The Utah Navajos Relocation in the 1950s: Life Along the San Juan River (originally pub. July 1996)

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During the relocation, many Navajos, such as those pictured here, took refuge at St. Christopher’s Mission near Bluff. Photo courtesy San Juan Historical Commission.

Eds. Note: This story was originally published by the Canyon Echo and the San Juan County Historical Commission in July 1996 as part of the ‘Life Along the San Juan River’ historical series. It’s being republished online with permission from the author.

By Beth E. King, PhD

This is the story of one of the last big relocations of Navajos in Utah’s San Juan County told by people who were pushed south of the San Juan River through force and threat in the early 1950s. These people lost their homes, their livestock and the land their ancestors had inhabited for centuries. In the oral histories that follow, Navajos who directly experienced the relocation describe the series of events that up rooted them and devastated their families for years afterward.

The Navajo families living in the canyon tributaries north of the San Juan River inhabited the country from the Valley of the Gods, through Comb and Butler Washes and east to McCracken Mesa. Many of them had lived there for generations. From their parents and grandparents they had inherited rights to use certain areas for grazing and farming. Although their rights were recognized only within the Navajo community, for 70 years these families had shared their grazing areas north of the river with the local white stockmen in relative peace.

A series of events starting in the winter of 1950 would abruptly end that peace. In that winter terrible drought devastated the range throughout the county. Navajo families who usually grazed south of the river moved north across the San Juan searching for forage for their animals. Several northern stockmen watched in frustration as their limited winter forage was consumed by the Navajos’ livestock. In the spring, when grazing conditions improved, most of the newly-arrived Navajos returned south of the river. The Navajo families who had regularly used the areas north of the San Juan remained. They would bear the blame for the influx of Navajos into areas which the northern white stockmen considered their land.

There were reports in the white communities of San Juan County that the Navajos had come to stay, that they wanted to extend the reservation boundaries north of the river past Bluff and Aneth. The stockmen reacted first by seeking legal solutions to this problem through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Utah courts. In 1952 the Utah State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the white stockmen and declared that the Navajos were trespassing. Armed with a favorable court verdict and a fear that the Navajos were trying to permanently claim lands north of the river, the local cowboys, BLM employees and others decided it was time to permanently remove the Navajos.

Uncertain coexistence

The white stockmen, some of them descendants of the pioneers who had settled Bluff in 1880, had used the northern tributaries of the San Juan River since settlement times. The migrating Navajo families and their stock co-existed with the new settlers throughout the region in the first fifty years. While relations were generally friendly, this period was also marked by repeated conflicts over grazing areas and livestock. In his diary of the early 1880s, Platte D. Lyman describes his repeated contact with Navajo families in Cottonwood, Butler and Comb Washes. Even in 1882 he was concerned that Navajo sheep were affecting his cattle. An October 26, 1882 diary entry said: “The Navajos have brought many of their sheep onto this side of the river, eating up a great deal of grass and scattering our cattle badly.”

As the white population of San Juan County moved from the southern town of Bluff to Blanding and Monticello, they also changed their economic base from irrigated farming to one increasingly dependent on livestock and the rangelands within the county. Many of the stockmen had witnessed the loss of large sections of the county to the Navajos as the reservation boundaries expanded north of the San Juan River in the 1933 Paiute Strip and Aneth extensions. Each extension of the reservation required a redivision of the remaining federal grazing lands. However, the white stockmen were not powerless in their struggle to confine the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation. They had the ear of their state legislatures and the U.S. Congress and ready access to the courts.

The local Navajos in 1950 still led a primarily migratory life with their sheep and horses, concentrating their family migration in summer and winter grazing areas. Among themselves they recognized customary use areas inherited from their parents and grandparents. They lived in small groups, usually extended families. Most did not speak or read English. But they also were experiencing a time of great change. Many families had sons and brothers who had traveled extensively as soldiers in World War II or as employees at military plants. Most families had at least one member, usually male, working for wages in some far-off place like Colorado, New Mexico or California. The young children in the area were more consistently enrolled in schools and several families had automobiles.

The Navajo families living north of the river watched the influx of Navajos from south of the river during the drought of 1950. They noted that most of those Navajo families returned to the south when grazing conditions improved. They did not know that they would bear the brunt of a violent relocation because of the temporary influx of Navajos during the drought.

