View the H-SHEAR Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in H-SHEAR's November 2010 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in H-SHEAR's November 2010 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the H-SHEAR home page.
[Ed. Note: Brian DeLay's reply concludes our roundtable review of _War of a Thousand Deserts_. The list is open for your questions and/or comments about the reviews and the book. For a complete list of all the reviews mentioned in this reply, scroll to the bottom of this message. Thanks to Catherine O'Donnell for organizing this forum, and to all the participants.] H-SHEAR ROUNDTABLE REVIEW Brian DeLay Responds to Reviews of _War of a Thousand Deserts_ Too few of us get the opportunity to engage in print with colleagues about our own books. I'm grateful for the privilege of doing so here. I want to thank Catherine O'Donnell, Brian Luskey, and Caleb McDaniel for organizing this forum, and to thank my distinguished critics, on whose work I have often drawn, and whose insights I greatly value. They raise a variety of issues, most revolving around historiography, violence, and the limits of my overall argument. I've arranged my comments around these three broad themes. Historiography: Ned Blackhawk and Leonard Sadosky both raise several points about the book's historiographic position. Blackhawk is right of course that scholars before me have written about violence between northern Mexicans and independent Indians in the decades prior to the U.S. invasion. I very deliberately (and I hope transparently) built upon work by Ralph Adam Smith, Isidro Vizcaya Canales, William B. Griffen, Victor Orozco, Thomas Kavanagh, James Brooks, and others in trying to assemble the larger story as I came to see it. Nothing did as much to inspire my interest in the topic as David J. Weber's magisterial _The Mexican Frontier_, and my debts to that book and its author are great. As I explain in my _AHR_ article and in the book, I endeavored to contribute to this body of work by deepening our quantitative understanding of interethnic violence in northern Mexico; by weaving together stories previously told from local, state, or regional perspectives; by contextualizing raiding within native economies and politics; and by recovering the significance of the northern Mexican drama to broader national and international histories. These tasks seemed worthwhile to me in part because I came to the study of Mexico and the Southwest steeped in the work on colonial eastern North America that Sadosky so nicely describes. I wanted to be part of the conversation between Richard White, Daniel Richter, James Merrell, Fred Anderson, Colin Calloway, and others who have illuminated the intersecting histories of empires and indigenous peoples in North America. Blackhawk raises a critical point about periodization that might also be grouped here under historiography, insofar as it is informed by implicit comparison to other books. He writes that by opening my core analysis around 1830 rather than a century or two earlier, as he and indeed so many of the most prominent writers on the borderlands have done, I tend "to naturalize the seismic changes wrought by Spanish colonialism in the southwest." In particular Blackhawk points to the equestrian revolution, the consolidation of Comanche power on the southern plains, and the consequent Apache diasporas of the 18th century. Given that these processes unfolded long before 1830, my departure date "may not serve as an adequate beginning for gauging the communities whose motivations ultimately fueled 'North America's defining international conflict.'" Though I certainly don't see these processes as natural or inevitable, it's true that I explore them relatively quickly, mostly in chapter one. But I would resist the equation of brevity with naturalization. All three processes serve as vital historical context to key themes in the book: the centrality of horses to all aspects of life on the plains (and to the execution and rationale for raids in particular); the privileged but nonetheless insecure position of Comanches on the Southern Plains by the early 1830s; and the historical animosities between Comanches and Lipan Apaches, which run like a slender thread throughout the text. The equestrian revolution, Comanche expansion into the southern plains, and the displacement of Apaches are all developments that have been explored with increasing sophistication in generations of scholarship, most recently in Pekka Hamalainen's _Comanche Empire_. My book is about the geopolitical transformations of the 1830s and 1840s— understudied transformations that I think were among the most momentous in all of North American history. Beginning my core analysis with the eighteenth-century southern plains would have made sense if I attributed those nineteenth-century transformations primarily to the long arc of native history in the region. But I don't. I attribute those transformations not to Indian power, as such, but to the messy, contingent intersection in the 1830s and 1840s of multiple native histories (both in and out of the southern plains) with the fractious histories of Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States. Telling that story required a more precise recovery of historically contingent actions, contexts, and motivations within that period than would have been possible if I'd tackled 150 years or more. I'll make one more general observation on this point. Obviously there is room for chronologically expansive studies as well as studies that go deeper into shorter periods of inquiry. I'm trying to make sense of a century and a half in my own new project on the arms trade. And yet all people live their lives in particular and shifting historical contexts, contexts of immeasurable (and largely unrecoverable) richness, complexity, and contingency. I think the analytic dangers of naturalizing contingent events or processes are greater for those who would speed