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feature By: Miles Gilbert | June, 23
Not a graduate of West Point, Carleton determined to make a name for himself in the U.S. Army by virtue of personal valor, and he did. He joined in 1839, becoming a Dragoon, and it was his abiding fascination with Indians that brought him to the western territories.
Carleton entered the Mexican-American War in 1847, as a lieutenant, but he was sorely disappointed that there was no action for Dragoons. However, somehow, he distinguished himself so grandly at the Battle of Buena Vista that he was jumped in grade to the rank of major, and that is seen on the top flat of his rifle.
Carleton’s book, The Battle of Buena Vista, published by Harper Brothers in 1848, was well received by the popular press, and closely read by the U.S. War Department, as well as by President Zachary Taylor himself. It is mostly a concisely written, nitty-gritty narrative of the battle. Glorious though he made it sound, the Mexican-American War was a brief interlude in a career spent almost entirely fighting, policing and studying Indians. He soon returned to the life he loved as a frontier Dragoon, stationed in New Mexico where he formed a lifelong friendship with Kit Carson.
A few days later, a detachment of Dragoons led by Major James Henry Carleton came rushing up the trail, having ridden very hard for more than 100 miles. It is possible, in this encounter Carleton had saved Carson’s life, the sort of personal indebtedness that Carson – in his very soul – could never forget and the two men would be friends for life. In 1854, they even became members of the Masonic Lodge in Santa Fe.
In the spring of 1854, Carleton witnessed Carson pulling off one of the most storied feats of his distinguished career. In late May of that year, Carleton hired the famous scout to guide him on a hastily organized campaign to recover horses stolen by the Jicarilla Apache. They left from Taos with several companies of Dragoons, crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and headed north into Colorado. When they reached the prairie, Carson discerned a very faint and cold trail.
Carson considered the Jicarilla to be the hardest to track of all the southwestern tribes, and he was not optimistic about catching up. However, after a few more days of patiently reading sign, he determined that the trail had warmed. So, one morning after breakfast, he confidently told Carleton that not only would they catch up that afternoon, but that they would do so by two o’clock!
That afternoon they spotted the Jicarilla’s camped in a natural grass amphitheater in the Raton Mountains not far from the Santa Fe Trail, where the Indians may have expected to sell or trade their stolen stock. Carleton glanced at his watch; it was seven minutes past two!
The astounded Major later wrote without hesitation that “Kit Carson is justly celebrated as the best tracker among white men in the world.” The Dragoons attacked, and although most of the Jicarilla’s escaped, Carleton’s troopers recaptured 40 rustled horses and loads of stolen loot.
Carson insisted that he lost the bet by seven minutes, but Carleton said that it was close enough, and he ordered a beaver felt hat from a well-known hatter in New York. When it arrived a few months later, the inside band had inscribed in gold letters, “AT 2 O’CLOCK, KIT CARSON FROM MAJOR CARLETON.”
Carleton’s next intersection with history had him investigate the Mountain Meadows Massacre in southwestern Utah. That event is not the focus of this article, so suffice it to report that Carleton found the unburied remains of the 120 men, women and children who were killed, and he was able to interview some of the children (less than eight years old) who had survived. They reported that the atrocity had been committed by whites dressed as Indians. Carleton’s chilling report to his army superiors was the first reliable source on the event, and it remains a seminal document in Utah history.
The army had instituted a very successful model reservation policy for California Indians at Fort Tejon near Los Angeles, and Carleton was favorably impressed. He had discovered the Bosque Redondo (round forest) on the Pecos River near what became Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico and he was determined to solve the vexed Navajo problem by establishing a reservation for them there.
The Navajo had been raiding, raping and kidnapping, as well as stealing livestock from New Mexicans for decades, and the army tasked Carleton, who had been promoted to brigadier general in the early fall of 1862, to corral or destroy the tribe. He had the Tejon model in mind, and Bosque Redondo as the site where the survivors would be placed.
