War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War

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In the early 1830s, after decades of relative peace, northern Mexicans and the Indians whom they called “the barbarians” descended into a terrifying cycle of violence. For the next fifteen years, owing in part to changes unleashed by American expansion, Indian warriors launched devastating attacks across ten Mexican states. Raids and counter-raids claimed thousands of lives, ruined much of northern Mexico’s economy, depopulated its countryside, and left man-made “deserts” in place of thriving settlements. Just as important, 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.


Exploring Mexican, American, and Indian sources ranging from diplomatic correspondence and congressional debates to captivity narratives and plains Indians’ pictorial calendars, War of a Thousand Deserts recovers the surprising and previously unrecognized ways in which economic, cultural, and political developments within native communities affected nineteenth-century nation-states. In the process this ambitious book offers a rich and often harrowing new narrative of the era when the United States seized half of Mexico’s national territory.


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Editorial Reviews

Border Regional Library Association

Winner of a 2009 Southwest Book Award sponsored by the Border Regional Library Association

— Southwest Book Awards

Latin American Studies Association

Recipient of 2010 Bryce Wood Book Award, given by the Latin American Studies Association.

— 2010 Bryce Wood Book Award

Western Historical Quarterly

"An engaging book that enlivens the debate over the clash between Indians, Mexicans, and Americans in the Southwest. Both Indian and western historians, as well as those who still call themselves borderlands specialists, will want to read DeLay''s work."--Gary Clayton Anderson, Western Historical Quarterly

— Gary Clayton Anderson

Journal of World History

"A truly outstanding work of transnational history. It should be required reading for graduate students in American Indian, Latin American, U.S., and global and comparative history."--Matthew Babcock, Journal of World History

— Matthew Babcock

Journal of the Early Republic

"This prize-winning study explores the part indigenous societies played in directing their own fate, and in doing so provides important insight on the agency these peoples possessed."--Joseph F. Stoltz III, Journal of the Early Republic

— Joseph F. Stoltz III

New York Review of Books - Larry McMurtry
“Action-packed and densely argued.”—Larry McMurtry, New York Review of Books
Howard R. Lamar
“Brian DeLay is one of the most articulate and original authors writing in the Western Americana field today.”—Howard R. Lamar, author of The New Encyclopedia of the American West
Amy S. Greenberg
“With a good sense of drama and narrative, DeLay tells the story of how the interactions and preconceptions of Mexicans, Americans, and independent Indian tribes shaped the borderland region in ways none of the parties expected. This book will force many readers to rethink their basic assumptions about Indians as nineteenth-century political actors. This is not just the most significant work on the U.S.-Mexico War to appear in a generation, but a study with wide-ranging implications for the history of North America. Brian DeLay shows how enlightening transnational history can be when done well.”—Amy S. Greenberg, The Pennsylvania State University
Margaret Chowning
“In supple prose, DeLay analyzes the interactions in the years leading up to the war among three ‘nations’—the struggling new Mexican republic, the confident and opportunistic (but also relatively new) U.S., and the older, highly dynamic peoples of indigenous America—as well as among the compellingly depicted individuals and groups that composed them.”—Margaret Chowning, University of California at Berkeley
James F. Brooks
"DeLay's War of a Thousand Deserts begins with a long-neglected question: what role did Indian Nations of the Southern Plains—Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches—play in the era of the U.S.-Mexican War? His answers sweep across the borderlands in stories of violence, trauma, and the devastating cultural effects of endemic warfare on indigenous and Mexican peoples alike. A tireless researcher and gifted writer has given us a necessary, if profoundly disturbing, look at the history of our American West."—James F. Brooks, author of Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands
Pedro Santoni
“Brian DeLay’s compelling and well-documented narrative of a little-known subject—Indian raids into northern Mexico—offers new insights on the impact of those attacks on the affected countries and peoples.”—Pedro Santoni, author of Mexicans at Arms: Puro Federalists and the Politics of War, 1845-1848
Border Regional Library Association - Southwest Book Award
Winner of a 2009 Southwest Book Award sponsored by the Border Regional Library Association
Latin American Studies Association - 2010 Bryce Wood Book Award
Recipient of 2010 Bryce Wood Book Award, given by the Latin American Studies Association.
Western Historical Quarterly - Gary Clayton Anderson
"An engaging book that enlivens the debate over the clash between Indians, Mexicans, and Americans in the Southwest. Both Indian and western historians, as well as those who still call themselves borderlands specialists, will want to read DeLay's work."—Gary Clayton Anderson, Western Historical Quarterly
Journal of World History - Matthew Babcock
"A truly outstanding work of transnational history. It should be required reading for graduate students in American Indian, Latin American, U.S., and global and comparative history."—Matthew Babcock, Journal of World History
Journal of the Early Republic - Joseph F. Stoltz III
"This prize-winning study explores the part indigenous societies played in directing their own fate, and in doing so provides important insight on the agency these peoples possessed."—Joseph F. Stoltz III, Journal of the Early Republic
New Mexico Historical Review - Douglas W. Richmond
"[An] outstanding book. . . . A highly readable, jargon-free, interpretive study. . . . The work is a rare combination of wit, intelligence, and a dash of cynicism that produces a sparkling narrative full of juicy anecdotes and profound conclusions. The War of a Thousand Deserts provides many jewels of wisdom for those fortunate enough to read it. . . . The War of a Thousand Deserts is a brilliant study and a magnificent contribution to the historiography of the U.S.-Mexico War and the Southwest."—Douglas W. Richmond, New Mexico Historical Review
New York Review of Books

