[Editors Note: Karl Jacoby is our guest today. In addition to being a wonderful friend, Karl’s an extraordinary environmental and Western historian. If you haven’t already read his first book, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation, you really should. It’s beautifully written and powerfully argued. Plus, it won a bunch of prizes. Prizes are shiny. Karl’s post today is about the Camp Grant Massacre, which is also the subject of his new book, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History, fortcoming from The Penguin Press in November 2008.]

Shortly before dawn on this day in 1871, a combined force of Tohono O’odham Indians, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans from Tucson descended upon a would-be Apache reservation located along the banks of Arizona’s Aravaipa Creek. While some in the party charged up the creek bed, pausing at each of the Apaches’ circular brush shelters to club to death all those found sleeping within, others stationed in the bluffs above shot down at those few terrified Apaches who, awakened by the chaos of the assault, attempted to flee to safety. In little more than half an hour, the raiders would claim the lives of almost 150 Apaches, the overwhelming majority of them women and children, with no casualties to themselves.

This event, known today as the Camp Grant Massacre after the military base near which it took place, is neither the largest nor best known of the brutal flurry of attacks on Native Americans that marred the latter half of the nineteenth century. (The dubious honor of leading these categories would probably go to the Bear River Massacre of 1863, in which an estimated 280 Northern Shoshoni died, and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in which at least 250 Lakota Indians were killed by U.S. Army units armed with rapid-firing Hotchkiss cannons.) But coming at a time when the federal government had proudly, if paradoxically, announced a “peace policy” towards North America’s indigenous peoples, this civilian attack on sleeping women and children raised troubling questions for many Americans about the causes of the nation’s violence towards Indian peoples. Newspapers fanned a heated debate over the attackers’ ethics. While some considered the Camp Grant Massacre “just and right,” one “of those victories for civilization and progress, which have made Sand Creek, Washita, the Piegan fight, and other similar occurrences famous in western history,” President Ulysses S. Grant, an architect of the “peace policy,” decried the attack as “murder, purely.” Outraged federal officials sought to punish the attackers, an effort that culminated in December 1871 with the trial of 100 alleged participants in the massacre. A jury of twelve Anglos and Mexican Americans from Tucson, however, took just nineteen minutes to find the accused not guilty, quickly ending any attempt to bring the perpetrators of the Camp Grant Massacre to justice.

In the century and a quarter since the brutal events in Aravaipa Canyon, memories of the massacre have faded away, especially among non-Apaches. Today, the parade grounds of Camp Grant have been replaced by Central Arizona College and Aravaipa Villa RV Park. Most of Aravaipa Canyon itself is now part of a national wilderness area administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The canyon’s reincarnation as an oasis of untouched nature for weary urbanites from Tucson and Phoenix would seem to encapsulate many of the perils of the American approach towards nature that Bill Cronon warned about almost a decade ago in his now famous essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Rather than publicly acknowledging its violent past—the existence of a U.S. Army fort, the massacre of women and children—the canyon’s new status as wilderness enables instead the failure to consider its human history at all.

In fairness, however, it is not as though professional historians have done a much better job of making sense of the troubling violence of the nation’s “Indian wars.” Many in fact have seemed comfortable ignoring it altogether. In their ongoing search to find historical parallels for Iraq, scholars have ransacked a wide spectrum of examples—Vietnam, World War II, the Philippines—all the while leaving the U.S.’s longest running military confrontation, that waged against the indigenous peoples of North America, conspicuously untouched (and this despite the fact that Iraqis are often described as existing in tribes). One ironic outcome of our inattention to Indian history is that at a time when the U.S. is in the midst of a spirit national debate over the proper rules of warfare, Americans possess almost no awareness of the peculiarly uneven way in which the army instituted its first code of combat in the 1860s.

