Valley of the Guns: The Pleasant Valley War and the Trauma of Violence by Eduardo Obregón Pagán
The Pleasant Valley War occurred in the 1880s, in an area of Arizona near an Apache reservation and where livestock moved along legitimate and black-market routes. Remote and sparsely settled, there were just a few key families living in Pleasant Valley when neighbors and friends turned on each other. At the end of the conflict, nineteen men were dead and four had fled, leaving behind shattered families. The Pleasant Valley War has been interpreted in several ways in the past: as a story of the Old West, a family feud like the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, or a conflict over land between cattlemen and sheep herders. Not so, argues Eduardo Pagán.
Pagán begins his work with the people of Pleasant Valley, explaining the families that sought their survival and success in this remote area of Arizona and the ties that knit the small community together. He sets up the narrative of what is to come, but also demonstrates that this was a community that worked together as friends and neighbors. On the surface, Valley of the Guns asks why the Pleasant Valley War happened, and Pagán recounts the murders, shoot-outs, trials, and aftermath of the conflict. At its core, however, this is a book that analyzes human nature, fear, violence, and the reality of settling the "wilderness" of the West. [End Page 224]
When the Pleasant Valley community seemed to split into two factions and resorted to quick action with their guns, they were acting in an environment of fear and violence. First, there was the constant fear of Apache attacks. The Pleasant Valley War occurred at a time when Native Americans were being constrained to the boundaries of reservations, but were not content with those limits, sometimes breaking free to raid neighboring settlements or escape the control of the U.S. military. White settlers were keenly aware of the chances of violence, building their cabins with gun ports in the walls and keeping weapons close at hand for self-defense. Then there were the effects of theft and raiding to feed the illegal trade in horses and cattle. In an era when herds still roamed freely, outside raiders and inside thefts proved a continuous drain on families trying to survive. Again, this meant a heightened awareness that attack was imminent, and the settlers armed themselves against thieves as well as Apaches.
Cracks appeared in the relationships between Pleasant Valley settlers around issues of disappearing livestock, fears of Apache attack, and charges of theft. It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the Pleasant Valley War, but the settlers were quick to grab their guns and men began to die. Once the violence began, it snowballed and settlers fell largely into two factions behind either the Graham or Tewksbury families. In the end, both of these families, and others, were destroyed by the violence that gripped the valley. Pagán frames these events within the growing scholarship of trauma studies. The settlers were quick to use violence, he argues, because they were living under the fear of violence and the constant readiness to defend themselves, their families, and their property. He argues that living under that pressure for an extended period of time might cause the reactions seen in the Pleasant Valley War. Violence begat more violence, the scars of which would haunt the participants for the rest of their lives.
Pagán makes some bold historical statements about trauma and violence, the settlement of the West, and the dominant interpretation of westward expansion. The myths of the "Old West" place Native Americans and white settlers into neat categories where the West is "conquered" or "won" by the will and perseverance of American expansion. Violence is also neatly packaged into the trope of the heroic cowboy who defeats the "bad guys" and rides into the sunset. As Pagán states in his conclusion, these myths allow "the story to close without ever having to deal with its messy aftermath" (p. 202). And the aftermath of the Pleasant Valley War is indeed messy. The violence of that conflict affected its survivors until their deaths. Violence shaped the lives of these settlers and shaped the settlement of the West in ways that disrupt the myths of the "Old West." [End Page 225]
Pagán's work falls into several categories of scholarship. Richly researched in the sources of the Pleasant Valley War and its families, the book is a microhistory that uses one singular event to illuminate wider themes of history and call for the reinterpretation of western settlement. It is also a narrative history, one that is accessible for both historians and lay readers alike. Using that style of writing opens this work to a larger audience but also drives home the human element of the story. Pagán asks the reader to consider how violence shaped the experiences of these settlers and uses the narrative to peer into their lives in order to unpack the effects of trauma. In addition, Pagán's work fits into the emerging field of trauma studies. Typically, trauma scholarship examines warfare, but violence also affects those who never see a formal battlefield. Why do we expect to see fear and trauma in a soldier, Pagán askes, but want stoicism from the pioneers who paved the way west? Pagán closes his work with compelling evidence of how violence stalked the Pleasant Valley residents for the rest of their lives.
Pagán weaves a narrative so compelling, so driving that it demands to be read, every word. The narrative style moves his analysis and argument forward, but is also thoroughly enjoyable to read. The strength of this work rests in the deep story he tells of the families and the best evidence he gives to support his argument about trauma is in the lives of those killed and those who survived the conflict in Pleasant Valley. For scholars working in the history of trauma or the history of the West, Pagán's book will serve as a model for how to reinterpret violence and western expansion and tell that history in a compelling way.
KATHLEEN THOMPSON teaches for West Virginia University and Pierpont Community and Technical College. Her research is about mental trauma, coping, and treatment in the Union army during the Civil War, and she is currently working on her first book.