Daily Archives: 17 August 2016

U.S. Military Dregs in the Southwest, 1860s

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 5803-5820, 7087-7098:

The enslavement of captured Indians was an old convention in New Mexico—as was peonage, another form of servitude in which poor, usually Hispanic workers became indebted to wealthy estate owners. Peonage was a kind of feudal arrangement that kept the landed class rich while the majority of the citizens, illiterate and powerless to improve themselves, stayed mired in a financial misery from which they could rarely escape. William Davis, who as the United States attorney for the territory made a close study of the practice in the 1850s, thought that peonage was “in truth but a more charming name for a species of slavery as abject and oppressive as any found upon the American continent.”

Neither Carson nor the better-off New Mexicans he lived among had shown moral qualms about slavery. In fact, the people of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory had, in 1861, seceded from the Union to create their own Confederate state, which they called Arizona. Centered around the towns of Tucson and Mesilla, the population was composed largely of Hispanic landowners who farmed along the Rio Grande, and Anglo Texan transplants who’d moved farther west to try their hand at ranching or mining. (Kit’s own brother, Moses Carson, was now a settler living in Mesilla.) Arizonans vigorously cast their loyalty to Richmond and hoped their New Mexico brethren to the north would eventually come over to the Rebel side. The new territory of Arizona was governed by a bold, ruthless man named John Baylor, who sought to import Southern-style Negro slavery while simultaneously pursuing a stated policy of “exterminating all Apaches and other hostile Indians.” (Among the more sordid outrages in his career, Baylor was once charged with killing sixty Indians by giving them a sack of poisoned flour.)

Many of the army soldiers who lived in the New Mexico Territory were Southerners. Sibley wasn’t the only one who had left the U.S. Army at the first word of war—fully half the officers in the territory had quit New Mexico to fight for the Confederate cause. Officers could resign, but enlisted men in the lower echelons of the department could not without facing charges of desertion (punishable, in some cases, by death). So the ranks of Canby’s army on the Rio Grande were sprinkled with regulars who hailed from Southern states—men whose loyalty and motivation he understandably did not trust.

Lawrence Kelly, who made a thorough study of Carson’s command in his excellent book Navajo Roundup, noted that nearly half of the officers serving on the Navajo campaign were either court-martialed or forced to resign. Lawrence observes that, among other things, Carson’s officers were charged with “murder, alcoholism, embezzlement, sexual deviation, desertion, and incompetence.” Lt. David McAllister was caught in bed with an enlisted man while he was officer of the day at Fort Canby. Capt. Eben Everett was court-martialed for “being so drunk as to be wholly unable to perform any duty properly.” Lieutenants Stephen Coyle and William Mortimer were forced to resign after they bloodied each other in “a disgraceful fight” in front of enlisted men. John Caufield was charged with murdering an enlisted man and held in irons until convicted by a military court. Assistant Surgeon James H. Prentiss was charged with stealing most of the “Hospital Whiskey and Wine and applying it to his own use.” Lt. Nicholas Hodt was found to be “beastly intoxicated” and “in bed with a woman of bad character.” Another officer was found to have offered to secure prostitutes for his men, boasting in all seriousness that he was the “damdest best pimp in New Mexico.” These colorful disciplinary notes go on and on, bearing sad testimony to the morale problems that clearly prevailed among this confederacy of dunces.

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The Puebloan Diaspora, c. 1150

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 4435-4454:

North America had never seen such a florescence of culture. But then around A.D. 1150, just as quickly as they had burst upon the scene, the Chacoan culture ebbed. The agent of their demise seems to have been an environmental collapse brought on, in part, by two devastating droughts in 1085 and 1095, and in part by the impact of a dense population living on a marginal desert landscape. Their expansion had been predicated on a kind of meteorological accident; they had been living in a hundred-year cycle of aberrant wetness, and during that brief window the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon had overfarmed, overhunted, and overlogged. In only a few generations their deforested land became eroded, the topsoil depleted, the drainages choked with salt and silt. The river on which they depended for corn and beans dried up. A third major drought, beginning around 1129, delivered the final blow.

