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What Was the Long Walk?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The Long Walk refers specifically to an army enforced march of the Navajo people from their native lands in Western New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and parts of Colorado, to a reservation in New Mexico’s Southeast. Most of the Navajo forced to take the Long Walk were gathered in the areas around Fort Defiance in Arizona. A few escaped into the Grand Canyon, but over 8000 people were forced by the military to relocate to lands around Fort Sumner.

The Long Walk followed repeated hostilities by both the Army and the Navajo. In retrospect, however, the repeated breaking of treaties and atrocities committed were generally on the side of the United States. Navajo raids of Fort Defiance were primarily conducted after a perceived lack of regard for treaties, or for specific acts of violence by the army. By 1861, a treaty was signed to respect and protect Navajo land. This was then almost immediately violated by the New Mexico Volunteer militia, who raided Navajo encampments and destroyed farms and property.

Though Kit Carson is generally associated with the Long Walk, it was General James Carlton who ordered the Long Walk. A General Canby is also associated with the idea of relocating the Navajo population to stop both sides from raiding. Kit Carson, however, did oversee the Long Walk first by destroying much of the Navajo land, possessions and dwellings in order to gain compliance.

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For many, the Long Walk in 1863 took over 20 days to complete. Estimates of between 200-300 people died on the Long Walk. Some say one person died for every mile of the 300 mile (482.80 km) journey. The relocation had initially been planned for about 5000 people and thus there was little land for the survivors of the Long Walk. Further, it was not the arable land to which the Navajo were accustomed, but instead, an unforgiving land. Navajo accounts speak of the bitter taste of the water and the cruelty of the land.

During the months that followed, lack of arable land, and poor water contributed to starvation and illness, further reducing the Navajo population. It is estimated that by the time the Navajo were able to return to their native lands in 1868, a full quarter of the Navajo who took the Long Walk had died due to hardship in their new land.

Because of the lack of land, many believe that the Navajo tribe became more closely bound. As a Native American population, they have had better success than most in holding tribal lands, and in actually increasing them. However, the Long Walk remains a memory of despair and sadness for Navajos and Americans alike.

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