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"Patricia Limerick is simply one of the best writers alive."—Garry Wills
In Something in the Soil, Patricia Nelson Limerick travels far outside the usual academic circles to bring Western past and Western present into a spirited union. Whether her topic is the rapid growth in the West today, the patent awfulness of most academic writing, or struggles over the standing of the "Great White Men" of the region’s past, Limerick operates on the principle that history is an active presence in the West, layers of collective memory that are, quite literally, "something in the soil." Enlightening and always witty, this wide-ranging collection of essays and arguments from the New West’s landmark historian offers an artful journey into its dramatic past and contentious present.
If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, 1791
... you will soon find it theologically and factually true that man by nature is a damn mess.
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
The Sharp Point of Conquest
If you place yourself at a distance, there is no clearer fact in American history than the fact of conquest. In North America, just as much as in South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, Europeans invaded a land fully occupied by natives. Sometimes by negotiation and sometimes by warfare, the natives lost ground and the invaders gained it. From the caves in the lava beds of Northern California, where the Modocs held off the United States Army for months, to the site along the Mystic River in Connecticut, where Puritans burned Pequots trapped in a stockade, the landscape bears witness to the violent subordination of Indian people. These haunted locations are not distant, exotic sites set apart from the turf of our normal lives. Neither time nor space, it would seem, can insulate us from these disturbing histories.
And yet distance makes these facts deceptively clear. Immerse yourself in the story of the dispossession of any one group, and clarity dissolves. There is nothing linearor direct in these stories. Only in rare circumstances were the affairs that we call "white-Indian wars" only matters of whites against Indians. More often, Indians took part on both sides, tribe against tribe or faction against faction, and whites sometimes played surprisingly peripheral roles in the working out of relationships between and among Indian groups.
Moreover, if Indians were often divided against each other, the same shortage of solidarity applied to the other side. In the tense and unpredictable circumstances before, during, and after a war, whites often squabbled bitterly with each other, presenting something one would not begin to call a united front. In virtually every case, the story of how the war got started and how it proceeded is a long, detailed, and tangled business. These are narratives designed to break the self-esteem of storytellers. You can be the world's greatest enthusiast for narrative history, and you can still lose your nerve at the prospect of putting yourself and your readers at the mercy of one of these tales from hell.
They are tales from hell because they are stories so loaded with tiresome detail and pointless plot twists that narrative art bends and breaks under their weight. They are tales from hell, as well, because they are stories that drive their tellers and readers to a confrontation with the darkest and grimmest dimensions of human nature. Torture, maiming, rape, mutilation, murder—all of the worst injuries that human beings inflict on each other serve as the capstones to these stories. Whites did these things to Indians, and Indians did these things to whites. Invaded or invader, conquered or conqueror, nearly every group had occasion to use terror as a memorable method of communication.
The person who contemplates these tales ends up feeling a kind of nondiscriminatory moral shock, unnerved by nearly everybody's behavior. Of course, one can never lose sight of who started the whole business. Indians never invaded Europe; Indian tribes did not cross the Atlantic to seize the homes, fields, and sacred places of Europeans. It is perfectly clear who started this fight. And it is also perfectly clear who, when the dust had settled, had maneuvered whom into surrendering land, food, and the weapons of aggression and self-defense. But in between those two points of clarity lies a great stretch of historical turf in which people of all ethnicities and backgrounds embraced brutality and committed atrocities. In this disorienting turf, neither victims nor villains came with consistent labeling.
In the muddled events that lie between the beginning of invasion and the invaders' consolidated domination, historical lessons are hard to come by. Morals to the story that lift the spirit and inspire hope simply do not appear. On some occasions, historians are quick to make cheerful remarks about how the understanding of history will help us to understand ourselves and to cope with the dilemmas we have inherited from the past. It is hard to pipe up with one of those earnest declarations of faith in the value of historical knowledge when you are thinking of the water at the junction of the Mississippi River and the Bad Axe River. That water, on August 2, 1832, was reddened with the blood of the wounded Sauk and Fox people trying to escape the bullets of American troops. In Indian agent Joseph Street's description, "The Inds. were pushed literally into the Mississippi, the current of which was at one time perceptibly tinged with the blood of the Indians who were shot on its margin & in the stream.... It is impossible to say how many Inds. have been killed, as most of them were shot in the water or drowned in attempting to cross the Mississippi." Those Indians who survived the crossing at Bad Axe did not leave brutality behind them when they escaped from the white soldiers. The survivors were attacked a few days later—by a party of Sioux.
