George H. Junne, Jr.*

James S. Calhoun was the first Indian agent in the Territory of New Mexico, accepting the post in 1849. According to his philosophy Navajos were to be tamed, confined, and civilized—or exterminated. He also sanctioned the use of “volunteers” to keep the Indians in line. They were in fact privateers who murdered the Navajos and stole from them. They also sold thousands of Indians from the territory as slaves, making a great deal of profit. Calhoun approved those actions. [1] The United states also promoted a policy of dispossession by declaring that Navajos were not utilizing their lands as well as they could. [2]

It was the campaign against the Navajos that Kit Carson redeveloped an idea for controlling the Indians and ensuring peace. It was to separate the various tribes, removing them from White settlements. That idea, embodied in the Navajo Roundup, was later applied to other Indians and consequently developed into the reservation system. [3] Thomas Jefferson first circulated that plan in 1803. It was later advertised as the policy of removal. [4]

In a letter to Captain Benjamin C. Cutler dated January 24, 1864, the famous Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson wrote that he ordered all the peach orchards in the Cañon de Chelly to be destroyed by Captain Asa B. Carey. It appeared that neither Carey nor anyone else carried out the order until August when Company K, under the command of Captain John Thompson, destroyed the amazing total of 5,000 peach trees.

A second letter from Carson to Lieutenant Lawrence Gustave Murphy dated January 20 also mentions a large orchard of peach trees spotted on January 12. It was probably the same one referred to in the previous letter. Carson indicated that he could not destroy the orchard then because of the ongoing fighting. [5] During August 1864, Captain John Thompson and a small group of soldiers reentered the canyon and surprised Chief Barboncito, later sent to Bosque Redondo reservation in eastern New Mexico. His followers in that area of the canyon were reduced to only five men, one woman, and a child. They had some horses and 1,500 sheep under their control. It was during that time that Thompson destroyed the peach orchards. [6] The troops also found large fields of corn, pumpkins, beans, and wheat. What they did not eat or take they destroyed, including the Navajos’ homes. [7] This paper examines the process of how peaches, an Asian fruit, came to be cultivated by Navajo Indians in the American West. Ironically, the peach symbolized protection from evil, longevity, and immortality in China. [8]

The peach and almond may have derived from the same plant in central Asia. Peaches, a stone-fruit, grows best in the warm areas of the temperate climate zone that also has a period of winter chilling. The “queen of fruits” that gives us pleasure for its sweetness also has a seed that contains a high amount of deadly prussic acid. This member of the rose family (Rosaceae) began to evolve in the eastern part of western China. Incidentally, the almond began to evolve in the western part of the same area. Support for the peach’s Chinese origin comes from studies of the distribution of closely related wild species of peaches that grow only there, plus the study of writings from early Chinese, Indian, and Fertile Crescent sources. [9] Chinese writings from 4,000 years ago mention the peach and most varieties are known from that country. [10] It appears that peaches were domesticated in China before its cultivation further west.

The Latin name for the domesticated peach ( Prunus persica), preceded the rather recent botanical classification for fruit and provides its Roman source—Iran. During China’s Han Dynasty (207 B.C.—A.D. 220) there was a deliberate exchange of animal and plant life with Iran by the second century B.C., and perhaps earlier. Since the Greeks seemed not to have cultivated the peach, the Romans probably imported the fruit directly from Iran.

Arboriculture began in the Middle East where inhabitants there developed and introduced new varieties of fruit. Records from Sumer, a southern division of ancient Babylon, mentioned peach trees. Previously, fruits were gathered wild. [11] One reason suspected for their domestication may have been the discovery that peaches could be processed into alcoholic beverages. The peach seemed to have been cultivated in Italy during the early first century A.D. During the life of Pliny (A.D. 23—A.D. 79) the French had already developed a Gallic variety. The peach spread over western Europe as far north as England and Germany, and during the sixteenth century, it was carried to North America. The fruit was eventually taken to Australia, South Africa, and Central America. [12]

During the life of Muhammad the Prophet (c. 570–632) the Meccan trade was expanding. Cities such as Medina and Ta’if were part of that expansion as well as countries such as Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Medina whose citizens had to import almost all of their food. [13] The burgeoning Muslim communities were very familiar with peaches.

The Moors, those Muslims primarily from North Africa, gave Spain mastery in agriculture, engineering, mining, industry, manufacturing, expanded commerce, beautiful architecture, education, and scholarship. The Moors brought in rice, strawberries, cotton, sugar cane, ginger, lemons, and dates during their 700 year tenure. Additionally, they introduced scholarly works on agriculture and animal husbandry. One of their works on agriculture was still being translated into Spanish until the year 1802.

