Thursday, June 25, 2009

From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786-1859

By F. Todd Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, reprinted December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0803220775, $24.95. 320 pages.

Review by Jeff Carlisle, Oklahoma City Community College

In From Dominance to Disappearance, F. Todd Smith chronicles the downfall of the Native Americans in Texas and the Near Southwest, an area he defines as the region bordered on the east by the Red River, on the west by the Llano Estacado, on the south by the Nueces River, and on the north by the Canadian. In effect, the Texas mentioned in the title is the Texas of the Spanish and Mexican periods rather than the larger Texas of the Republic or statehood periods. Smith intends for his work to be a successor to Elizabeth John’s massive tome Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds, which concerned Indian relations with Euro-Americans in a larger area, using the Rio Grande in New Mexico as her western border, from 1540-1795. Smith argues that Indian policies in Texas and New Mexico had little to do with each other and therefore justifies his more limited approach. Even with his smaller region, however, Smith has his work cut out for him. There were numerous tribes inhabiting the region and Eastern Indians immigrated into the area during the time span covered by his book. Slightly more than half the book deals with the Spanish and Mexican eras, and Smith does an admirable job sifting through the voluminous Bexar archives as well as other Spanish sources, even traveling to Spain itself to research. Smith details how each Indian tribe dealt with and was dealt with by the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Texans, and finally the Americans as their region changed possession over the decades.
From Dominance to Disappearance is not light reading and can become tedious at times, especially during the Spanish era, as each tribe’s actions are discussed through a series of Spanish governors, only to be followed by the next tribe’s different experiences with the same governors.
Until the 1830s, the natives retained numerical superiority and therefore maintained a powerful position against the Spanish, who had little luck subduing the Natives but at least partially succeeded in creating a stable peace with most tribes. The Mexican Revolution threw New Spain into turmoil and actually gave the Natives a brief resurgence of power. The arrival of Americans in the region, however, soon brought about the end of that resurgence. More numerous than the Spanish or Mexicans, Anglo-Americans flooded into the region in the years following the Louisiana Purchase, and many were invited to move into Texas by the Mexican government, in an effort to populate the province. Indians who found it beneficial to play one power against the other soon found themselves at the mercy of the hordes of Americans entering the region. The Americans cared little for trade or alliances, and instead wanted the land, pressuring the natives ever more to the west. The Republic of Texas launched a massive campaign against all natives, forcing most of them to flee to Mexico or the United States. Once Texas was annexed by the United States, the Indian policy was hampered by the fact that Texas retained ownership of its public lands and refused to turn over any land for Indian reservations. Eventually, in the decade before the Civil War, Texas relented and formed two reservations on the upper Brazos River. The Indians who resided there made incredible progress in making the reservations a success. Even a band of normally restless and nomadic Comanche made great strides toward becoming farmers. However, constant harassment from Northern Comanche on one side, and on the other side, Texans, who blamed every depredation on the peaceful reservation Indians (even though the latter often accompanied Texan expeditions against the hostiles), soon drove the reservation natives to distraction. Living in constant fear of reprisals for crimes they had not committed, the reservation Indians were unable to tend to their herds or crops and eventually requested a military escort to take them to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), on the eve of the Civil War. Hence, in less than a century, the Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest had indeed gone from dominance to disappearance. A brief epilogue completes the story to the present, from the Tonkawa, who were basically intermarried into nonexistence, to the Alabama-Coushatta, the only tribe to retain land, a 2800-acre reservation within the confines of Texas.
Smith has made an important contribution to Native American history of the region, and has done an admirable job of synthesizing a vast amount of information into a single volume. He has laid an impressive foundation for anyone interested in further research of tribes in the area.