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  • War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.–Mexican War
  • Matthew Babcock
War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.–Mexican War. By Brian Delay. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. 496 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In this wide-ranging transnational study, Brian DeLay connects two seemingly time-worn subjects—Indian raids in northern Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican War—in a fresh and engaging way. As the author points out, regional specialists on both sides of the border, including David J. Weber, William B. Griffen, and Isidro Vizcaya Canales, have written extensively about the escalating conflicts between independent Indians and northern Mexicans from 1821 to 1846. Focusing on the man-made wasteland that Indians created across parts of ten Mexican states during the 1830s and 1840s, from New Mexico in the north to San Luis Postosí in the south, DeLay dramatically reconceptualizes this reciprocal violence as the War of a Thousand Deserts and demonstrates its profound influence on U.S. and Mexican politics. Complicating the prevalent notion that indigenous power in North America declined after 1815, DeLay persuasively argues that Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and Navajos influenced "the course and outcome" of the U.S.-Mexican War and helped "shape the international contest for North America" through the mid nineteenth century (pp. xv, 303).

DeLay divides his compelling narrative into three innovative topical sections. Part 1, "Neighbors," compares northern Mexican and Comanche cultures and highlights their political, commercial, and military connections. In The Indian Southwest: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention, 1580–1830 (1999), without consulting Mexican archival sources below the Rio Grande, Gary Clayton Anderson maintains that Anglo-American expansion led to Comanche political and commercial decline and an increase in unsanctioned raiding by 1830 (pp. 254, 264). Relying on data extracted from Mexican official newspapers, archival documents, and secondary ethnohistorical works, DeLay argues more convincingly that in fact the influx of Anglo-Texan traders spurred an expansion in the horse and buffalo hide trade during the 1830s and 1840s. Much like [End Page 345] the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, Comanche leaders planned their raids into northern Mexico as a unified political strategy motivated by revenge, personal prestige, and material gain. Part 2, "Nations," describes the War of a Thousand Deserts on the ground and the Mexican and Anglo-American response to it. Although scholars typically contrast the feeble Mexican and harsh Anglo-Texan military responses to Indian raiding and warfare, DeLay perceptively shows that Mexican and American politicians reacted to the onslaught with similar rhetoric and proposed strategies. Finally, part 3, "Convergence," explains how the War of a Thousand Deserts and the U.S.-Mexican War came together. From a Mexican perspective, DeLay reveals, these wars were one and the same. At the same time, Indian raiding facilitated the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico from 1846 to 1847, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the U.S.-Mexico military conflict also facilitated Indian raiding. According to Article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United States would stop the attacks and recover Mexican-born captives. The nation failed to uphold its promise, however, and eventually convinced Mexico to strike the article from the agreement as a condition for the Gadsden Purchase.

With its enormous scope stretching from Washington to Mexico City, this book has something to offer nearly any scholar. Although a current historiographical trend is to compare frontiers and borderlands on a global scale, DeLay prefers to integrate the cores and peripheries. This transnational approach is an especially effective way to describe the complicated relations between Indians, Mexicans, and Americans on the ground because it eliminates the common problem of reading the modern border backward into history. It is equally useful for drawing broader political, economic, and cultural connections between the three groups. This method also makes the research and writing a more challenging task. But here, too, DeLay succeeds marvelously. He skillfully combines a wealth of quantitative data from Mexican military reports with Mexican and American diplomatic correspondence, ethnographic reports, captivity narratives, and native oral, linguistic, and pictorial sources, most memorably the Kiowa calendar. His creative chapter openings, vivid prose, and tight arguments belie his depth of research...


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