Borderlander: The Life of James Kirker, 1793-1852, by Ralph Adam Smith, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2000, $32.95.
By today’s standards, James Kirker would be considered a repulsive human being. Even his photograph is chilling. One of the frontier’s most controversial “Indian fighters,” Kirker became perhaps the best at his trade of killing Indians after the Mexican government began offering a bounty for dead hostiles. Kirker signed five contracts with the government to defend the region and kill Indians. Today, Kirker’s name is synonymous with scalp hunter.
Historian Ralph Adam Smith, however, judges James “Don Santiago” Kirker by
the standards of his time, not ours, in Borderlander, a much needed–if sure to be controversial–biography of the frontiersman. Born in the north of Ireland
and of Scotch-Irish descent, Kirker came to New York in 1810. After fighting in the War of 1812, he moved west, working as a merchant and as a mountain man before making a name for himself on the Southwestern border.
Searching archives from Britain to Mexico, reading contemporary Mexican and American newspapers and journals, and researching the folklore of northern Mexico, Smith has done a remarkable job of tracing Kirker’s life and painting an accurate portrait of the harsh, violent frontier. Yet Borderlander is sure to ruffle more than a few feathers. Smith never met a historian he couldn’t argue with, including the renowned scholar of the Apaches Edwin R. Sweeney. And his defense of Kirker’s actions might be unsettling. “It is true he killed many Indians,” Smith writes. “But he also added a little to making the continent safe for settlers and citizens. Few did more in opening the land and recovering women and children from captivity.”
Many of Kirker’s white contemporaries, in fact, judged him a hero. No matter if considered an apologist’s biography of a monster or revisionist history, Borderlander is a thorough, well-documented and often fascinating look at the man and his times.
Johnny D. Boggs