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Wars for Empire: Apaches, the United States, and the Southwest Borderlands

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After the end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, the Southwest Borderlands remained hotly contested territory. Over following decades, the United States government exerted control in the Southwest by containing, destroying, segregating, and deporting indigenous peoples—in essence conducting an extended military campaign that culminated with the capture of Geronimo and the forced removal of the Chiricahua Apaches in 1886. In this book, Janne Lahti charts these encounters and the cultural differences that shaped them. Wars for Empire offers a new perspective on the conduct, duration, intensity, and ultimate outcome of one of America's longest wars.

Centuries of conflict with Spain and Mexico had honed Apache war-making abilities and encouraged a culture based in part on warrior values, from physical prowess and specialized skills to a shared belief in individual effort. In contrast, U.S. military forces lacked sufficient training and had little public support. The splintered, protracted, and ferocious warfare exposed the limitations of the U.S. military and of federal Indian policies, challenging narratives of American supremacy in the West. Lahti maps the ways in which these weaknesses undermined the U.S. advance. He also stresses how various Apache groups reacted differently to the U.S. invasion. Ultimately, new technologies, the expansion of Euro-American settlements, and decades of war and deception ended armed Apache resistance.

By comparing competing martial cultures and examining violence in the Southwest, Wars for Empire provides a new understanding of critical decades of American imperial expansion and a moment in the history of settler colonialism with worldwide significance.

ISBN-13: 9780806157429

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 10-05-2017

Pages: 328

Product Dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt



The people were poor. ... Then they found out there were white men living somewhere. They also discovered that white people had something to live on. The Indians began to live by stealing. ... Before this they were poor but now they lived well. ... They were happy. They said that stealing from those who lived on the earth was a grand way to live. ... They lived by going to war.

— San Carlos Apache story

We wint to Arizona for to fight the Injins there; We came near being made bald-headed, but they never got our hair

— Old army song

"I am the only one living to tell what happened to my people," recalled the adult Mike Burns, born Hoomothyaa, a Yavapai-Apache. When he was a child, on December 28, 1872, the family and kin of Burns had been massacred before his very eyes at Arizona's Salt River, on the north side of the mouth of Fish Creek. While much time had passed, the haunting tragedy remained fresh in his mind. The U.S. Army had surprised and blasted a group of Kwevkepayas/Tontos (mixed assembly of Yavapais and Apaches) who had huddled together for safety in what they presumed was an impregnable cave protected by sandstone boulders high above the riverbed. While bloody, the attack, known today as the Skeleton/Salt River Cave Massacre, was not a random act. In fact, it was part of a meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed military campaign against Western Apache and Yavapai homes that lasted for two years. Its purpose was to end the sovereignty of these Indians and force the survivors to live in reservations under American authority.

When the battle- and obliteration-hungry white troops, guided and aided by O'odham auxiliaries, located the Indians at the cave, they, avoiding a frontal charge, began to fire "bucketsful of led," Burns recounted, from a cliff to the direction of the entrance. The soldiers actually did not see the Indians, but instead wreaked destruction wholesale. Ricocheting from the walls, the bullets shred to pieces any flesh they hit, whether man, woman, or child. "Not content with the deadly efficacy of bullets," Lt. John Bourke, one of the attackers, noted in his diary, some soldiers took position upon the crest of the overhanging bluff, from where they projected "large masses of rock which thundered down the precipice mangling and destroying whatsoever they encountered." Finishing the ghastly scene, the O'odhams smashed the skulls of the dying. "It was so horrid to look on," as those hit "could not be recognized as humans," Burns recalled of the moment when he faced the remains of his family. Burns had lost his father, grandfather, and two siblings. His aunt, uncle, and five cousins were also among the dead. Many others were slain as well, although no one knows exactly how many. The most commonly accepted number of Indians killed is 76, although estimates range anywhere from 57 to 225. What is certain is that not a single white soldier had died. None was even seriously wounded. The soldiers had also destroyed the indigenous material property, including baskets, hides, skins, and seeds. This was standard practice done so that the survivors could not continue living as independent people.

As representatives of a military culture that favored big battles and tended to measure military success in the volume of carnage produced and in the totality of destruction inflicted on enemy forces, property, society, and environment, Anglo fighters had little doubt in their minds that the clash at Salt River had been a success as great as the generally ignominious borderlands wars could offer. Overlooking the butchery of helpless victims, the troops celebrated a great victory that signaled a bright future for the borderlands. Some of the attackers wrote, for instance, how their achievement represented "an important contribution" toward peace, as it was "the most signal blow ever received by the Apaches in Arizona." In many white minds, the slaughter at the cave stood as a much-needed lesson for the Apaches opposing the benign freedom's empire that the United States saw itself representing. On the other hand, coming from a military culture that linked war with community, individual status, the acquisition of material resources, and the outwitting of rival groups, Burns saw unnecessary and insensible killing of monumental proportions. Even years later, after having lived and been schooled in the Anglo society, he experienced severe difficulties in comprehending and processing the killing that had taken place at Salt River. In fact, Burns felt, "In all history no civilized race has murdered another as the American soldiers did my people in the year 1872. They slaughtered men, women, and children without mercy, as if they were not human."

