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The epicenter of Navajo culture is Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”), a historical and spiritual place in northeastern Arizona. The sheer red rock canyon walls also made it a tribal stronghold in the 1860s, when all was not peachy for either the Navajos or the soldiers in that region—they were at war. Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson, following the orders of Department of New Mexico commander Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, sought to round up as many Navajos as he could and send them to the Bosque Redondo reservation near Fort Sumner. To convince the holdouts to surrender, Carson and his men captured their livestock and destroyed their homes (hogans) and crops. Among the crops the soldiers destroyed was one not normally associated with Indians or the desert—peaches. For centuries the Navajo people had tended peach orchards in Canyon de Chelly. Now Carson and company brought disaster, but one that would be overcome in time. The survival story of the Navajos (or Diné, “the People”), after near annihilation at the hands of the Army, is as dramatic as any Western tale. The peaches also came back.

The Athabaskan-speaking Diné had migrated to the Southwest and established their Dinétah homeland (in the Chuska Mountains of the lower Colorado Plateau, between the San Juan and Little Colorado rivers) before the Spanish arrived. The Navajos traded with and also raided against the Pueblo Indians, who inhabited adobe villages in the Rio Grande valley. Spanish records contain only an occasional mention of the Diné, whom the Spaniards named Apachu de Nabajo (“Strangers of the Cultivated Fields,” borrowing from both Hopi and Puebloan). This name distinguished the Diné from the more hostile Apache tribes, and the name Navajo remains the accepted name of the tribe. The Navajos were of some help to the Pueblo people when the latter successfully revolted against the Spanish in 1680. When the Spanish reconquered the Pueblos 12 years later, many villagers went to live with friendly Navajo bands. Much cultural exchange took place. In the 18th century the Navajos, in constant fear of Ute and Comanche raiders, migrated west in search of safer grazing lands. The most welcoming place they found was Canyon de Chelly.

The protective canyon walls and fertile basin had drawn various groups of Indians to Canyon de Chelly for more than 1,000 years. When the Navajos arrived, a small group of resident Hopis told of the peach trees that thrived in their homeland farther west. Navajos visited the Hopi villages, returned with peach seeds and planted them around White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly. The Spaniards had brought peach trees to North America in the 1600s, and the orchards flourished on missions and farms. The Hopis took to the sweet fruit (and probably the Pueblos did, too) before the Navajos jumped on the peach bandwagon. Of course, the Navajos found the canyon ideal for growing other crops as well, such as wheat, corn, alfalfa, beans, melons and pumpkins.

In 1805, in retaliation for Navajo raids on Spanish settlements, Lieutenant Antonio Narbona and his mounted men marched into Canyon de Chelly, killed more than 100 Navajos and captured more than 30 others. (The Narbona Panel, a pictograph in the canyon, depicts the assault.) No mention was made of peaches. The area was ostensibly under the control of Mexico after that country won its independence from Spain in 1821. Jurisdiction passed to the Americans after the Mexican War (1846–48). During these chaotic years the tribes of the Four Corners area established an interconnected economy in which they traded livestock, crafted goods, meat and agricultural products. The Navajo became a large, wealthy tribe, and its clingstone peaches rated highly in the regional bartering system.

In 1849 Lt. Col. John M.Washington was the first U.S. Army officer to enter Canyon de Chelly. After initial hostilities, he negotiated a peace agreement that was little understood and did not last. In 1853 Captain Henry L. Dodge, Indian agent to the Navajos, traversed the full length of the canyon in the company of Navajo guides and noted abundant peaches of a superior quality. Ten years later those peaches were in supreme jeopardy when Carson unleashed Carleton’s scorched-earth campaign. The strategy was to starve the Navajos into submission, then relocate them to the uninviting Bosque Redondo far to the east. By September 1863 Carson had only captured about 50 Navajos, and Carleton ordered him to seek out Navajo leader Barboncito’s band in Canyon de Chelly. Carson, though he had spent his life in the wilderness and had taken two Indian wives, was reluctant to enter the labyrinth of canyons and caves.

Against his own judgment Carson and nearly 400 soldiers left Fort Canby on January 6, 1864, with ox-drawn wagons loaded with supplies and munitions. The Army had no way of knowing whether the Navajos would fight or surrender. As it turned out, the soldiers found abandoned camps, which they destroyed, and only occasionally skirmished with Navajo warriors, who harassed them from cliff walls. On January 16 Carson ordered Captain Asa B. Carey to make one last sweep through the canyon and destroy crops and orchards, though there is no official record of any peach destruction by Carson or Carey.

From that point the main force working against the Navajos was the bitter cold, and many freezing, hungry Navajos came out of hiding to surrender. When other tribe members saw that those who surrendered weren’t killed, they too turned themselves in, with the promise of food and shelter. By March some 5,000 Navajos had surrendered, and the forced exodus to Bosque Redondo, known as the Long Walk (actually a series of arduous walks), had begun. The reservation lay more than 400 miles from the canyon, and hundreds died en route. By then Carson had returned home to Taos, but the Navajos still hold him responsible.

There were Navajo holdouts, and in August 1864 Captain John Thompson and 35 men of the 1st New Mexico Cavalry re-entered Canyon de Chelly. In his report on that expedition after returning to Fort Canby (formerly Fort Defiance) in Arizona Territory, Thompson said he had systematically destroyed more than 3,000 mature peach trees. On one day alone, he reported, he cut down 500 “of the best peach trees I have ever seen in the country, every one of them bearing fruit.” But he had not laid waste to all of them, because later that year Captain Edward Butler, the commander of Fort Wingate in New Mexico Territory, reportedly destroyed another 1,000 of the Navajos’ prize Canyon de Chelly peach trees.

So during the roundup of the Navajos, the soldiers really did eliminate the peaches, even if Carson and his immediate command had not done the actual dirty work. Some of the orchards had provided other fruit, including apples, pears and plums, but the peach trees were the most significant, both as a food source and as a symbol of Navajo independence. “You have burned our homes, destroyed our crops and cut down our peach trees that took many years to bear fruit,” headman Standing Bear told Carson. “We’ve been deprived of raising food on the land that our ancestors gave us. We are tired of starving and wish no more killing.”

Those who survived the trek to Bosque Redondo soon came to hate it. It was hard to make a living in that flat, treeless country with bad water. The Navajos had no fuel to burn in the winter and no grass for their livestock. The Army, during the final years of the Civil War, provided inadequate rations, and Comanches regularly raided the reservation. Four years after the Long Walk the Army acknowledged the failure of the Bosque Redondo experiment and allowed the Navajos to return to their homeland.

When the freed Navajos saw Canyon de Chelly again in 1868, they found surviving trees and new shoots growing from the stumps of those Thompson and Butler’s soldiers had chopped down. It took about 20 more years for the orchards to fully establish themselves, and sometime after that peaches again became a valued trade item. In 1931 the U.S. Congress created the 84,000-acre Canyon de Chelly National Monument [] entirely within the Navajo Nation. Today some 80 Navajo families have the right to use the canyon and, despite recent droughts, some of them still grow peaches.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West.