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Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West

by Bill Yenne,Westholme Publishing,Yardley, Pa., 2006, $26.

The first sentence mentions Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere; the third sentence reminds us that Columbus didn’t really “discover” America. The first chapter is called “Clash of Cultures,” and the main text—as the book title suggests—deals with the conflicts between natives and U.S. soldiers that took place west of the Mississippi River from the early 1850s to Wounded Knee in 1890. Do we really need another such book, especially one that covers all that history in a mere 325 pages? It’s debatable, but it can’t hurt. Bill Yenne’s Indian Wars certainly isn’t breaking new ground, but this seemingly familiar ground, like all ground, will be new to some readers. And Yenne does a good job of summarizing the history of Indian and European relations and packaging all the figures—Crazy Horse, Custer, Cochise, Carson and Crook, among the C’s—who were caught up in the U.S. Army’s fight to control and civilize the West.

Yenne and many others speak of the “Indian Wars” (with a capital W) as one long campaign waged by the U.S. armed forces, yet they also emphasize that the Indian nations were never monolithic. In truth there were many different Indian groups fighting and many different U.S. military campaigns (with different tactics and strategies), and sometimes Indians also fought Indians during the so-called Indian Wars. The author writes, “Had the Indians in the West been able to form and maintain the sort of unified intertribal command that Tecumseh had envisioned earlier in the century, and had this command indulged in a long-range strategic planning, the history of the Indian Wars would have been much different.” But this isn’t really explained. Tecumseh was one of the mightiest, most influential Indian leaders in American history, but the United States committed enough money and men to eventually defeat him. No Indian confederation could have changed the ultimate course of history. A huge combined force of Lakotas and Cheyennes won a victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, but even had that formidable force stayed together for other battles, does anyone really think the Plains Indians would have stayed off the reservations forever? Even in the second half of the 19th century while the fighting was going on, many American Indians knew that the outcome was inevitable. Some accepted it and tried to adapt; others fought on anyway, out of pride or stubbornness or a belief in some messiah who could make things right.

In short, Yenne makes some good observations about a complex story, and he has some good summaries of complex events; but there are other points he really doesn’t have the space to develop. A book such as this cries out for extensive further reading, but there is no bibliography. The author does at least cite nine works that “deserve mention above all others.”


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here