over this dynamic terrain in the service of centuries-long narratives, however fresh and even subversive those new narratives might be. Violence: All of the authors raised points about the violence in the book. On the question of violence between indigenous and colonial populations, like Sadosky I very much see _Into the American Woods_ in conversation with _The Middle Ground_. Indeed I see Merrell pushing back against those who generalized too much from the carefully specific case that White argued for the _pays d'en haut_. Merrell's dark meditation on the limits of intercultural compromise, understanding, and sympathy (as well as his striking powers as a writer) influenced my project very much, despite the many differences between colonial Pennsylvania and nineteenth-century northern Mexico. Daniel Walker Howe raises a question about Comanches killing, torturing, or raping their Mexican captives. First a word about the frequency with which these things happened. Comanches and Kiowas killed several thousand Mexicans in the 1830s and 1840s, and some of these victims had been temporary captives. I suspect that the isolated corpses of Mexican men, often found out in the countryside following large campaigns, were sometimes short-term captives killed by Comanches after divulging (or not divulging) local knowledge. On one occasion redeemed Mexican captives reported that Comanches had been killing captives daily ("immolating" was the term they used, though this didn't necessarily mean burning) as they progressed through the north. Texan captivity narratives often report Comanche torture, but I found much less evidence of this in Mexican sources. My sense is that while individual acts of cruelty sometimes amounted to torture, the practice wasn't nearly so systematized as, say, Richter found it to be among the seventeenth-century Iroquois. Rape is more complicated. Here, as much as anywhere else, Blackhawk's point about maintaining skepticism toward the colonial archive bears repeating. Authors on successive American frontiers so frequently and casually accused Indians of rape or intent to rape that in most contexts the charge probably ought to be assumed fraudulent absent unusually compelling evidence. That said, rape has been a depressingly common feature of warfare in human history and some Comanches seem to have engaged in it. Mexicans made the charge far less often than their English-speaking counterparts, and I do think that discursive sensibilities help explain their reticence. I only found one compelling report of rape during the period 1830-1848 (two women captured near Matamoros in 1844 and raped multiple times – both later escaped but one died of her wounds). Joaquín Rivaya Martínez, who has studied Comanche captivity more systematically than anyone else, located nine specific claims of Comanche rape in sources he consulted from 1700 to 1875. He notes, though, that every available woman's narrative of captivity among Comanches mentions attempted sexual abuse by at least one Comanche man. So has Comanche cruelty been exaggerated? By some chroniclers, definitely. The early historians of Texas seemed particularly adept at spinning lurid and inflated tales of Comanche savagery, often to excuse or obscure Texan massacres of Comanche families in camp. But that doesn't mean Comanches never treated other peoples cruelly. Thousands of men, women, and children in northern Mexico knew they did. This brings me to another of Howe's points, one that touches upon the difficulty of writing about intercultural borderland violence. He observes that I'm "quite willing to criticize both Mexican and U.S. policy-makers, on practical and moral grounds alike," yet writes that I virtually never criticize "Native American policy-makers, no matter how unwise or immoral their actions may seem to the reader." Fair enough: insofar as my aim throughout the project was to tell a shared story, it is a weakness in the book's argument if careful readers can come away seeing this sort of judgmental imbalance (and Howe isn't the first to raise it with me). I suppose I am more overtly critical when writing about U.S. and Mexican policymakers than when writing about Indian leaders. Why? It certainly isn't because I think the Texan, Mexican, and American actors in the book had a monopoly on folly, avarice, and cruelty. To my mind this isn't so much a function of moral relativism or even of contemporary historiographic politics, though of course it's hardly novel or risky these days to condemn the likes of Mirabeau Lamar, Antonio López de Santa Anna, or James K. Polk. At bottom the problem has to do with sources. It's easier to censure a leader on practical or moral grounds when the leader's deeds can be documented and set against a sizable archive of the person's speeches and writings. Nothing comparable exists for the key native leaders in my study. For a handful I had names, brief physical descriptions, a few scattered anecdotes, and second or third-hand accounts of one or two speeches or conversations. For a slightly larger group I had names and short stories drawn from hearsay. For the majority of influential Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Navajo men during the 1830s and 1840s, I had practically no personal information whatsoever. No one's going to uncover hypocrisy, political cowardice, dissimulation, or megalomania in sources as thin as these. Even failings as general and widespread as simple miscalculation and foolhardy policymaking are difficult to pin down without a clearer record of objectives and actions. This is just one of the consequences of working with such a deeply imbalanced set of sources. That imbalance is the key obstacle to crafting integrated borderland narratives, and it's obviously more acute in some documentary contexts than others. I knew that I couldn't entirely overcome the obstacle, but I tried to mitigate it in part by taking Indian violence seriously. Though the critique admittedly has a