Depredation and Deceit: The Making of the Jicarilla and Ute Wars in New Mexico, by Gregory F. Michno, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2017, $32.95
Yes, there were violent deaths, too, but depredation and deceit were the bigger D’s on the 1846–55 New Mexico frontier. The period was fraught with uncertainties and cultural tension. Though American soldiers led by Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny wrested Santa Fe from the Mexicans on Aug. 18, 1846, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War was not official until May 30, 1848, and New Mexico didn’t become an organized territory until Sept. 9, 1850. Many residents who dreamed of statehood would not live to see it arrive on Jan. 6, 1912.
Despite the largely bloodless conquest, many Nuevomexicanos resented the Americans, who had promised to protect them from raiding Jicarilla Apaches, Utes and other area Indians. The raiding parties were not a serious threat to the newcomers at first, but citizens blamed the Indians, innocent or not, for stealing stock and other depredations. “The Army,” writes author Gregory Michno, a Wild West special contributor, “quickly realized that often it was not the Indians but the white frontierspeople who were the major adversaries. The Army often had to impose itself between rabid civilians and the Indian population.” Civilian allegations of Indian theft and murder often proved false. The motive for many such false claims, Michno argues, was greed.
Opening the door to the New Mexico cheaters were the Trade and Intercourse Acts passed by Congress between 1790 and 1834, which allowed settlers to receive compensation from the government for property stolen or destroyed by hostile Indians. The idea was to promote peaceful resolutions to conflicts between citizens and Indians, but it failed miserably. “Making claims for nonexistent losses was a comparatively riskfree way to get government money,” Michno writes, adding that local government authorities made matters worse by fostering an environment of fear. New Mexico department commanders often saw through the demands of people seeking to profit from an influx of troops and accelerated military action, and the resulting Army restraint meant less warfare, soldiers engaging in only about six battles with the Jicarillas and Utes over six years. Then came Brevet Brig. Gen. John Garland, who aligned with civilians in his desire to subdue the Indians, his troops engaging in 20 battles over two years. Michno has done extensive research to present a rather unflattering picture of Anglo and Hispanic settlers: “The profit motive was always present; if others had to be hurt to gain an advantage, so be it.”