“Action-packed and densely argued.”—Larry McMurtry, New York Review of Books

— Larry McMurtry

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300158373
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/24/2009
  • Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 622,617
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian DeLay is assistant professor of history, University of California, Berkeley.

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Read an Excerpt

War of A Thousand Deserts

Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War
By Brian DeLay

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11932-9

Chapter One

Danger and Community

Early on October 18, 1831, Capitán Manuel Lafuente paced around San Antonio's plaza and reviewed his little army: two hundred men, give or take a few, milling about with guns and provisions, doing their best to calm several hundred snorting horses and mules. The assembly included professional soldiers, militiamen, and volunteers from ranches and towns across Texas. They came to kill Indians. In just three weeks they would get their chance and, in seizing it, make a colossal mistake. For the moment, though, all was optimism and celebration: drums and bugles, flags and handshakes, prayers, good-byes, and bravado. It was a morning of collective purpose. Tejanos thought this campaign long overdue, that the region's Indians had forgotten that Mexicans could be terrible in their wrath. Of that, God willing, Lafuente would remind them. Those with the courage, tools, and time volunteered. Lieutenant Francisco de Castañeda, imprisoned for fraud, successfully petitioned for temporary release. Others donated horses, money, guns, ammunition, and food. Everyone wanted a part.

The camaraderie and confidence must have been good for the spirit becauseLafuente and his men were living in a time of decline. The oldest tejanos watching the procession might have recalled an era of even greater violence and insecurity in the 1760s and 1770s, recalled how their fathers helped usher in a long period of peace by doing what Lafuente was about to do: riding out to kill Indians, showing them that tejanos should be feared. But their fathers had the crown behind them. Apache, Wichita, and Comanche attacks during the War of Independence had gone unanswered, and Comanche raids in the mid-1820s ended only when Bustamante's show of force empowered Paruakevitsi and other leaders to build consensus for yet another treaty. Even this agreement had not stopped Wichitas, especially Tawakonis and Wacos, from plundering tejano herds. The robberies had led to a punishing cycle of raids and counterraids by the late 1820s and early 1830s, and locals began clamoring for a decisive campaign.

Mexican authorities had to revisit their delicate equations of force and friendship. They had authorized Lafuente's expedition, belatedly, but found themselves in a difficult position. The recent insults and raids had been trying, to be sure, and tragic for those directly affected. But this was not war-not yet. War was what had happened in the mid-eighteenth century, when large-scale Indian campaigns in New Mexico and Texas shattered regional economies, demolished flocks and herds that had taken generations to build, turned scores of settlements into ghostly deserts, and consigned hundreds of Spanish women and children to bondage in native camps. Mexican authorities had to be realistic about their diminished resources and use force carefully, lest they turn tension and scattered acts of violence into outright war.

