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White Justice in Arizona: Apache Murder Trials in the Nineteenth Century (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Luc Nettleton
By Clare V. McKanna Jr.
Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 2005

Indians in the 19th century often could not live by "white men's law," but they could die by it. The author, who teaches American Indian history at San Diego State, concentrates on four late 19th-century cases, in each of which an Apache was accused of murder in Arizona Territory. First, Clare McKanna presents Captain Jack, whose revenge killing of another Apache band leader brought him to trial by territorial law. Next, the author considers Gonshayee, who was charged for murder after he led a raid in June 1887 (the year after Geronimo was removed to Florida). The trial of Nahdeizas, or the "Carlisle Kid" (he had attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania), comes up next. The disgruntled young Tonto Apache had shot Lieutenant Seward Mott at the San Carlos Agency on March 10, 1887. The fourth case involves Apache scout Batdish, one of the men accused of killing a young settler in July 1890. Circumstances were very different in each of these murder trials, but in each case white judges, jurors, prosecutors and defense counsels were involved, and the trials conclude with similar results.

There is plenty of drama in each case, even if it isn't hard to guess the outcomes. In his prologue, the author says: "On occasion we need to reflect upon injustices committed in the past that are disguised as justice….Unfair treatment is exactly what happened to indigenous peoples not only in Arizona Territory but also throughout the United States." McKanna mentions some of the other injustices, including the hastily conducted trial of 392 defendants after the Sioux War of 1862 in Minnesota. After 303 of the prisoners were condemned, President Abraham Lincoln stepped in to decide exactly how many would actually be executed. For more on that dramatic episode, readers should also try Hank H. Cox's 2005 book Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862 (Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, Tenn.). A couple of years later, after the 1864 presidential election, Lincoln told a senator from Minnesota, "I could not hang men for votes."

Lincoln, of course, was long gone by the time Captain Jack and those other accused Apaches took center stage in court. It was a time when Apaches were called "savages" and when many whites in Arizona Territory believed that extermination was the best policy. Still, in the unbalanced scales of justice, one Apache defendant does get fair treatment.

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