A Massacre Explained

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Shadows at Dawn, by Karl Jacoby

Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History
By Karl Jacoby
Penguin, 384 pages

The Gist:
In the predawn hours of April 30, 1871, a group of attackers ambushed an encampment of Apaches in Aravaipa Canyon, outside the town of Tuscon. 144 people — overwhelmingly women and children — were slaughtered. This much we know at the outset of Shadows at Dawn, by Brown University historian Karl Jacoby. We also know who these attackers were, for the most part: an unlikely alliance of white settlers, Spanish-speaking landholders known as vecinos and members of an opposing tribe, the Tohono O'odham. But rather than tie these four groups' tales together into a standard history of what became known as the Camp Grant Massacre — one of the most brutal and sensational acts in the American Southwest of the late 19th century — Jacoby breaks them out separately, to better unpack what he calls the "palimpsest of many stories" surrounding the massacre. The goal is to add nuance to the accepted narratives of the American frontier as cowboy vs. Indian, good vs. bad, Manifest Destiny vs. native Americans' ancient claim to the land.

Highlight Reel
1. On the conflicting loyalties and complicated relationships among native Americans and Mexicans in the borderlands: "Having made peace with an Apache band, it was not uncommon for a Mexican village to undertake a thriving trade with their new associates in goods seized from other settlements. '[W]hat was stolen from one Mexican found ready sale to another,' noted an observer, 'the plunder from Senora finding its way into the hands of the settlers of Chihuahua, or... selling without trouble to the Mexicans living along the Rio Grande.'"

2. On the increasingly brutal attitude of white settlers towards the Apache: "The civilian scout leader [King] Woolsey, for example, was blunt in his embrace of such tactics. 'As there has been a great deal said about my killing women and children,' he wrote to the territory's military authorities, 'I will state to you that we killed in this Scout 22 Bucks 5 women & 3 children. We would have killed more women but [did not]owing to having attacked in the day time when the women were at work gathering Mescal. It sir is next to impossible to prevent killing squaws in jumping a rancheria even were we disposed to save them. For my part I am frank to say that I fight on the broad platform of extermination.'"

3. On how the Camp Grant massacre faded from American history: For many other Anglos, who preferred to view their history as a story of Euro-American progress, the Indian wars had become something of an embarrassment. ... the image of white men [and massacre instigators]married to Mexican women and only able to avenge themselves against the Apache through an alliance with the territory's Mexicans and [Tohono O'odham] fit poorly with the narrative of white mastery. ... The tendency to see Anglos as the primary actors in the region's historical drama not only bleached the polyglot character of the early U.S. borderlands out of many studies; it also rendered an episode like the Camp Grant Massacre a problematic and therefore marginal event.

The Lowdown
Any reader knows he's in trouble when the author finds it necessary to earnestly overexplain the book's title. Shadows at Dawn, in this case, is meant to refer not only to the hour the massacre took place but to the "murky, often elusive nature of historical truth," while "Borderlands" refers both to the contested area separating the U.S. and Mexico and also to the demarcation between "history and storytelling." Uh-oh.

It's a pleasant surprise, then, that much of the rest of Shadows at Dawn is a crisply readable history — four of them, in fact, with the Apache, the Anglos, the vecinos and the O'odham allotted two chapters each. Jacoby does a good job outlining the causes of the massacre from each point of view, whether historical, cultural or geographical. In some cases, maybe too good a job: the litany of abuses attributed to the Apache by their attackers as justification for the massacre reads less like a Southwestern Rashomon and more like Murder on the Orient Express — every hand on the knife with its own, separate grievance. But even better is the way in which he paints a picture of the often intimate relationships and shifting loyalties between each group: a previously straightforward tale of atrocity becomes one shaded by historical grudges on top of intermarriage, tribal mistrust on top of individual friendship, all funneled towards a tragic climax by the shifting ground of history.

Verdict: Skim

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