The Navajos, Apaches, and Modocs

When comparing the United States government’s efforts against the Navajos, Apaches, and Modocs, one must consider several aspects, notably the terrain on which the campaigns were undertaken (which influenced the manner in which the U.S. Army approached the fighting), the role that reservations played in precipitating or prolonging hostilities, and the cultural characteristics and attitudes of the native peoples involved.

L-R front row: Adelnietze, Zhonne (with child in front of him), Naiche, Fun - Chiricahua Apache - circa 1886

L-R front row: Adelnietze, Zhonne (with child in front of him), Naiche, Fun – Chiricahua Apache – circa 1886

Formidable terrain played a major role in all three campaigns, serving as a natural defense for the Indians and presenting special challenges to the Army. The Apaches roamed a large area of northern Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico, a region characterized by large expanses of desert broken up by forbidding mountain ranges. They were able to use this terrain to their advantage for decades as they eluded the bluecoats and sought refuge in remote mountain hideouts. They were also able to take advantage of the international border and conduct raids in United States territory only to melt away into Mexico, though the Apaches lost much of the protection this afforded when the Mexican army began conducting patrols of their own and cooperating with American troops. The terrain the Army met the Navajos and Modocs on was just as formidable, though in each of these cases the tribes were confined to a much smaller area and ended up trapped in their redoubts. The Navajos had retreated to Canyon de Chelly, a place in which they had always felt safe, but Kit Carson was able to turn the terrain to his advantage by placing a blocking force at one end of the canyon and patiently working his way through the canyon from the other end. Carson destroyed villages, fields, and orchards as he did so, and the Navajos were utterly demoralized and defeated. The Modocs retreated to a similar position in the lava beds south of Tule Lake in northern California, and the convoluted canyons of this area provided a great deal of protection for the tribe at the outset. The area was relatively small and easily surrounded, however, and the American soldiers simply brought in numerous reinforcements and broke the Modocs’ resistance through simple attrition.

Kintpuash (Having The Water Brash, aka Captain Jack) - Modoc - circa 1870

Kintpuash (Having The Water Brash, aka Captain Jack) – Modoc – circa 1870

Forced removal to reservations played a role in all three conflicts, though in differing ways. The Modocs had been relocated to the reservation of the rival Klamath tribe, even though they had been living peacefully in their traditional homeland. Dissatisfied with their situation at Klamath, they moved back to northern California and hoped that by maintaining their peaceful ways they would be able to remain. Pressure from white settlers eager for their land, however, forced the government’s hand, and the Modoc War began when another forced removal was attempted. One of Captain Jack’s primary surrender conditions was that his people be allowed to remain at Tule Lake, or even in the desolate lava beds. When this condition was refused, hostilities continued. The Navajos were not forced to relocate to a reservation until after Carson’s Canyon de Chelly campaign, but when they were, they were forced to move far to the east to Bosque Redondo. Manuelito, upon hearing of wretched conditions at the reservation, refused to move his band to Bosque Redondo, and low-intensity warfare continued for some time.[1] Various bands of the Apaches were settled on reservations throughout Arizona and New Mexico, and for decades a pattern continued in which dissatisfied and restless chiefs left with their warriors only to be hunted down by the Army and returned to the reservation.

Two Navajo men shortly after arriving at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico - 1866

Two Navajo men shortly after arriving at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico – 1866

Finally, the general cultural characteristics of the three tribes influenced how and why hostilities began, and affected the duration and intensity of the conflicts. The Modocs had been a largely sedentary, agricultural people who had lived in peace with their white neighbors in northern California, both before their removal to the Klamath reservation and after their return to the Tule Lake area. The Apaches, on the other hand, were a more mobile and predatory tribe whose young warriors were difficult to control in the decentralized groups of autonomous bands. The Navajos could be characterized as fitting somewhere in between, having settled down to a mainly peaceful life tending their flocks, fields, and orchards. They continued to conduct some raids, however, as they had for generations against the Spanish, Mexicans, and Pueblos.


[1] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 2007. First published 1971 by Holt, Rinehard and Winston), 29-33.

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