The families that lived on the north side of the river believed their ancestors had always lived in the area. Stories passed down through generations tell of the first encounters with white settlers in the region. Local stories also describe ancestors who escaped the captivity at Bosque Redondo in 1864-1868 by living in the isolated canyons north of the San Juan River. Some of the family members who were held captive at Bosque returned to their homes north of the San Juan when they were released. These stories set deep roots in the region, connecting people to their land. They form the basis for customary rights for the use of the land in Navajo culture. Families north of the San Juan had no home or customary use area south of the river. In the face of relocation, these Navajos had no place to “return” to; they were already home, living in the northern tributary canyons of the San Juan River.

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Remnants of a forked-stick hogan in Butler Wash, near present day U.S. Highway 95. This hogan, which was probably constructed in the early 1800s, may be the only recorded site in Utah which contained Navajo pottery. Photo by Winston Hurst.


A Safe and Productive Place

Local Navajos were willing to share their experiences in the stories that follow. First they describe their former homes and life before the relocation, including their relations with the white stockmen. Then they describe the terrifying events of the relocation and the hardships of building a new life. Most of the relocations took place in 1952 and 1953.

***

We used to live about 3-4 miles north of the San Juan River in Butler Wash. I was mainly brought up in this area. People used to live around Butler Wash. Other people were living near the footbridge (upriver from Bluff)… In the old home, everything you needed was close by your home. It used to be a nice place to live. The firewood was right there, the herbs were right there. The people kept to themselves. In each direction was everything you needed. We had our own ceremonies. We never bothered anyone.

For many years the river was a provider, but she was very unpredictable. She provided many plants for our livestock. She crawls from one side of the valley to the other side. That’s why we stayed in the northern gulches. It was safer there. That whole area is almost sacred to my family, a home. We survived many difficult times along Comb Ridge. In my grandmother’s time, the family lived along Butler Wash. The family encountered the Spanish in that area. My great-grandfather was taken hostage by the Spanish. During the hard times, they almost lived like the Anasazi. When you were at the top of Comb Ridge, you could see the whole area around you. Scouts on the top of the ridge could warn people if anyone was coming; they could see their dust trail. It was a safe and productive place. A Navajo clan originated in that area. K. M.

***

There was no warning, everyone was living peacefully. We lived up Comb Ridge. People were very comfortable, very settled in that area. My mind was set to live in that area for a long time. I was the only one living in that specific area at the time. My brother made me a small home in the canyon. It was a good home for my family, our goats and sheep. Everything we needed was close by. Our family and friends lived in the next canyons. We used to visit each other every day. Our major transportation was by burro. M. P.

***

My grandmother’s first memories of living up at the Bears Ears go back to her grand-uncle or grandfather. His name was Handsome Man. He and his family lived up around the Bears Ears. That’s why they kept moving back up there, it was understood that was their area. He is also a relative of other people in the area; they shared the same grand-uncle.

My first memory of it is traveling through this area on the way to our winter home. We were traveling through the area right by Butler Wash, up on top. I was turning six, about 61 years ago. We traveled through here on the way up north to our winter home. Our winter home was down in the canyon. We had another home directly across from the mouth of Chinle Wash on the San Juan River, right among those cottonwood trees. Another home, a summer place, was east of Comb Wash on the north side of the river. There was a big garden patch located in that area, during harvest we used to collect all sorts of things. I don’t remember exactly where it is. We moved around in this area. The families all knew each other.

There are many stories in that area, stories of my grand uncle’s garden plot and many place names. One was a called “Wagon Trail” or “Pass where a Wagon Could Travel.” My father’s father used to have a garden here in Bluff about where the alfalfa field used to be; his name was Man Who Held Himself High. My mother remembers stories of him. He used to plant in this area. There were stories of the first white people moving into this area.

At the mouth of Fish Creek there is a hogan made out of stone. My brother Carl built that. There were also a couple of tents around the hogan. The base of the hogan might still be there. It was so wonderful up there. There was just one place to get fresh drinking water. It was a beautiful place but it was hard to get fresh water. A. N.