What good can knowledge of this miserable story do? Is the principal lesson simply that the winning of Illinois was as tangled, brutal, and bloody a process as the winning of Massachusetts or the winning of Oregon? What exactly does knowledge of this event add to American self-understanding and well-being?
When I went to college, I had a fine professor in my freshman course in Western civilization. Jasper Rose was from England and given to the use of terms of address like "ducky." One day in class, we talked about the Calvinist belief in the evil that had lodged in the human soul after the fall of Adam. The way that Mr. Rose discussed the topic of human depravity puzzled me to my core.
"When you were talking about the way people used to believe in the evil in humans," I said to him after class, "you sounded as if you believed there is such a thing. But how could a modern person believe in human depravity?"
"Just wait, ducky," Mr. Rose sighed. "Just wait."
Jasper Rose was doing his best to get me braced for the Battle of Bad Axe. But there is no way to be truly braced for the dreadful reality of these events. The Mystic Fort Fire, the Ohio River Wars, Black Hawk's War, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Bear River Massacre, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Modoc War, and the Nez Perce War—all these events have me flummoxed. Yes, these stories are part of our national heritage; yes, they shaped us as a people; yes, we have to know our past to understand our present. But, by remembering these stories, what do we gain besides a revival and restoration of the misery?
A Twelve-Point Guide to War
In graduate school, we were trained to be finders of themes. Where others might see a bunch of unconnected facts, we were obligated to locate the underlying patterns. Like any exercise, this was hard at first but easier with practice. And, unlike many exercises, this one was addictive. In a world so overloaded with complexity and contradiction, the activity of getting a grip on themes and patterns is genuinely comforting and soothing. This ability of generalizations to bring calm is particularly appealing when one confronts ugly forms of human behavior. In that spirit, I now put forward twelve patterns of white-Indian wars. These are not universal laws; readers will, no doubt, think of many exceptions as they read. But the most that one can ask of one's historical patterns is that they are true more often than are not, and these easily meet that qualification.
To give these general patterns a clear tie to reality, I have prefaced each point with a story from the Modoc War of 1872-1873. I have chosen this war because it clearly and directly embodies most of these patterns; because it makes a geographical break from the usual Great Plains-centered tellings of the Indian wars, reminding us that these wars occurred all over the nation; and because it is a representatively agonizing war story.
Modoc Story, Part 1
The Modoc War began on November 29, 1872. Interaction between whites and Modocs began long before that. In the 1820s, traders from the Hudson's Bay Company came into Modoc territory, at the border of what are now the states of California and Oregon. Like many tribes, the Modocs enthusiastically adopted European-introduced horses. In the late 1840s, white settlers in Oregon laid out wagon roads through Modoc territory, providing both a route to and from California and a more southern line of access from the Oregon Trail. These roads provided opportunities for raiding and killing, as the Modocs and other Indians of the area responded to the presence of white travelers with livestock and well-packed wagons. Both civilian vigilante groups and federal troops reacted to these attacks, sometimes "punishing" Indians who had taken part in the raiding and sometimes simply attacking any Indians they could find. Gold discoveries brought miners into the area, and ranchers and farmers also settled in.
Newly founded towns were magnets for Indians as well as whites; Modocs were frequent visitors to the town of Yreka. Some Modoc women served as prostitutes, and both Modoc women and men proved susceptible to the appeal of alcohol. Modocs worked, as well, as cowboys on some of the local ranches. By the time of the war in 1872, the denim and calico clothes worn by many Modocs were only one of the marks of change in their habits. In battles during the war, the men shouted insults at white troops, expertly wielding their familiarity with the English language to rile up the enemy.
Before a war happened, there was already a great deal of water under the bridge.
Before whites and Indians would feel inclined to fight each other in a sustained way, they had to get to know each other. Before prolonged violence came disease, exotic plants and animals, traders and trade dependence, intermarriage, missionaries, representatives of the federal government, and, often enough, white emigrants, farmers, miners, or ranchers. Before they took up arms against each other, Indians and whites had to go through a substantial "getting to know you" phase. But, unlike the pattern in the musical The King and I, "getting to know you" in these situations often meant "getting to dislike and distrust you," "getting to realize that, even though I thought I could use your presence for my benefit, it is not working out that way."
The "getting to know you" phase was often so long and consequential that the border between whites and Indians became blurred. Intermarriage was the most obvious example of this blurring. Where traders had been present for a while, children of mixed heritage became important figures in society, sometimes caught uncomfortably between groups, sometimes finding their status in between to be the source of considerable advantage. After a generation or two, the terms "Indian" and "white" had become more matters of political loyalty and cultural practice than lines of biological descent. Through intermarriage, natives and invaders had become, in the broadest sense, relatives; under those circumstances, Indian-white wars looked more like a quarrel between neighbors than a collision of strangers.
