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War of a Thousand Deserts

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

Brian DeLay
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    War of a Thousand Deserts
    Book Description:

    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 Desertsrecovers 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15042-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. A Note on Names
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction: A Little Door
    (pp. xiii-xxii)

    The U.S.–Mexican War ended with a handshake on May 30, 1848, when representatives of the two republics exchanged ratifications of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty spelled out terms for the withdrawal of the U.S. Army, the new boundary, the money Mexico would receive for surrendering territory, and the promised rights of Mexicans living above the new border. The first time I read the treaty it all seemed straightforward, until I got to article 11. Article 11 explained that since lands transferred to the United States through the treaty were occupied by “savage tribes” whose “incursions within the...

  5. Prologue. Easy Stories
    (pp. 1-32)

    Aaron Burr helped kindle Andrew Jackson’s enduring interests in wine and Texas. In 1805, a year after killing Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel and just months after ending his term as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Burr traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, seeking support for a conspiracy to wrest Florida and Texas from Spain. Westerners liked Burr. He had championed Tennessee’s statehood, and, insofar as Hamilton had supposedly promoted eastern aristocrats over western farmers, the blood on Burr’s hands only greased his entry into Nashville society. He lodged with Jackson and his beloved wife, Rachael, and extended sly feelers in search...

  6. Part One. Neighbors

    • 1 Danger and Community
      (pp. 35-60)

      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...

    • 2 Buffalo-Hide Quiver
      (pp. 61-85)

      Imagine for a moment that every time Comanches and their allies stole a Mexican horse or mule, attacked a ranch, or wounded, captured, or killed a Mexican a light flashed in the darkness. If we could stare down at a nighttime map of Mexico and watch years unfold in minutes, most of 1830 would be black. Toward the end of the year, pinpricks of light coming from northeastern Chihuahua might catch our eyes. From 1831 to early 1834, the flashes become slightly more pronounced and predictable, though still dull and mostly contained in Chihuahua, until late in 1834 much of...

    • 3 Plunder and Partners
      (pp. 86-113)

      On September 12, 1843, Juan Antonio de Olaciregui wrote to inform Juan Meléndez that several Comanches had attacked the Rancho de Torreón in Durango. The Indians “gravely wounded a shepherd and took his woman captive,” though the terrified woman soon escaped her captors and returned home, “very broken down.” Before the Comanches left the vicinity they robbed eight horses from the nearby Estancia de Salgado. Olaciregui had no way of knowing what became of these eight animals, and, since his letter is the only record of this incident, neither do we. This is a shame because their histories would offer...

    • 4 The Politics of Vengeance
      (pp. 114-138)

      In early December 1840, Comanche raiders crossed the Rio Grande into Coahuila and embarked on a remarkable journey. The men began by following the Rio Sabinas nearly to the border of Nuevo León, striking settlements along the way—San Juan de Sabinas, Soledad, Berroteran, Oballos, and others. Desperate reports poured out of ranches and towns as the attackers changed course and raced south. Officials described houses sacked and women stolen in Santa Gertrudis, terrified, weeping families cowering on rooftops at San Buenaventura, wild-eyed Indian runners screaming through the streets of Nadadores, homes aflame in town after town, and piles of...

  7. Part Two. Nations

    • 5 Indians Don’t Unmake Presidents
      (pp. 141-164)

      Writing about Comanches during the relative calm of the late 1820s, Jean Louis Berlandier insisted that “it is still a very difficult matter to live in peace with the whole people. Divided into a multiplicity of independent tribes, they do not realize that all the people on the Mexican border belong to the same nation, and that they cannot perfectly well live in peace in Texas while they make war beyond the Rio Grande.” Here, unusually, this inexhaustibly curious reporter had it wrong. Comanches could and did maintain an imperfect peace with Texas from the late 1820s to the Texas...

    • 6 Barbarians and Dearer Enemies
      (pp. 165-193)

      Antonio Zapata and Albino Pérez never met and undoubtedly would have disliked each other if they had. Zapata hailed from Tamaulipas’s hardscrabble frontier town of Guerrero. He spent his youth herding sheep and, through determined work, regional connections, and luck, accumulated enough land and animals to join the ranks of the local elite. He served in various political capacities in Guerrero and by his early thirties had become an esteemed champion of local interests and local autonomy. Like most of his neighbors, Zapata thought the national government should fund frontier defense but otherwise stay out of people’s lives. In contrast,...

    • 7 An Eminently National War?
      (pp. 194-225)

      By the time Santa Anna orchestrated his resurrection the War of a Thousand Deserts had raged for more than a decade, directly or indirectly touching almost everyone in northern Mexico—Mexicans and independent Indians alike. Think of a cloudburst over the surface of a pond. The direct effects of individual acts of violence generated secondary effects that rippled outward, consequences colliding into, reshaping, and amplifying other consequences, changing the lives of an ever-larger portion of northern Mexico. Though in practice they were profoundly interrelated, it is useful to consider the effects of the war upon northern Mexicans as falling into...

    • 8 How to Make a Desert Smile
      (pp. 226-250)

      Nineteenth-century Matamoros was a city with two faces. One looked north and west into the high grasses and humidity of the lower Rio Grande, out across small farms and fields of corn watered by the river, and farther away to dry, scattered ranches covered in twisted mesquite and knots of sheep, mules, horses, and cattle. Many of the city’s families had their fortunes in nearby farms and ranches. These places moved cattle, hides, and salt through the city, and in return they asked for cotton cloth, metal tools, sugar, and other goods. They also asked for protection and sent officials...

  8. Part Three. Convergence

    • 9 A Trophy of a New Kind in War
      (pp. 253-273)

      The U.S.–Mexican War is remembered as the conflict that brought triumphant American troops to Mexico City and “the halls of Montezuma,” but President Polk and his advisors wanted and initially intended to wage the war entirely in northern Mexico. Their plans differentiated between the far north and the tier of more developed departments from Sonora to Tamaulipas. The far north included regions that the administration was determined to possess permanently: the vast, poorly defined territories of California and New Mexico and the disputed land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Polk ordered the military to immediately conquer and...

    • 10 Polk’s Blessing
      (pp. 274-296)

      In July of 1846, the governor of Chihuahua wrote to his counterpart in Zacatecas lamenting his multitude of enemies. Sorry Chihuahua, he wrote, had to defend itself against the four divisions of Comanches, their Kiowa allies, the several tribes of Apaches, and now “the Anglo-American, rocked in the cradle of the Indian whom he abhors, and nurtured with the blood and sweat of the Negro whom he despises.” Though Mexicans’ experiences of the period 1846–48 depended on where they lived, most seem to have agreed that while their enemies were many, the war was one. In places farther south,...

    • Epilogue Article 11
      (pp. 297-310)

      Article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stands as a memorial to three things. First, it is a marker of Mexico’s failure to respond as a nation to the security crisis posed by the War of a Thousand Deserts in the 1830s and 1840s. Faced with chronic fiscal problems, precarious national administrations spent their scarce political and financial capital placating allies and fighting rebellious countrymen. National figures out of power, those responsible for coups and rebellions, likewise viewed their own ideological and political ambitions as far more important to the republic’s future than the seemingly apolitical project of fighting...

  9. Appendix. Data on Comanche–Mexican Violence, 1831–48
    (pp. 311-340)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 341-424)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 425-456)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 457-460)
  13. Index
    (pp. 461-473)