Muslims share direct responsibility for Spanish explorations and therefore, for the Spanish bringing peaches to the New World. Spanish Franciscans believed the end of the world was imminent and even Columbus believed it would occur by the mid-1600’s. Some Spaniards believed that God gave Spain the task of saving the world for Christianity before the apocalypse. That salvation was to have been a triumph over Judaism and Islam specifically. The goal of Columbus’ voyages and those of other Spanish explorers was “winning the worldwide religious and political hegemony of Christendom, thereby preparing the world for the anticipated drama of The End Time.” Columbus and others believed that only with the completion of his first voyage could the Gospel be preached to the nations across the seas and the heathens be converted.

Changes in fauna and flora in the New Spain (Mexico) could have been noticed in Mexico a hundred years after European contact, as new plants and animals would have intermixed with native plants and animals. Spaniards could be served with fresh fruits and vegetables they ate in Spain. They raised pigs, sheep, goats, burros, and cattle with horses. There were now thousands of horses, an animal that evolved in the New World, died out after spreading into Europe, and were re-introduced by the Spaniards after an absence of over ten thousand years. From Europe and Africa the Spaniards also introduced wheat, pears, oranges, lemon trees, chick-peas, grape vines, melons, onions, radishes, and peaches. [14] Spanish priests carried peach seeds with them as they marched and rode throughout Spain’s new empire.

Adaptable and very variable, P. persica, taken to North America in the sixteenth century, was so widely planted by the Red Indians as well as by colonists that in the seventeenth century, finding it growing in numbers and very flourishing in places where no white man had been before, some explorers assumed the peach to be a native American plant. [15]

Cristoforo Colombo or in Spain, Cristóbal Colón, probably brought peach seeds to the New World on his second voyage. He came with seventeen ships carrying lemon and orange trees, wheat, barley grapevines, and other seeds. Spaniards began planting peaches in the New World but their efforts were not particularly successful until they began planting the seeds in Mexico, the Andes, Chile, and North America. [16]

Specifically, the Spaniards bought the peaches to Mexico and Florida. The Indians liked the fruit so well that before the founding of the Jamestown colony Indians had already cultivated peach orchards from Texas and Arkansas eastward. Early American botanists saw so many wild peach trees that they believed it to be an American plant. What they saw were the results of peaches that had “escaped” from their Indian growers. Wild peaches in the South received the nickname of “Indian peaches,” recognizing the association of that group to the plant. [17]

A second source of peaches in what is now the southern United States came from the French. Twenty-three years after Hernando de Soto explored Florida, French Huguenots settled there between 1562 and 1564. The Huguenots brought tools and seeds with them and some of the fruits and vegetables found their way into the gardens of Indians. Spaniards under Pedro Menédez destroyed their colony in 1565 and established St. Augustine. [18] They built missions and planted peaches in their gardens. When Oglethorpe brought his British colony to Georgia in 1733, he found abandoned plantations of olives, figs, oranges, and lemons. He also found Indians growing peaches that must have come from Spanish and French colonists who planted them before 1600. [19] As Spanish missions spread to California, various people noted the associated spread of peach trees that reached the west coast before 1800.

When Peter Stuyvesant arrived in New Amsterdam on May 10, 1647, he proceeded to build an estate that included peach trees. [20] Peaches were at the bottom of the Massacre of 1655 in that colony. Hendrick Van Dyck, a town official, kept an orchard of peaches that local Indians kept picking. The town burgher one evening saw an Indian doing so, sighted his musket on her and killed her. The next evening in retaliation 900 warriors slaughtered and carried off 200 settlers. They destroyed homes not only in New Amsterdam but also on Long Island, Staten Island, and in New Jersey. Tensions remained high in that area for several years between colonists and Indians over the death of a woman and peach trees. [21]

Further south the Pennsylvania Dutch developed a process for drying peaches. Often called “peach leather,” the product lasted indefinitely. [22] After the Revolutionary War, citizens of Delaware and Maryland began growing peaches on a large scale. Most of the 20,000 trees in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County were grown to make peach brandy. [23] Indians in Louisiana began making peach wine by 1699. [24]

The Cañyon de Chelly, where U.S. government troops destroyed the Navajo peach groves, had been continuously inhabited from approximately A.D. 400 to A.D. 1287. Its description follows:

