THE WILD FRONTIER by William M. Osborn


Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee
Email this review


A grisly but well-executed compendium of the extreme cruelty practiced by American Indians and settlers alike during the 268 years of the Indian Wars.

Retired attorney Osborn’s debut turns a sharp eye on contemporary idealization of pre-Diaspora American Indians as peaceful and holistic; he argues instead that war-loving Indians mounted violent intertribal campaigns, even before the 17th-century arrival of European interlopers. Tribal society emphasized an individualized “warrior” culture in which personal status was earned through aggressive attack, followed by rape or ritualized torture of any unfortunate survivors. Among the white men, peculiar strains of Puritan vengefulness (and, later on, notions of Manifest Destiny) frequently spurred European settlers to similarly gratuitous atrocities in response to the earliest Indian aggression—as in King Philip’s War (1675–78), in which approximately 1,000 settlers were killed by the Wampanoag Confederacy and during which “the Puritans distinguished themselves by wholesale massacres of noncombatants.” The author explores how minor cultural conflicts escalated into prolonged cycles of violence that resulted in many deaths, epitomized by the Santee Sioux Uprising of 1862 (when a theft of eggs escalated into a mass attack in Minnesota that left at least 700 settlers dead). Although Indian resistance on the frontier surged during the Civil War, this same era was notable for Army massacres of civilians and prisoners under government “protection.” These instances deepened the hostility of such tribes as remained intact, culminating in the 1876 loss of Custer’s entire command at the Little Big Horn (where victorious warriors committed corpse mutilation, as was customary). Osborn modulates this river of rage and gore by examining important human subtleties of the Indian Wars (such as the nature of its participants’ hatred and revenge-lust) and the strange fates of kidnapped settlers (who might be tortured to death, but could just as likely be inducted into the tribe).

An unusual and important approach to an uneasy history.

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-50374-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2000