Book Reviews - Winter 2009

Lucid Madness

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A massacre of Apache women and children, and the difficulties of telling their story

By William Howarth

December 1, 2008


Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History, by Karl Jacoby, Penguin,377 pp., $32.95

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” James Baldwin remarked in 1963, during the interval be­tween “I have a dream” and shots fired in Dallas. While Baldwin was alluding to the long struggle of blacks to gain civil rights, he accurately forecast how the writing of American history would evolve.

One of the liveliest battlegrounds proved to be the trans-Mississippi West, once the heartland of epic settlement narratives, heavy on pioneer grit. In the 1980s an audacious “New Western history” movement arose, led by scholars—notably William Cronon, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, and Donald Worster—honed in the culture wars over race, class, gender, and environment. In their writings the West became a dark terrain, fraught with clashes between forces more brutal and greedy than heroic.

Today New Western history is academic orthodoxy, enshrined in the Penguin History of American Life: 50 books that promise to cross boundaries and blur conventional categories of historical writing. Shadows at Dawn is an early book in this series, with a glowing foreword by Limerick and the author’s grateful thanks for structural advice from Cronon. Notwithstanding those substantial debts, Karl Jacoby manages to stand on his own and deliver a fresh, arresting vision of one violent episode in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.

At dawn on April 30, 1871, in a place called Aravaipa Canyon, 60 miles northeast of Tucson, a large force attacks an Apache encampment. In 30 minutes, death squads and rifle­men shoot, club, or capture 29 people and kill 144. Nearly all are sleeping women and children, since the Apache men are away from camp, undergoing ritual purification.

The killers are Mexicans and Americans from Tucson, aligned with Indians called Pima and Papago, or O’odham, long-time enemies of the Apache, or Nnee. Jacoby uses indigenous names to affirm that such categories are relative and shifting, just as the attack at Aravaipa soon becomes the Camp Grant Massacre, named for a nearby military fort. While this slaughter is not the largest in the West, it comes just as President Grant is promoting peace with Indian tribes, offering rations and farmland in exchange for docility, a policy that implodes at Little Big Horn in 1876.

Jacoby writes about Camp Grant because he grew up in the region and knows its environs well. He artfully conveys the feel of desert country: twisting canyons, sometime creeks, and scrubby hills that yield a meager indigenous diet of seeds and mescal. His ambition is to defend Western Apaches, a people too often cast as villains, thieves, and raiders. For Jacoby the dawn attack in 1871 is a classic act of violence: a moment of lucid madness, followed by tangled, shadowed efforts to contain or explain.

Evidence is one problem for a historian; narrative is the other. To tell this story effectively, Jacoby avoids a single, unified tale threading together all participants. In­stead, he presents each group (O’odham, Spanish, Anglo, and Western Apache) as an entity and follows the arrival of each in the borderlands. He thus maps a timeline but preserves the insular lives of diverse groups. (Historians are new to these methods; readers of literature will recognize the multiple narrators of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Erdrich’s Love Medicine.)

The Rashomon-like cycle begins with “Violence,” as each group comes forth to testify in a virtual docket. The O’odham see Apaches only as enemies, but they also dislike Mexicans and Americans, with their invasive diseases and religions. The Mexicans, or Vecinos (neighbors) as Jacoby calls them, are mixed Spanish-Indian blood, willing to intermarry for social advantage. Unable to end Apache raids, they make bloody reprisals, often capturing children and selling them into slavery and prostitution. The Americans, many from a defeated Confederacy, see Indians as savage and wild, best off exterminated.

Enforcing this circular enmity is the post-war Union Army, which slaughters Indians at will until Grant’s peace policy comes into effect. It promises protection on reservations but instant genocide if the Apaches stray. The Army backs up this threat with torture and mutilation, even of mothers and babies. Behind this cruelty is the conviction that Indians only understand violence and, as indigenous people, are headed for extinction anyway.

The American story takes a turn when Eastern liberals, some descended from abolitionists, call for reform of Indian policy. Settlements like Camp Grant become safe havens for the Apache, feeding paranoia in Tucson when Indian raids continue. The deaths at distant Tubac of a Leslie Wooster and his lover, a Mexican girl called Mrs. Wooster by newspapers, spark the deadly raid on Aravaipa.

Having built this cast of disagreeable allies, Jacoby comes at last to their victims, the Western Apache (Nnee, pronounced Ende). Here he puts on a bravura defense against considerable odds. Apaches leave few artifacts or records, for they tend to erase their traces and to avoid speaking of the dead. He reads the surviving documents creatively, looking for continuity among people who are scattered throughout more than 60 clans, affiliated only loosely by marriage. Called rootless nomads, they inhabit specific places but wander to hunt and gather food.

About their raiding habits, the Apaches have a simple rationale. At first they call the taking of livestock an act of hunting. When punished, they seize enemy property. Poor and hungry, they take from the whites, who own more than they can eat. Jacoby empa­thizes with “the People’s puzzlement as to why these valuable animals were given to the Enemy rather than to themselves.” He reads them as needy rather than criminal, a position that makes moral if not legal sense.

American counter-raids leave the Apache even more impoverished and internally divided, forced to make peace but then raid elsewhere. If they are to survive, they cannot remain in one place. Staying put at Aravaipa is their death song. On the day of the Wooster murders, the Apache women are 100 miles north, lined up to receive food rations at Camp Grant. Their men are gone, preparing for a dance or healing ceremony.

If that account gives some readers pause, Jacoby moves the story quickly into “Justice,” a brief interlude on the trial in Tucson, the first-ever prosecution for Apache killings. One hundred defendants, all the leading Mexican and American elite, pose for a collective photograph. The victims are silent, the ringleaders never testify, and the judge excuses the O’odham as a tribal nation. The claim is self-defense; if Apaches attack, they forfeit protection from the United States. The jury takes 19 minutes to reach a foregone verdict: not guilty.

In “Memory,” a final cycle through his narratives, Jacoby turns to elegy to describe the ironies that overtake events in a borderland. In later years the O’odham find they should have fought the whites, since Americans move upstream of their reservations and divert water. The Vecinos are displaced by railways, which dry up overland trade to Mexico. Shut out of education or marriage, their enemies also become Americans. That community justifies the massacre as a terrible duty in the service of bringing civilization. After 1900, published histories sanction this view and enshrine it at the Arizona Historical Society.

The Nnee speak last, but they are too proud to talk of grief or despair. Some purify Aravaipa and stay there, at a place called Blue Water Pool. Those who depart agree to live as ranchers and farmers. They observe rites, preserve traditions, and make peace with the O’odham. An Apache homeland emerges at San Carlos in southeast Arizona, one of the poorest reservations in America. Its people host memorials to the massacre, but never mark its precise site. Perhaps no one can tell their story.

Karl Jacoby set himself to do that, and in his epilogue, he seems resigned to the difficult task of writing history. He visits Aravaipa Canyon in 2003, about the time his project began. The land is an RV park, a college campus, a place of faux adobe homes—all monuments to amnesia. A ranger confirms: “Far more people come out here for nature than for history.” Jacoby consoles himself that the past is a palimpsest, a record written and erased, yet still awaiting recovery. His task is to correct distortions and hold power up to scrutiny. In that he admirably succeeds. The Apache endure, and we all share in their story of death and life at the margins of America.


William Howarth is Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University. He has written 13 books on literature and history, and as “Dana Hand” he collaborates with Anne Matthews on fiction and film.


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