Black Hawk rode with Manuelito Part 1

Black Hawk rode with Manuelito – Part 1

By John R. Winslowe

“For good reason, the Navajo’s enemies called them the “Bloody Knives.”  They were mercilessly efficient in close combat.”

Navajo Chief Black Hawk around 1890

Navajo Chief Black Hawk around 1890

AN EARLY RISING Hopi Indian woman in the plaza of a ancient Oraibi stared in horror at the northern horizon. Along the rim of the mesa she could see enemy lances outlined against the morning stars. Immediately she began screaming, “Navajos! Navajo raiders!”. Then she fled inside her first-floor home in the old pueblo.

On the flat rooftops, Hopi warriors leaped from their sheepskins with weapons in hand. But they were far too late. The Navajo invaders already had slipped up the wooden ladders to the housetops, slashing with their razor-sharp knives. Agonized cries reverberated throughout the village.

As other Hopis –armed with clubs, slingshots, knives and bows-and-arrows, poured into the streets, the Navajo bowmen, protective hide-shields fastened to their left arms, cut loose from previously occupied positions. Wounded and confused, the Hopis yelled and screamed, many of them in death throes.  But, after nearly an hour of hand-to-hand conflict, they – with their superior numbers – gained the advantage, and pinned their Navajo invaders down in the plaza.  The narrow streets entering it were blocked with Hopi defenders.

The cunning Navajo war-chief, Nabahi, had expected this. All this time, as the battle swayed and starlight faded into dawn, Black Hawk’s dreaded lancers had remained outside the battle, watching and waiting for Nabahi’s signal. When it was received, Black Hawk gestured with his lance and they charged forward, the single line breaking into smaller segments. Each unit pounded into one of the short streets. The drum of the thundering hoofs climaxed as Hopis impaled on the cruel lances screamed in pain. Woulded and dying fell beneath the horses. The defenders fled into openings in the pueblo as the lancers killed and dispersed the living like grain in a lightning-blasted hailstorm. Reforming quickly, the Navajo knife-wielders and bowmen plunged into the lower rooms of the houses. Defenders who had not climbed to the second-story rooms, pulling the ladders up after them, were caught and killed.


A corner of the ancient pueblo of Oraibi, sacked by raiders in 1837.

As the sun tipped the horizon, the battle had ended except for an occasional charge of a few courageous Hopis trying to protect their winter food stores from pillage. Their efforts came to naught and they forfeited their lives. Navajo youths, embryo warriors of twelve to fourteen, were signaled to bring in the herd of packhorses and mules.. Almost leisurely the raiders loaded them with sacks and robes filled with corn from the new harvest, plus whatever householders’ possessions would be of use. There was no scalping of enemy dead and – contrary to later claims – no prisoners were taken as slaves.

By midmorning the last animal had been loaded and the Navajos withdrew in good order, packing their few dead and wounded away. Nabahi’s spectacular raid, a retaliation for the killing of eight peaceful Navajos on Black Mountain, would go down in history. Despite the numerical odds, the Navajos had almost negligible losses, whereas they killed about 400 Hopis. Nabahi could easily have occupied the village and killed every man, woman and child in it. As it was, he left it with such heavy losses the population never recovered from the blow. This astounding raid, made in 1837, marked the beginning of renown for two young Navajo chiefs. Manuelito, who had been in charge of the bowmen, was to become best known and most famous. But Black Hawk was the superior guerilla general in the wastelands and mountains of the Southwest. Curiously, both were born near the same place in the defiles of the Chuska Mountains in the summer of 1818. They were nineteen years old at the time Oraibi was attacked by Nabahi’s forces, but each had progressed so much as a fighting leader he was entrusted with a special section during the assault. The success of the Oraibi raid was due almost wholly to their forceful and timely attacks. Both were tall men, standing just over six feet in height, but Manuelito – even in his youth – was inclined toward obesity. Black Hawk was heavily built but wiry and stronger. Waging war was the sole business of these two chiefs during three-quarters of their long lives. They and their men were always ready for battle. Their bows were six feet or longer, so strong only the big, muscled Navajos could employ them. It was said that their twelve-to-fourteen foot lances were so heavy enemies picking them up on the battlefield could not handle their weight and length.

