Catch Me If You Can
In 1863, a legendary Navajo headman evaded the U.S. Army in the desert. David Roberts goes in search of the Southwest's best-kept secret.
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“The men are to be slain whenever and wherever they can be found. The women and children may be taken prisoners.”
It was late in the fall of 1863 and these were the official orders given to Kit Carson, famed Indian hunter. Carson had been ordered to round up all the Navajos in the Southwest and march them into exile. There were holdouts, and Carson led mounted U.S. Army troops to pursue the refugees through the canyons and across the mesas near today’s border between Arizona and Utah.
Among those resisters was a band of 17 men, women, and children led by a young headman named Hoskinini. They had a single horse, a rusty rifle, and 20 sheep among them. For several days, Hoskinini’s party walked and ran, until they came to the banks of the San Juan River in full flood.
And there, they simply vanished. That’s where the tale begins.
For three days, Carson’s troops waited for the surging torrent to subside. On the fourth day, they gave up. In all likelihood, the fugitives crossed the San Juan by a secret ford. Navajo legend insists they escaped through a secret tunnel under the river.
Not long after, Hoskinini’s people crossed back over the San Juan, then, for the next four and a half years, the small group hid out in what remains today one of the most rugged and remote corners of the Southwest. Through strategic raiding, hunting, and husbandry, Hoskinini nursed his people back to health and then to unprecedented prosperity. And though he lived on until 1909, Hoskinini never revealed the location of his hideout to any Anglo.
For 150 years, the hideout has remained hidden, as if the land itself wanted to keep the secret. Starting in the 1880s, prospectors searching for gold and silver probed that country, followed by explorers after 1900, but to this day, no Anglo has discovered Hoskinini’s sanctuary among the sandstone domes and slot canyons.
For more than two decades, I’ve studied the scraps of history and the threads of oral tradition about Hoskinini’s escape, trying to piece together the lost legend.
I think I know where the hideout is.
In 1863, after 10 years of murderous depredations on both sides—an era the Diné (as the Navajo call themselves) still refer to as the Fearing Time—the U.S. government came up with a final solution to the “Navajo problem.” It was the brainchild of General James Henry Carleton, a fanatic of whom one historian wrote, “[He] believed it his duty and destiny as a good Christian gentleman to tame the ‘savages.’” It was Carleton who gave Kit Carson the genocidal order to shoot the men on sight—an injunction Carson disobeyed.
Thousands of Navajos surrendered. Within weeks, they were launched on the Long Walk—a 300-mile procession to a small reservation in the eastern New Mexico plains called Bosque Redondo.
No one knows how many of the Diné escaped the roundup. In one of his dictated field reports, Carson acknowledged that some of the cannier natives had fled. Hoskinini, then about 35 years old, was the most accomplished among them. Nevertheless, Carson reassured General Carleton that vigorous pursuit would bring the “close this Summer, and forever, of the Navajo War.”
Of the 9,000 Navajos who made the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, at least 2,000 died within the next four and a half years. At the Bosque, some perished of starvation when the corn harvest failed two seasons in a row. One survivor later recalled, “The U.S. Army fed corn to its horses. Then, when the horses discharged undigested corn in their manure, the Diné would dig and poke in the manure to pick out the corn.” Some women were fatally inflicted with syphilis by the soldiers guarding them. Some exiles were killed trying to escape. Others killed themselves.
Carleton congratulated himself. “The Navajoes [sic] at [Bosque Redondo],” he wrote in an official dispatch in 1864, “are the happiest people I ever saw and are working well.”
A massive dome 10,387 feet high, Navajo Mountain is sacred to the Diné, who call it Naatsis’áán, or Head of Earth Woman. There, in the creation myth, Monster Slayer, one of the Hero Twins, was born. All hiking or climbing by Anglos on Navajo Mountain is forbidden today. But from the shelf beneath the peak on the southwest, Kettle Country looms in the distance. Its domes and canyons are arresting in their sandstone beauty, but they contain some of the most rugged terrain in the contiguous United States.