different quality to it than those I aim at the leaders of states, my descriptions and discussions of raids are nonetheless a critique. These descriptions foreground brutality—the brutal attempt by Comanche and Kiowa men to "butcher, enslave, and impoverish people who had done them little harm" (138). Mostly this foregrounding entailed simple description. I wanted to give readers a sense of the carnage of raiding and, to the degree possible given the sources, give them a glimpse of the suffering, terror, and heartbreak it inflicted. Only rarely did I find first-hand survivor testimony from immediate victims. Far more usually, local officials at one or two removes described the events in spare language peppered with stock epithets about barbarism and savagery. So the sources put limits on how textured my descriptions of raids and their consequences could be. But I came to believe that the spare reports themselves had a kind of power that could only be diluted by my editorializing. I also came to think that if I invoked them well and steadily (but not redundantly), readers would finish the book knowing where I stood without my having to make the sorts of individual critiques that Howe noticed me leveling at the leaders of states. Taking Indian violence seriously meant not only describing but also explaining it. If the narrative was going to explore the dynamics and motivations behind the actions of states and their constituents, it had to do the same with the actions of native polities and their constituents. Part one of the book attempts to explain the basis for the imperfect peace that existed around 1830; the timing of expansions in raiding activity, most especially through shifting geopolitics on and around the southern plains; the material/economic interests and the diverse trading networks that encouraged raids; and the political mechanisms behind raiding campaigns. This last component is where I introduce my idea about the politics of vengeance, and Blackhawk is right that it has proven to be the most controversial claim in the book. I offered this interpretation in light of recent scholarship that had portrayed raids as apolitical, individualistic, and undertaken almost exclusively for materialistic reasons. In part because these interpretations sought to cover centuries of borderlands history, they tended to focus on "raiding as an ongoing economic activity, rather than on raids as historical events (117)." But by narrowing my focus to the 1830s and 1840s and looking quantitatively at what Comanches and Kiowas actually did south of the Río Grande—by treating raids as historical events—I uncovered patterns that couldn't be explained solely through individualism and economic calculation. The campaigns were often huge relative to the small southern plains populations, remarkably ambitious and coordinated, and phenomenally destructive. I don't argue that "raids arose from culture," or that vengeance by itself explains Comanche and Kiowa campaigns into Mexico. If somehow all the horses and mules had disappeared from northern Mexico overnight, raids no doubt would have become far less common and significant. What I do argue is that Comanche and Kiowa political traditions surrounding vengeance help explain things that need explaining: the size, coordination, and destructive character of Comanche and Kiowa raiding campaigns. Raiding cannot be reduced solely to individual material ambition. Andrés Reséndez asks whether this interpretation could be applied to other native peoples in northern New Spain or northern Mexico. I do think the methodological approach of seeking a quantitative understanding of borderland conflicts and of looking systematically at nonstate political traditions can be illuminating in other contexts. My comments about Apaches and Navajos cooperating among themselves in pursuit of shared goals were part of a more general plea for historians to take Indian politics more seriously, especially in the context of North America's international history. But my argument about the politics of vengeance is quite specific in time and place. Most non state-organized societies in world history had important, communal protocols for avenging deaths. Comanches and Kiowas were unusual (though not so unusual in the context of the Great Plains) in that their protocols for obtaining vengeance reached out far beyond immediate or even extended family. So it wasn't just that injured or grieving Comanches and Kiowas could enlist people to help them take revenge, it was that they could enlist hundreds of people – including people they'd probably never met – to help them do so. And, critically, men on the southern plains had powerful incentive to join in because the enemies in question were rich in animal wealth, and because key geopolitical events of the 1830s and early 1840s had opened up vast market opportunities for men on the southern plains with horses and mules to sell. Finally, in contrast to huge revenge campaigns undertaken on the Plains, below the river five hundred or a thousand mounted men could campaign together for several weeks or more thanks to the greater availability (and reliability) of water, fodder, and meat. So while the Coahuiltecans that Reséndez mentions and, indeed, all stateless societies had dynamic and culturally specific mechanisms for coordinating in pursuit of shared goals—mechanisms that deserve greater attention than they usually receive—the model I present in the book is rooted in a particular time and place. Overall Argument: I'll conclude with Reséndez's question about the limits of my argument. He writes that he doesn't think I "would go so far as to argue that in the absence of the Indian wars the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War would have been different." That is, however, precisely what I believe and exactly what I argue in the book. Warfare with independent Indians transformed the northern third of Mexico in the fifteen years prior to the U.S.