Interaction with whites, moreover, reshaped tribal economies and politics. Decades, sometimes centuries, of diplomacy, exchange, and negotiation preceded warfare, and Indian economies and forms of leadership showed the impact. Every time an Indian fired a gun in a battle, the use of a manufactured firearm offered another reminder of how intertwined the lives of the participants had already become.
Modoc Story, Part 2
In 1864, representatives of the federal government tried to negotiate an understanding with the Modocs and the other Indians of the area. But confusion was built into the process. In February of 1864, Elijah Steele, a judge and Indian agent for northern California, took part in discussions with the Modoc and two other tribes. By the terms of the Steele treaty, the Indians would cease to fight each other; they would not interfere with white settlers; and although they would retain the right to travel, they would agree to be regulated by the officers at Fort Klamath. The Steele treaty did not address the question of whether the Modocs would have a reservation near the Lost River, their home area; it did not, by the same token, suggest that this was impossible.
While the Steele treaty was at least moderately compatible with the Modocs' preference, it never received approval by the Indian Bureau or ratification by the United States Senate. Instead, in October of 1864, another negotiator—J. W. Pettit Huntington, superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon—presided over a second set of discussions. The result was a second treaty, setting forth very different terms, terms much less acceptable to the Modocs, since this treaty would send them away from Lost River.
The second treaty created one reservation for both the Klamath and the Modocs. This land that made up the reservation was entirely Klamath land; the Modocs would have to leave their homes and move into the homeland of another, sometimes hostile tribe. The Modocs divided over this prospect: some of them followed the leader Old Schonchin to the reservation and agreed to live there, despite frequent friction with the Klamath people. But another group left the reservation and returned to Lost River, repudiating the second treaty of 1864, while keeping their allegiance to the unratified Steele treaty. Kientpoos, or Captain Jack, emerged as the leader of this group.
White settlers in the Lost River country were not happy to see these original inhabitants return. Badgered by settlers' complaints of property damage and threats from the Modocs, federal officials succeeded in getting the Indians to return to the reservation—briefly. In the winter of 1869, A. B. Meacham, now the superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon, persuaded Captain Jack and his fellows to go to the reservation. Then, in late April 1870, to the dismay of the settlers, Captain Jack's Modocs left the reservation and returned to Lost River. To Captain Jack and his party, the Steele treaty was the agreement with which they were still complying, and nothing in that treaty required them to live far from home in the company of the irritating Klamath. The treaty, the reservation, and all the various efforts to control the situation, launched by the officials of the United States Army and the Indian Bureau, had finally produced a perfect muddle.
Before a war occurred, some men representing the federal government declared that they were going to settle everything and instead left everyone confused. That confusion was often the trigger for the war.
The Constitution declared the centrality of federal responsibility in Indian affairs, giving Congress the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." Thus there was a constitutionally based reason for federal officials to swing into action in anticipation of conflict and to try to arrange a peace that would serve two not very compatible goals: the expansion of white commerce and settlement, and the protection and assimilation of the Indians.
And so a phalanx of territorial politicians, Indian agents, military officers, and humanitarians and reformers called for and attended hundreds of meetings with Indian people. At those meetings, the white officials declared their good intentions and their hopes for harmony between whites and Indians. While some of them were cheerful liars, veiling land grabs under the rhetoric of paternalistic helpfulness, many others believed the things they said.
Frequently the outcome of these councils and negotiations hinged on the honesty and efficiency of one person: the interpreter, who had to translate not only two very different languages but also two very different systems of property and law. Opportunities for confusion were unlimited. Merely identifying who, on either the tribal or federal side, had the authority to ratify and to enforce an agreement could be the most difficult part of these negotiations. White officials fell into the habit of selecting and identifying certain leaders as "chiefs," and then declaring that a whole tribe had agreed to cede territory and retreat to a reservation, when, in fact, only a few, not-always-respected individuals from the tribe had signed an agreement.
From these federal efforts to anticipate conflict and reach a resolution came agreements that carried very different meanings for different individuals and groups. With their multiple meanings, the agreements were very difficult to enforce. On the federal side, a breakdown of enforcement was built into a policy stretched to the point of snapping; an official goal of benevolence to Indians pulled in one direction, and an insistent white demand for lands and resources pulled in another.
