Friday, May 16, 2014

Wetherington & Levine, eds.: "BATTLES AND MASSACRES ON THE SOUTHWESTERN FRONTIER: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives"

[Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives edited by Ronald K. Wetherington and Frances Levine (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). Softcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pp. 248. ISBN:978-0-8061-4440-5 $24.95]

Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier is an offshoot of a 2008 conference at Taos, New Mexico's Fort Burgwin Research Center overseen by Ronald Wetherington and Frances Levine. Edited by Wetherington and Levine, who also introduce each section, the book explores four conflicts (the battles of Cieneguilla and Adobe Walls plus the massacres of Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows) via the pairing together of a traditional historical essay with an archaeological report summary. In general terms, the editors define a battle as fought "between armed forces--usually military--with a cursory understanding that the killing field is equally engaged, or thought to be. Massacres, on the other hand, involved one-sided events in which the dead are mostly innocent victims who are suddenly thrust onto the killing field involuntarily." (pg. 1).

The March 30, 1854 Battle of Cienguilla was an obscure clash between U.S. dragoons commanded by Lieutenant John W. Davidson and Jicarilla Apaches. According to Will Gorenfeld's essay, the official army history of the battle is grossly inaccurate, glossing over Davidson's failed leadership and grossly inflating Apache numbers. David Johnson's archaeological record, based on an extensive interagency study of artifacts found over a wide area and their distribution patterns, supports Gorenfeld's revisionist history. The archaeology both confirmed the site location and helped reconstruct the tactical movements of both sides, the picture created from the latter being one of poorly deployed dragoons armed with short range weapons suffering heavy casualties at the hands of Apaches situated on high ground and fighting behind cover. The section is a good illustration of the role archaeology can play in arbitrating competing document-based theories of historical events.

For Adobe Walls1, T. Lindsay Baker's source material discussion and J. Brett Cruse's archaeological findings are mutually supportive of the traditional interpretation of the June 27, 1874 battle between 28 buffalo hunters and hundreds of allied Southern Plains Indians led by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. Eyewitness accounts from Indian attackers and the defending hunters are both broadly in accord with the physical evidence. Weapons and weapons-related artifact analysis support the consensus story that the long range firepower of the professional hide hunters demoralized and defeated Parker. The discovery of an almost incredible variety of weapons used by the combatants is a common thread throughout the investigations documented in the book.

The section dealing with the November 29, 1864 surprise attack by Colonel John Chivington's Colorado volunteers on the Cheyenne and Arapaho camps at Sand Creek pairs Ari Kelman's historiographical survey tracing the debate over whether Sand Creek was a battle or a massacre with Douglas Scott's artifact pattern analysis.  Scott's team located areas where fighting chiefly occurred by mapping concentrations of firearms artifacts. Conversely, the Cheyenne and Arapaho camp grounds, which contained relatively little in the way of non-military firearms related relics, were identified by domestic item artifact patterns (tribal ownership confirmed using annuity lists and correspondence). In addition to conclusively locating the Sand Creek encampment site, Scott believes the historical accounts, combined with the dearth of physical evidence of tribal return fire compared with the abundant collection of firearm artifacts from the volunteers at both the village and the defensive pits to the north, strongly supports the widely accepted 'surprise attack and massacre' thesis2.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre (September 11, 1857) section is less satisfying than the others in that the archaeological investigation was aborted after limited examination of skeletal remains. However, LDS historian Glenn Leonard's assessment of the degrees of culpability that should be laid at the feet of church leaders, Paiute Indian participants, and elements of the emigrant trains themselves is thought provoking, if still murky.

Hopefully, most readers will recognize that the wide range of agreement between documentary and archaeological findings presented in Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier is not necessarily typical (according to Wetherington and Levine this was entirely coincidental). Even so, the book comprises yet another strong argument for a multidisciplinary approach to historical investigation, one involving among others the fields of history, archaeology, and anthropology.

1 - As many readers know, there were two battles at Adobe Walls. The publisher's description (see press materials and back cover) is in error, stating that the 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls is the one discussed in Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier. It is indeed only the 1874 clash that is considered in the book.
2 - A related question surrounds the rather significant casualties (10 killed and 38 wounded) suffered by Chivington's men. While it is an unaddressed counterpoint to the theory of minimal tribal resistance, it doesn't necessarily critically impact the 'battle vs. massacre' debate.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. Drew: This looks like a very interesting entry (and if I'm correct, Oklahoma has also published an archaeological study of the Little Big Horn). I'm surprised that they even took on Mountain Meadows. As I recall, the accidental unearthing of remains caused a brief dispute between the Governor (Leavitt) and the State Archaeologist, which ended when the former ordered the site to be quickly closed up on what appeared to be pretextual reasons (exacerbated by the fact that Leavitt is a direct descendent of a participant). Any researcher who tackles Mountain Meadows is in for a battle which will include scathing attacks on their credentials and work.

    1. Yeah. My reading of the LDS church at the time was that it was basically a theocratic oligarchy, which makes me skeptical of all the attempts since (including Leonard's in this book) to absolve Brigham Young from all involvement in Mountain Meadows.

    2. Just go to the Amazon site, pull up a title by Juanita Brooks or Will Bagley which touches on Mountain Meadows, and count the number of 1-star reviews.


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