***

The Navajo families believed that their relations with the people of Bluff and the cowboys who they encountered near their homes were good relations. They had known these individuals and their families for generations. Many of the local cowboys and traders spoke Navajo. Many felt that good relations could have continued.

***

We lived there for so many years, there are many memories. Many of our loved ones are buried there. We never bothered anyone. We lived well with the people in Bluff. Some of the people we were close to, they spoke our language. We were a part of their economy. We did business with them. Some didn’t speak our language, they didn’t want anything to do with us.

After the establishment of Bluff, the ranchers were very helpful. They would hold onto wandering livestock and feed the stock while it was under their care. We used to help one another that way. Those old people have now passed on. The younger ones just want to better themselves instead of working for the community. I would like it to work as a community again. K. M.

***

The cowboys knew of our home. They used to come and visit before the relocation. It seemed like we had a certain co-existence with each other that wasn’t troublesome, then all of the sudden it became bad. Usually the cowboys would be in the area, working with their animals. They even hired some of our young boys for day labor. They borrowed them to help gather up their cattle. The cowboys may have scouted the area beforehand, but they knew the area. We were so close together, we had worked around each other for so many years. A. N.

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Remains of a large stone hogan east of Recapture Wash. Photo by the author.

The Relocations

By 1952, a few of the local cowboys and the BLM employees were ready to take action. They posted notices on sagebrush and dead trees, they stated later, warning the Navajos that their livestock would be impounded. However, they knew that most of the Navajos didn’t speak, let alone read, English. It is not known why the cowboys didn’t send their bilingual speakers around to explain the notices and their intention to remove the Navajos from north of the river.

The Navajos report that the relocation took several forms. In some areas their livestock was rounded up and loaded into trucks. The adults were arrested or physically restrained by handcuffs during the confiscation of their property. Many of their homes were set on fire. In other areas the stockmen gathered up large herds of cattle and drove them through the homes of the Navajos. Groups of men with guns and whips forced some of the Navajos across the river with their livestock. When other families heard rumors of the relocation they hid many of their material possessions in the crevices of cliffs. Some people packed their children off to safety at St. Christopher’s Mission east of Bluff. Despite the relocation efforts many of the Navajo families had no choice but to continue grazing their livestock near their old homesites. They had no place to go.

***

For many months before the people were forced off the land, the ranchers had been coming by even once in a while, riding horses among the people and talking to the people. Then one day, all of the sudden, a bunch of these men, they came down and told the people to move today. They said they were to be moved off the lands today, no extension. It was really cold when they were forced across the river just below Desecration Panel. I later met up with my father. He told me they were forced across the river. Some people were escorted across the river, other people just left. They had been threatened.

The people were just told to leave. They didn’t have time to pack up. Most of their belongings were still there. They had to sneak back to get their things. Bedrolls were still under the shadehouses; they had to steal their own stuff. There are some hogans still located in that area. They were very remote areas, the homes were just left as they stood. I understand that some of the hogans are still standing some were destroyed.

The people were told to take their livestock with them. Some people were escorted to the river. Some people just left when they were told to leave. Some people were forced across the river. Father was very worried about things left behind. He felt a great loss. Some of the ladies were very hurt. It was a sad moment. No one protested being forced off the land. If people had been aware of what was going on, there would have been more resistance. K. M.

***

At that time, most people didn’t speak English. We heard that the cowboys were driving big herds through people’s camps. These herds had lots of bulls in them. Some houses were being burned. These people had no warning. People lost everything. They were burned out. They just had time to grab the kids. The relocation took place, possibly in the 1950s. My parents were threatened. They were told that the bulls were coming.

My father was thrown in jail for living in that area. I don’t know what the charge was, probably trespassing. They had established another home by the mission, in case they were forced to leave and kept most of our belongings in that home. They would just take a few things up to our old home. J. M.

***

My family lived in Comb Wash and Butler Wash. My aunt used to herd livestock in the Valley of the Gods. The BLM took their livestock. Their homes and shadehouses were burned. Some people were tied up and whipped. They killed their livestock. M.M.