In those times, Navajo warriors went into battle wearing jackets of doubled buckskin or leather. Their tight fitting breeches were of the same material and their war moccasins, or boots with rawhide soles, were of tough hide which reached to the knee. A thick hide shield fastened to the upper left arm deflected arrow points and the lead balls of black powder muskets.


Oraibi pueblo often raided by Navajo braves.


Two years after the Oraibi raid, Black Hawk pulled Manuelito and his men out of a death trap in Colorado. The young bucks had gone there on a horse-stealing expedition, and their scouts had located some Utes’ stock below the Dolores River. Driving in with his men, Manuelito rounded up the entire remuda and started racing out of the cienega where they grazed. At first sight of the raiders, the Ute guards had raced to their encampment only a short distance away, to spread the alarm. About half of the Utes were armed with Spanish muskets. Rallying, they spread around the lower end of the cienega to block Manuelito’s route of escape. Their opening fire from the timber forced Manuelito back onto the cienega. But he had an ace in the hole; Black Hawk and his lancers were waiting in concealment. As the Utes tried to press their advantage, Black Hawk and his lancers struck like a cyclone, rendering death and destruction as they overran the dismounted Utes. Manuelito had been surrounded and cut off from his men and was facing death when the hard-riding lancers demolished the enemy about to lift his hair. Escaping, he collected his routed men and drove the stolen horses south.

Nabahi’s next raid was against the pueblo of Zuni about 1840. Periodically the Zunis came north across the Navajo frontier stealing sheep and capturing young people to be sold to the New Mexicans as slaves. In retaliation, Nabahi sent four score warriors thundering into the Zuni village just before dawn. Even they knew the Navajo – unlike other tribes – would attack during the night, the Zunis were taken by surprise and had to retreat from one section of the pueblo. That was the food storage place. While pillaging ensued, Black Hawk’s lancers pushed the Zunis’ fighting force into second-story dwellings and contained them there. The sun hung only an hour high when the triumphant Navajos rode out with all their extra horses and mules heavily loaded.

New Mexico, then under an unstable Mexican government, had degenerated into almost hopeless chaos. During the early 1840s, Indians everywhere went on the rampage, raiding across the unprotected frontier at will, even daring to enter and make tribute demands in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Black Hawk and Manuelito were raiding and fighting almost constantly. Then, with American occupation in 1846, the Navajos joined with the new overlords to drive the Mexicans south. When peace came to the troubled land, they couldn’t not understand why they should cease fighting the Mexicans or the other tribes who were still their enemies. Although ordered by the American army to stop maurauding, they disobeyed. Consequently, many expeditions were made against them. In 1852 Fort Defiance was established to guard the western frontier. It was strategically located to control the old raider trails east and south. Black Hawk and Manuelito watched its construction from the heights overlooking Bonito Valley. The mud- and stone stone-walled fort enraged them. They vowed some day to wipe it out. Meanwhile they contented themselves with running off the Army’s horse herds on the cienegas near Black Rock. In 859 a column of Mounted Rifles under Captain John George Walker struck out boldly across Navajo country. Black Hawk and his bravos trailed them past the Hopi villages on their stark mesas, over Black Mountain and into the Navajo Mountain area. But after exploring the country, Walker led his command back east via what is now Keyenta. Many years later Black Hawk said he’d decided not to ambush the Americans because they did not raid and seemed strictly peaceful.


Chief Manuelito and his oldest wife, Nabaha Jihlta, 1884.


