- Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives ed. by Ronald K. Wetherington and Frances Levine
Using four case studies drawn from a 2008 conference, this book attempts to address three major questions: what is different and what is similar between a battle and massacre, what is the relationship between history and archaeology, and what role can American Indians play in the interpretation of nineteenth-century frontier conflicts. The editors hoped to identify “threads of commonality.” The results are mixed. The introduction emphasizes the roles of fear and emotion, and the “fog of battle” (and foggy memory) they create, in both battle and massacre, but the theme of fear and emotion is not sustained throughout the case studies, while the conclusion focuses on American Indian reluctance to engage in the interpretive enterprises of white historians and archaeologists. The relationship between history and archaeology is effectively addressed, with the finding, surprising to the editors, that the disciplines come to similar conclusions about the cases examined for this book. Thus we have a missed opportunity, a lament, and a practical conclusion.
The case studies are the battles of Cienguilla (1854) and Adobe Walls (1874), and the massacres of Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows, each addressed by a historian and an archaeologist in separate chapters. The most revisionist study is of Cienguilla, where army officers covered up their defeat and retreat with misleading reports. Both the chapters about Cienguilla are thorough and persuasive: led by an overconfident junior officer, the army was soundly defeated, and its essentially unprovoked assault unnecessarily poisoned relations with the Jicarillas. The two chapters on Adobe Walls are substantially shorter and less detailed than the others, and the facts do not seem to be in much dispute, suggesting that a more complex or debated case might have been chosen. The chapters on Sand Creek provide historiography and a conclusive demonstration via casualty ratios (Indian killed to wounded, as well as Indian to white) and the archaeological evidence of casualty locations that the white assault was a massacre. The two chapters on Mountain Meadows do the same, and stress the ways in which archaeology can help us focus on victims as well as perpretrators.
Among these studies, only those about Cienguilla are truly revisionist. Those [End Page 318] about Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows are valuable, but will probably never be read, much less accepted, by people who deny or attempt to obscure these atrocities. Methodologically, the archaeological studies show how scholars can “slow down the narrative” by mapping concentrations of material remains to identify and distinguish the stages in an event. While the authors express skepticism about the “CSI effect” (where the public believes that forensics can provide indisputable answers to complex, emotionally debated questions), as a historian I greatly appreciate the archaeologists’ contributions amid the trajectories of violence and death.