In 1925, Hoskinini’s son, 5 years old at the time of the escape, told historian Charles Kelly that the hideout lay south of Navajo Mountain. Historian Robert S. McPherson further identifies the hideout as “deep in the remote recesses on the southern side of Navajo Mountain” where, “avoiding the normal watering places,” the refugees drank “from rock basins filled with rainwater.”
During the last 20 years, I’ve explored every side of Navajo Mountain except one—the intricate maze of domes and slot canyons that guides in the 1920s nicknamed Kettle Country. Few places in the Southwest are harder to get to. In the fall of 2013, I decided to have a look.
In late September, with my longtime companion in canyon sleuthing, Greg Child, I embarked on the search. Before our trip, several friends had asked me why I didn’t hire a Navajo guide to lead us into the backcountry I hoped to explore. The answer is that there simply are no such folks available. Even the Navajos who live near the canyons seem to have little knowledge of them. With the road to Navajo Mountain now paved, the supermarkets of Tuba City are a lot more accessible than the cornfields of Kettle Country that once sustained the Diné.
Greg and I drove our rental SUV deep into the canyonlands of the Navajo Reservation. Rutted dirt roads branched everywhere, most of them ending at isolated houses where some of the more traditional Diné live today. It was impossible to navigate. I flagged down a car that was creeping toward us from the west. Two young Navajo men got out. I asked for directions to a trailhead just north of the maze in which Greg and I hoped to find the hideout.
“You’re in the wrong place,” the shorter of the two men said, squinting at me. “There ain’t no trail there.” The subtext was tangible: You are not welcome here. We had a permit to hike on the reservation, but such a scrap of paper is no guarantee against the deep-seated hostility of locals who rarely see Anglos on their land.
We pushed on for another half mile to a pile of large boulders that barred further progress except on foot and parked there. Expecting to find water on account of recent rains, we set out carrying only 2 liters apiece. But when we crossed a pair of major side canyons only to find them dry, we were forced to dump our loads, hike back to the car, and pack up the 5 gallons of water we had left there. We made camp on a shelf between the canyons and cooked in the dark. It was a splendid night, with the Milky Way striping the sky from the southwest horizon to where it collided with Navajo Mountain at our backs.
The next morning, we groaned under 70-pound loads as we hiked 1,800 feet down toward the canyon on the near edge of the labyrinth where I thought Hoskinini’s crew might have found refuge.
I based this assumption on the story Hoskinini’s son, Hoskinini-begay, told Charles Kelly in 1925. As he described the fugitives’ flight from Carson’s troops, he said, “We traveled many nights, sleeping in the daytime. We were all footsore and hungry, as we had not brought any food. We lived mostly on grass seed and sometimes a rabbit. . . The country was very rough and we were all worn out climbing down into deep canyons and out again. Water was very hard to find.”
As we zigzagged our way into yet another dry, thorny creekbed, Greg suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Look,” he said, raising his binoculars. “Hogan.” We approached. The design was classic Diné, the walls forming a hexagon of juniper cribbing rising 6 feet toward a central smokehole in the roof. The narrow door faced dead east, and a girdle of sandstone blocks protected the walls from weather or collapse. The logs, we saw, had been hewn with an axe, and not a single nail had been used in the construction. I had seen enough old hogans to know that this one almost surely dated to the 19th century. Could this refuge have been the work of Hoskinini’s people?
A couple of hours later, when we got to our basecamp canyon, we found pool after pool of fresh, clear rainwater—enough to drink for months. We pitched our tents and stared around us, imagining the 17 holdouts hunkered down in this sanctuary.
Hoskinini-begay’s interview with Charles Kelly tantalized me for years with its vague yet specific clues. He recalled that despite constant hunger, his father forbade the slaughtering of any of the sheep, so that they might breed and multiply. “We had no bullets for the old rifle,” remembered the son, “and hunted in the old way”—with bow and arrow. Even so, wild game was scarce, so the fugitives gathered seeds and piñon nuts to sustain them through the first winter.
“He drove everyone all day long and would never let us rest, knowing that we might starve,” Hoskinini-begay said. “He always seemed to be angry with everyone for being lazy. So he was given the name Hush-kaaney, which means ‘the angry one.’”