That same year Manuelito became the third-ranking chief of the Navajo nation. He refused to sign a treaty with the American overlords at Fort Defiance. It hardly mattered. Groups of Navajos signed a peace treaty with the Americans one month and broke it the next. They were becoming accustomed to the campaigns into their country and to the endless peace conferences. The next fall a big New Mexican raiding party led by Blas Lucero plunged through the heart of Navajoland. Despite American laws against slavery, the New Mexicans continued to attack Indian tribes for prisoners to sell as slaves and steal stock. Lucero was the most notorious of such raiders and was thoroughly hated by the tribesmen. At the same time, Black Hawk was protecting Manuelito on another horse-stealing raid against their hereditary enemies, the Utes. Fortunately a hard-riding messenger reached them, but Lucero had already taken more than a hundred prisoners and all the property his wagons could haul. In addition, he had all the stock his men cold drive back into New Mexico. The horse-stealing jaunt was called off and the two chiefs raced southward. Scouts located the New Mexicans. When the Navajos came near them, Lucero fled with his command directly into Oraibi, the same village the Navajos had decimated twenty-two years before. Among the friendly Hopis, enemies of the Navajo, Lucero took sanctuary until he thought the enemy had pulled off. Then, instead of continuing eastward, he decided to fool them by moving south across forty miles of waterless desert. The nearest spring was a Zonneztoh, Mule Lake, ten miles south of Salina, Arizona. The ruse failed. Black Hawk and Manuelito sped to Zonneztoh and hid between the approaching slavers and the lake. They killed Lucero’s advance scouts, forcing Lucero to round up for a stand-off battle. But he had to have water at all costs. Leaving guards over the wagons and stock, he led his men in a charge to drive the Navajos from the lake. It was just what the Navajos wanted. Just at the instant Lucero believed he was carrying the day, Black Hawk appeared with this lancers. The Navajo riders drove through Lucero’s fighters, then wheeled and returned. The New Mexicans – many of them Indians – fled in every direction. Those not slain in the first charge were run down and speared. Even so, eight of them – including the hated Lucero – escaped into the rocks. While the lancers were completing the fight, Manuelito swooped down on the wagons with his bravos. They captured them and the stock and freed the prisoners without much difficulty. The guards were slain attempting flight on foot into the desert. But one paused long enough to single out Manuelito and discharge his musket. The chief rolled from his pony to the sand. As Black Hawk came up he found his fellow chief writhing on the ground. The ball had cut a long gash across Manuelito’s breast. Later the chief referred to it as his “scar of honor” because he had killed fifteen of the slavers in personal combat that day.


Fort Defiance, 1880, attacked by Navajos 1,000 strong.

He recovered by April, 1860, the date the aging Nabahi finally decided to assault Fort Defiance. He summoned Black Hawk and Manuelito and added their strength to his own, thus amassing a fighting force of 1,000 men drawn from every part of Navajoland. The plan of attack was not one that either Black Hawk or Manuelito would have drawn up but Nabahi was the war chief so they obeyed his orders. Black Hawk’s lancers were held in reserve on the clay flates while bowmen climbed into the great rocks overlooking the fort. The main force slipped in around the walls. A small, swift-riding group struck the horse herd. The scouts guarding them were quickly routed or killed and the horses were driven out of the meadows under a dust cloud. That was the signal for the main assault. From the heights the bowmen cut loose a long range. A flight of arrows fell on guards occupying the parapet and bastions. Many were wounded and all were driven to cover. While bugles blew to rally the soldiers, Navajos on the ground pressed forward. Ahead of those armed with muskets raced fleet young men carrying long, notched poles to be slammed against the walls. When they came to rest, Navajos climbed upward hand-over-hand, knives clenched between their teeth. At the top of the barricade, they started to plunge over or drew their muskets and tried to fire. But solders appeared there to oppose them and, no matter how bravely the attackers tried to get over the walls, they were thrown back. The first attempt ended with many wounded and some dead, all of whom were packed away. For half an hour lead and arrows rained into the fort. Then the second assault wave was hurled against it. At the fort’s northeast corner, two soldiers were knocked off the parapet wounded. The remaining pair, rifles empty, reached over to throw the poles aside. From below, a long steel-tipped arrow went true to the mark, piercing the body of Private Sylvester Johnson of Company C, 3rd Infantry. He fell backward off the parapet dead and was the only American lost during the strenuous two hour fight. When the second wave was forced back too, the Navajos debated their strategy. Nabahi strode around raging. Appalled by their unexpected high losses, the sub-chiefs were against a third


Grave of Sylvester Johnson, killed during Navajo raid on Fort Defiance.

charge. Finally Black Hawk spoke his mind on how to the fighting should be conducted. He said frontal attack was wrong – they should each catch the soldiers at a disadvantage, perhaps when the massive gates were open for traffic. By a swift dash they could get in, prevent the gates from being closed, and then overpower the solders by sheer force of arms. But the disgruntled leaders were unable to make a decision. Their attitude resulted in the battle being called off. However, for a week afterwards, Navajo warriors lurked in the rocks above the fort. They prevented messengers from getting out to inform other outposts of the attack. Every day the soldiers expected another and more powerful assault, but it didn’t come because most of the Navajos had dispersed or gone on raids over the frontier.

Read “Black Hawk rode with Manuelito Part 2″





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