Thieves of the Wild Frontier ; HISTORY ++ Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides LITTLE, BROWN [Pound]20

By McLynn, Frank | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), February 11, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Thieves of the Wild Frontier ; HISTORY ++ Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides LITTLE, BROWN [Pound]20

McLynn, Frank, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

Hampton Sides's outstanding narrative history has all the virtues: stirring set-pieces, deft character studies, colourful descriptions of battles and of nature, plus full avoidance of politically correct nonsense wherein North American Indians are solely noble savages. This is not the complete account of "How the West Was Won" and still less a complete history of the savage Indian wars, but is the story of two forces of nature colliding, and Sides's intention, as in Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain", is to demonstrate the step-by-step, remorseless process of Fate by which the two sides impacted.

On one side is the Navajo nation, based in New Mexico and eastern Arizona, one of the larger North American tribes, who called themselves the Dine. Unlike, say, the Blackfeet, Comanche or Apache, the Navajo-Dine were not great warriors. Ostensibly pastoralists tending vast herds of sheep and goats, they were in reality accomplished thieves who had been a headache to the Spanish colonists for more than a century.

Spain conquered Mexico in the 16th century but it was not until the 1700s that the Spanish got around to the colonisation of California and what is now the American Southwest. Unable to station large garrisons in the far outposts of the empire of "New Spain", the Spanish colonists were at the mercy of large, populous raiding tribes like the Navajo. Whenever they tried to take a tough line with their tormentors, they proved militarily incompetent to do so. In 1835, Mexico suffered its own Little Big Horn when an army of several hundred entered the Copper Pass in Navajo territory. The veteran chief, Narbona, laid a perfectly timed ambush and slaughtered nearly all the invaders.

Things changed a decade later when the occupying power in New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe, changed character. The notorious doctrine of Manifest Destiny saw US president Polk pick a fight with Mexico as a pretext for sending his armies south of the Rio Grande. In the one-sided Mexican American war, in which the future warriors of the American Civil War - Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc - were all blooded, the young, aggressive United States utterly defeated their Latin opponents. Part of the bounty paid by Mexico at the end of the conflict was California, New Mexico and most of Arizona; Texas, independent since 1836, also joined the Union.

From 1846, then, the Navajo had a much more powerful and formidable enemy to contend with. No longer would ranchers accept the loss of vast herds as part of the price for living in the great outdoors; nor was Washington prepared to accept Navajo thieving as a "natural right" of the Native Americans. The capable chief Narbona saw the writing in the wall, but could not persuade the younger hotheads of the need to tread more warily. The hubris of large- scale raiding would inevitably attract nemesis but, luckily for the Navajo, the day of reckoning was postponed by the struggle over slavery within the United States and then the bloodletting of the Civil War itself.

Inevitably, New Mexico was sucked into the maelstrom of the "war between the states". Sides gives us full value on the Civil War in the West in 1862, the contest of generals Sibley (Confederate) against Canby (Federal) and the battle of Glorieta which saw Blue prevail against Gray. Once the threat from the South had been disposed of, it was time to deal with the "enemy within"- the Dine.

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