As they fled, Hoskinini searched for the perfect oasis to anchor the survival ordeal he knew was coming. But in the end, it was not he who chose. “Finally we reached the south end of Navajo Mountain and came to a nice little stream with grass,” Hoskinini-begay recounted. “Mother sat on the ground and said she would go no farther. We made camp there, and lived in that place.”
The cold months came and went. Heartened that they had passed the first winter without a single death, the fugitives dared to build their hogans. They found batches of stray sheep and drove them back to the hideout, and on far-reaching raids they stole horses from unsuspecting soldiers at outposts. On their forays, the men also found other solitary fugitives and brought them into the sanctuary. In those four and a half years, just one stranger stumbled upon the hideout—a “renegade Ute,” said Hoskinini-begay, “who did not betray us.”
Our basecamp occupied a sagebrush bench next to the clear pools of “Water Under the Rocks,” as the Navajo call the canyon we had entered. Orange domes, gleaming in the low-angle sunrise, surrounded our camp on all sides. As we peered west down the shallow canyon, we could see its bends deepening and twisting out of sight in the distance.
That second day, we discovered another pair of hogans built in the same design as the first one we found, equally well-preserved, and also crafted by axe. The third, tucked under a sheer cliff 200 yards from our tents, was the most perfect of all. Hexagonal in shape, 12 feet in diameter, 6 feet high at the smokehole, it bore the imprint, in the furred ends of each juniper log, of loving craftsmanship. There are many ancient hogans scattered across the Navajo reservation, most of them in ruins. These three were the best preserved I had ever seen.
Even today, Navajos rarely build their hogans close together. The three we discovered lay as much as 2 miles apart. But this would have been the norm for Hoskinini’s people; even while they hid out from the soldiers together, each family planted its own corn, gathered wild plants, and hunted game. According to anthropologist Stephen C. Jett, Navajo settlement patterns are rooted in their legacy as Athapaskan hunter-gatherers in the Canadian subarctic, where “sparse, scattered resources” made spreading out an optimal strategy. Once the Diné became sheep herders, that dispersal was reinforced.
One thing was clear to me, however: The valley bottom of Water Under the Rocks did not fit Hoskinini-begay’s description of the center of the sanctum, for there was no “nice little stream with grass.”
From studying the maps, I formed a hunch that the place might lie in another, broader canyon 3 miles west of our basecamp. The maps also made it clear that to get from here to there would require difficult routefinding—if we could make it at all.
Sixteen years earlier, on an eight-day llama trek on the seldom-used Rainbow Bridge Trail that goes west and north of Navajo Mountain, I had caught a distant glimpse of this slickrock maze that had confirmed my belief that there was no more tortured topography anywhere in the Southwest. In 1922, an archeologist also glimpsed this trackless labyrinth from afar and wrote: “[It] might be likened to a sea driven in the teeth of a hurricane, the waves of which at their height had been transfixed to salmon-colored stone.” The challenge of negotiating it, as we sought to retrace Hoskinini’s phantom passage, might now prove too much for us.
Greg and I set off early on our third day to explore the maze. The sky was still blue, but a biting wind out of the southwest grew through the hours until it was almost a gale. The bends of Water Under the Rocks forced us in and out of slots as we improvised bypasses on the steep arroyo banks that crisscrossed our path. An hour into our wandering, Greg pointed at a tiny rock set atop a boulder. “Look at that,” he said. “It’s a Navajo cairn.
By 1868, it was clear the Bosque Redondo was a miserable failure—even Carleton’s own officers had begun to deride the squalid camp, calling it “Fair Carletonia.” The government freed the surviving Navajos. Without horses, they had to reverse the 300-mile walk to regain their homeland. Each adult was given a pitiful allowance on which to build a new life: two sheep and some seeds for planting. “They had nothing else,” remembered Hoskinini-begay. “Even their peach trees had been cut down.” The leaders of the returning tribe, Manuelito and Barboncito, were broken men.
On discovering that the captured Navajos had returned to their homeland, Hoskinini’s band came out of hiding. Their numbers had swelled, and they had an abundance of corn from fields they had planted. The refugees returning from the Bosque were stunned. They knew that Hoskinini’s people had escaped the roundup, but not whether they were alive, let alone that they had become, as Hoskinini-begay claimed, “the richest Navahos [sic] in the whole country.”
