Book Reviews - Autumn 2016

Territories of Conquest

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A new history of the bloodletting that opened the frontier

An Indian delegation in Washington led by Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud (seated second from left), September 1877 (Library of Congress)

By Andrew Graybill

September 6, 2016


 

The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens; Knopf, 576 pp., $35

In 1970, an unknown (but surprisingly prolific) librarian at the University of Illinois named Dee Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a sweeping and passionate retelling of the 19th-century U.S. conquest of the West from the perspective of Native peoples. Brown’s book has electrified readers ever since, approaching three dozen printings and serving as the basis for a 2007 HBO film of the same name. By his own admission, Brown was not concerned with writing a disinterested account; rather, he sought to cast Indians as the victims of unrelenting settler avarice and aggression. But if Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee endures as a moving indictment of federal Indian policy, it is considerably less successful as an exercise in historical investigation.

In his new book, The Earth Is Weeping, military historian Peter Cozzens aims to “bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars,” deliberately adjusting for the heartfelt but nevertheless Manichaean excesses of Brown’s work. This Cozzens surely achieves, in an evenhanded and smoothly written volume that is no less ambitious in scope than Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Indeed, the author whisks readers to sites of conflict in all corners of the trans-Mississippi West, from the mountain redoubts of Arizona and New Mexico to the windblown plains of Montana and the Dakotas. All the while, he populates his story with the requisite dramatis personae, many of whom are among the most famous individuals in American history: Custer and Sitting Bull, Sherman and Crazy Horse, Grant and Geronimo, to say nothing of countless others who drove the action.

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Andrew Graybill is chair and professor of history and codirector of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. His latest book (coedited with Adam Arenson) is  Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States.


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