A Million Acres
The U.S. Army established the million-acre Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner in the 1860s. Mescaleros were sent to Bosque Redondo in early 1863 and worked under armed guard to construct fort buildings and dig the main irrigation ditch. By the end of 1864, the Army had relocated thousands of Navajos to the site and forced them to clear fields, expand the irrigation system, and begin farming. The reservation, and Carleton's plans for assimilation, ultimately failed. The Pecos River, the only source of water for miles, was alkaline; the site lacked enough wood for fuel and shelter; and temperatures were extreme in the summer and winter months. Native peoples suffered from lack of sufficient shelter, food shortages, disease epidemics, and harsh climate.
When [the Mescaleros] first moved to the Bosque Redondo there was hardly anything there. It was a new fort. They had to rebuild. They had to make adobes. They had to clear the land so they could do the farming, and when they did that our people were not used to that. They were warriors; they were hunters; they were fighters.
Frederick Peso Ndé
While stationed at Fort Sumner, Lieutenant George H. Pettis wrote to his wife that the, "water is terrible, and it is all that can be had within 50 miles; it is full of alkali and operates on a person like castor oil—take the water, heat it a little, and the more you wash yourself with common soap, the dirtier you will get."
There was no water fit for drinking. We had been accustomed to the clear, cold water from the melting snow of the White Mountain. We had to drink the muddy, ill-tasting water from the Pecos. It made us sick; it even made the horses sick.
Big Mouth Ndé
The U.S. Army issued rations, typically a pound of white flour or cornmeal, eight ounces of meat, and small amounts of sugar and coffee, to each person. Such rations, initially distributed every other day, but eventually every fifth day, were received by submitting a metal ration token to the commissary. To counter the constant shortage of food, Navajos began making counterfeit tokens. More than 3,000 were eventually produced.
The Mescaleros and Navajos were forced to provide much of their own food from farming at the concentration camp. However, their labor never yielded enough food to feed the thousands of people imprisoned at Bosque Redondo. Additionally, insect infestation, floods, and hailstorms destroyed crops that would grow. People became desperate to find enough food to survive.
At Hwéeldi we received food to last about two days. A small amount of flour and a small piece of meat were given to us to eat.
Joe Redhorse Benally Diné
Some boys would wander off to where the mules and horses were corralled. There they would poke around in the manure to take undigested corn out of it. Then they would roast the corn in hot ashes to be eaten.
Howard W. Gorman Diné
Some starving women at Bosque Redondo chose prostitution to provide food for themselves and their families. Syphilis spread from soldiers to women and girls and soon venereal disease surpassed malnutrition as the most significant health concern at Bosque Redondo. Responding to reports of a syphilis epidemic, Brigadier General James H. Carleton suggested that the disease was God's will that, "inferior races…shall disappear from the face of the earth."
Girls as young as twelve and thirteen years old were selling their bodies for a pint of cornmeal from the soldiers.
Jennifer Denetdale Diné
Firewood & Timber
By early 1865, Bosque Redondo was depleted of timber. Mescalero Apaches and Navajos had to walk up to twenty miles to dig up the roots of mesquite trees and then bring those back to their camps. Army personnel kept firewood stacked outside the fort buildings, but it was for military use only.
Getting firewood was the worst problem because there was hardly any wood of any kind, and it was very hard to get. There was some sort of brush called nááztání (mesquite). Its roots were dug out and brought home—sometimes for many miles.
Notah Draper Diné