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The semi-arid and desert lands of northern New Mexico and the Arizona Territory were the chosen habitat of the Navajos. By the 1850's most Navajo bands, following their long association with the Spanish and Mexican settlers, were living in peace and, in some cases, prosperity, as ranchers, farmers, and artisans. The beauty of Navajo weaving and silversmithing was well known and these products were much in demand. A few nomadic bands continued to enemies, the Pueblos, and making an occasional raid on Mexican and white settlements.

Manuelito, a sturdy rancher, was elected head chief in 1855. He was a strong advocate of peace until the U.S. Army, in retaliation for a raid by one of the wandering bands, rode into Manuelito's headquarters and destroyed everything in sight-hogans, sheep, horses and goats. This occurred in 1859 and marked the beginning of Manuelito's war with the United States. In an attempt to regain their wealth, Manuelito and his raiders struck against the Mexicans, with whom the Navajos had been at war for generations. When New Mexico became a part of the U.S., the Army was obligated to protect the Mexican citizens. This created a furor among the Navajos because nothing was done by the Army to stop the Mexicans from stealing Navajo children to use as slaves.

When Fort Defiance was established at Canyon Bonito, the military horses were turned out to graze on the unfenced pastureland used by the Indians. When some of the Navajo livestock wandered into the area, they were shot by the soldiers. Manuelito led a force of 500 braves against he herd in February, 1860, but the raid was a failure because the rifles of the soldiers were highly effective against the primitive weapons of the Indians. Manuelito then conspired with another chief, Barboncito, to build an army of more than a thousand fighting men, and before dawn on April 30 the Indians surrounded Fort Defiance. The surprise attack was successful until the soldiers got organized and opened fire with their rifles. As the sun rose the Navajos withdrew to the hills.

For about a year the Army scoured the mountains trying to punish the raiders, but the exhausting campaign came to naught. In January, 1861, the Navajo leaders met with General E. R. S. Canby at Fort Fauntleroy and terms of peace were decided upon. All went well for about eight months. On September 22, an argument over a horse race led to the Navajos being shut out of the fort (renamed Fort Wingate because Fauntleroy defected to the Confederacy). When one Indian tried to enter, he was shot dead. A riot followed, with casualties on both sides, and any possibility of peace was destroyed when General James Carleton, whose dealings with the Indians were ruthless, was placed in command. Colonel Kit Carson, who was friendly to the Indians, was ordered to move against the Navajos. The tribe's stronghold was in the Canyon de Chelly,. A spectacular 30-mile defile to the north. The Army instituted a "scorched earth" policy against the Navajos, trying to starve them into submission by destroying their crops and livestock. In mid-October the Navajo sent emissaries to ask for terms of peace. Many were sent to Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner. Carson was sent against the Indians in Canyon de Chelly, and in mid-winter succeeded in starving out the remaining hold-outs. A few chiefs, including Manuelito, fled to the mountains and refused to give in. Hundreds of Navajos died during the march to Bosque Redondo.

By September, 1864, only Manuelito's band had not surrendered. He eluded traps and fought off attacks until September 1, 1866, when he finally limped into Fort Wingate and surrendered, along with 23 warriors. All were emaciated, ill and in some cases were wounded. Conditions at Bosque Redondo were so bad that about one-fourth of the Indians had died there. Fortunately, Carleton was removed from duty and General W. T. Sherman was brought in. He saw to it that the Navajos were returned to their native land. A treaty was signed and the war was at an end as of June 1, 1868. No longer rich, Manuelito nevertheless had prestige as governor of the largest Indian tribe in America. In his later years he became an alcoholic. He died in 1884.

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