Indian Terror on Our New Frontier

mcmurtry_1-070209.jpg
‘The Storm—Apache,’ 1906; photograph by Edward S. Curtis

The two action-packed and densely argued histories by Brian DeLay and Karl Jacoby concern themselves with the terror, carnage, and widespread desolation suffered by the citizens of northern Mexico and the American Southwest, mainly in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. This terror was wrought for the most part by Apaches, Comanches, and other raiding tribes of the plains and deserts. It may not have produced a thousand deserts. But it produced some.

Both DeLay and Jacoby deal with broad swatches of history, though Jacoby slowly narrows his focus in order to illuminate a single event: the Camp Grant Massacre, which took place near Tucson on April 30, 1871. Members of three cultures—white, Mexican, and Papago-Pima (who now prefer to be called the Tohono O’odhams) did the killing. The victims, the fourth culture in this dark story, were Apache.

Both authors acquit themselves well, as they produce histories which require of them much cultural, political, military, and linguistic insight. I’ll start with the beheadings. There is, in the Frontier Army Museum, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a rare Kiowa calendar. The Kiowas appear to have kept their calendar-worthy events to two a year, one for winter and one for summer. The summer entry for 1833 translates simply as “the summer they cut off their heads.” The beheaders were probably Osage, and the victims women and children of the Kiowas, whose hiding place had been discovered.

This brief entry in a Native American calendar reminds me of nothing so much as—well—the headlines. Last year in Tijuana, Mexico, nine headless bodies were discovered; the heads, in plastic bags for ease of delivery, were nearby. (The Kiowa heads, I believe, were in pots.)

A few years earlier, in Uruapan, Mexico, a few heads were easily delivered by the picturesque method of rolling them into a popular dance hall. Uruapan is a place where assassins flourish, as they do up the Rio Grande in Juárez, a city where more than three hundred young women have disappeared since the mid-1990s.

And this autumn, in the humble Mexican border town of Nogales, Sonora, an hour from where I write, a pitched battle broke out downtown between the police and the drug cartels, leaving almost a dozen dead and no doubt scaring the hell out of the day’s tourists, who had casually strolled over to buy a few trinkets, eat some huevos rancheros, and get their Valium prescriptions refilled on the cheap.

In fact our border with Mexico has been dangerous from the day it became a border. Cormac McCarthy’s justly acclaimed Blood Meridian deals with the border country in the period of transfer, and if that doesn’t scare you his more recent look at the border, No Country for Old Men, probably will. Settlers, travelers, diplomats, surveyors, military men, and even the outlaws themselves learned to tread cautiously in northern Mexico, the vast area that had been …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.