This environmental upheaval led, predictably enough, to a social upheaval. In its death agonies, Chaco Canyon was not a pleasant place. People began to starve. They turned their great houses into fortresses, erecting walls, barricading the first-floor windows, retreating to higher stories at night, pulling up their ladders at the slightest hint of danger. Archaeologists have found evidence of widespread civil unrest, witchcraft, and even ritual cannibalism. Finally, the Chaco Anasazi began to leave in large numbers. In many cases they simply walked away from their great apartment complexes, leaving behind beautiful ornamental pottery, sandals and clothing, and large quantities of dried food neatly stored in granaries.

But the Chacoans did not really “vanish.” They wandered all over the Southwest, resettling wherever they could find water and safety. The Pueblo Indians were their direct descendants. Hosta and his Jemez people had Chaco blood, not Aztec blood, coursing in their veins, and so did the dozens of other Pueblo tribes whose settlements formed a loose constellation across the New Mexico Territory—the Zuni, the Hopi, the Acoma, the Taos Indians. The architecture of the modern Pueblos, though not as technically sophisticated, was strikingly similar to that of the Chaco great houses, with their multistoried apartments, retreating terraces, and underground kivas. From Puebloan rock art to their religious ceremonies to the styles of their pottery, the cultural echoes were clear. The Chaco Anasazi remained alive and well; they had simply undergone a diaspora of sorts. In spreading out and regerminating in smaller hunkered settlements, the descendants of the Anasazi learned the final cautionary lesson of Chaco Canyon: the peril of density in the face of the desert. In a meager landscape, civilization must scatter.

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The Navajo Arrival in the Southwest

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 4454-4474:

Interestingly, about the same time that the Chaco Phenomenon was imploding, the Navajo began to move into the region. For centuries they had been slowly pushing southward from Alaska and northwestern Canada, working their way down the spine of the Rockies. These nomadic warriors were the epitome of a scattered civilization. Supple, adaptive, refusing to tie themselves down to any one place or way of life, they moved freely with the seasons, following the game or their own whimsy.

When the first Navajo saw the ruins at Chaco Canyon, they must have been stunned. Everything about Chaco represented the antithesis of their own life. The Navajo must have instantly recognized that Chaco culture had been advanced beyond anything they had ever seen. But they also intuitively understood that something terrible had happened here, that this ghost city contained the seeds of destruction. They refused to go into the great houses, believing they were places of evil and death. They would never live this way—in cities, clustered in permanent buildings, trapped in a close environment. They would always leave themselves an out.

The timeline is murky, but it is possible that there was some overlap in the two cultures—that is, that the Navajos flooded in just as the Anasazi were leaving, and that for a brief time they had direct dealings with one another. It’s also possible that the Navajo’s arrival hastened the unraveling of Chaco culture—either through direct warfare or competition for resources. The word anasazi, in fact, is a Navajo word, meaning “ancestors of our enemies,” and it’s a term modern-day Pueblo Indians understandably detest (they prefer the designation “ancestral Puebloans”). Whatever the nature of their relationship, the Navajo clearly filled the void left by the Anasazi departure. They would remain masters of this region, living their roving kind of life in the midst of these crumbling rock cities, incorporating stories about the ruins into their own mythology, but always leaving them alone.

By the time Simpson and Dick Kern wandered through, the Navajo had been the de facto custodians of Chaco Canyon for at least five hundred years. Much of our early understanding of Chaco would be refracted through a Navajo point of view. The word chaco is a Spanish approximation of the Navajo tsekho—meaning “canyon,” or literally, “an opening in the rock.” And even as Simpson had been examining the ruins with his men, Navajo scouts had been watching him from afar, puzzling over his intentions, and possibly wondering whether this bewhiskered little man was a witch.

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