***

At that time, people used to still go out and collect sumac berries near Monticello. Many of the adults in my family and I had spent a month up there collecting sumac berries. We had caught a ride up to Monticello and had walked to the foot of the mountains to collect berries. A man came from this area and told us that it was chaos back home. He reported everyone was being forced off the land. He told us to go back home. We were a long ways from home.

When we got back to Bluff, I caught up with the last group of people who were crossing the river. Later, I caught up with my brother at the old Gold Mine area. We took our herds up to Sand Island area and crossed the river. It was very cold. My daughters had herded the animals all the way from our old home.

At that time, many of the older people were commuting from St. Christopher’s Mission. Some of the people were being threatened so they stayed at the mission but I thought everything was alright. Many of the people were living there so they could send their kids to school. I attended a ceremony at the mission right before I went up to the Blue Mountains to collect berries. When the people were forced off the land, many of them headed to the mission. M. S.

***

All of a sudden it just got bad. Everywhere people were losing their animals. We were told that it was better to just move. It seemed like it was getting bad all over. People north of the river near Bluff had their animals, mostly horses, taken from them, impounded and they had to buy them back. We had lots of animals, mostly sheep and several horses, but we didn’t have any money to buy the animals back so we were told it was better to move the animals south of the river. My brothers were away at work. The horses belonged to my brothers. The were raising a little boy at the time. We had packed him on a horse and we moved through the night. The little boy slept through the night while he was riding. He was under six. My stepfather had died that previous spring. We were by ourselves. We were told that pretty soon it is going to be our turn. Plus it was just my mother, the little boy and I. I remember we had lots of animals because some of them drowned when we crossed the river.

We started moving from Fish Creek by sundown. We were right in the Fish Creek area. We had packed most of our belongings. We had heard we were being pursued by people with horses on their trucks, stock trucks. We recognized some of the men who were pursuing us. There was so many individuals, it was hard to tell who was in the group. Two people on horseback caught up with us right at the river. The river was very high. We started to move our animals into the river.

I was in my late teens. I remember the water being high. I was on my toes and it came up at my mouth. We lost many of our animals. I moved the horses across the river first. The cowboys started to harass my mother so I went back to help her. They were whipping our animals to get them to move across the river.A. N.

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Author/anthropologist Beth King at the remains of a hogan near Comb Ridge. Photo by Phil Hall.

“It was like being pushed from two sides.”

The families forced south of the river were in poor shape. Many had only the clothes on their backs. They had lost their gardens and their stores of food for the winter. The lucky ones had family south of the river. Others had no family or grazing privileges there. Everyone faced the immediate problems of getting through the winter and building a new home.

***

Some people did try to salvage the structures and move them. What was left behind in many places, the hogans and shadehouses, were disassembled. The ranchers took the structures apart and used them as barriers. A hogan and shadehouse was used to make fences for boundaries.

The south side of the river became our second home. Other people don’t like to talk about it. People would have resisted and protected their areas but it happened so quickly, just in one day. We had relations on the south side of the river that helped us.

One time, my husband and I went back to the old homes. Everything was still standing. It was really sad because the hogans, shadehouses and sheep corrals were still standing. Each individual was hoping they could move back over the years. Someday they would be able to live there again. But that never came about. People more or less waited and waited. There was never anyone to interpret for them. K. M.

***

The house was left as if someone just walked out of it. I never saw it again. The kids took what they could carry and left. Most of my belongings are still there.

My mind was very set to live in my old home. When I came across the river there was no place to go. I started looking for an area to settle, there was really no place to go. I met some clan relations at the sand dune near the swinging bridge. They said, “We will take you to a place where there is a home for you.” They took me to Shiprock. It was just the kids and I. I left my herd at the sand dune, so I lost most of my herd. It was almost like being a lost individual. I couldn’t go anywhere. My home wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t know who I was, where I was going to sleep next, where our food would come from … it was like a dream. I started roaming around with people in the Shiprock area. I had a small boy. I concentrated on him and left everything behind.

After a while people started to get themselves back together again on the south side of the river. The people I was living with in Shiprock had migrated to Alamosa to pick potatoes. I was very tired from this work. I came back to Shiprock but I wanted to get my own food so I went back to Alamosa to pick potatoes. By that time, the people were getting back together again and my family started to ask questions about me. When I was back in Shiprock, my mother had sent a vehicle to bring me back. I was really surprised when I came back, everyone was living near the cliffs east of White Rock. They were trying to start over again. My mother had passed away before I got home and I didn’t even know about it. It was very hard to start over. It was the early fall and it was getting cold. I only had a sack of potatoes and a bag of corn. Everyone ate this for the winter. In the spring, my father passed away.

We had left our homes to collect the sumac berries. We were planning to have a feast when we got home with the berries. Other people lost their homes while they were collecting berries. But when I got home it was different. There aren’t many people left who know the specifics on what happened.

I felt so discouraged. Everyone kept it a secret, it was like a curse. No one wanted to talk about it so we kept it a secret. I never talked about it because I had to worry about the kids. Right after it happened we didn’t talk about it. I wasn’t familiar with the people I was living with so everyday I woke up with strangers. At that time all of my concerns and concentrations were focused on surviving — how to survive the winter, how to get along now, pick potatoes and work, work, work. M. S.

***

We were fearful when we went back. We had left the camp when the vines were out on our garden. When we went back, the watermelons were very large. I just looked at it, I couldn’t take it with me. I ate what I could while I was there but we didn’t have any room to pack the fruits or vegetables. So we just abandoned the garden. There was lots of produce; it was such a waste. The cattle probably ate it.

We got everything out of the old camp but the dutch oven that was my grandmother’s. Slowly we brought everything back from the old home. We made several different trips back. We went back maybe three times. We got most everything but the dutch oven. We had stored things in different locations, but we couldn’t find it. Also we lost some grinding stones.

We headed to a place called “Peaches,” along Chinle Wash. We had an orchard there. I built a hogan in that area. There were hogans there when we arrived; we fixed those up and built a new one. Our Navajo neighbors tried to take the hogan apart. It was like being pushed on both sides.

There were people that used to live north of us in our old home. There was a structure there, like a shadehouse but you could spend the winter there. The logs were very big. It was a well-built shadehouse. The next time I saw it, it was just a blackened area. They burnt it all down. A. N.

***

People scattered and sought life and a future where they could. In the short term, they concentrated on surviving the winter, finding a new home and rebuilding their herds. In the long-term, people slowly worked through the trauma of the relocation. Many responded by not talking or thinking about the losses they had suffered. To this day many do not want to discuss these events. Others still wonder why the relocation was necessary or why it had to be done in such a terrible way.

A group of Navajos, only a small portion of the relocatees, brought legal proceedings against the BLM and were awarded $100,000 dollars for their lost livestock. They caravaned to Salt Lake City and camped in the field behind their lawyer’s home. In court the BLM agents and their volunteers repeatedly professed ignorance about the livestock they had rounded up. As reported in the San Juan Record of November 1953, a BLM ranger aide testified that “he did not know whom the horses belonged to. However he did say that he knew the cornfields in many of the areas from which the horses were gathered belonged to the Indians.” The BLM’s lack of knowledge about livestock ownership angered the judge. He reportedly said, “It’s nonsense, pure nonsense, and I don’t want to hear anymore about it.” The judge also stated the BLM agents had violated state statutes and BLM regulations. He ordered further investigation into the entire matter in addition to the monetary award.

***

Up to this day I really wonder what happened. I have approached several people about it and they don’t want to talk about it. Most of the people have now passed away. M.S.

***

Note: The author would like to thank the many people who spoke with her about these difficult times. A special thanks go to the five people who participated in the long interviews for the oral histories.

***

Beth King is an anthropologist who lived in Bluff, Utah, when this story was written. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She spent over five years working with the Navajo Nation in their program to protect traditional cultural properties and gravesites from development projects.

3 thoughts on “The Utah Navajos Relocation in the 1950s: Life Along the San Juan River (originally pub. July 1996)

  1. Interesting. How about the Navajos and Hopis that were relocated to the Colorado River back in the last century? I currently live in Lake Havasu City, AZ. as a Navajo and I am aware of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Parker, AZ. which consists of the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Navajo and Hopi Tribes (CRIT). What kind of history is there of how the coalition came about? I don’t have much information as to how they were relocated here. I understand that the rich agriculture there is muchly handled by the Navajo and Hopi Tribe.

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