So while they urged Lafuente to track Tawakoni raiders and leave them "so severely punished that they can never be hostile to us again," Comanches were off-limits. Certain frontier officials resented this, convinced that Comanches had been thieving along with their Wichita allies. Resentment and complacency made some Mexicans cavalier about maintaining diplomatic relationships even with Comanches. After spending 365 pesos entertaining Guonique and a small group of followers at Saltillo, for example, the tightfisted governor of Coahuila y Texas requested that Comanche leaders be prevented from traveling so far south. Even José Francisco Ruiz was losing patience. Two months before Lafuente embarked, news arrived that smallpox was raging in several Wichita villages. The renowned cultural intermediary declared, "May it be God's will that not a one of them will be left," adding, "I hope that the same thing is happening to the Comanches."

Despite growing ill will, Paruakevitsi and other leaders continued visiting San Antonio to affirm peace and apologize for their young men. In March of 1830 he had arranged for a Mexican escort to take his brother Chuparú to visit Bustamante in Mexico City. Several months later he stopped a party of Wichitas on the road, relieved them of thirty horses they had stolen, and returned the animals to the authorities in San Antonio. So, for the time being, if Texan officials found Comanches raiding, they were to employ diplomacy first by lodging protests with Paruakevitsi, "the most celebrated and valiant captain among all the Comanches."

Lafuente's eager men rode out from San Antonio and soon added eighteen Caddos, Kickapoos, and Ionis to their troop. The diverse group located the village of the Tawakoni raiders three weeks out. Spies reported that the Indians were absorbed in a dance. Lafuente ordered most of his men to withdraw quietly while others reconnoitered the village, locating the best avenues for attack. At 2:00 a.m., the spies returned to say that the Tawakonis had all fallen asleep. Lafuente ordered his men to load their weapons and advance. "As soon as we drew near," Lafuente later reported, "we opened fire with a dense volley, and we continued to pour bullets into them so fast that within a few minutes it was necessary to cease fire because the field had been completely abandoned by the savages, who only occupied themselves with putting themselves and their families in safety, without making any resistance."

The tejanos had another reason to cease fire. As soon as the volley began, shocked voices cried out, "Comanches, amigos amigos Españoles!" Lafuente maintained in his report that he had not realized Comanches were present in the camp, but this is difficult to believe. The report noted distinctive Comanche tepees among those of the Tawakonis, and it is highly unlikely that Mexican and Indian spies would have missed this crucial detail while reconnoitering the village. After three weeks of searching, Lafuente likely decided he was not going to forgo his opportunity to kill Wichitas just because a few Comanches had got in the way. But the captain could not have known which Comanches had got in the way. Once the smoke cleared, Mexican soldiers made their way to where wailing women hovered over a pair of bodies. They looked down and, to their dismay, saw that they had killed the great man himself, Chief Paruakevitsi, along with one of his sons.

One can imagine that Lafuente's mind began to race at this moment. That Paruakevitsi had likely been urging Tawakonis to adopt a conciliatory stance toward tejanos only underscored the magnitude of the error. The attack "left the entire tribe completely terrified, [and] plunged all of them, especially the families of the deceased, into inconsolable sorrow." The Mexicans' anxiety shone through in the impromptu conference they arranged, at which they nervously explained to Paruakevitsi's people that "we were not to blame for these deaths, and that they alone had caused them because they had united with the [Tawakonis], our enemies." Lame as it was, the Comanches seemed amenable to this explanation-given that the large Mexican force maintained its threatening position opposite the camp. Still worried, the Mexicans gave the dead chief 's kin "a large part of the booty" taken from the Wichitas and then left them to grieve.

