Book Review: Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars 1492-1890 (by Jerry Keenan) : WW

8/12/2001 • Andrew Jackson, Sitting Bull, Wild West Reviews

Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars 1492-1890, by Jerry Keenan, W.W. Norton, New York, 1999, $18.95.

This handy reference work covers four centuries of conflict between Indians and European colonists in 278 pages. There are 450 entries, starting with the Abnaki War, better known as King William’s War (1689-1697)–in which the Iroquois allied with the British against the French and their Abnaki allies–and ending with the Yuma War (1851-52). Most of the entries are not specifically about “wars.” For one thing, as author Jerry Keenan points out, “many of the so-called Indian wars were not really wars per se but simply continuations or extensions of campaigns or battles temporarily ended by weather or lack of necessary resources.”

The 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, which Keenan calls “the apex and the nadir for the Sioux and their allies,” has a place in this book, but the author resists trying to say everything he knows about that well-covered engagement. Ten years earlier, the Army’s worst defeat in the trans-Mississippi West up to that time saw Captain William J. Fetterman and his 80 men wiped out near Fort Phil Kearny (in present-day Wyoming). Keenan, who has made many appearances in Wild West Magazine, beginning with the first issue in June 1988, calls it the “Fetterman Disaster” (adding–correctly–that the more commonly used term “massacre” is incorrect for what happened on December 21, 1866). Several entries are on individuals who had an impact on the Indian wars–men such as Joseph Brant, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Andrew Jackson, George Custer, Simon Girty and Robert Rogers. Forts, weapons, treaties and military units also receive consideration.

All the action covered here did not take place in the West, but it all took place in that part of North America that eventually became the United States. “In a sense it might be thought of as one war with a great many smaller splinter wars and campaigns that lasted nearly four centuries,” Keenan writes in the preface. For those readers who don’t get enough details in a book of this type, Keenan provides suggestions for further reading at the end of each entry. There are plenty of other sources for all the information in this encyclopedia, but it’s nice to get the whole bloody panorama in one well-written, illustrated package.

Alexander Cook