Freedom's Empire and the Southwest Borderlands

While their government made claims and shed blood over it, masses of white Americans were not drawn to the Southwest borderlands in the mid-1800s. Largely devoid of navigable rivers, water, and rich soil, it instead featured punishing heat, deserts, jagged canyons, and fearsome mountains. The region also lacked industry and infrastructure, such as telegraph lines or railroads, to attract investment. Moreover, the region's Hispanic (and Catholic) culture looked foreign, backward, and inferior, and thus far from ideal for integration in most Anglo eyes. In the view of many Anglos, the Southwest borderlands served only as a grueling passage to California or the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Topping the list of less-than-great selling points, however, was the considerable military power of the borderlands' independent Indians.

Settler desires and perceptions deserve attention because demographics had fueled American settler colonialism in the cotton South, the Ohio region, the Kentucky frontier, and most of the places the young republic had coveted and conquered in the past. Aided by contagious diseases that killed Natives lacking immunity, massive movement of peoples and high birthrates, together with technology and market capitalism, thundered American settler colonialism onward. Throughout the 1800s, the continental empire functioned as one of the most massive "supplanting societies," which, according to David Day, is "a society that moves onto the land of another with the intention of making that land its own" in world history. But the primacy of demographic invasion did not apply in Arizona and New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of white settlers did not overwhelm the Southwest in a couple of years, like they did in northern California, or even in a generation, as happened on much of the plains. In fact, for most of the U.S.-Apache conflict the borderlands remained mostly unpopulated by whites outside the small, frequently transient mining communities and the handful of predominantly Hispanic villages such as Tucson and Mesilla. Arizona had only 2,421 residents categorized as "white" (including Hispanics) in 1860 and 9,581 in 1870, of whom probably no more than 4,000 were Anglos, most of them U.S. Army soldiers. The number of whites with non-Hispanic parentage in New Mexico stood somewhere between two thousand and eight thousand people during the period between 1850 and 1870. Moreover, the first Anglo-built town of any permanence and a population in the thousands in Arizona had to wait until the mid-1860s with the birth of Prescott, which resulted from a mining boom on the very lands where Mike Burns and his community lived. There, modest growth happened a few years earlier than it did in Silver City (also at the hub of a mining area) and a touch later than it did in Las Cruces, the two principal Anglo-established urban centers in the Apache lands of southern New Mexico.

If settler masses were initially less than tempted by the borderlands, those occupying the halls of government in Washington, D.C., or managing businesses in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, or Chicago did not necessarily find much appeal in the region either. For those who were even aware of the region, it stood for a remote outback, economically and politically irrelevant at least until remade — first, by the potential expansion of cotton agriculture and slavery and, second, after that plan turned sour, by the often prophesized yet generally unrealized mining bonanzas. Prior to the 1880s, it seemed that the borderlands warranted substantial national attention only when episodes of exceptional violence, like the 1871 massacre at Camp Grant or the grimness of Bosque Redondo in the mid-1860s, made a splash on the horizon of the reading public.

If it saw no value in the area, why did the United States invade and fight for four decades to gain control over New Mexico and Arizona? Why did the soldiers slaughter Mike Burns's family at Salt River? One possible answer is that expansion was what made America. The United States was born, manufactured, and maintained through conquest and war. A surging economy with a young and energetic population in the millions was held together and bestowed with social coherence and meaning through an identity built around violence and the taking of other people's lands.

Many Americans, among them Thomas Jefferson, saw that the assertive and relentless activities of white Americans contributed to an "empire for liberty" that extended the sphere of freedom through benign inclusion. Freedom's empire also embraced a vision for America's divine and undivided right to the continent. Made popular in the 1840s, this Manifest Destiny effectively fueled and camouflaged the violent expansion of a race-based regime of settlement, extraction, and exploitation set up on conquered lands. Manifest Destiny also refuted rival claims and stemmed off competition, whether indigenous or European. It additionally proved useful in enforcing a notion of shared destiny in a fractured federation. As pointed out by historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, the United States was chronically troubled by a fragile and unstable collective identity in need of constant securing and reaffirming in the face of immigration, the vexed question of slavery, and secessionism. Although competing visions of empire could tear America apart, as happened in the Civil War, empire could be the tool needed to unify diverse interests. Furthermore, together with the just-war ideology, fully developed in the United States during the War of 1812, it was possible to argue that, first, the United States does not commit aggression but only reacts to violent actions of others, and, second, that it does not only suppress the violent and unjust regimes of others (whether indigenous, Mexican, or Confederate) but saves the places it occupies by bringing freedom, civilization, and democracy to the "liberated." Expansion and its justifications proved so intoxicating that the mission to liberate seemed not merely America's right but, often, its duty. For those troubled by the devastation caused by conquest, the solution was to make the Indians clones of whites and thus legitimize empire through the civilizing mission.

