Clements Center Monthly Talks

Frances Levine and Ron Wetherington

Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

  |  Simmons Hall, 3101 University Boulevard   |  12:30 to 1:30 pm

On October 2-4, 2008, a working conference on Frontier Engagements was held at the Fort Burgwin Research Center in Taos, New Mexico. Co-sponsored by the Clements Center and Fort Burgwin, the conference brought together nine scholars to refine manuscripts for a planned book. The concept was envisioned and organized by SMU professor of anthropology Ron Wetherington and Frances Levine (SMU PhD in Anthropology ‘80), now president of the Missoui History Museum. 

Wetherington and Levine selected four 19th Century engagements – two of them massacres and two battles – and invited an archaeologist and an historian to write on each event from the perspective of their discipline. The focus is on the different methodologies employed by the disciplines, and the different perspectives which frequently follow. “What is interesting and often overlooked,” says Wetherington, “is that historians and archaeologists tend to approach a common event with different questions and thus different expectations.” The conference allowed the paired specialists, who had read each others’ papers, to discuss their differences face-to-face.

The final volume published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2014, Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives Battles states that battles and massacres are intimate affairs for combatants and others involved, their physical and emotional violence often stemming from fervor and fear. Although mass killing characterizes both battles and massacres, the two are profoundly different. Battles take place between armed forces; massacres are one-sided events in which the dead are mostly innocent victims. Yet the fog of war shrouds both massacres and battles in a functional amnesia. Participants remember what exactly happened during such a violent encounter only imperfectly, and later clarity cannot always rectify accounts thus rendered. Even naming the events as battles or massacres already imposes an interpretive framework upon them.

This unique study centers on four critical engagements between Anglo-Americans and American Indians on the southwestern frontier: the Battle of Cieneguilla (1854), the Battle of Adobe Walls (1864), the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), and the Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857). Editors Ronald K. Wetherington and Frances Levine juxtapose historical and archaeological perspectives on each event to untangle the ambiguity and controversy that surround both historical and more contemporary accounts of each of these violent outbreaks. Both disciplines, the contributors make clear, yield surprisingly similar narratives and interpretive agreement; and the lessons learned from these nineteenth-century killing fields about wartime reporting and command failures remain relevant today.

Contributions by T. Lindsay Baker, J. Brett Cruse, Will Gorenfeld, Shannon A. Novak, Lars Rodseth, Douglas D. Scott, and Joe Watkins with commentary by Frances Levine and Ron Wetherington.