William S. Kiser has written a fine scholarly account of the conflicts between the Apaches of southern New Mexico and the U.S. Army in the pre-civil war period.
The U.S. acquired the area as an outcome of the Mexican-American War. While the Apaches had been in the area for centuries and had conducted on-going raids into northern Mexico where they stole horses and even took Mexican captives, the coming of Anglo settlers interested in mining and ranching changed the dynamics of the situation significantly.
Kiser delves into the personalities of political figures at the heart of the conflict including various Indian agents, territorial governors and military leaders as well as influential leaders among the Apaches.
One early Indian agent, Michael Steck, recognized the nomadic tradition of the Apaches and advised the tribes would not be confined to a reservation.
Unfortunately, civil and military authorities wanting to safe guard settlers and travelers in the area ignored his advice.
In many cases they had a personal financial stake in where the dragoons were stationed and where the Apaches should be corralled.
The military often singled out individuals and groups of Apaches innocent of wrongdoing because they couldn’t distinguish those responsible or couldn’t catch them.
The injustices so perpetrated led to additional hostility on the part of the Indians.
Forts were built, moved and reestablished across much of the area in an attempt to have troops near areas prone to violence.
Kiser makes it clear that only elite mounted troops known as dragoons had the expertise and could move rapidly enough to offer serious confrontation to the roaming Apaches.
However, the Apaches only stood and fought when they had a decided advantage, waging instead guerrilla warfare and letting the rugged terrain serve as an ally.
As a result the army often waged total warfare on the Apaches in which Indian non-combatants and their resources were destroyed in an effort to compel the Apaches to come to terms.
James Calhoun, who served first as an Indian agent and later as territorial governor, took a fairly humanitarian view of the Apaches and realized that most of their raids in the territory were out of necessity as they were
“impoverished and starving.”
Most authorities both military and civilian were not so enlightened.
Continued disagreements between military and civilian interests, corruption spurred on by personal economic motives of those involved and traders, both Mexican and those from the United States who engaged in unethical practices with the Apaches, sowed seeds of conflict that would rage for another 20 years after the Civil War ended.
In fact small-scale violent conflicts between the Apaches and the United States continued into the 20th century.
“Dragoons in Apacheland” will appeal to readers with an interest in regional history of the Southwest and those with a particular interest the clash of cultures between Anglo-Americans and the indigenous Apaches some of whom called themselves “tinneh” or “indeh” or “the people.” Kiser deals with the roots of those troubles thoroughly and masterfully.
Elby Adamson is a retired English teacher and a Clay Center resident.