Sherman’s Legacy of Justice: The Return of Navajo Land

Between the years 1861-1865, most Americans probably know the Civil War was occurring in the eastern half of the country. The nation was deep into a war that would take the lives of more Americans than the American Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.

With this amount of bloodshed and tragedy, it’s understandable why many people today are unaware of other historic events that took place at the same time. However, other events were taking place, including in the western half of the country. Whilst General Sherman was marching to the sea and General Grant was defeating Robert E. Lee, the “Long Walk of the Navajo” was taking place in New Mexico. This heartbreaking event would capture the attention of the eastern half of the country following the confederate surrender and General Sherman would be sent to reconcile the wrongdoing.

For centuries the Navajo people lived in what is known as the “Four Corners,” or the area in which Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. Clashes in this location between the Navajo and the United States began around 1846 and did not end until 1864 after the U.S. had used “scorched Earth” policies causing the Navajo to surrender. The plan was to re-settle the tribe on a reservation called Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner in New Mexico, roughly 350 miles away from their traditional homeland.

Beginning in the spring of 1864, the Navajo began their forced march to their new home. What would later be known as the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” or the “Long Walk to Bosque Redondo,” would see over 50 different groups, almost 9,000 people, make a 300+ mile journey over the course of three years. The march was brutal. Hundreds of Navajo did not survive as stragglers were often shot and some were captured by slave traders.

Once they reached the reservation, the soldiers stationed there were surprised to see the large number of natives as they were told to prepare for about 5,000. Instead, almost double that amount arrived at their doorstep. Food rations were inadequate and the Pecos River that flowed through the reservation was unsafe to drink as it carried digestive diseases. Insects and flooding caused most crops to fail and there was not enough trees to supply adequate firewood. To make matters worse, a smallpox-like disease was contracted from the soldiers and ravaged the natives. It is no wonder that the Navajo referred to the reservation as “Hwéeldi,” or “a place of suffering.”

In 1868, reports of the terrible conditions began to make their way to Washington and the White House. General William T. Sherman and Colonel Samuel Tappan were dispatched to Bosque Redondo to investigate. What they found when they arrived appalled them. They saw natives suffering from exposure, starvation, and sickness. An estimated 3,000 natives died during the four year span. Sherman and Tappan knew that a new treaty would need to be written-up quickly so they began their work immediately.

General Sherman and Colonel Tappan helped draw up the Treaty of Bosque Redondo that did something no other treaty had done before: it gave back the traditional homelands of a native tribe to their original tribal owners. In this case, it meant that the Navajo would be returning to their lands in the “Four Corners.” This is the only time in history that a native tribe would have land returned to them by the U.S. Government.

Land was not the only thing they would receive. In the treaty, the Navajo were given 15,000 sheep and goats, 500 beef cattle, a million pounds of corn, and a sum of money to be used as investment for the maintenance of the natives. That money was used to purchase goods and cloth for the tribe so that they could start rebuilding all that was lost.

It is for this treaty that the Navajo hold General Sherman in such high regard. In fact, members of the Dinétah Navajo Dancers, led by Shawn Price, have visited the City of Lancaster twice in recent years to bless the Sherman House Museum. They celebrate the treaty, which was signed on June 1, 1868, every year and this year was the 155th anniversary.

Sean Price, leader of the Dinetah Navajo Dancers presents one of 100 pieces of muslin cloth to Lancaster attendees of their commemorative dance.

Shawn Price, leader of the Dinétah Navajo Dancers presents one of 100 pieces of muslin cloth to Lancaster, Ohio attendees of their commemorative dance.

The Fairfield County Heritage Association and the Sherman House Museum participated in this year’s celebration as well. Thanks to volunteers, they were able to send 100 yards of muslin cloth to Bosque Redondo (which is now a memorial and historic site). The cloth symbolized the section of the treaty that discussed using money for maintenance of the tribe. At this year’s celebration, Shawn Price and memorial staff handed out the cloth, which was cut into one yard sections, to attendees of the anniversary event.

FCHA and the Sherman House Museum hope to make this an annual offering to the Bosque Redondo Memorial as a symbol of partnership and peace. Aaron Roth, historic site manager at Bosque Redondo, wrote that they “sincerely appreciate the Sherman House Museum / Fairfield County Heritage Association’s grand contribution to our event in the promotion of peace and we look forward to continuing this tradition each year.”

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

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Filed under: Histories & Mysteries, Life, News, People
Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.