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Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890

by Larry McMurtry

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-5077-X
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A suitably cheerless tour of several 19th-century massacres, guided by the increasingly gloomy master of all things Wild West.

Having written of Blue Duck, the Texas Rangers, Billy the Kid and others handy with a gun, McMurtry (The Colonel and Little Missie, 2005, etc.) is well versed in the business of slaughter: “What massacres usually do,” he writes by way of welcome, “is reduce human beings to the condition of meat, though the bits of meat will be less tidily arranged than the cuts would normally be in a decent butcher shop.” Such is the spirit in which McMurtry visits the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where, in 1857, a mixed group of Mormons and Paiute Indians slaughtered 140 westbound settlers from Arkansas, both to get at their fat cattle and to chase away “gentiles” from Utah. The male settlers were shot by Mormons, the females and children bludgeoned by Paiutes; either way, they wound up as “in effect a meat mountain.” So, too, did the unfortunate “peace Indians,” Cheyenne mostly, who were butchered at Sand Creek in 1864 by white militiamen led by a thunderous fundamentalist preacher; and so too did the Apaches slaughtered at Camp Grant, Ariz., in 1871, by a mob of white vigilantes, Hispanic ranch hands and even Indians; and so, too, did the unfortunate Sioux massacred in the snows of Wounded Knee in 1890, who believed that their Ghost Dance would keep away the bullets. (Interestingly, McMurtry remarks, similar ideas were afoot all over the world, always arrayed against white imperialists.) If McMurtry has a thesis, it is to show that the nervous doctrine of the preemptive strike seems always to be a precursor to massacre—a doctrine “President George W. Bush has recently revived.” But it needs no real thesis; the mayhem speaks for itself.

Minor McMurtry, but, as always, superbly written: dark reading for a Western campfire surrounded by ghosts.