-invasion, leaving its countryside depopulated and the remaining inhabitants more alienated from national government, poorer, less organized, and less capable of self-defense. These traumas powerfully influenced observers in the United States, who saw only ruin, incompetence, and chaos when they began paying sustained attention to northern Mexico after the Texas rebellion. Such perceptions help explain why key American policymakers came to think it legitimate and feasible (given the state of the American military) to obtain Mexican national territory through an aggressive land war. Once begun, the U.S. war effort took advantage of the War of a Thousand Deserts in two ways. First and most practically, the history and intensifying reality of the Indian wars made it far easier for the U.S. to conquer and occupy northern Mexico. Mexican officers found it increasingly difficult to mobilize men from northern states, and this undoubtedly hampered the formal Mexican war effort (most consequentially, I argue, at the Battle of Buena Vista). More importantly, the legacy and ongoing reality of Indian raiding left tens of thousands of northern men unable or simply unwilling to leave their families and join guerrilla leaders hoping to upend the U.S. occupation. With rudimentary supply service in an arid, alien, and disease-prone environment, and amid Mexicans who knew that they and their religion were widely despised by the invaders, American leaders rightly feared popular action against the occupation as much or more than they worried about the Mexican Army. Yet guerrilla leaders never mobilized the irregular force that they hoped for. Had American fears been realized and a sizable, determined insurgency thrown the occupation into crisis, Polk would have found it a political and practical impossibility to escalate the war by sending Scott to Mexico City (along with so many of Taylor's men from the "pacified" north). Second, the U.S. exploited Mexico's wars with independent Indians both imaginatively and rhetorically, to decisive effect. The War of a Thousand Deserts allowed U.S. commentators and politicians to frame the dismemberment of Mexico as an act of salvation. A decade of discourse about savage Indians and feeble Mexicans conditioned American assumptions as to the wisdom, justice, and propriety of demanding Mexico surrender half its national territory. These assumptions and the conclusions drawn from them may be seen in books, periodicals, military correspondence, congressional debates, and presidential writings and speeches from 1846 and 1847, and are most obvious in Article Eleven of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war. Undoubtedly, Mexico still would have had grievous, systemic problems without its conflicts with the north's independent Indians. These problems would have contributed to irksome disputes with the United States, among other foreign powers. And some in the U.S., including people with real influence over policy, would still have coveted northern Mexican territory. But I think we too often, well, "naturalize" U.S. conquest. I suspect Reséndez would agree that U.S. historians' longstanding preoccupation with Manifest Destiny is a symptom of this naturalization. That preoccupation seems built on the assumption that the power imbalance between the U.S. and Mexico (or, for that matter, between the U.S. and the continent's Indian polities) was so great that self-image mattered more than facts on the ground. The major historical problem surrounding the geopolitical changes of the 1830s and 1840s is, by extension, explaining how Americans thought about themselves. But the historical experience of the United States over the last century has made it unmistakably clear that economic and military superiority alone (or garnished with self-confidence and assumptions of divine favor) cannot insure success in war. The vast transfer of territory from Mexico to the United States in 1848 depended on several, highly contingent developments—and there was nothing inevitable about it. Events precipitated by independent Indians profoundly influenced three of the most important of these contingent developments: the public and private justifications Americans found necessary to provoke a war with a neighboring republic, the ability to defeat Mexico's military and sustain an occupation in alien country, and the audacity to demand that Mexico surrender half its national territory as a condition for ending the war. My most basic claim, then, is that the geopolitical transformations of the mid-nineteenth century emerged out of the intersection of U.S., Mexican, and Indian histories. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. -- Brian Delay is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. Notes . For sources on rape, see _War of a Thousand Deserts_, 368, note 18; and Joaquín Rivaya Martínez, "Captivity and Adoption among the Comanche Indians" (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 2006), 207-11. . This is an obstacle I've discussed elsewhere, in the context of Fred Anderson's _Crucible of War_. See Brian DeLay, "Narrative Syle and Indian Actors in the Seven Years' War," _Common-Place_ 1, no. 1 (September 2000), http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-01/crucible/crucible-delay.shtml . PREVIOUS ENTRIES: 1. Introduction by Catherine O'Donnell (Nov. 16) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=1011&week=c&msg=aVX7R2riZGJRb1fI2M2NkA&user=&pw= 2. Ned Blackhawk (Nov. 16) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=1011&week=c&msg=uVUNhGt6MuzzYjXM5jArxA&user=&pw= 3. Andrés Reséndez (Nov. 17) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=1011&week=c&msg=0LwNCVUp9HHw7neIFbrSOw&user=&pw= 4. Leonard Sadosky (Nov. 18) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=1011&week=c&msg=Py8UWNFNb82l3fUrefm3ug&user=&pw= 5. Daniel Walker Howe (Nov. 19) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=1011&week=c&msg=k0NwCMfSHl2U09YPPp2wGA&user=&pw=