Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Brian DeLay's "War of a Thousand Deserts"

Brian DeLay is assistant professor of history, University of Colorado, Boulder.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, and reported the following:
[The German] traveler characterized him as “the genuine, unadulterated picture of a North American Indian.” Unlike his companions he wore no Euro-American textiles and sat naked above the waist with a bison hide around his hips. He had yellow copper rings around his arms, beads around his neck, long black hair hanging down, and “sat there with the earnest (to the European almost apathetic) expression of the North American savage.” The artist John Mix Stanley accompanied a U.S. delegation onto the southern plains in 1844 and painted Potsanaquahip’s portrait, but the work was destroyed along with another 199 of Stanley’s paintings in the Smithsonian fire of 1865.

At first glance, page 99 of my book War of a Thousand Deserts seemed to me an awkward fit for Ford Madox Ford’s test. That page concludes a section cobbling together the few surviving descriptions of two Comanche men (Pia Kusa and Postanaquahip) who were key figures on the southern plains in the 1830s and 1840s. We know very little about individual Comanches from this period, so the passage is quite unlike the rest of the book.

Upon reflection, though, I realized that in its very atypicality page 99 points to the book’s essential argument. For more than a 150 years, the story of the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) has been a story about states. Whether Mexicans or Americans, whether writing in the 1850s or the 1990s, historians have crafted narratives of the war with virtually no conceptual space for non-state actors like Navajos, Apaches, and Comanches. But in the fifteen years prior to the U.S. invasion, these Indian peoples waged a little-known yet devastating war of their own against northern Mexicans. By the mid-1840s, mounted Indian raiders were laying waste to ranches and towns across nine Mexican states; killing thousands, enslaving hundreds, burning buildings, and stealing or slaughtering tens of thousands of domestic animals. These events remade the ground upon which Mexico and the United States would compete. Indian warriors ruined much of northern Mexico’s economy, depopulated its countryside, and left man-made “deserts” in place of thriving settlements. This vast interethnic war informed and emboldened U.S. arguments in favor of seizing Mexican territory while leaving northern Mexicans too divided, exhausted, and distracted to resist the American invasion and subsequent occupation.

Therefore the story of the U.S.-Mexican War, to which Mexico lost half of its national territory, has to be more than a story about states. And it would be insufficient to simply concede that Indian raids affected the international contest. What’s called for is a new narrative, one that takes the economic and political context of Indian raiding as seriously as the economic and political context of U.S. expansion. This is what War of a Thousand Deserts tries to do, devoting equal attention to indigenous polities and the nation-states surrounding them, and presenting an integrated narrative of their colliding histories. Page 99 marshals the meager evidence to put faces and names to two Indian men among thousands who did so much to reshape North America in the mid-19th century.
Read an excerpt from War of a Thousand Deserts, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Visit Brian DeLay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue