Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History

by Karl Jacoby, The Penguin Press, New York, 2008, $32.95.

 The Camp Grant Massacre has remained an obscure incident of frontier violence, much less known than the controversial engagements at Sand Creek, the Washita River and Wounded Knee. At dawn on April 30, 1871, a mixed force of Pima and Papago Indians, Hispanics and whites descended on an Apache campsite at Aravaipa Canyon, about 50 miles northeast of Tucson, and slaughtered nearly 150 people. Most were women and children, and all were under the protection of Lieutenant Royal Whitman at Camp Grant. The Pimas and Papagos carried out the closequarters bloodshed, darting amid the wickiups on the dusty canyon floor and wielding their war clubs to devastating effect, as they had done in countless battles with the Apache, as whites and vecinos stood at a safe distance and gunned down those who fled.

Karl Jacoby’s ambitious, centuries-spanning new look at the massacre, Shadows at Dawn, attempts to answer the pivotal question: Why did three distinct ethnic groups come together to perpetrate an incident of shocking violence against a fourth group, the Apaches? Jacoby’s stand is that the old trope “there are two sides to every story” is too simplistic for looking at the Arizona borderlands—there are as many sides as there are social groups with distinctive ways of ordering the world. The book is organized into chapters from the perspectives of the O’odham (Pimas and Papagos), los vecinos (Mexican Americans), whites and Nnee (Apaches). Jacoby coaxes readers into a closer understanding of each group by employing phrases in the group’s native language without translation (although there is a glossary). The tactic works. For example, readers come to understand the Spanish expansion throughout the West by the Spaniards’ ability to classify native tribes into gente de razón (“people of reason”) and gente sin razón (“people without reason”). Likewise, repeated use of the Apache term for enemies encountered on a raid—Nnaa ch’iidn (“enemy ghosts”)—helps one to visualize how the Apaches dehumanized their opponents and fought with such tenacity.

Some readers may be frustrated with Jacoby’s lack of a single, authoritative narrative. After all, the history of any event can be endlessly parsed—an Irish-American merchant probably viewed the slaughter differently than an Anglo-American cavalryman, an apache mansos (“tame Apache”) in Tucson differently than an Apache warrior in the mountains to the north. But Jacoby clearly delineates the four separate cultural narratives to avoid a confusing amalgam of experience. His attempt to tackle the cultural diversity of the Arizona frontier on its own terms, and to explore the competing ideologies that laid claim to the same harsh and beautiful topography, makes Shadows at Dawn a richly rewarding book.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.