War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War
By Brian DeLay. New Haven: Yale University Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0300119329, $35. 496 pages.
Review by Bradley Montgomery-Anderson, Northeastern State University
War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War is the latest book in the Lamar Series in Western History. The author, Brian DeLay, is a professor of history at the University of Colorado in Boulder and is a well-known expert on borderlands history and the interactions of Native Americans with nation-states. He has made a unique contribution to the study of the U.S.-Mexican war by examining the role of Indian raids within the context of American and Mexican nation-building in the Southwest. This book is a good complement to Comanche Empire, the previous publication in the series. Like that work, War of a Thousand Deserts re-orients traditional narratives of the region by presenting indigenous nations as active participants whose role is equal to that of the more traditionally portrayed nation-state. This perspective comes through strongly throughout the book, and DeLay warns the reader, “The all too common notion that nation-states are normative and that polities deviating from that norm are somehow politically incomplete misrepresents the workings of nonstate societies” (119). Another important idea of the work is that Indian raiding reached such a scale and intensity in northern Mexico that it served as a crucial factor to the success of the American armies when they invaded that country in 1846. DeLay’s central thesis is best summarized by the name he uses for these raids as a whole; the “war of a thousand deserts” was so relentless and widespread that it depopulated the northern part of Mexico and prevented any significant economic growth there. DeLay shows how these raids coincided with the American invasion to such a degree that they fueled a Mexican narrative of the war that depicted the Americans as actually inciting and supporting the Indians.
This book is divided into three parts. In the first part, “Neighbors,” DeLay traces the path from relatively peaceful relations between the Comanches and the Mexicans to the all-out warfare that was prevalent by the 1840s. It is interesting to see how the Mexican government loses an opportunity in the 1830s to create better relations with the Comanches and their allies as northern plains tribes and removed tribes increasingly encroach upon their territory. American advances into the area, partially as a result of the removal of the southeast tribes to the region, meant a trading partner who not only provided better and more varied goods but who also helped to cement relations with these other indigenous nations. Peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1840 was followed by a dramatic increase in raids into northern Mexico. This increased raiding significantly enlarged Comanche wealth—chiefly in horses and captives—and resulted in the period of regional Comanche ascendancy as they became the center of a trading network for these plundered goods. Raids also helped to cement the alliance of Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches with the Comanches. One of the most important ideas of this book is the role of vengeance for motivating the raids as well as for creating as a unifying bond between the Comanches and their allies. The resulting incursions into Mexico DeLay characterizes as “revenge campaigns” motivated by the “galvanizing dead.” The author thoroughly explains the cultural motivations for raiding, including the intense social pressure to display bravery and military prowess.
In Part Two, “Nations,” DeLay discusses the issue of Indian raids within the framework of the emergent Mexican state. The inability of the central government to deal with the indigenous invasion of its northern territory put the very concept of a unified Mexican nation-state at risk. The poorly defended provinces came to question their role and purpose in a republic whose government seemed more concerned with palace intrigues than with the issue of national defense. DeLay provides a thorough background to the instability of the Mexican government during this period and shows how economic and political turmoil led to the neglect of the northern defenses. It is fascinating to follow his description of how the construction of a Mexican national identity becomes unraveled in the peripheries. He places this basic failure of the Mexican government as the cornerstone of what he refers to as the Texas Creation myth. In this narrative of Texas Nationhood, the Texans “made the desert smile” (229), whereas the Mexicans had been unable to develop or even defend it. Indian raids thus served as a crucial backdrop for Texan claims to independence.
The two processes outlined in the first two parts of the book—the reorientation of Indian raiding southward and the collapse of nation-building in the Mexican north—create the setting for the U.S.-Mexican war. In the third part, “Convergence,” DeLay explains how these two narratives played a decisive role in the outcome of that conflict. The Texas Creation myth becomes a more general justification of U.S. annexation of half of Mexico: “They would defeat the Indians, would redeem the captives, and would rescue the vast, derelict garden of northern Mexico from Mexican neglect” (296). The author concludes the book with an insightful epilogue on the peace treaty ending the war and specifically on the provision of the treaty requiring that the U.S. government prevent future Indian raids into Mexico.
The book has a number of attractive and useful maps; of particular interest are those that depict the individual raiding routes. An appendix shows the numbers of casualties involved in the raids and allows the reader to better understand raiding patterns. It would be more effective if the author briefly discussed the motivations and interests of the individual indigenous nations who participated in the attacks. The mechanisms and incentives for the revenge campaigns receive a thorough treatment; at the same time, it would be useful to integrate more cultural and historical information of the indigenous peoples into the overall narrative. This lack does not seriously detract from an important and well-researched work that will be a stimulating and provocative read for anyone interested in the Native American history, Mexican-American relations, borderlands history, and Southwest history in general.