Barboncito was born in 1820 in lower Canyon de Chelly in present-day Arizona to a woman of the Ma'iidesgizhnii (Coyote Pass or Jemez clan) and an unknown father. His warrior name was Hashke Yich'i'adehyilwod, "He Ran Down Toward the Enemy in Anger." Like other Diné or Navajo headmen, he was versed in ceremonies such as the Blessingway and the Enemyway. He is perhaps best known by the name given to him by the Mexicans, Barboncito. Extant references to other Navajo leaders with similar names, including Barbon and El Barbon, make the identity of some leaders uncertain. However, Barboncito had become known as a prominent headman by the 1850s.
During Barboncito's lifetime, the Diné (the People, or Navajo) faced American expansion, which began in 1846. Although white settlers coming West and seeking land became a problem eventually faced by the Diné, the major reason for cycles of conflict and peace between Navajo and New Mexican settlers was slave raiding, the targets of which were Navajo women and children. Reports of valuable natural resources in Navajo country also began to circulate. Barboncito participated in the resistance when the American military laid claim to Navajo land and then with Navajo defeat in 1863, and journeyed with his people to the Bosque Redondo prison in southeastern New Mexico, where he encouraged his people to keep their courage and faith.
In 1851, the American military established a fort in the heart of Navajo country. This post was a site first of contention and then of war between the Navajo and the U.S. military as Navajo pressed their claims to the land. In 1860, after a series of clashes with the soldiers, Navajo warriors led by Manuelito and Barboncito attacked the fort at dawn. Although one thousand warriors attacked the fort, they were unable to take it, largely because of superior U.S. firepower.
The conflicts between the Navajo, and the New Mexican settlers continued almost unabated. In the fall of 1862, Brigadier General James H. Carleton assumed command of the Department of New Mexico. Carleton, following established U.S. policy for dealing with Native peoples, conceived a plan to remove Native Americans that were considered a threat to white interests, which included mining and settlement. Mescalero Apache and Navajo were to be removed and relocated from their homelands to Bosque Redondo, a reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. There, they would be subjected to assimilation policies.
In 1863, under Carleton's orders, Kit Carson waged a war against the entire Navajo Nation. The People retreated before Carson's men, who burned their hogans, destroyed cornfields and peach trees, and slaughtered livestock. Leaders such as Barboncito protected their people as best as they could during this suffering. Eventually, as the burn-and-scorch campaign continued, destitute and starving Diné began to surrender at the American forts. By the end of 1864, thousands of Navajo were forced to walk from their beloved homeland to Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a journey of more than 300 miles, where they were to begin new lives.
A peace leader, Barboncito was one of the first to surrender and take his people to the prison camp. He found the living conditions deplorable and escaped twice, but if conditions at the prison camp were impossible, Navajo in their homeland faced constant harassment and deprivation in their homeland. The Diné endured nightmarish conditions at the prison camp. Attempts to farm failed as drought conditions prevailed and cutworms destroyed cornfields. They lived in holes dug into the ground. Forced to walk as far as 20 miles in search of firewood, Navajo women and children were easy prey for raiders who waited for them. They were constantly hungry and cold.
After four years, from 1864 to 1868, Carleton's "experiment" was acknowledged a failure. Because the U.S. government was no longer willing to pay for the upkeep of the Navajo at Bosque Redondo, military officials considered another plan for assimilating the Navajo. In the spring of 1868, Navajo leaders met with U.S. officials to discuss conditions at the reservation and to consider alternatives. For the Navajo, the opportunity to return home seemed a strong possibility, even though military leaders were considering sending them to Indian Territory. Talking among themselves, the Diné selected Barboncito to present their case to the Americans. Barboncito, already known as an eloquent and persuasive speaker, would once again prove effective as he presented the Navajo case for return to their homeland.
Meeting with Samuel F. Tappan, who had served with the Colorado Volunteers, and William Tecumseh Sherman, a general who had waged a successful campaign against the Confederates during the Civil War, the Navajo, led by Barboncito, negotiated for two days. Sherman asked why the Navajo had not prospered at the reservation. Barboncito explained that life had been harsh at Bosque Redondo. He declared that Navajo already had a home, that they should not live outside of the four sacred mountains.
With many issues discussed during these negotiations—including land, Navajo slavery, and assimilation of Navajo into the American mainstream—the leaders eventually came to an agreement. For the Diné, the negotiations were successful because they were to return to their homeland, albeit a decidedly smaller land base than what they had previously claimed. Finally, the U.S. officials capitulated to Navajo pleas.
On June 1, 1868, the Navajo leaders and U.S. representatives signed the treaty. Although the agreement later would be ratified by Congress and then signed by the president of the United States, the Navajo began their journey home on June 18. Coming generations of Navajo would remember their ancestors' ordeal and the roles that leaders such as Barboncito played to ensure the survival of the People. Through stories passed down through the generations, the Navajo people are reminded of the power of the human spirit to overcome incredible obstacles.
After the Navajo return to Dinétah, Barboncito remained an important leader recognized by both Navajo and U.S. officials. Because the Navajo population was always too large for the diminished land base, it soon spilled into regions designated as public domain. The Navajo's use of the lands for grazing was contested by white settlers, including Mormons, on the northwestern boundaries of Navajo land; in the ensuing disputes, both Navajo and whites were killed. Barboncito worked to quell the disturbances and to keep the peace between Navajo and whites. Today, Barboncito is remembered as an important peace leader of the Navajo who proved courageous and faithful when war was inevitable. His ability to speak eloquently and powerfully served the purpose of bringing the People back to their sacred homeland.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale
Bailey, Lynn R. 1964. The Long Walk: A History of the Navajo Wars, 1846–1868. Los Angeles: Westernlore Press.; Dunlay, Tom. 2000. Kit Carson and the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Iverson, Peter. Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002; Roessel, Ruth, and Broderick H. Johnson, eds. 1973. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press.