Federal officials had visions of sharing the benefits of civilization and Christianity with grateful Indians; Indians had visions of maintaining their sovereignty and traditional economies; white settlers had visions of owning and using land without Indian interference. The federal negotiators and commissioners were placed exactly at the point where those visions clashed. It was not, therefore, unusual to find federal commissioners playing the part of the recipients of everyone's wrath, since both Indians and whites cast these negotiators as the bumblers whose negotiations had delivered everyone into confusion and conflict.
The effectiveness of federal intervention was undermined, as well, by the weakness of the government's power through the first century of the nation's existence. American citizens had a principled distrust of an established, well-funded army. Monarchies and tyrannies relied on standing armies. But democracies and republics called up citizen militias to deal with emergencies and then disbanded those militias when the emergencies were resolved. Here, then, was a curious reluctance to face up to the fact that the nation was engaged not in occasional military emergencies but in a prolonged and concerted war for the continent, a war that would not be won without a serious army, seriously funded. The ideology of expansion may have offered an image of inferior Indians who would simply melt away as white settlements expanded, but few tribes chose to melt and many chose to fight. The cost of war weighed on the federal treasury, principled opposition to a standing army or not. At the end of a war, the supporters of thrift would reappear, cutting back the army's funding and size and leaving the federal government in a chronic position of weakness when it came to enforcing its laws and standing by its promises.
Expenses aside, it was an awkward matter to use the United States Army against United States citizens. Even though the Army did sometimes try to remove white squatters and intruders from Indian territory, this was hardly the way to make the Army more popular. Unable to deliver on many of its promises and guarantees, the federal effort to get the jump on conflict and to negotiate peaceful agreements frequently added up to the achievement of giving all the partisans someone to blame when those agreements fell apart.
Modoc Story, Part 3
In November 1872, the pieces and parts of the federal government geared up for action. Replacing A. B. Meacham and too recently arrived in his job to know much about the Modocs, Thomas B. Odeneal, the new superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon, asked Colonel John T. Green to send troops from Fort Klamath, to arrest Captain Jack and return him and his people to the Klamath Reservation. Selected by Green, Major James Jackson and thirty-eight soldiers took a long, miserable ride through rain and sleet. Several armed civilians joined in the enterprise.
Early on the morning of November 29, 1872, the Lost River Modocs were camped at two sites. The Army prepared to enter the larger of the two camps, the one with Captain Jack in it, while the civilians took on the smaller camp. Jackson and his men proposed to disarm the Modocs; the Modocs held on to their guns and rifles. In this tense situation, shooting suddenly started. Finding that they were in way over their heads, the civilians retreated—fast—from the smaller camp. The regular troops held on to the larger camp, but the Modocs fled and the troops did not pursue them. After burning the village, with Captain Jack now far beyond the reach of the Army, Major Jackson led a retreat of his own to a neighboring ranch.
While most of the Modocs headed off to take refuge in the nearby lava beds, a small group of men rode off to vent their anger on the nearby settlers. In his retreat, Major Jackson had not tried to warn settlers in the area, much less to offer them protection. A group including Hooker Jim, Boston Charley, Long Tim, and others—but not Captain Jack—stopped at several neighboring ranches, killing men and male children but sparing women. At their first stop, Hooker Jim and his allies killed a settler named William Boddy, along with Boddy's son-in-law, Nicholas Schira. Abruptly and terribly widowed, Mrs. Boddy and Mrs. Schira hid during the night and fled to refuge the next morning, while the Modoc party went on to attack other whites, killing fourteen altogether.
The bungled attempt to arrest Captain Jack triggered the war. The vengeance imposed by a few Modocs on the unwarned and unprepared white settlers made the momentum for war irreversible.
The first acts of violence usually were more accidents of impulse and passion than the considered and chosen opening acts of an intended war.
At the end of a war, it was common for leaders—both white and Indian—to offer some version of this sentiment: "We did not want this war; it happened in spite of us." When they said this, they were not lying. On the contrary, they were recording the fact that at the start of the war, the preferences of the leaders did not carry nearly as much weight as the impatience and anger of a few individuals. On the Indian side, the first acts of violence were often committed by impulsive young men, driven by their ambition as warriors and defiant of the restraints imposed by their elders. Hunger was also a common provocation for violence. In the gritty details of daily life, invasion and conquest meant, at the bedrock, a loss of traditional sources for food for Indians, and there are few better triggers for desperate acts than the prospect of starvation. On the white side, the triggering acts of violence often came from a similar impatience in white settlers who felt that the United States Army was far too slow in coming to their aid and who therefore took it upon themselves to "punish" Indians for various "crimes," especially for theft. These acts of retaliation were often committed in defiance of white officials, who had a better grasp on the proposition that white American notions of "crime" and "punishment" made an uneven fit to the complex reality of incompatible groups with conflicting ambitions trying to live as neighbors.