Lafuente's men pursued the fleeing Tawakonis, killed nine, hung the corpses from two oak trees, and returned as conquerors to San Antonio. The citizen-soldiers who volunteered for the campaign came home with enhanced reputations and even with some plundered Indian ponies. But the little victory came at great cost. Bustamante congratulated Lafuente yet lamented the death of Paruakevitsi, "the most beloved of all the Comanches, the one who obeyed better than anyone else." Mexican authorities could no longer rely on him to admonish aggressive young warriors or to make the case for peace among other native leaders. And, of course, tejanos now had reason to expect Comanche reprisals.

None came. To the puzzled relief of authorities throughout northeastern Mexico, two months after the attack hundreds of Comanche men, women, and children came into San Antonio to trade "a large number of loads of furs, bear grease, meat and other things," reaffirming peace despite Paruakevitsi's killing. Prominent Comanches said the same, and, in case any doubt remained, one of the dead chief 's sons even came into San Antonio to express his continued goodwill. Comanches were doing everything they could to ease Mexican minds.

The question is why. If, as most Mexicans seemed to think, Comanche policy toward Texas depended primarily on how Mexicans acted, then the careless killing of one of the region's preeminent leaders would surely have had negative repercussions. At the very least Comanches might have demanded restitution, but they did not. In fact, peace had come to depend upon factors that Mexican authorities neither understood nor controlled. While neither side felt satisfied with the actions of their inconsistent allies, Comanches and Mexicans lived in a dynamic world of dangers that for the time being required both to maintain community with each other. Why their unsatisfactory peace continued to lurch along, and why it finally collapsed when it did, may be discerned in this shifting landscape of danger and community.


In the early 1830s, there were probably ten to twelve thousand Comanches living on the plains. Their population was far short of its peak in 1780, when the first in a series of major epidemics ravaged their camps. In rebuilding they had become increasingly diverse, assimilating indigenous and Mexican captives as well as Indians and non-Indians who chose to become Comanche. Moreover, in the early nineteenth century Comanches allowed their former enemies the Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches to dwell peacefully beside them on the southern plains. Linguistically, sociopolitically, and ceremonially distinct from each other and from Comanches, the fifteen hundred to two thousand people who comprised these tribes nonetheless integrated themselves with their hosts-occasionally through marriage, often through camping and hunting together, and usually through cooperation against those their partners considered enemies. By 1830 all three peoples spent most of the year south of the Arkansas River. The rough outlines of their territory stretched from the high Llano Estacado of eastern New Mexico and the Texan Panhandle, south along the Pecos River to the Rio Grande, east and north along the rim of the Balcones Escarpment, northwest to the edge of the Cross Timbers, and north again some distance above the Arkansas. Though the Numunuu homeland, like their population, had been much reduced from what it was a half century before, la comanchería remained vast, diverse, and bountiful.

As did most plains peoples, Comanches and their resident allies depended upon bison hunting for their primary caloric needs and for most of their clothing and shelter. Their position on the southern plains gave them privileged access to immense herds of bison. But access to another animal is what made Comanches so wealthy in comparison to their Indian neighbors. By the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, horses had transformed native societies across the plains. To secure their territories, maintain their economies, and live comfortable, dignified lives within their own communities, plains peoples had to constantly acquire new horses. A few, Comanches included, increased their herds somewhat through controlled breeding. Another method was to capture and break wild mustangs, especially abundant on the southern plains. But by the early nineteenth century, the ranches and haciendas of northern Mexico remained the most important supplier of horses for plains societies. In the Mexican north, with its relatively mild winters and an economy driven by animal breeding, horses seemed nearly innumerable. Proximity gave Comanches and their allies a nearmonopoly on this resource and more horses per capita than any other native people in North America. Berlandier wrote that even the poorest Comanche families had between six and ten of the animals. Wealthier Comanches supposedly had between thirty and forty, in addition to eight or ten mules. Some of the richest men on the southern plains owned hundreds of horses each.

Through impressive community organization and military prowess Comanches had come to dominate this most strategically valuable territory on the Great Plains. They thus had access to critical hunting and trading resources and, most important, had become rich in animal wealth in comparison to their neighbors. Notwithstanding these accomplishments, great wealth had "aroused the envy of the other nations" and put the residents of la comanchería in considerable danger. Non-Indian observers had little information about war between native peoples, so documentary evidence for these conflicts is fragmentary. Still, combined with other sources, these fragments make it clear that by the 1820s and early 1830s several Indian peoples threatened the families and fortunes on the southern plains.

