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Slaughterhouse Many 

Myths and Massacres in the Old West

John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies aside, American consciousness concerning the West does not range far beyond Monument Valley, Geronimo and George Custer. And, perhaps, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

That Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and subsequent TV miniseries adaptation, sets out to deflate Western myth but instead reinforces the notions it aimed to debunk. Of late, McMurtry has continued his quest to shatter Western myths through nonfiction works. He recently penned a dual biography of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody, outlining the theatrics inherent in their legendary touring performances.

With Oh What a Slaughter, McMurtry serves up a slim volume of the sanguinary arts, chronicling Western massacres during the last half of the 19th century. It seems all but impossible for anyone to emerge from this meditation on mass killings with anything but a combination of fascination and revulsion. This is not a blaze-of-glory shoot-em-up, nor is it for the squeamish. McMurtry narrates tales of deceit, mistrust, betrayal and sadism that are principally carried out by whites against American Indians, but not always.

Other than the tragic denouement at Wounded Knee in 1890, none were happenstance. Instead, each was premeditated and carried out with little remorse. Women and children weren't spared. And why not? "Nits breed lice," said John Milton Chivington, the firebrand minister behind the Sand Creek assault outside Denver.

The Sand Creek massacre of 1864, like most mass killings, left a trail of corpses that had been scalped, sexually mutilated or both. Looking beyond Sand Creek, the book explores massacres at Sacramento River (1846), Mountain Meadows (1857), Marias River (1870), Camp Grant (1871) and Wounded Knee. Rare Indian routs at Fort Phil Kearny and the Little Bighorn are also examined.

McMurtry always allows for historical vagaries. He describes conflicting accounts, concluding "the only undisputed fact about a given massacre is the date on which it occurred -- almost everything else remains arguable, including body counts."

Only one of these nightmarish episodes left more than 200 dead, paltry when compared with the 3,000 killed on 9-11 or the 800,000 Tutsis hacked to bits in Rwanda during the 1990s. Yet these Western atrocities resonated in their place and time, particularly because of the region's thin population. The deaths of 100 or so people -- the toll in most cases considered here -- carried huge significance.

In the case of Mountain Meadows, mass killings carried considerable implications for the Mormon church as well. Drawing on wide-ranging research, McMurtry hardly breaks a sweat slapping Brigham Young's church with a guilty verdict. The Mormons and Paiute Indians collaborated in the massacre of white settlers, a rare partnership between whites and Indians.

Young himself delayed and obfuscated investigations into the killings for two decades. At that point, seeking to absolve the church of financial or moral stain, Mormon leaders offered up participant John Doyle Lee as the sole culprit.

Today the church maintains its steadfast denial despite abundant contradictory evidence. This stance, McMurtry believes, represents an attempt to avoid a litany of lawsuits from the victims' descendants against the now-prosperous church.

Details of the massacres provide still more examples of the United States' shameful legacy in Indian affairs. Treaties were routinely established just to be broken. Reservation land was reclaimed by the government whenever valuable resources surfaced. And, all too often, military commanders arbitrarily attacked tribes out of ignorance rather than any real security threat (benign religious rites sparked the Wounded Knee killings).

As Sioux chief Red Cloud once said, the American government told the truth in just one instance: "They said they would take our land and they took it."

In McMurtry's estimation, the tribes had no hope. Whites had better guns, making victory inevitable. A glance at the decimated buffalo population offered clear evidence to the Indians of their own fate.

The sheer degradation involved in these massacres, no matter the aggressor, remains horrific though hardly out of sync with contemporary killing fields in Iraq, Bosnia and elsewhere. Scrotums become tobacco pouches, eyes are gouged, noses removed and so on. No wonder one Mountain Meadows participant dies crying, "Blood, blood, blood!" Of the victims' recurring role in the perpetrators' fragile psyches, McMurtry notes, "They lost their lives, but not their moral potency."

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