In his latest book, Larry McMurtry, master of the western genre,
takes a look at a disturbing aspect of our nation's history.
The battle for supremacy between Native Americans and Westward
expansion of "civilized" Americans has been a "popular" topic over
the past generation. OH WHAT A SLAUGHTER: Massacres in the American
West: 1846-1890, examines several such occurrences (although one
was perpetrated by "whites" against "whites," for lack of a
politically correct expression).
Beginning with the Sacramento River massacre in 1846, McMurtry
leaves little to the reader's imagination in this slim volume.
Descriptions of atrocities by both sides can make for some
A standard feature in most of these attacks seems to be the
indiscriminate murder of everyone in sight: women, children, and
the elderly. "Nits breed lice," John Milton Chivington decreed, as
a rationalization for killing Cheyenne non-combatants at Sand
Creek, Colorado in 1864.
This preemptive philosophy was shared by many of the leaders who
carried out these atrocities. In 1870, the Piegan Blackfeet tribe
in the area now known as Montana was already decimated due to
smallpox. It was just a matter of time until they were all wiped
out. But that didn't matter to Colonel E.M. Baker. "...Baker
arrived at the Blackfeet encampment...he killed the raiders he had
come to kill," writes McMurtry. "Many of them no doubt would have
died, but Colonel Baker was not disposed to leave it to chance, his
reasoning being that those who managed to recover would soon be
able to be troublesome again."
The author of such critically acclaimed novels as LONESOME DOVE is
also obsessed with statistics. How many victims constitute a
massacre? McMurtry downplays, or at least questions, the accuracy
of casualty figures quoted by witnesses and reporters of the day.
The combination of careful body counts in the midst of the chaos of
blood and gore, he believes, is anathema.
His research --- without citations --- is admirable, as he
introduces lesser-known characters in a history studded with such
famous names as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Kit Carson, and George
Needless to say, OH WHAT A SLAUGHTER is a truly sad account. There
were no winners in the encounters, only more pathetic losers.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonK23@aol.com) on January 13, 2011