Monday, December 10, 2018

Booknotes: All Because of a Mormon Cow

New Arrival:
All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1854–1855 edited by John D. McDermott, R. Eli Paul, and Sandra J. Lowry (OU Press, 2018).

So many U.S.-Indian conflicts arose from small incidents that quickly escalated into tragic open warfare. In August 1854, near Fort Laramie, a Lakota man was accused of killing a cow belonging to a Mormon emigrant. On the 19th, Lt. John Grattan and thirty men (twenty-nine soldiers and a civilian interpreter) arrived at the Indian camp to make the arrest. Tensions boiled over during the encounter, and the soldiers fired into the camp, killing a chief. In response, the angry Lakota turned on Grattan's command and massacred them. This incident sparked the First Sioux War, which lasted until 1856. Indecisive in its results, peace between the sides would be only temporary, and much larger and bloodier conflicts would follow.

In All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1854–1855, editors John McDermott, Eli Paul, and Sandra Lowry bring together "all known contemporary accounts of the Grattan fight and its immediate aftermath" (xii). From the description: "Where previous accounts of the Grattan Massacre have made do with limited primary sources, this volume includes eighty contemporary, annotated accounts of the fight and its aftermath, many newly discovered or recovered from obscurity. Recorded when the events were fresh in their narrators’ memories, these documents bring a sense of immediacy to a story more than a century and a half old. Alongside the voices heard here—of the Indian leaders Little Thunder and Big Partisan, of Mormons from passing emigrant trains, and of government officials charged with investigating the massacre, among many others—the editors include a substantial and thorough introduction that underscores the significance of the Grattan Massacre in all its depth and detail." According to the editors, the accounts of the Lakota leaders mentioned above have never been published before in their entirety, and prior studies have overlooked many of the valuable firsthand writings from Mormon emigrants that can be found in this collection.

Among the Grattan Massacre perspectives anthologized in the book are those from military officers, traders, emigrants, civilian travelers, Indian leaders, an interpreter, and a mail carrier. Arranged in chronological order, each account is preceded by editorial commentary. The book's introduction also contains a fairly lengthy, scholarly overview of the incident itself.

All Because of a Mormon Cow is the first of two planned volumes. Spanning many postwar decades, the second book will contain later accounts of the massacre, both "reminiscent and reflective." In evaluating the different character of retrospective accounts written long after the incident in question, the upcoming volume will also look closely at "the nature of oral history and Indian testimony, their strengths and weaknesses, and the mechanisms for recording and remembering the Plains Indian Wars" (xiii).

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