militia. Without waiting for official sanction from Governor Abraham Rencher, New Mexicans organized a volunteer battalion of five companies. They marched into Navajo country bent on destroying any Indians they encountered. The militia killed and murdered; livestock was destroyed or run off; and women and children taken as prisoners of war. The brutality ended only when the militia depleted their supply of ammunition. Despite taking matters into their own hands, the harsh civilian techniques did produce an immediate if not long-lasting impact, an armistice.

But peace was fleeting. The approaching storm of sectional differences exploded in April 1861, influencing even far-off New Mexico. Federal officials reacted swiftly. Regular U.S. Army troops would have to be withdrawn from most of New Mexico's garrisons. Some of the soldiers went East to join Union armies to fight the Confederates. In addition, a Confederate threat to New Mexico, emanating from the west Texas town of El Paso, forced officials to scatter the remaining regular forces along the Rio Grande corridor, the natural route of any Confederate invasion. The second concern was to find a suitable commander for the remaining regular forces in New Mexico. In June 1861, Major Edward R.S. Canby was promoted to the rank of colonel and given the responsibility for New Mexico's defenses. A veteran officer, Canby had served in Florida during the second Seminole War, the Mexican War with Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, and possessed extensive experience in the Southwest. Canby manifested a mild dignified manner. He preferred civilian attire over the regulation army blouse, his "prudent" appearance highlighted by a cigar habitually placed in his mouth, although seldom lit. When he did smoke, he selected a pipe. [4] Prior to the appointment of Canby, Federal officers began the concentration of troops in the Rio Grande Valley and southern New Mexico. In April Fort Defiance was abandoned. That left one post to protect west central New Mexico from Navajo attack--Fort Fauntleroy.

Authorized on August 31, 1860, Fort Fauntleroy's primary purpose focused on combating Navajo retaliation. The garrison stood approximately 50 miles southeast of Fort Defiance and about 35 miles west of the malpais. Its location at Bear Spring, a popular stopover and gathering place for the Navajos, had been the site of Colonel Doniphan's treaty of 1846 with the Navajos. The post played host to a second treaty signing in early 1861, following the inconclusive campaign of Fauntleroy and Canby to entrap the Navajo. For the time being, Fort Fauntleroy remained an active post. Its fate hinged on the activities of Confederates in Texas. Meanwhile, following the exodus of Regular troops, New Mexico volunteers filled the void at Fauntleroy. Companies A, B, and C of the 2nd Regiment, New Mexico Volunteers, garrisoned the post after April 1861. [5]

On ration day, September 22, 1861, Navajos assembled at Fort Fauntleroy to receive their monthly food allotments, an inducement employed by the federals to keep the Navajos from raiding. As customary practice, a series of horse races between Navajos and soldiers developed. The seemingly harmless races became the catalyst for tragedy. In the grand finale, the Navajo rider lost the contest but immediately lodged a protest that the American rider had committed a foul. The Navajos declared someone had severed the reins to the Indian horse, thereby causing their jockey to lose control of his mount. Since wagers were heavy, the unsympathetic soldiers declined a re-run, foul play or not. Angry Navajos stormed the fort. A nervous sentry fired on an Indian at point-blank range. To complete the melee, the military brought out its howitzers to shell any Indians in range. When the dust cleared 12 Navajos lay dead or dying, and another 40 suffered from various wounds. The casualties included a Navajo woman and her two small children. [6]

When Col. Canby learned of the incident, neither he, and the civilian population exhibited any remorse. In fact, Canby perceived the slaughter at Fauntleroy as appropriate medicine to deter the Navajos from further raiding. It did not. If anything, it instilled in the Navajos a deep and bitter resentment towards the New Mexicans, fueling the flames of aggression. To the Navajos, the death of their kinfolks served to strengthen their perceptions of New Mexicans as deceitful and treacherous.

Because of a Confederate threat to the Rio Grande Valley, Canby in September 1861, abandoned Fort Fauntleroy leaving no military installations in west central New Mexico. He transported quartermaster stores to Cubero and housed them in rented buildings for safekeeping. Four Confederate sympathizers quickly seized the tiny garrison at Cubero and sent the supplies to Confederate authorities. [7] The Navajos interpreted the withdrawal of troops as an omen of having sapped the fighting spirit of the military. Coinciding with the receding blue troops, came the resumption of Indian strikes on villages, ranches, and mines. A frustrated Canby headquartered at Fort Craig remained powerless to halt them, for he had no available forces. In the first few months of 1862, he was committed to defending New Mexico from Confederate takeover. Defense of New Mexico frontier fell to local militia units. Not until Confederate defeat at Glorieta Pass in March 1862, could Canby redirect his efforts to blunting Indian attacks permeating the Territory at every corner.