Known as the Long Walk, a New Mexico version of the Trail of Tears forced upon the Cherokee in the east, in official parlance it was known as “Order 15.” Carleton had spent his life hounding Indians and improving his ideas on how to accomplish the grim business more efficiently. The best way to bring those “wolves of the mountains” as he called them, to their knees would require persistent guerrilla warfare and a scorched-earth policy, two years before Sherman would apply the technique in Georgia. In fighting the widely scattered Navajo, the tactic was to hector them throughout the year, burning their homes and crops, and cutting down peach trees, and taking or killing their livestock.
The war of attrition actually began against a troublesome band of about 500 Mescalero Apaches in the Sacramento and Sierra Blanco Mountains in southwestern New Mexico. General Carleton ordered, by now, Colonel Carson to wage war with “ruthless efficiency.” He said that the Mescalero men must be killed whenever and wherever they were found, the women and children taken prisoner and sent to Bosque Redondo.
Carson was appalled by the “shoot on sight” order and refused to obey it. He accepted the surrender of more than 100 Mescalero warriors and by November 1862, the campaign was finished.
Next Carleton sent Carson after the much more numerous Navajo, perhaps 5,000 individuals scattered over an area larger than West Virginia, and which was far more mountainous and rugged. Knowing that it takes an Indian to catch an Indian, Carson enlisted many scouts from among the Utes and began in early July 1863.
At 53 years of age, carrying scars from arrow and bullet wounds and possibly fractured ribs from a horse wreck, Carson was very uncomfortable in his wool army blues, but rode with the Ute scouts at the head of a column of nearly a 1,000 army troops, New Mexico Volunteers, and Pueblo Indians. The latter two groups, as well as the Utes, had long been victims of Navajo raiders.
As Carson biographer Hampton Sides (2006:339-340) put it:
“There was nothing glorious about Carson’s campaign: no great engagements, no fields of honor, no decisive victories. With the American invasion, the Navajos did what they had always done – they scattered, vanished, dropped into their thousand pockets and holes and abided in silence. And so, with no one to fight, Carson’s campaign became, of necessity, a war of grinding attrition. The pressure he applied through the summer and fall of 1863, was incremental, cumulative, merciless, and without relent. The goal, pure in its simplicity, was to make the Navajos feel the bitter burn of starvation, on the theory that hunger alone could bring them to accept conditions that they would not otherwise entertain. Carson would not use the term “scorched earth”, but that is what it was, the first systematic use of it in the West.”
“In the absence of actual Navajos to fight, Carson turned his men loose to destroy every pot and basket to deprive the Navajo of means of carrying or storing food, caches of which were dug up and destroyed. He even had his Ute scouts guard all the known watering holes and salt sources. His daily logs for August recorded his success:
“Destroyed about 70 acres of corn; the wheat we fed to the animals...About 12 miles west of Moqui fed to animals about an acre of corn found there…Packed on the animals all the grain not previously consumed by them...About 10 A.M. the command arrived at a large bottom containing not less than 100 acres of as fine corn as I have ever seen. Here I determined to encamp that I might have it destroyed.”
Eventually, Carson’s command leveled and burned thousands of acres of Navajo crops, amounting to nearly 2,000,000 pounds of food in Carson’s estimation. The results of Order 15 were very grim for the Navajo; records of their suffering on the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo and the deaths of many after their arrival are well documented.
Carson’s name is still respected among some Navajo of my acquaintance, but among those who know their history, Carleton is despised. An interesting contrast is that of Lt. Charles Behr Gatewood, who figured prominently in Geronimo’s surrender. The name Gatewood is proudly carried by many on the White Mountain Apache reservation, including the current tribal chairwoman.
1. Hunt, Aurora 1958, James Henry Carleton 1814-1873 Western Frontier Dragoon. Frontier Military Series II, Glendale, CA. Arthur H. Clark Co.
2. Sides, Hampton 2006, BLOOD AND THUNDER, Random House, New York.
1. To Ron Peterson for providing access to the Carleton rifle, plus 44 years of friendship and really good gun deals.
2. Nathan Williams, photographer at Ron Peterson Firearms and for photographs of the Carleton rifle.
3. Frank Wells, the gunsmith who repaired the cracked stock of Carleton’s rifle so it is safe to shoot again.
4. Several biographies of Kit Carson are available, but the one by Hampton Sides appears to be the very best researched and documented and I am greatly indebted to his scholarship for the information on Carleton and Order 15.