During the Civil War, the first instance of industrialized, total war in human existence, Union leaders discovered they needed clear guidelines for their campaigns in the Confederate heartland, where they found themselves confronting large civilian populations and widespread guerilla resistance. Federal officials turned to a former Prussian solider turned law professor named Francis Lieber. The resulting “Lieber Code,” approved by President Lincoln on April 24, 1863 as General Order No. 100, established policies for dealing with prisoners and for distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

Significantly, however, Lieber’s rules, which would go on to be the basis for much of U.S. military justice in years to come, only applied to certain kinds of opponents. Lieber drew a sharp distinction between “barbaric” and “civilized” military practices. As a result, in their subsequent dealings with Native Americans, the U.S. Army exempted itself from following the same moral standards that applied to Southern secessionists. Thus, although the U.S. was engaged in two conflicts at the same time in the 1860s—one against the Confederacy, another against Indian peoples in the West—it practiced a quite different form of “total war” in these two campaigns. James Carleton’s orders during his time as military commander in Arizona and New Mexico (take for example his command in reference to the Mescalero Apache: “There is to be no council held with the Indians nor any talks. The men are to be slain whenever and wherever they can be found”) were far harsher than any measures ever contemplated against southern populations. The lessons to be drawn from this history would seem powerful and necessary for us today, yet they have gone all but unremarked upon.(1)

Even the “New Western History,” for all its efforts to incorporate Indian perspectives, has held back on plumbing the magnitude of the violence towards Native Americans. Reflecting recently on the thought process behind her 1987 blockbuster, The Legacy of Conquest, Patty Limerick remarked that she “made the conscious choice to stay away from the topic of the Indian wars, telling myself that there was no need to dwell on this unhappy subject. . . . When Legacy was criticized for being ‘too negative’ and ‘too grim,’ the charges seemed decidedly exaggerated, since I had side-stepped and evaded the most disheartening stories in the region’s past.”(2)

Nonetheless, if we are ever to put to rest the claims of American exceptionalism, it would seem that it is our duty to venture up to the edge of the abyss and begin the difficult task of trying to narrate the tremendous and disturbing violence so often glossed in American history as the “Indian wars.” The stories that we tell about an incident like the Camp Grant Massacre need to acknowledge the vast human suffering involved—and the limits, if not the impossibility, of recapturing the experiences of those who perished in such episodes. But they need not confine themselves to piling atrocity upon atrocity. Consider instead the story of the Aravaipa Apache chief “Captain Chiquito,” a survivor of the April 30th attack. In the years after the attack, Captain Chiquito moved back to Aravaipa Creek, where he had been born sometime in the late 1820s, establishing a thriving farm. On his periodic trips to Tucson to market his produce, Chiquito struck up an unusual friendship with Jesús María Elías, the very same Mexican-American rancher who had guided the participants in the Camp Grant Massacre. Chiquito often stayed at the Elías home during his visits to Tucson, and when Chiquito remarried, Elías presented the couple with a “good horse, a saddle, and all sorts of fine trappings.” Chiquito reciprocated with gifts of his own for Elías’s family: “a cane covered with blue and white beads and a doll made of buckskin.”

Captain Chiquito and Jesús María Elías probably knew the human costs of the “Indian wars” better than anyone, each having lost several family members to their violence. Yet this painful knowledge did not limit either Chiquito’s or Elías’s ability to eventually reconcile with their one-time enemy. It is this tangled mixture of humanity and inhumanity—of inhuman violence committed by human beings—that makes a complete reckoning with “Indian wars” so challenging and so necessary.

(1) For a telling study of the contrast between the U.S. Army’s treatment of Confederates and American Indians, see Mark Grimsley, “’Rebels’ and ‘Redskins’: U.S. Military Conduct toward White Southerners and Native Americans in Comparative Perspective,” in Mark Grimsley and Clifford J. Rogers, eds., Civilians in the Path of War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 137-61.

(2) Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987). The quote comes from page 4 of the book’s new preface. It bears noting that Limerick is one of the few recent historians to mention the import of the Camp Grant Massacre, which she does on page 259.

Suggestions for further reading:

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Massacre at Camp Grant: Forgetting and Remembering Apache History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007).

Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: The Penguin Press, forthcoming November 2008).

Dale C. Miles and Paul R. Machula, History of the San Carlos Apache. Rev. ed. (San Carlos, AZ: San Carlos Apache Historic and Cultural Preservation Office, 1998).