Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Michno: "THE SETTLERS' WAR: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s"

[ The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s by Gregory Michno (Caxton Press, 2011).  Softcover, 21 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:416/461. ISBN:978-087004-494-6 $19.95 ]

During the nineteenth century, the borderlands of Texas witnessed some of the bloodiest violence on the continent, with the region's Indian tribes among the most successful in North America in curtailing the progress of white settlement. As author Gregory Michno interestingly notes in his new book The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s, in the 50 years prior to 1870, the Texas frontier advanced only a tenth of the distance realized by the rest of the continent.  The nature of the land and the sparseness of settlement placed less pressure on the native populations surrounding Texas, but Indian resistance by the Apache, Kiowas, and brutally expansionist Comanche was also unusually effective.

During the decade covered in the book, violence between whites and Indians in Texas took the form of isolated raids on frontier homesteads. U.S., Texas state, and later Confederate military (and paramilitary) forces never figured out a way to stop these encroachments and settlers steadily died no matter what strategies were employed. The tactic most commonly used, one involving the establishment of fixed defensive points with patrols scouring the areas between them, never worked [the Civil War employment of this system is analyzed and explained best in David Paul Smith's Frontier Defense in the Civil War (TAMU Press, 1992)].

As with his 2011 study chronicling in minute detail the early weeks of the 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota, Michno utilizes Indian Depredation Claims data for descriptive purposes and also to provide readers with a proper sense of the frequency and scale of these attacks. He randomly selected one out of five claims for inclusion in the book. More infamous events, like the 1864 Elm Creek Raid, are accorded somewhat more attention.   It is Michno's contention, supported by the evidence, that the Elm Creek Raid's significance, in terms of exceptionality in loss of life and property destruction, has been exaggerated in the popular literature.

Texas state forces could be brutal, too, and indiscriminate in their application of violence. The most blatant example of this was their January 1865 assault on a camp of friendly Kickapoos at Dove Creek. The Texas frontier also witnessed an event that, according to Michno, likely resulted in the deaths of more Indians than any of the more famous Plains massacres. In October 1862, the Tonkawa, a tribe that often provided scouts for Texans fighting other Indians, were attacked by Comanches and Kiowas (and perhaps others) and massacred in flight from the Wichita Agency.

The Settlers' War is mostly descriptive in nature, primarily documenting a decade of bloody raids on white homesteads along the Texas frontier, as well as failed attempts on the part of state, Confederate, and U.S. military authorities to stop them.  Broader cultural and political issues are left to other works.  However, several notable observations are drawn from the evidence. Michno finds that, contrary to legend, Texas "Rangers" were generally no more adept at Indian fighting than other military and paramilitary organizations.  No matter who was in charge, increases in troop strength not only did not protect settlers, it often resulted in more frequent raids on their homes and ranches.  The common refrain that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the frontier when Texas seceded led to a bloodbath of sorts appears to be entirely untrue. Even with few troops available, 1862 was the decade's least bloody year.  Instead of troop levels, Michno instead notes another, less appreciated, factor dictating the frequency of raids -- drought cycles and rainfall levels.

After the Civil War, another gap in the frontier defense emerged with the transition from Texas and Confederate authority back to that of the U.S.  In the latter half of the decade, the U.S. army was no more successful in halting raids than the Texans. A series of military commanders, most notably Philip Sheridan, dismissed reports of frontier violence, concerning themselves instead with Reconstruction and U.S.-Mexico border issues.  According to Michno, even when mounted troop levels in the state peaked, the raids continued apace with no new tactical innovations. As before, the raiders followed the rainy climate patterns. Tens of thousands of head of cattle were stolen, as much a result of ease and profitability than pressure on bison herds.

The Settlers' War presents a detailed picture of perhaps the bloodiest decade of sustained homestead violence in the history of the West.  Coverage of obscure events is extensive and welcome given the dearth of literature devoted to the region's conflict in comparison to the Plains Indian Wars.  Both Civil War and Indians Wars students will benefit from reading this study and keeping a copy on the bookshelf for future reference.

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