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Chapter 4 Castle on the Plains
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Mexican Independence and Native American Relations

In the quarter-century between Mexican Independence and the Mexican War, the Mexicans suffered much more from the depredation of Plains groups than did the Americans. The situation had been deteriorating for some years even before Mexican Independence, according to David J. Weber, who saw this as a fundamental rejection of Hispanic culture by the seminomadic Native Americans. In turn, the nomadic Native Americans were termed by Hispanic frontiersmen "indios barbaros," "salvajes," "gentiles," or "naciones errantes ."[66] Thus these "savage" or "barbaric" Indians were differentiated from the Pueblo Indians, who appeared more civilized to the Hispanics because of their sedentary and agriculturally based lifestyle.

It was precisely this sedentary way of life, based in agriculture or ranching, that made the Hispanic frontiersmen, the "pobladores," irresistible prey for many warlike tribes including the Apache, Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache. As a military veteran said of the Apache, "war with this horde of savages never has ceased for one day, because even when thirty, rancherias are at peace, the rest are not."[67] This situation very likely obtained with all of the other tribes who engaged in raiding, too; harmonious relations with one band of a tribe did not necessarily mean that another band from the same tribe, or even individuals in the friendly band, would refrain from depredations. The conflict became ceaseless on the Mexican side of the Arkansas after Mexican Independence.

One reason for this further intensification of conflict after Mexican Independence was the waning of Mexican military power, which encouraged raids by the warlike groups. The Americans, however, were clearly involved in the escalating violence: The Mexicans were very aware that they were providing the seminomadic groups with firearms and ammunition. The Spanish had been careful about the numbers of such items and the ways in which they were parceled out, although they had encouraged the Indians to use firearms. In doing so, they attempted to make the Indians dependent upon them, hoping that they would lose their remarkable abilities with the bow and arrow. If this had occurred, the Spanish would have been better armed, because they offered the Native Americans only inferior firearms. Also, the Spanish had hoped that any uprising could be quelled simply by withholding ammunition and replacement firearms. This


strategy was not successful because the Plains tribes retained their skill with the bow and arrow, continuing to rely upon their traditional weapons as the mainstay for hunting and warfare. The Mexicans worried about the weapons and ammunition now freely available from the Americans. By the late 1820s, as Weber noted, New Mexicans believed that "American armaments had shifted the balance of power to the Indians."[68]

The American traders who moved into New Mexico after independence in 1821 also exhibited no prudence in supplying another item. This was whiskey, a key ingredient in the general breakdown of order among Native American groups. In the long run, this probably precipitated more problems for the Mexicans than did the greater availability of firearms.

At least as important, the Americans encouraged depredations by providing a ready market for stolen goods, particularly horses and other stock. In some cases this was unintentional, but in many others, it was not. In just one of numerous documented incidents, the trader Holland Coffee, in 1835, met with Comanche, Waco, and Tawakoni and "advised them to go to the interior and kill Mexicans and bring their horses and mules to him and he would give them a fair price."[69]

The Plains tribes that traded with the Bent & St. Vrain Company, especially the Cheyenne and Arapaho, became "wealthy:" They now had not only plentiful firearms and ammunition but also the tokens of value needed to attract warriors for raiding parties and to equip those parties with the supplies and magical fetishes needed to insure success. They also possessed the "medicine" that went with trade objects, enhancing their prestige and their ability and readiness to attract followers and allies in warfare. This increasing ability to acquire stock through raiding and furs through hunting, and the ready market provided by the Americans, produced some dramatic shifts in trading patterns and alliances—all of them toward the Americans and away from the Mexicans.

David Weber examined this realignment among the Ute. The Ute had been staunch trading partners and allies of the Mexican pobladores until about 1830. At that time Antoine Robidoux, an American of French descent, built two trading posts in their territory, one on the Gunnison River, the other on the Uintah River, in the area that is now Colorado. Seduced by Robidoux's guns and ammunition, the Ute no longer had need of the inferior goods offered by the old trading partners, the pobladores. It was not long before the pobladores, in fact, were seen as appropriate targets for Ute raids. By 1844, the Ute "war" on the pobladores had begun.[70]

Finally, we can see how certain sorts of traditional Plains Indian behaviors were amplified through the influences of the Americans. These


influences were not only the introduction of exciting new weapons and a large and ready market but also the dislocation of relationships among Native American groups. Westward-moving Americans were pushing Native Americans ahead of them. At the same time, new alliances were forged, for practical purposes, among tribes that might otherwise have warred. Thus Plains Indians like the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache for economic reasons could not wage war on the Americans—or on each other. Among the Plains tribes, though, the most meaningful of activities were those that proved prowess in hunting, raiding, or war. The new alignment of the Plains Indians on the American side (with the notable exception of the Comanche, as we have seen) both directed this orientation of behavior against the Mexicans and intensified it.

Now the rewards for raiding were doubled. One could not only count coup but also could gain added prestige by the acquisition of really substantial booty. The orientation toward raiding and warfare was further intensified as buffalo disappeared. In the absence of buffalo to hunt, there was for a man, according to the Plains Indians system of values and beliefs, little else worth doing than warfare and raiding.

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