- Bound to Have Blood: Frontier Newspapers and the Plains Indian Wars
Bound to Have Blood helps to refigure stereotypical depictions of Indians by examining local and regional newspaper reporting of Indian fighting on the plains and by focusing on what Hugh J. Reilly describes as “eight watershed events in Native American history” (xvii). Reilly scrutinizes nearly thirty years of coverage, beginning with the 1862 Great Sioux Uprising and ending with the Ghost Dancers and Wounded Knee in 1890–91. Building on recent studies of the frontier press, Reilly’s use of primary newspaper sources is noteworthy because it demonstrates frontier ideology on a local scale. This local sensibility in the volatile, waning years of the frontier is intriguing because it enhances our awareness of many Wests; yet, since the Plains Indians are so iconic, Bound to Have Blood also registers a highly charged sense of tragedy and finality beyond a regional scale. Reilly’s is not a study of the tribes themselves, but rather a historiography of the press. By analyzing the rhetorical strategies employed against Native Americans by the popular press, Reilly exposes the extremely stylized, self-aware urgency of Manifest Destiny in the popular imagination during this critical period.
Bound to Have Blood balances extensive excerpts from period newspaper accounts with more accurate historical records and with national media coverage, resulting in a vivid portrait of life on the plains. Through this methodology, Reilly engenders compassion for the settlers, but he is realistic in his approach to white attitudes of the period. Taken together, local, national, and historical accounts reveal the tremendous discord between historical fact and the often distorted reporting that fueled settlers’ anxieties. In this way, Reilly’s survey illuminates the typically strategic, but situationally sympathetic handling employed by editors to manipulate sentiment toward Native Americans. Yet Reilly’s history [End Page 321] just as frequently reveals the complex relationship between newspapers, Indians, and the political aspirations of territorial leaders. For example, in chapter 2 Reilly plots the progression of reports about the politically inclined Colonel John M. Chivington’s involvement in the fighting at Sand Creek. At first called Colorado’s “avenging angel” in 1864 by the Daily Mining Journal, Chivington was castigated by the same paper a week later for leading this massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Alternately, Chivington was defended by the Journal’s conservative competition. Despite indications that reports of the massacre were true, the Rocky Mountain News railed against Chivington’s “political enemies,” calling them “unscrupulous” and claiming they held “personal animosities” (22–24). He was finally brought to trial for his leadership role, court-martialed, and ultimately disgraced. Chivington’s political career was ended just as quickly as it had seemed assured—purely by the editorial vicissitudes of the press and the inescapable brutality of the facts (29).
Against this incendiary backdrop, Bound to Have Blood conveys the story of “the final desperate struggles by native Americans of the Great Plains to retain their traditional ways of life” (xvii). Even so, Reilly seems torn between celebrating the history of conquest and acknowledging the culpability of newspaper editors and correspondents. Still, with each successive chapter, we see the Plains Indians’ world closing in around them, and Reilly’s poignant handling of the flight of the Nez Perce in chapter 5 is among the most evocative moments in his narrative. In contrast to chapters 3 and 4, which cover the Fort Laramie Treaty and Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn and at times feel flat and redundant, Reilly’s Nez Perce section best articulates the passionately conflicted attitudes settlers held toward Indians. The reportage offered in this chapter effectively exposes the conspiratorial manipulation of public sentiment brought about when papers forcibly imposed the conquest narrative on Indians and settlers alike.
Bound to Have Blood is a valuable addition to studies of American nationalism in the West. While the book occasionally displays unrefined prose and poor editing, it provides a succinct portrait that reads well in conjunction with notable recent research by...