Individualistic in their origins, these opening episodes of violence placed leaders in positions where their range of choice was much diminished. Repeatedly, the heated acts of a few individuals carried more weight than the restraint and caution that leaders had tried to maintain. Here came the turning point in the escalation of violence: white settlers and officials chose to take the acts of a few impatient Indian people to represent the will of the whole group. With that assumption embraced, everyone—women, children, and men who had not picked a fight—had to be punished for the actions of a few. Once that choice was made, the unrolling of the war might have seemed inevitable. But it is crucial to remember that there were two paths leading from this fork in the road, and neither was inevitable. Humans, in circumstances like these, have the capacity to distinguish individual actions from group actions and to calibrate their responses with that distinction in mind. Here is the clearest contribution of hindsight: if that capacity to make distinctions had been more often in play, the mortality and misery rate in these wars would have been much diminished.
Modoc Story, Part 4
When Hooker Jim's party, reacting to the soldiers' attack on their camp, killed some of their white neighbors, rumors spread in all directions. In towns and in ranch houses, settlers panicked, anticipating brutal surprises from all directions. From the security of hindsight, it is clear that whites who settled in Modoc territory had been taking a great risk, insisting on their right to live in contested terrain. But the killings committed by Hooker Jim's party cast the whites as undeserving victims, delivered by their innocence and trust to the knives and bullets of treacherous Indians. For most settlers in the area, the Lost River killings settled the question. All the nonreservation Modocs had to be punished, and what hindsight would call a war of conquest proved, at the time, to be a conflict in which the whites felt that they were the ones who had been mistreated and who were fully justified in defending themselves before the next outrage could occur.
If Indians tried to terrorize settlers into leaving contested territory, whites instantly saw themselves as the innocent victims and Indians as the guilty aggressors, and thus the question of justification seemed settled.
Throughout history, humans have found various ways to communicate the message, "Get out; we don't want you here." Snubbing, shunning, segregation, economic boycotts, eviction notices, elimination of a food supply, threats, property destruction, torture, and murder—all of these gestures have been used to say to their recipients, "We'd just as soon you got out of here." When whites moved into territory that Indians claimed, and especially, when white settlement interfered with Indian food growing and food gathering, Indians turned to these various devices of communication to say, effectively and memorably, "Get out."
At various places and times, delivering this message to white intruders, Indian people used the full vocabulary of terror: fire, kidnapping, rape, murder, and mutilation. Because of the brutality practiced in these episodes, moral judgment of the Indian wars will never be pure or clear. Rather than trying to be saints of nonviolence and passive resistance, Indians could be cruel and arbitrary in their attacks on white families whose ambitions had led them to the wrong place at the wrong time.
Contemplating these attacks, historians become "equal opportunity cynics," seeing neither nobility nor brutality as the exclusive property of any group. While Indian attacks on white families have mixed and blurred the moral vision of historians, they sharpened and clarified the moral judgments of white settlers and officials. Once the Indians tried to terrorize settlers into leaving, in the minds of Anglo-Americans, the roles of aggressor and victim instantly reversed. Whites ceased to register as invaders and provokers of conflict and occupied, instead, the status of innocent victims. With this shift, the question of justification was settled: Indians had started the trouble and had asked for punishment, and whites could do whatever they had to do, in order to defend themselves.
|Introduction Something in the Soil||13|
|Part I Forgetting and Remembering||29|
|I-A Haunted America||33|
|I-B The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth|
|I-C The Case of the Premature Departure: The|
|Trans-Mississippi West and American History Textbooks||93|
|Part II Beleaguered Great White Men||107|
|II-A Historical Lessons on Anza Day||111|
|II-B John Sutter: Prototype for Failure||126|
|II-C Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in|
|an Intelligible World||141|
|Part III Environmental Impacts||167|
|III-A Mission to the Environmentalists||171|
|III-B Disorientation and Reorientation: The American|
|Landscape Discovered from the West||186|
|III-C The Gold Rush and the Shaping of the American West||214|
|Part IV The Historian as Dreamer: Preaching to (and by) the|
|IV-A Peace Initiative: Using the Mormons to Rethink|
|Culture and Ethnicity in American History||235|
|IV-B Will the Real Californian Please Stand Up?||256|
|IV-C The Shadows of Heaven Itself: TheDemanding Dreams|
|of the American West||274|
|IV-D Believing in the American West||302|
|Part V Epilogue||319|
|V-A A How-to Guide for the Academic Going Public||323|
|V-B Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic|
|V-C Limerick's Rules of Verbal Etiquette||342|