Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lawrence & Lawrence: "VIOLENT ENCOUNTERS: Interviews on Western Massacres"

[Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres by Deborah and Jon Lawrence (University of Oklahoma Press, 2011). Cloth, maps, notes, bibliography, index. 271 Pages. ISBN:978-0-8061-4126-8 $34.95]

Typically, scholarly compilations of historical views on a variety of subjects under a common theme involve a series of essays, but the editors of Violent Encounters, Deborah and Jon Lawrence, elected instead to discuss the subject of western massacres through interviews with writers and historians. The nine topics under consideration in the book include the McComas murders, the Olive Oatman captivity case, the Mountain Meadows and Camp Grant massacres, overland trails violence (to include Sand Creek), the decimation of the California Indian population, and the wars fought between whites (government sanctioned or otherwise) and the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Shoshone tribes. The full range of violence is addressed, from individual killings to the deaths of hundreds of men, women, and children in a single attack. Another of the book's many strengths was the conscious decision by the editors to represent all major western ethnic groups, each victims and perpetrators at different times and places.

The interview format employed in Violent Encounters works well for a variety of reasons. It allowed the Lawrences to tailor each discussion along similar lines of inquiry. For example, all interviewees, each a published expert on one or more western massacre or conflict, were asked to provide their own perspectives on the sources available for each subject, how the material was used/misused in the past, and what he or she considered the proper way to integrate it all into modern scholarship. The politicization of history, the character and level of frontier violence, and the persistent myths and controversies surrounding western conflicts are other examples of consistent themes. A particularly intriguing aspect of the format was the way its informality fostered the offering of less guarded thoughts and opinions. As an example, Robert Utley is warmly dismissive of the value of Dee Brown's work and highly critical of the manner in which the celebrated Little Big Horn battlefield archaeology was conducted. The chronological ordering of the interviews also allowed the editors to incorporate the answers of previous interviewees into following Q&A sessions. While differences were to be expected (e.g. the scale and character of pre-contact violence was a touchy subject for Ned Blackhawk in particular and only Jerome Greene felt comfortable defining the term "massacre"), there were many consistencies. While it was not surprising that all interviewees recognized the importance of integrating multiple viewpoints into historical narrative, each scholar was deeply skeptical of the accuracy of Indian oral history, especially the historical "memory" of modern tribe members. As another example, the often positive role played by the army in protecting tribes from citizen violence and corrupt officials is also noted by several of the writers.

Though the editors are not trained historians (Deborah is an emeritus English professor and Jon a retired academic physicist), their notes, bibliography, and general quality of questions asked during their interviews suggest a deep understanding of the literature. The editors's concluding essay is a wonderful example of interpretive summation. A few errors did crop up here and there [e.g. Nathaniel Lyon was not a general at Clear Lake and, before Utley stepped in to correct them, the U.S. volunteer regiments from Colorado that instigated Sand Creek were repeatedly referred to as militia -- an importance distinction given the attempt to differentiate army and citizen behaviors], but they were minor irritants.

Violent Encounters is an unusual and fascinating contribution to popular and academic investigations into the multi-ethnic violence of the nineteenth century West. From this book, general interest readers will obtain a snapshot of the current state of an important facet of western historical scholarship, while students of the Civil and Indian wars will gain methodological and historiographical insights of use for their own work. This edited collection of specialist interviews is highly recommended.


  1. A very impressive review. Thanks for taking the time to do justice to the subject.


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