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The Borderlands

The U.S.-Mexican War: A Major Watershed

by R. David Edmunds
University of Texas at Dallas

Photo of early Mexican people with dwellings in the backgroundUnder the Spanish and Mexican regimes, most Native Americans in the Southwest enjoyed considerable autonomy. Spanish Indian policy sometimes was oppressive, but it attempted to integrate Native Americans into the socio-economic fabric of New Spain. Mexican policy generally followed the same pattern. The Roman Catholic church assisted in this integration, but it also provided some institutions to ostensibly protect Native Americans from abuse by local officials. Moreover, Spanish and Mexican control over these northern regions was tenuous, and many Native Americans, especially those tribespeople who did not reside in permanent, sedentary villages effectively avoided Spanish or Mexican hegemony. The Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico and Arizona were partially integrated into the Mexican system, but they also maintained considerable control over their personal lives. Sedentary village dwellers, they remained tied to their villages and mesas because of traditional religious values. Many participated in the broader sphere of Spanish and Mexican economics, but they jealously guarded their heritage, and many followed the faith and lifestyles of their fathers. Even the Pueblos who had "converted" to Catholicism integrated this Christian faith with older tribal religious traditions.

The Navajos and Apaches generally remained outside the realm of Mexican influence. The Navajo people had adopted herding from the Spanish, and their homeland in northern Arizona held large numbers of sheep and horses. Yet they rejected efforts by Catholic priests to convert them to Christianity, and their location on the northern periphery of Mexican influence enabled them to live unfettered by Mexican political control. In contrast, the Apaches were scattered across the Southwest, but their nomadic existence and occupation of inaccessible desert or mountain homelands also kept Mexican influence at a minimum. Both the Navajos and Apaches raided Spanish and Mexican settlements for livestock and other booty, but the Apaches were particularly effective in their warfare with the Mexicans, especially after officials in northern Mexico offered cash bounties for Apache scalps. The Apaches successfully defended their homeland during much of the Spanish and Mexican periods.

In California, Spanish and Mexican influence was limited to the Native Americans residing along the coast from the modern Mexican border to the San Francisco Bay region, and to a lesser extent among some of the tribes of the interior valleys. By the nineteenth century many of the coastal tribes had been integrated into the mission system. Historians disagree over the impact of the mission system on the Native American population (some historians assert that the mission system was oppressive - others argue that it generally was benevolent), but most missions were restricted to the coastal regions or the lower San Joaquin and Sacramento river valleys, and most tribes who lived in the Coast Range, the Sierras, or northern California remained outside the effective realm of Spanish or Mexican control.

During the 1840's, Texas represented a different pattern. By 1793, most of the Native American population indigenous to southern Texas had either declined or had so intermarried with the Hispanic population that the missions in Texas were secularized; and by 1825, most of the Indian population in this region had disappeared from the historical record. After 1836, a few remnants of the Tonkawas and Karankawas still roamed through their homelands, but they were only refugee groups. Other refugees: Cherokees, Shawnees, and other woodland peoples from east of the Mississippi had been removed to Texas, but they too were forced out of the Republic of Texas and into the Indian Nations. The Caddoes and Wichitas, tribes once indigenous to the Piney Woods and north Texas also sought haven north of the Red River in Oklahoma.

The Comanches remained as a formidable people, but even their power was waning. Ostensibly at peace with both Texas and New Mexico after 1787, they still dominated the high plains of west Texas, but after 1836, they faced more rigorous opposition from the new Republic of Texas. Governor Sam Houston was willing to negotiate with the tribe, but his successor, Mirabeau B. Lamar was more interested in bringing them to their knees. During 1840-41, the Comanches suffered major losses in clashes at the San Antonio Courthouse; at Plum Creek, near Lockhart, and on the Colorado River. They retaliated, but white Texas continued to usurp their lands and hunt their buffalo herds.

In Texas, the U.S.-Mexican War brought an acceleration of the American advance upon the Comanches, but elsewhere in the Southwest the end of the conflict marked a major watershed for North American people. Gone were the Spanish and Mexican regimes, governments with limited hegemony and military capacities in their northern regions. In their place came the Americans, a more aggressive, expansive people eager to both occupy and excercise control over the region. During the Mexican period New Mexico, Arizona, and California had remained hinterlands, containing a relatively small Hispanic population which posed only a limited political, cultural, and military threat to Native Americans. In contrast, in the decades following the war much of the Southwest (particularly California) was overrun by a new breed of emigrants: Anglo-American miners.

The influx of miners into California, Arizona and New Mexico posed a particular threat to Native American people. Composed primarily of young (usually between twenty and thirty years of age), unmarried males, the miners were eager to exploit the rumored riches of the region, then return to more settled regions to enjoy their wealth. Unlike farmers, they had no permanent attachment to the land, and they considered Native Americans as obstacles to be removed before the riches could be extracted.

Mining camps were violent places devoid of many of the "civilizing" institutions (churches, wives, families) found in more settled areas. In addition, many of the miners were well armed and their camps were awash with alcohol. Violence between miners and neighboring Native Americans flared, and tribal people suffered accordingly. Indeed, as the surface deposits were depleted and many miners found themselves unemployed, they readily enlisted as paid "volunteers" in frontier militia units which periodically attacked Native American communities. For example, John Chivington's Colorado militia, who attacked the Cheyennes and Arapahoes at Sand Creek was comprised primarily of ex-miners, as were many of the volunteers who assisted General James Carleton in his campaign against the Navajos. Unemployed miners spearheaded the attacks against Native Americans in California, where the Native American population plummeted from approximately 150,000 on the eve of the U.S.-Mexican War to less that 30,000 twenty-five years later.

In consequence, Native American people in the Southwest found themselves besieged. Even tribes living in remote areas, previously ignored by the Americans, now found their lands invaded by men seeking gold, silver or other precious metals. Some tribes, such as the Apaches and Navajos resisted, but all of the tribes eventually were overwhelmed. Native American communities have persisted in the Southwest, but most have been isolated in geographic regions deemed undesirable by Anglo-Americans. Tragically, for Native American people, the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexican War destroyed much of their independence and autonomy.