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War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War

by Brian DeLay, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2008, $35.

 In December 1840, when Mexico still claimed a large portion of the North American West, 400 Comanches descended from the Texas plains onto the ranches and haciendas south of the Rio Grande. They rode as far as the department of San Luis Potosí, where residents had not seen a war party of “los barbaros” for more than 100 years. On the return trip the raiding party did the unthinkable— it attacked Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila, killing more than 100 Mexicans, including former governor Don José María Goribar. And this was by no means the largest in a decade-plus of determined Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache raids on northern Mexican settlements. Brian DeLay argues in War of a Thousand Deserts that the Mexican government’s mostly ineffectual response to these raids, coupled with the U.S. government’s exploitation of that response, profoundly impacted the Mexican War.

DeLay rates Comanches as the true power players on the southern Plains, driving Mexican and U.S. reaction. He contends that the complex series of raids against Mexicans constituted an organized policy of retributive violence. “The violence was so frequent, determined and severe,” he states, “that it often deprived the raiders of some or all of their spoils and put their own men at grave risk.” Between fall 1834 and winter 1847, Comanches and Kiowas sent at least 44 major campaigns south into Mexican territory, each involving 100 men or more. This was organized war.

DeLay juxtaposes Comanche strength with Mexican weakness. The official number of Mexicans that Comanches killed during the “War of a Thousand Deserts” is 2,649, but the actual death toll was probably four times that number. The central government in Mexico City was concerned with large-scale rebellions that rocked Mexico in the years after independence. The frontier presidio system was effectively abandoned. Additionally, departments on the northern frontier exhibited little coordination— at times Sonora would be negotiating a temporary peace with Comanches while Chihuahua was fighting off attacks. During the early 1840s, reports filtered back to the United States of the widespread destruction of the Mexican north —fueling rhetoric that ineffective Mexico should cede the lands. This argument led to the Mexican War. Ironically, as DeLay points out, the United States also found it impossible to limit Comanche raiding, at least in the short term.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here