With the retreat of the Confederates into Texas, Canby returned to Santa Fe where he established headquarters in May 1862. Canby used the next few months to organize his defenses to cover the entire territory, and he devoted time to putting administrative affairs in order. Finally, in August 1862, Canby declared himself ready for a renewal against Navajo incursions. [8] Canby formalized a campaign to both protect and punish the Navajos. New forts would be constructed in Navajo country to supplant the defunct posts. Writing Washington on the subject, Canby outlined a stratagem for Indian self-preservation. He perceived a reservation system far removed from population centers of the Territory as the only viable means of preventing the extermination of the native tribes. [9] In September, he prepared for an expedition against the Navajo. However, the closure of Forts Defiance and Fauntleroy left Canby with no base of operations in western New Mexico. To remedy the problem, Canby received authorization to erect a new garrison in west-central New Mexico to take the place of the defunct posts. The tentative site selected for the new post favored the western edge of the malpais at Ojo del Gallo. The garrison was to be named Fort Wingate, in honor of Bvt. Maj. Benjamin Wingate, 5th U.S. Infantry. Wingate, a Hoosier, received debilitating wounds to his legs during the battle of Valverde, February 21, 1862. Both legs required amputation. Complications from shock and blood poisoning set in, and the infantry captain died on June 1. [10]

But Canby never implemented his Navajo removal policy or saw the construction of Ft. Wingate. Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton commander of the California volunteers became the new departmental commander in New Mexico in September 1862. Like his predecessor, Canby, Carleton possessed extensive Indian experiences. Born in Maine, December 27, 1814, he served in the militia during the Aroostock War of 1838. His experience in the Aroostock campaign led Carleton to pursue a military career. In 1839, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the 1st Dragoons. He followed his fortunes to Mexico serving as aide to Maj. Gen. John Wool. At Buena Vista Carleton received a brevet for gallantry. Following the Mexican War, Carleton's company returned to Arizona, but Carleton remained in the East to study and correlate European cavalry tactics. In 1861 Carleton received promotion to Major of the 6th Cavalry. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Carleton took leave of the regular army to become colonel of the 1st California Infantry Volunteers, an appointment influenced by Carleton's mentor and close friend, Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner. Sumner ordered Carleton "to retake Arizona and New Mexico." [11] Autocratic, tyrannical, and sometimes a harsh disciplinarian, he was not a man to be trifled with. [12]

Upon arrival in Santa Fe, the vigorous Carleton immediately proceeded to take measures to curb the Indian raids in New Mexico. Carleton adhered to much of his predecessor's philosophy for dealing with the Navajos such as the placement of Navajos on a reservation, far removed and isolated from any population center. Whereas Canby formulated the fate of the Navajos, Carleton enforced the plan with devastating consequences for the Navajos. [13]

Carleton upheld Canby's design for building Fort Wingate, citing its strategic location situated where soldiers could "perform such services among the Navajos as will bring them to feel that they have been doing wrong." [14] Captain Henry R. Selden headed a board of officers to pinpoint the site for the post. Based on Selden's recommendations, the lava-filled Ojo del Gallo Valley was chosen. Two prime considerations favored the malpais location. The Ojo del Gallo Valley afforded excellent pasturage. In addition, its position, astride an intersection that blanketed the approaches of two major highways--the old military road to Fort Defiance and the Spanish highway to Zuni Pueblo--provided control and access in which to block or pursue an adversary.

Captain Henry Selden in command of Companies D and G of the lst U. S. Cavalry, formerly the lst Dragoons, first occupied the site. In late October, however, an aggregate of 11 officers and 317 enlisted men of the lst New Mexico Cavalry Volunteers reached Fort Wingate to initiate their long association at the malpais garrison. [15] The establishment of Fort Wingate dates officially from October 22, 1862, by Special Orders No. 176, Headquarters Department of New Mexico September 27, 1862. Canby never witnessed the completion of Fort Wingate. His replacement arrived on September 18, 1862. [16]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001