   The geological formation known as the Cañyon de Chelly has three branches, or better, is composed of one main cañyon, the Cañyon de Chelly proper which extends from west to east, and two tributary cañyons, one to the north and one to the south. About four miles east of the western entrance to the main cañyon, the Cañyon de Muerto extends northeasterly about eighteen miles. About fourteen miles from the western entrance is the entrance to Monument Cañyon, which extends some fifteen miles to the southeast. [25]


Therefore, it appears that the Navajos have been farmers since the beginning of their history, as evidenced in archaeological digs. [26] The word “De Chelly” appears to be a Spanish corruption of the Navajo “Iseghi,” meaning “between the rocks” and hence, a canyon. The canyon’s depth ranges from 50-feet to 1,000-feet, making it not only a perfect place to plant peaches, but also gave the Navajos protection and the ability to see over long distances. [27]

Indians knew the canyon for its rich garden patches of corn, beans, and squash that grew there. The stream running through its twenty-plus miles of canyon was usually dry in the summer, but the first farming inhabitants, the Basket Weavers, developed methods to irrigate their crops. Solar radiation from the black and red sandstone walls created a greenhouse effect that is conducive to agricultural production. Storage bins the Basket Weavers wove are still in evidence. [28] Peaches need between 500 and 1000 hours of cold below 7˚ Celsius (44.6˚ F.) to bloom normally in the spring, plus they need a temperate climate without severe winters. [29] Where there is little rainfall, the trees must be regularly irrigated.

The Navajo Jemez clan moved in the Cañyon de Chelly during the 1680 Pueblo rebellion and settled there. Besides its agriculture, it became a place known for its beautiful women whom other Navajos stole as brides. After the Navajos established themselves the Hopi moved in following the killing of their Catholic priests. They brought with them peach seeds given them by the priests. Soon afterward, the Navajos, formerly a nonagricultural group, began growing peach trees. When the Hopi left the Cañyon de Chelly, the Navajos continued to flourish there. [30]

After the Hopi vacated the Cañyon de Chelly, the Navajos still traded with them for most of their peach supply because they could only grow a limited amount in the canyon. The Navajos named the cultivated peach Titzétshoh, which means “plant which has a big fruit.” They also dried the fruit for use as a purgative and made a yellow dye from the leaves. [31] Peaches were also cultivated in branches of the Cañyon de Chelly including Canyon Del Muerto. Many of the animals and crops currently raised or grown by the Pueblo Indians were not known until contact with the Spanish. They include horses, burros, cattle, sheep, goats, wheat, apples, and peaches. [32]

Encroachment upon Navajo lands plus other policies to destroy their way of life increased in 1846 when the United States ousted Mexican forces in New Mexico, taking over the territory and making it an official part of the U.S. in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. [33] In 1863, 8,000 Navajos and Apaches were forced on the 300-mile “Long Walk” to the Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) in eastern New Mexico. [34]

The stated purpose for the forced removal was to teach the Navajo sedentary and agricultural lifestyles. However, by 1868, the “experiment” was proven to be a failure, so a new treaty was made that established the Navajo Reservation and the people were permitted to return to a portion of their former lands. [35] Some interpret the failure as another example of resistance to American expansion. [36]

According to military records from 1864 that were recently located in the National Archives, in August 1864 the military cut down over 3,000 peach tress in the Canyon de Chelly. Afterwards, another contingent of military destroyed 1,000 more, supposedly ending the Navajo expanding roles as orchardists. When the Navajo returned to the Canyon de Chelly in 1868, however, they found trees that the military had not located and destroyed and by 1880s, “the orchards were fully re-established.” [37]

In more recent times, there are still peach orchards in the Cañyon de Chelly and adjacent areas, numbering from only a few trees per orchard to over twenty-five. They were usually located near homesteads in areas used to cultivate other crops. The fruit, mostly clingstone peaches, are harvested from September into October and are consumed almost immediately, but some are sun-dried for future use. [38] Although not a major source of revenue such as cattle-raising, minerals and other business ventures, the peach remains an integral part of Navajo history and culture.


Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado on the Turquoise Trail. Coronado Cuarto Centennial Publications, 1540–1940, ed. George P. Hammond, Vol. 1, Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1949.

Crone, Patricia. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Crosby, Alfred W. “Metamorphosis of the Americas.” In The Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, eds. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, 70–89. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.

Denetdale, Jennifer Nez. Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007.