In some ways the takeover of the Southwest borderlands represented just the latest stage in a contest for North America that had been brewing for centuries. Precedent was certainly in the United States' favor when only its attempt to take Canada in the War of 1812 could be counted as a major failure. While precedent made conquest a road easier to take and a choice more familiar and fathomable, it still does not adequately explain why U.S. troops marched on the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 1846 or why they slaughtered the Burns family twenty-six years later in an effort to make the Southwest theirs. No one explanation actually does.

Gaining nearly half of Mexican territory, some Americans saw in the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War a shameful exploitation of a weaker neighbor. Many did not expect or demand adding any more lands to the empire at the onset or at the end of the war. But for others the end to the war seemed fair as it brought a lot of land and eliminated Mexican claims to the western lands. Certainly it is difficult to ignore the sympathy for the cause of rebellious Texans and the thirst of southern politicians and plantation owners dreaming of a continent-wide cotton empire and slave economy. Still, equally critical were dreams of Pacific ascendancy, the bounty of "golden" California, and the potency of Asian trade. In part, Apache lands were taken because the needs of Pacific dominance called for a snow-free transcontinental passage, although such a passage would be operated by wagons, mules, and horses rather than by railroads for over thirty years.

And the personal influence and commitment of President James Polk certainly did matter. Imagining himself as a younger copy of Andrew Jackson, whom many saw as the leading expansionist of the realm in the early 1800s, Polk understood expansion as his life's mission. He felt very strongly that it would solve all America's problems, a sizable list that included, but was not limited to, unrestrained immigration, urban unrest, religious friction, slavery, and the supremacy of northeastern business elites. Finding answers to any of these issues in the Southwest borderlands would certainly escape the observation of most contemporaries. Even Polk, who, by obsessively micromanaging the U.S.-Mexican War, worked himself to death, realized that he got New Mexico and what would become Arizona as a bonus alongside the more desirable California and Texas.

That the homelands of Mike Burns had fallen under the umbrella of freedom's empire resulted from a political compromise reached by an expansion-hungry yet internally fragile supplanting society. There had also been those Americans who wanted more or the whole of Mexico, while others had argued that Mexico had too many Mexicans, who, perceived as racially inferior, could potentially poison the white settler empire. While the few thousand Apaches did not threaten the demographic integrity of freedom's empire, they would pose serious questions to its military prowess.

Real War and Real Fighters

If empire corresponded with freedom in nineteenth-century American minds, then the concept of "real war" remained stubbornly linked to battles. For much of the 1800s, American soldiers fought in a succession of unconventional conflicts that transpired with nearly chronic frequency. Typically these engagements, especially in the trans-Mississippi West, included few major set-piece battles, instead blending guerrilla-type conflict with the targeting of societies and their material base. Still, in many minds real war continued to refer to conflicts against and between European powers and their offspring states. War also often meant the same as battles, a series of the latter constituting the former. Battle, in turn, ideally indicated a daylight clash between two armies on an open terrain fought until the other side was destroyed or submitted, surrendering or retreating honorably. Battle was a supposedly legitimate engagement practiced by civilized people. It was governed by rules of warfare that included white flags, respect for bodies of slain foes, and protection of prisoners and noncombatants. Battle represented the singular event where men were measured and things were decided, and where societies overpowered others or fell to oblivion. Napoleon's efforts had represented the contemporary standard of battle-centered warfare in the early century, but later the Civil War and the wars that led to German unification increasingly set the mark in industrial killing.

In part because of their general fixation with battles and European warfare, the upper echelons of American military thinkers routinely failed to take seriously the unconventional wars their armed forces were consistently involved in. Moreover, the War of 1812 had proven the vulnerability of coastal cities on the Atlantic and the Gulf against attack from the sea, and this led American military minds to pay attention to deterring maritime invasion. Shifting the emphasis more toward the offensive, the U.S.-Mexican War and the success of United States in it seemed to reinforce the notion that the nation's greatness would be decided in conventional wars, thus making the study and emulation of European armies ever more vital.

The Civil War brought to the table a new kind of emphasis on total war, a view that the concept covered not merely the destruction of noncombatants or enemy property but also total submission of enemy communities and the grinding down of its collective will by mastery over nature. Still, the Civil War had also made increasingly pervasive the notion that honor in warfare arose almost exclusively from the carnage of the battlefield, from the sound defeat of enemy combatants in the field of glory. This, together with the pervasive belief that battles decide matters efficiently and quickly, ensured that the destruction of enemy's armed force in battle remained representative of American military thinking regardless of the theater of operations or the ethnicity/race of the adversary. This would become evident in the Southwest borderlands as well when officers and soldiers searched in vain for battles when none were forthcoming.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 3

Part I Cultures of War 15

1 Ethos 17

2 Body 35

3 Operations 52

Part II Shapes of Violence 91

4 Containment 93

5 Extermination 126

6 Internment 160

7 Insurgency 201

Epilogue 237

Notes 243

Bibliography 279

Index 305