One of the great war leaders of the Navajo, Manuelito had a long history of fighting his people's enemies prior to becoming a principal opponent of the U.S. government. Born in what is now southeastern Utah, he became a warrior at a young age and fought in raids against the Mexicans, Hopi and Zuni during the 1830s. By 1848 as the United States ended its war with Mexico and annexed much of the Southwest as a new U.S. territory, Manuelito was already a leading war leader of the Navajos.

In 1855 Manuelito became the chief in his community. That same year the U.S. built Ft. Defiance in New Mexico which led to the clash of Manuelito's Navajos and the Americans at Ft. Defiance. The Navajos had always grazed their herds on the pasture close to the fort and now the post commander decided to do the same. He ordered the Navajos to move their stock and when they refused the army shot 60 of Manuelito’s horses and more than 100 of his sheep. Thus began the first of many battles. Fortunately, this one lasted only a few weeks before a peace treaty was signed.

Joining with Barboncito in 1861 Manuelito almost succeeded in taking Ft. Defiance, but the army was forewarned and managed to drive the warriors back. Peace came again, but not for long. When Manuelito was accused of cheating at a horse race, artillery was fired into a crowd of Navajos and ten Indians were killed. Once again, war resumed.

By 1863 Gen. James Carleton began an effort to force the Navajos to move to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in New Mexico. Col. Kit Carson led the endeavor instituting a "scorched-earth" policy against the Navajo, which involved killing their livestock and burning their homes and crops. While Manuelito’s band held out the longest, even he eventually surrendered and joined other Navajos held in captivity at Bosque Redondo.

More than 2,000 Navajo died at Bosque Redondo of disease and starvation. In 1868 Manuelito and other chiefs traveled to Washington to negotiate a return to their homes. After ratification of the treaty of 1868, the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland. Upon returning home, Manuelito served as principal Navajo chief and chief of tribal police. During his years as chief, he traveled once again to Washington to meet with President U.S. Grant. He died in 1894 at the age of 76.