Their most immediate threats from the north and northwest were relative newcomers to the region. The Cheyennes lived in present-day Minnesota during the seventeenth century, were pushed west by enemies during the eighteenth, and subsequently adopted the classic equestrian, bison-hunting culture of the plains while moving into the Black Hills of South Dakota. By the early nineteenth century they occupied a position of power on the high plains in southeastern Wyoming, and a portion of the Cheyenne began to expand their hunting and raiding activities to the area between the Platte and Arkansas rivers in present-day Colorado. By the late 1820s the Southern Cheyenne and their allies, principally the Arapahos, had helped push the regular Comanche range south of the Arkansas.

According to George Bent, son of the prominent Cheyenne Owl Woman and the Missouri trader Charles Bent, Cheyennes saw the southern plains herds as the natural place for a warrior to acquire horses, just as surely as Comanches and their allies saw Mexican herds in the same light. Bent recalled that the Comanches and Kiowas were "famous throughout the plains for the size and quality of their herds." As a boy he had been told that the southern tribes preferred horse meat to bison and used horse hides as others used buffalo hides. For wide-eyed Cheyenne boys who dreamt of owning a few horses of their own some day such tales must have evoked the same disbelieving wonder that urban urchins felt upon hearing about tycoons who lit cigars with twenty-dollar bills. Cheyenne elders recalled that Blackfeet often came through their camps in the early 1820s, boasting about the horses they had taken from Comanches and Kiowas. In 1826 the famous leader Yellow Wolf led one of the first Cheyenne raids into la comanchería. Soon other parties followed, until Comanches and their allies were, according to Bent, "constantly being plundered" by Cheyennes, Arapahos, Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, and others. These raids produced tales of bravery and daring told well into the reservation era.

Farther east, Osages had been raiding la comanchería for much longer. David G. Burnet, future president of Texas and one of the first Americans to live among Comanches voluntarily, reported constant warfare between his hosts and Osages, who regularly ventured south to "spoil the spoiler of his prey." A traveler among the Osage heard one leader boast of having stolen five hundred Comanche horses in a single night. Violence often attended these raids. In 1820 Lieutenant Stephen H. Long's exploratory troop encountered a Comanche party that had just been attacked by Osages. The raiders had killed three men and wounded six more. One of the Comanche men had "cut more than one hundred parallel and transverse lines on his arms and thighs, of the length of from three to four inches, deep enough to draw blood" in mourning for a slain brother. Comanche leaders complained on multiple occasions to American traders that the United States provided arms and ammunition to Osages, "but we can get none, or very few of them. This is wrong ... very wrong." American weapons helped give Osages a deadly advantage. Berlandier reported that in 1828 Osages executed thirty Comanche women and children they had captured in a previous raid.


Excerpted from War of A Thousand Deserts by Brian DeLay Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

A Note on Names xi

Introduction. A Little Door xiii

Prologue. Easy Stories 1

Part 1 Neighbors

1 Danger and Community 35

2 Buffalo-Hide Quiver 61

3 Plunder and Partners 86

4 The Politics of Vengeance 114

Part 2 Nations

5 Indians Don't Unmake Presidents 141

6 Barbarians and Dearer Enemies 165

7 An Eminently National War? 194

8 How to Make a Desert Smile 226

Part 3 Convergence

9 A Trophy of a New Kind in War 253

10 Polk's Blessing 274

Epilogue. Article 11 297

Appendix. Data on Comanche-Mexican Violence, 1831-48 311

Introduction to the Data 313

Table and Figures 317

Data 320

Notes 341

Bibliography 425

Acknowledgments 457

Index 461

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 22, 2014

    This is an incredible book based on some superb original researc

    This is an incredible book based on some superb original research by the author. I believe this book started as his Phd thesis at Harvard and then was polished into a book for a more general audience. This will give you new insights into the failure of the Buffalo herds and the Mexican American war.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2014

    Past this res

    Tepees, ten ppl

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