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  • War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War
  • James N. Leiker
War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. By Brian DeLay. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.

Starting in the 1830s, raids by Southern Plains Indians into northern Mexico turned settled areas into deserts, claimed thousands of lives, and left the region weakened and vulnerable to U.S. expansion. Brian DeLay introduces this intriguing study with a look at Article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which stipulated that the United States would protect northern Mexican communities from Indians. DeLay claims this provision as a small door to a larger story in that Indian peoples engaged in violence that forced Mexicans to retreat, "creating deserts," and earning Americans' scorn since in their eyes withdrawing from savages belied the arc of history. Believing they could do better, U.S. officials contested Mexico's territorial claims and so wrested away half of its territory in the 1840s. Thus, Indian violence helped reshape North American boundaries, a factor overlooked in the trend by international scholars to minimize borderlands and indigenous histories.

Previously, Comanches and northern Mexicans lived in a web of familial and trading relationships but following independence from Spain, Mexican officials reserved the military for suppressing internal dissent, not for protecting its northern frontier. As the Comanche peace with Mexico grew unprofitable, and as alliances with Osages, Kiowas and Apaches developed, the Southern Plains became a thriving bazaar of plunderers' [End Page 283] goods, leading to northern Mexico's despoiliation. Treading carefully into historiographical debates over causes for Indian violence, DeLay asserts that Comanches were no different than other people who used violence to take what they wanted. Models of resistance or interpretations of raids as means of material gain do not explain Comanches' cruel acts; rather, northern Mexicans were simply the easiest to attack. "Indians don't unmake presidents" came the curt reply from Mexico City to a Chihuahuan plea for military help. Preoccupied with preventing foreign invasion as international unpaid debts mounted, the Mexican central government ignored its northern states, which sometimes cooperated but mostly floundered due to lack of a systematic plan for dealing with los barbaros.

DeLay weaves these multiple strands into a well-written synthesis of North American politics and diplomacy in the early nineteenth century. The tremendous details on tribal governance, economics, marriage patterns, and other topics distract from his main purpose, leading into areas already heavily-trodden by other scholars. Possibly, DeLay misses the real dynamic of his subject which seems to be the ability (or not) of a nation-state to control its frontier and the indigenous people who live there. U.S. westerners had similar anti-centralist views as northern Mexicans until the federal army learned to patrol its border areas efficiently. By contrast, Mexico's history of corruption and military control by elites, who feared the impoverished masses that began the war of 1810, worked against northern peace and left the country open to invasion, first by nomadic raiders, then by an imperialist aggressor. War of a Thousand Deserts makes a solid contribution to diplomatic, borderlands, and indigenous history.

James N. Leiker
Johnson County Community College (KS)


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