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

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War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. By Brian DeLay. Lamar Series in Western History. (New Haven and London: Published by Yale University Press in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwestern Studies, Southern Methodist University, c. 2008. Pp. [xxii], 473. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978-0-300-15837-8; cloth, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-300-11932-9.)

The Comanche Empire. By Pekka Hamalainen. Lamar Series in Western History. (New Haven and London: Published by Yale University Press in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwestern Studies, Southern Methodist University, c. 2008. Pp. viii, 500. Paper, $23.00, ISBN 978-0-300-15117-9; cloth, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-300-12654-9.)

If any readers doubt the influence of borderlands and transnational methodologies on the historical profession, they should explore the September 2011 issue of the Journal of American History. Opening with a historiographical overview by Pekka Hamalainen and Samuel Truett, the issue contains some of the most insightful pieces of scholarship in borderlands and transnational history. Surely, as the special issue's title suggests, such essays signal the shift of borderlands scholarship from "margins to mainstream."

Pekka Hamalainen and Brian DeLay have contributed to this shift with their award-winning books. Both Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire and DeLay's War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War break new ground in borderlands, southern, and American Indian history, as well as the histories of American foreign relations, race, and empire. Both focus on the relationships between the peoples, bands, tribes, states, nations, empires, and nation-states within the vast and geographically diverse region of the present-day Texas-Mexico borderlands. Both books situate indigenous peoples such as the Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and others as central actors in a larger narrative that destabilizes nation-oriented histories and those rooted in cosmopolitan centers and economic cores. And finally, rather than reading borders and boundaries back into the past, both Hamalainen and DeLay write as if the present-day "lines in the sand" were anything but preordained.

Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire exhibits a noteworthy breadth and scope. The goal of the book is to tell the story of an unconventional empire that American history has not acknowledged, in part because mainstream historiography has generally interpreted Indians as obstacles to American expansion and doomed to extinction. Hamalainen argues that Comanches created "an extensive commercial network" and controlled a vast expanse of "border markets and long-distance trade" based on a historically "dynamic internal [political] development" (p. 2). Taking advantage of New Spain's weak control of its northern frontier, the more dominant Comanches "were an interregional power with imperial presence" (p. 2). Indeed, Hamalainen claims, "they built an imperial organization that subdued, exploited, marginalized, co-opted, and profoundly transformed near and distant colonial outposts, thereby reversing the conventional imperial trajectory in vast segments of North and Central America" (p. 3). In short, the Comanche empire crippled Spain and Mexico, and because of that weakness, especially as Americans perceived it, the United States invaded Mexico in 1846. After that invasion, the Comanches maintained functional control of the Texas-Mexico borderlands for another generation, until post-Civil War changes in technology--especially the expansion of the railroad-----enabled massive troop movement and migration across the southern Great Plains. Demography and disease also helped consign Comanches to reservations in the 1870s.

This rise in power grew out of the internal political, cultural, environmental, and social characteristics of Comanche bands that were simultaneously fluid yet structured, flexible yet shaped by kinship and gender, and the evolving interplay between Spanish, French, British, and American imperial designs. …