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Original Essays | September 17, 2014 4 comments
My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
Shadows at Dawnby Karl Jacoby
This tale was just one of many that I heard as a youth about the Apache presence in the U.S.-Mexico border region. These stories without exception took place in a distant, hazy past. One time, there had been Apaches roaming the rugged mountains near Nogales, and an Apache leader had been held captive deep inside its hills. Now the mountains crawled with border patrol agents, and La Caverna held diners, not Apaches. What had happened?
Throughout my career as a historian, I regularly find myself writing the book I wish had been available to my younger self. My first book, Crimes Against Nature, grew out of the simple desire to understand one of the other defining landscapes of my childhood: the national parks. In Shadows at Dawn, I sought to explain another puzzle: what had happened to the Apache presence along the U.S.-Mexico border?
As I began to read the various documents and personal recollection buried in archives around the region, one incident quickly emerged as central in understanding the borderland's Apache history. It was, to be sure, a terrifying story of peace negotiations disrupted, of women and children killed in a surprise attack in 1871. But because the incident, the so-called Camp Grant Massacre, was so shocking and so momentous, it had generated a rare wealth of documents. These records illuminated the lost world of the borderlands above all, the Apaches' interactions with the Anglo, Mexican, and other Indian inhabitants of the region with a detail no other episode from the era could match.
It was also a history that contained many surprises for me. In my childhood stories, the Apache had appeared as aggressive raiders, attacking others without explanation. But the historical sources told me different tales of the many occasions, from the Spanish colonial period onward, when the Apache had experienced violence at the hands of others; of the moments when the region's groups had worked out peaceful accommodations with one another. Indeed, one of the greatest ironies for me was discovering in the course of my research that the Apache band attacked in 1871 had previously resided in Tucson for several decades, amidst the very people who would later turn out to be their attackers.
My understanding of Apache history expanded not only with consulting the documentary evidence but by getting to know some of the residents of the present-day White River and San Carlos Apache Reservations, who generously showed me around their homelands and shared their perspectives on the past with me.
Grappling with this new history forced me to reconsider many of the tales I had been told as a child. Mexican forces, it turned out, had never captured Geronimo. Had he been seized, it is dubious that he would have been held in La Caverna, for I could find no record of this site ever having served as the Nogales, Mexico, jail. Even the name "La Caverna" seemed misplaced, for rather than being a naturally occurring cave, it was, I learned, the remnant of an old mine shaft.
Nevertheless, I still cherish the stories of my childhood and not only because they summon up long-ago trips with cherished family members. These stories now represent for me a borderlands folklore that arose to explain how many residents of the region liked to imagine what their past should have been like. Mexican authorities should have captured Geronimo. Local settlers should have brought progress to the border, rather than the destruction of others' ways of life.
My childhood stories were true in another respect as well. There was indeed a subterranean Apache presence in the borderlands. It was not, however, Geronimo's apocryphal confinement in La Caverna but rather the far more complex and more challenging history of centuries of interactions between the Apache and a myriad of other inhabitants of the region. Shadows at Dawn is my effort to excavate this story and invite those readers anxious to cross the border between folklore and history to join me on a new journey.
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Karl Jacoby is an associate professor of history at Brown University and the author of Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation, which was awarded the Littleton-Griswold Prize by the American Historical Association for the best book on American law and society and the George Perkins Marsh Prize by the American Society for Environmental History for the best work of environmental history.