Wild Frontier

By Benjamin Schwarz

DECEMBER 2000 ATLANTIC

 

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The Wild Frontier, by William M. Osborn (RANDOM HOUSE)

This inelegantly written and poorly argued book makes an important point: More atrocities were committed in the nearly 300 years of what William M. Osborn calls the American-Indian War than in all other U.S. wars combined. And Indians committed many of them — in fact, Osborn estimates, more than whites. His study, which is based on secondary sources, points out that many Indian tribes had ferociously fought one another and seized one another’s land long before the white man came. Rape, torture, and the murder of women and children were regular features of Indian warfare against whites, and Indians were responsible for an enormous number of white civilian casualties — 1,500 along the Ohio River alone from 1782 to 1790. Osborn doesn’t exonerate the whites, of course, and he soberly chronicles the well-known massacres of Indians at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, among other sites. Refreshingly, he concentrates on the Colonial period rather than the Plains wars, but this means he gives short shrift to perhaps the fiercest of the American-Indian struggles — that which pitted the clannish and violent Texans against the lethal and often sadistic Comanches. Nearly three centuries of savage war exacted a terrible price on white Americans no less than on Native Americans. D. H. Lawrence wrote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” After reading Osborn’s harrowing, if often awkward, account, the reader better understands how that soul froze.

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