The Real Life Story behind Dead Horses

The Utes and the Navajos: the 200 years war

The Setup

Good fences make good neighbors is a proverb existing in many different cultures and languages. In this blog, I use a derivation of this ancient proverb, “Good Roads Make Bad Neighbors,” to illustrate how centuries of enmity between the Ute Indians of Colorado and their neighbors to the immediate south, the Navajo of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico was inflamed by the development of a road from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles. The road accelerated fluid hostilities and alliances for and against each other, a slave trade, and enabled the imposition of a curse.

The Old Spanish Trail

The Santa Fe Trail, established in 1821, successfully connected the eastern United States with the New Mexico trading hub at Santa Fe. In 1829, the road was extended to connect Los Angeles to Santa Fe. The main branch of the trail, known now as the Old Spanish Trail, spanned over 2,700 miles, cutting through the southwestern corner of Colorado and Ute territory, moving north and west through Utah and finally turning south again toward Arizona and lower Nevada, with a terminus in Los Angeles.

The trail hosted pilgrims moving westward, allowed passage for military deployment, and new markets for commodities traders from 1829 until portions were paved over for modern highways (US 160 in Colorado and US 191 in Utah). Until 1862, the most valued commodity on the Old Spanish Trail was slaves. The trail facilitated raids of Californio ranchos to support an extensive Indian slave trade. Paiutes (relatives of the Utes) who lived along the Old Spanish Trail, were captured, then sold or traded for horses in both California and New Mexico Territory.

A Well-established Slave Trade

Though not as brutal or vast as African slavery in the Deep South, Indian slavery in the Southwest, often called the Second Slavery, played a deep role in the region’s culture, economy, warfare and inter-ethnic relations felt to this day.

Utes and Navajos actively participated as perpetrators and victims of the slave trade. The trade in Native women and children was long established before the Southwest’s independence from Spain. Every spring, Mexican traders took cheap goods to exchange with the Navajo and Ute for broken-down horses and mules, which they took to Utah and bartered along with weapons and ammunition for Indian women and children. They in turn took them to California via the Old Spanish Trail and sold them. The traders then bought more horses for the return trip. The horses were then traded for more Indian captives.

When the Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847, they found that the entire region had evolved into a slaving ground by Native and by Hispanic merchants who were operating in the area. The Mormon appearance only served to increase the demand for slaves. Whites continued taking children from their Native families long after the slave traders left and actively solicited children from Indians with the expressed purpose of adopting them into Mormon culture.

Tit for Tat

Ute leader Chief Walkara (baptized at death in 1855 as Joseph Walker), took advantage of the Ute tribes’ custom that allowed them to sell women and children (including Navajo) in exchange for supplies and horses. Other children were acquired for trading through war raids and then were sold to Mexican traders who, using the Old Spanish Trail, sold them as slaves in California. A boy destined for field work typically sold for $100, while girls went for $150 to $200 for domestic work. Often, children subject to these conditions rarely lived past the age of twenty, according to a recent study.

Amidst this pervasive atmosphere of forced servitude, tensions between the Navajo and Utes grew. In 1860 slave raiding by the Navajo increased substantially. The Navajo raided Utes, who reciprocated with raids into Navajo territory, aggravating the perpetual cycle of slave trading.

Long burning animosities ignited when, in 1863, frontiersman, trapper, and soldier Kit Carson waged a brutal suppression campaign against the Navajo. When bands of Navajo refused to accept confinement on reservations, Carson used Ute scouts to flush Navajos from deep within their final stronghold at Canyon de Chelly.

Carson marched some 8,000 Navajo captives 300 miles across New Mexico’s harsh countryside in an arduous and often fatal forced removal, known as the “Long Walk,” for imprisonment at the barren Bosque Redondo Reservation in eastern New Mexico. The relocation of Navajos from August 1864 to December 1866 offered new opportunity for Utes to seize women and children from the helpless Navajo and sell them to the new settlements as laborers or house servants in what is now Colorado.

The Lost Tribe

Historians estimate that slaves or indentured persons accounted for as much as one-third of New Mexico Territory’s population of 29,000 in the late 1700s. Congress outlawed slavery in all U.S. territories in 1862, but today, the effects linger. At the time of their enslavement, many victims were too young, terrified or confused by the alien white culture, or were prohibited to associate with other tribal members and therefore lost their tribal identities. Called Genizaros, the descendants of slaves have no known tribal affiliation and therefore are not qualified for U.S government educational, medical, or housing aide targeted for Native Americans. Numerous genealogical and DNA search organizations in New Mexico are currently conducting projects to identify the lost heritage of these people.

Enslavement of the Utes by the Navajo produced a penalty of another kind,: an extra worldly threat.

The Curse

Skinwalker Ranch is not unheard of to those who have developed an interest in the paranormal. The infamous Skinwalker (Sherman) Ranch, which borders the Old Spanish Trail, is home to some horrifying anomalies, most notably a Ute curse.

Skinwalker Ranch is a large plot of land located near Ballard in north central Utah that has reported weird occurrences. The history of the place dates back over 150 years when the Navajo and the Ute tribes occupied the area.

Ultimately, Navajo and Ute relationships deteriorated from the effects of the robust slave trade and the changing alliances of each tribe. The Utes placed a curse on the Navajo in the form of a vicious skinwalker (sometimes described as a shapeshifter, or evil witch) in retaliation for the enslavement of Ute people. Skinwalkers have the capability to take the form of any animal with the most common form being that of a wolf-like creature.

Mr. Terry Sherman, a previous owner of the Skinwalker Ranch (southeast of neighboring Fort Duchesne) in 1994, encountered a wolf-like creature that grabbed one of his cattle. Sherman shot the wolf with a .357 magnum at very close range. After two shots, the wolf released the cow and stared menacingly with piercing red eyes. A few more shots were fired, which caused the animal to walk away wounded, but indifferent to the injury. Similarly, a security officer on the neighboring Uintah and OurayReservation, also located near Fort Duchesne, spotted a huge creature in the dark with coal red eyes. He and another officer pursued but couldn’t catch it.

Is the mysterious red-eyed beast a skinwalker destined to patrol the Old Spanish Trail in the dead of night, a killer hungering for the descendants of Navajo who long ago raided the Utes for slaves? The curse has not been lifted to this day and reports of the wolf with the red, glowing eyes are too bizarre to believe, but too numerous to ignore.

For more on Ute/Navajo hostilities and skinwalkers, read my latest Peter Romero mystery,

Dead Horses, available now on

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