Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale University: New Haven and London. 2008. Pp. xxi, 473) fascinates me in ways very similar to the work of Anne F. Hyde, Kathleen DuVal and Daniel K. Richter. Each of these historians has taken a topic we thought we knew – Indian-European relations in the North American west in the 18th and 19th centuries – and turned it on its ear by offering a thorough reexamination from a perspective not hitherto explored, thus adding invaluably to our more accurate understanding of the complicated relationships between the peoples of the west. Native peoples were as varied and unique in their cultures and interactions as the Spanish, French, Mexican, British and American peoples were in theirs, if not more so, and these historians do not allow us to neglect or ignore those differences. Thank goodness.
Like DuVal, Hyde and Richter, DeLay upends our perspective. He effectively argues that the plains Indians’ raids and violence in Mexico directly contributed to the weakening of Mexico, emboldening the U.S. to embark upon, and win, the U.S.-Mexican War, resulting in Mexico’s significant loss of territory to the U.S. and, ultimately, American success in relegating those raiding Indian people to impoverished reservations. It is the law of unintended consequences writ large.
In a manner reminiscent of Patricia Nelson Limerick, DeLay focuses on place over process, honing in on the northern Mexican states where the bulk of Indian raids occurred in the 1830s and 1840s. He carefully examines the intricate trade relationships that each state independently developed and maintained with different native peoples, the relationships those peoples had with each other and the bonds of fictive kinship that were regularly established, and the many challenges that northern Mexican states faced as the result of Mexican federalism and inadequate response from Mexico City. DeLay shows us the ill-fated hands these small Mexican communities were dealt, the often understandable solutions they developed, and the unforeseen consequences that often resulted in making the Mexicans’ plights worse instead of better.
A recurrent theme in DeLay’s narrative is the utter lack of concern or attention of the Mexican central government for the violence and destruction regularly visited upon its northernmost citizens. I cannot help but contrast Mexico’s inept, virtually non-existent management of its frontier with that of the U.S. Mexico’s northern states repeatedly sought the help and support of their central government, which could not be bothered to care until the situation had so deteriorated that Indian raids reached states as far south as San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Yet, even then, the Mexican government was ineffectual, lacking funds and the cohesion of its northern states, which were not always interested in, and could not be compelled to cooperate with, the central government’s strategic efforts to engage in diplomacy with the raiders. Western U.S. states and settlers had their own difficult times with the natives, but the American government was considerably more attentive to its frontiers than Mexico City, devoting resources and military support as it could to the region.