Dobyns, Henry F., and Robert C. Euler. The Navajo Indians. Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1977.

Elmore, Francis H. Ethnobotany of the Navajo. A Monograph of New Mexico and the School of American Research, no. 8. Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1944.

Erich, Isaac. Geography or Domestication. Foundations of Cultural Geography Series, ed. Philip L. Wagner. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Gilpin, Laura. The Enduring Navajo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Hancock, James F. Plant Evolution and the Origin of Crop Species. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Hedrick, Ulysses Prentis. A History of Horticulture in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Horse Capture, George P. “An American Indian Perspective.” In The Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, eds. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, 186–208. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.

Hyams, Edward. Plants in the Service of Man: 10,000 Years of Domestication. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1971.

Iverson, Peter . Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Jett, Stephen C. “Peach Cultivation and Use Among the Canyon de Chelly Navajo.” Economic Botany 33 (July-September 1979): 298-310.

Kelly, Lawrence. Navajo Roundup. Boulder: Pruett Publishing Company, 1970.

M’Closkey, Kathy. Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Sauer, Jonathan D. Historical Geography of Crop Plants: A Select Roster. Boca Raton, LA: CRC Press, 1993.

Tiller, Veronica E. Velarde. Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of Indian Reservations.  Albuquerque: Bow Arrow Publishing Company, 1976.

Trafzer, Clifford E. The Kit Carson Campaign. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Underhill, Ruth M. The Navajos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Watkins, Ray. “Cherry, Plum, Peach, Apricot and Almond.” In Evolution of Crop Plants, ed. N. W. Simmonds, 242–248. London: Longman, 1976.

[1] Clifford E. Trafzer, The Kit Carson Campaign (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982): 35-36.

[2] Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 36.

[3] Lawrence Kelly, Navajo Roundup (Boulder: Pruett Publishing, 1970), 7.

[4] George P. Horse Capture, “An American Indian Perspective,” in Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration, eds. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991), 197.

[5] Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 98-101.

[6] Ibid., 161.

[7] Trafzer, The Kit Carson Campaign, 87.

[8] Jonathan D. Sauer, Historical Geography of Crop Plants: A Select Roster (Boca Raton, LA: CRC Press, 1993), 117.

[9] Ray Watkins, “Cherry, Plum, Peach, Apricot and Almond,” in Evolution of Crop Plants, ed. N. W. Simmonds (London: Longman, 1976), 242, 245, 246.

[10] James F. Hancock, Plant Evolution and the Origin of Crop Species (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992), 266.

[11] Isaac Erich, Geography of Domestication, Foundations of Cultural Geography Series, ed. Philip L. Wagner (Englewood cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 70.

[12] Ibid.; and Edward Hyams, Plants in the Service of Man: 10,000 Years of Domestication (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1971), 26.

[13] Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 150 and 160.

[14] Alfred W. Crosby, “Metamorphosis of the Americas,” in Seeds of Change, 73–74.

[15] Hyams, Plants in the Service of Man, 27.

[16] Sauer, Crop Plants, 116.

[17] Ulysses Prentis Hedrick, A History of Horticulture in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 19.

[18] Ibid., 118.

[19] Ibid., 119.

[20] Ibid., 54.

[21] Ibid., 57.

[22] Ibid., 79.

[23] Ibid., 232.

[24] Sauer, Crop Plants, 117.

[25] Kelly, Navajo Roundup, 102.

[26] Laura Gilpin, The Enduring Navajo (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 99.

[27] Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos, 28.

[28] Ruth M. Underhill, The Navajos (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 66-67.

[29] Hancock, Plant Evolution, 266.

[30] Underhill, The Navajos, 66–67.

[31] Francis H. Elmore. Ethnobotany of the Navajo, A Monograph of New Mexico and the School of American Research, no. 8 (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 1944, 54.

[32] Herbert E. Bolton, Coronado On the Turquoise Trail. Coronado Cuarto Centennial Publications, 1540–1940, ed. George P. Hammond, Vol. 1, (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1949), 416.

[33] Henry F. Dobyns and Robert C. Euler, The Navajo Indians (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1977), 36-38.

[34] Kathy M’Closkey, Swept Under the Rug: A Hidden History of Navajo Weaving (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 28.

[35] Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of Indian Reservations (Albuquerque: Bow Arrow Publishing Company, 1976), 214.

[36] Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007): 62.

[38] Stephen C. Jett, “Peach Cultivation and Use Among the Canyon de Chelly Navajo,” Economic Botany 33 (1979): 305-307.


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