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Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890

Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890

by Larry McMurtry

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In Oh What a Slaughter, Larry McMurtry has written a unique, brilliant, and searing history of the bloody massacres that marked -- and marred -- the settling of the American West in the nineteenth century, and which still provoke immense controversy today.

Here are the true stories of the West's most terrible massacres -- Sacramento River, Mountain


In Oh What a Slaughter, Larry McMurtry has written a unique, brilliant, and searing history of the bloody massacres that marked -- and marred -- the settling of the American West in the nineteenth century, and which still provoke immense controversy today.

Here are the true stories of the West's most terrible massacres -- Sacramento River, Mountain Meadows, Sand Creek, Marias River, Camp Grant, and Wounded Knee, among others. These massacres involved Americans killing Indians, but also Indians killing Americans, and, in the case of the hugely controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, Mormons slaughtering a party of American settlers, including women and children.

McMurtry's evocative descriptions of these events recall their full horror, and the deep, constant apprehension and dread endured by both pioneers and Indians. By modern standards the death tolls were often small -- Custer's famous defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876 was the only encounter to involve more than two hundred dead -- yet in the thinly populated West of that time, the violent extinction of a hundred people had a colossal impact on all sides. Though the perpetrators often went unpunished, many guilty and traumatized men felt compelled to tell and retell the horrors they had committed. From letters and diaries, McMurtry has created a moving and swiftly paced narrative, as memorable in its way as such classics as Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star and Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

In Larry McMurtry's own words:
"I have visited all but one of these famous massacre sites -- the Sacramento River massacre of 1846 is so forgotten that its site near the northern California village of Vina can only be approximated. It is no surprise to report that none of the sites are exactly pleasant places to be, though the Camp Grant site north of Tucson does have a pretty community college nearby. In general, the taint that followed the terror still lingers and is still powerful enough to affect locals who happen to live nearby. None of the massacres were effectively covered up, though the Sacramento River massacre was overlooked for a very long time.

"But the lesson, if it is a lesson, is that blood -- in time, and, often, not that much time -- will out. In case after case the dead have managed to assert a surprising potency.

"The deep, constant apprehension, which neither the pioneers nor the Indians escaped, has, it seems to me, been too seldom factored in by historians of the settlement era, though certainly it saturates the diary-literature of the pioneers, particularly the diary-literature produced by frontier women, who were, of course, the likeliest candidates for rapine and kidnap."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) recounts six Western frontier massacres in this meandering mixture of memoir, literary criticism, jeremiad and history. "In most cases," McMurtry acknowledges, "the only undisputed fact about a given massacre is the date on which it occurred." Rightly enough, such disputes don't keep him from approaching these subjects with strong opinions. "Whites killed whites" at Mountain Meadows (1857); "a camp of one hundred percent peaceful Indians" was attacked at Sand Creek (1864). At Marias River (1870), Blackfeet Indians "dying anyway" of smallpox were slaughtered, and at Camp Grant (1871) "all the people killed-excepting one old man and a `well-grown' boy-were women and children." McMurtry's easygoing voice and hop-and-skip pace leave comprehensiveness to the many books to which he refers, but his own volume would have been stronger, and more accessible to readers unfamiliar with frontier history, if it had been organized more systematically. As is, the book feels tossed off, and his passing references to contemporary massacres-in Rwanda, New York and Iraq, for example-don't add much resonance. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Noted novelist McMurtry makes another nonfiction foray, this time studying several of the 19th-century massacres that occurred between native tribes of the American West and the white settlers who were moving there. He focuses on six massacres in particular: those that took place at Sacramento River (1846), Mountain Meadows (1857), Sand Creek (1864), Marias River (1870), Camp Grant (1871), and Wounded Knee (1890). He selected these as "the famous massacres," each resulting in more than 100 dead, a toll of violence notable in its day. His goal here is not to lay blame or dispute the facts and conclusions he relates from other writers-almost the only universally agreed element of each massacre is the date on which it happened-but to capture the essence of the event and offer a few comments and conjectures. This he does in a very relaxed style that makes readers feel that they are having a conversation with the author. While academic libraries are likely to have the previous studies used and cited by McMurtry, his book is a good introduction for lay readers and high school students. Recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A suitably cheerless tour of several 19th-century massacres, guided by the increasingly gloomy master of all things Wild West. Having written of Blue Duck, the Texas Rangers, Billy the Kid and others handy with a gun, McMurtry (The Colonel and Little Missie, 2005, etc.) is well versed in the business of slaughter: "What massacres usually do," he writes by way of welcome, "is reduce human beings to the condition of meat, though the bits of meat will be less tidily arranged than the cuts would normally be in a decent butcher shop." Such is the spirit in which McMurtry visits the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where, in 1857, a mixed group of Mormons and Paiute Indians slaughtered 140 westbound settlers from Arkansas, both to get at their fat cattle and to chase away "gentiles" from Utah. The male settlers were shot by Mormons, the females and children bludgeoned by Paiutes; either way, they wound up as "in effect a meat mountain." So, too, did the unfortunate "peace Indians," Cheyenne mostly, who were butchered at Sand Creek in 1864 by white militiamen led by a thunderous fundamentalist preacher; and so too did the Apaches slaughtered at Camp Grant, Ariz., in 1871, by a mob of white vigilantes, Hispanic ranch hands and even Indians; and so, too, did the unfortunate Sioux massacred in the snows of Wounded Knee in 1890, who believed that their Ghost Dance would keep away the bullets. (Interestingly, McMurtry remarks, similar ideas were afoot all over the world, always arrayed against white imperialists.) If McMurtry has a thesis, it is to show that the nervous doctrine of the preemptive strike seems always to be a precursor to massacre-a doctrine "President George W. Bush has recentlyrevived." But it needs no real thesis; the mayhem speaks for itself. Minor McMurtry, but, as always, superbly written: dark reading for a Western campfire surrounded by ghosts. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency
From the Publisher
"As always, superbly written." ---Kirkus

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Simon & Schuster
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From the Publisher
"As always, superbly written." —-Kirkus

Meet the Author

Larry McMurtry is the author of twenty-nine novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove, three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than thirty screenplays. He lives in Archer City, Texas.

Brief Biography

Archer City, Texas
Date of Birth:
June 3, 1936
Place of Birth:
Wichita Falls, Texas
B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.

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