At once, Hoskinini gave those Diné corn, sheep, wool, and skins from the vast store he had accumulated during the years in hiding. Out of awe and gratitude, the refugees bestowed on Hoskinini a second nickname—“The Generous One.”
Soon we came across other single-stone cairns, widely spaced. And gradually we found the overgrown trails that linked the Diné route-markers. Each vestigial patch of trail was strewn with desiccated sheep and horse dung—not from 150 years ago, but evidently many decades old.
A mile and a half from camp, Water Under the Rocks plunged into an impassable slot. From the map, I deduced that we were still another 1.5 miles east of the broader canyon that might have contained the “nice little stream with grass” of Hoskinini’s sanctuary. We struck out instead toward the south, the only direction that looked passable.
Almost at once, we hit another slot. This one pinched too tight to squeeze through. “Looks like we’re boxed in,” I said to Greg. Frustration and defeat throbbed in my shoulders. But then we noticed an unpromising, narrow corridor angling southwest.
“What have we got to lose?” I muttered, as we entered the darkened ravine between vertical walls so close together you could almost span them with open arms. The fissure threatened to close off at any moment, but it went and went. Then we found another one-stone cairn, followed by a downed tree trunk in which someone had hacked footholds with an axe.
The slot led us on. From the map, I could see that we were close to the bigger canyon, and then Greg crowed, “It goes!”
We burst out of the crevice into the main canyon, then followed it northward. Twice we had to chimney across deep pools, but within half a mile, the canyon opened up. Now we had easy hiking on the sandbar, and on either side, broad terraces of alluvium hinted at fields where corn would grow. We walked beside a nice, little stream tufted with grass on either side.
I knew better than to hope to find relics here from Hoskinini’s time. Nomads are notoriously hard to detect archaeologically, since they take their possessions with them. There was no way to prove that this was Hoskinini’s sanctuary without an archaeologist taking a core from a juniper log in one of the hogans and dating it to between 1863 and 1868. But obtaining such permission could prove bureaucratically unfeasible.
Yet everything we had found seemed to fit Hoskinini-begay’s description of the hideout. On our two-day approach, we could agree that “the country was very rough and we were all worn out climbing down into deep canyons and out again. Water was very hard to find.” The “nice little stream with grass” was an apt characterization of the far point we had reached where the canyon broadened. If I had to hide out for almost five years in the Southwest, and I knew how to live off the land as those resourceful Navajos had, Kettle Country was the place I would have chosen.
But now it was 2:30 p.m. and the darkening sky threatened rain, while the wind shrieked between the high surrounding walls. Our time was up. We took a long last look and turned back in our tracks, walking out of history.
On our last morning in Kettle Country, I lapsed into a reverie, as I traveled back in time to 1865 and into the head of a young man in Hoskinini’s group.
Was the corn in the field two benches away ripe for picking? Should I stir the fire to life in the hogan, or save the piñon sticks? How soon would the first snows fall? And will tomorrow be the day I scan the horizons and see the silhouettes of soliders who will march down and kill us all?
The reverie faded. Greg and I are modern Anglos, not 19th-century Diné. We were intruders here. We had found our way in, but we could never have begun to scratch a living out of this country. The skills of Hoskinini’s people were beyond our ken. We had penetrated this wilderness in search of adventure and discovery—a far different thing from survival.
Still, I mused, for all the worries that had daily plagued the Diné, they must have basked in the wholeness of their freedom here. They lived in the old way, as they did before the coming of the Europeans. The world the Hero Twins had saved by turning monsters into stone was theirs.
It was Hoskinini who made that world possible. He was at once the Angry One and the Generous One. If he could almost kill you with his eyes, he could also nurture the weak and the despairing. In the wilderness, Hoskinini surely never doubted that his people would survive and flourish. In his fierce pride and visionary faith, he became the legend that many Diné still invoke at dawn, in the doors of their hogans, as they pray to the rising sun. ■
David Roberts tells the complete tale of Hoskinini in his latest book, The Lost World of the Old Ones, published in April by W. W. Norton and Company.