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Jul 23

Of Mexican Northern and Anglo Westerners Frontiersmen

Phillip Wayne Powell, Mexico’s Miguel Caldera, The Taming of America’s First Frontier (1549-1597), pp. 262-266

The following extended quote from the Phillip Wayne Powell’s book, Mexico’s Miguel Caldera, The Taming of America’s First Frontier (1549-1597) is worthy of consideration by the Christian Reconstruction community. What lessons can we learn about the geographical extension of God’s kingdom from this story?

We should not get hung up on the fact that both expansions, Mexico to its the north, the US to its the west, were expansion of human empire. As always, there is the shadow of the Sovereign Christ here moving history forward for his purposes to “put all his enemies under his feet.”  Nor should we get hung up on Roman Catholic vs Protestant Christianity comparisons. We Protestants are a pretty insular bunch but in this history the Roman Catholic civil governors/judges and soldiers look much more “Christian” than do their counterparts in the Western expansion of the US. We could learn something from them.

Keep in mind that the Mexican northern expansion took place in the 16th century, the same century as the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. Communication throughout the vast Spanish empire may have been slow but is was not lacking volume and precision. The audit report of expenditures for the Chichimeca/Silver war between about 1585 and 1597 encompasses 3300 pages, all hand written.

The author, Philip Wayne Powell, credits Robert M. Utley’s book, Frontier Regulars for the information about the US Army on the Western frontier in the latter part of the19th century. I have read the book and it is excellent.

The Mexican migration which grew out of silver and war and peace during Miguel Caldera’s lifetime was already centuries old when it tangled with westward-moving Anglo-Americans. Once this engagement began, “Anglo” frontiersmen learned most of their horse culture and its vocabulary, as well as bonanza and eldorado techniques and words, from a Mexican know-how long tested in lands and situations kin to what Anglo-Americans found west of the Mississippi.

When the United States Army, from Civil War to Wounded Knee, tried to tame nomadic Indians far more skilled on a horse’s back than its own cavalry, such generals as Sherman, Custer and Crook faced problems that Don Martín Enríquez, the Marqués de Villamanrique, and Don Luis de Velasco resolved three centuries earlier. Herewith a few examples of contrasts and similarities in the two frontier situations. First, the contrasts:

  1. The sixteenth-century Spanish-Indian mixed-blood cavalry was probably more mobile. They were better horsemen than the so-called “mounted infantry” of Sherman’s army and they early mastered the military mule train.
  2. In the earlier war and especially the sequel pacification, attempts to inculcate civilized ways (including Christianity) were serious and effective and this reduced maltreatment of the ex-enemy. Thus, there was no record of broken treaties nor complete (and often treacherous) removals to distant and uncongenial surroundings.
  3. The earlier Spaniards put no truly professional army on the Chichimeca frontier; the soldiery paid by government was enlisted on an annual, or even single-expedition, basis and was recruited usually from the adventurer-settler-stockman types, often of frontier origin.
  4. The nineteenth-century experience saw no formal doctrine of Indian relations developed by white military leaders. Quite the contrary was true in the later years of the Mexican case, characterized by quick incorporation of former Indian enemies for use as allies in war and diplomacy; unity and consistency in teaching Christianity and husbandry (exemplified in the mission and the civilian – often ex-soldier – Labrador); a highly concentrated “peace by purchase” effort, tied to the captain-protector system. These were firm bases of policy that lived on for centuries.
  5. The “total war” kind of Anglo-American surprise attack on Indian villages: “The confessed aim is to exterminate everyone, for this is the only advantage of making the expedition; if extermination were not achieved, just another burden would be added – prisoners” (Colonel de Trobriand). The earlier Spanish aim was capture, for purposes of trial to determine guilt and selling into slavery (more and more limited as the war went on). Even when killing of hostile braves was policy or episodic fact, the aim was always to capture women and children and incorporate them, rather than to murder them as a matter of policy.
  6. An old Sioux, reminiscing about white frontier policy: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.” By contrast, earlier Spanish policy of settling the Chichimecas (or even enslaving them) in their own country was such a basic practice that many criticized it as too dangerous. But the settlement policy was adhered to – and generally, it worked.

Although these contrasts in the two similar situations were fundamental, there were equally notable and more numerous parallels.

  1. The nature of the Indian enemy and his opponent’s great difficulty in understanding this New World nomad’s ways of life, war and diplomacy.
  2. The quick addiction of even the most isolated and alienated Indians – those disdaining whites and their ways – to the useful baggage of civilization (utensils, food, clothing and, later, firearms) giving them strong incentives to acquire such goods either through plunder or intermediaries.
  3. The more distant from the frontier, the greater the sympathy for the “state-of-nature” native – in contrast to those who had seen his cruelties of torture and devastation. In short, the more distant and abstract the nomadic Indian, in sixteenth or nineteenth century, the more attractive he was to jurists, humanitarians, and sundry other crusaders on his behalf.
  4. Large military turnover in both cases, due to deaths and desertions. “Desertion ate at the ranks [of the US Army] with cancerous voracity.” We have seen this same problem in the earlier century, and for the same reasons: poor pay; great hardships and dangers of the war itself, so uncomfortably unconventional; other frontier attractions such as mining, ranching and commerce.
  5. Presidio systems were common to both wars. As explained to Red Cloud in 1871, the basic strategy was for “the Great Father to put war-houses all through the Indian country.” However, the presidio system that Martín Enríquez established in Chichimecaland was defensive; whereas, in the words of General Ord, “building posts in their country…demoralizes them more than anything else except money and whisky.” And both Sherman and Sheridan, favoring a presidio system, viewed this approach as “systematic pacification and settlement of frontier areas by advancing lines of forts,” an aggressive rather than defensive concept.
  6. In both wars, so far apart in time, there was another parallel (and some contrast) in the relative rapport and understanding between Indian warriors and opposing military, by comparison with the much greater difficulty of the nomadic Indian in understanding or accepting the invader’s religious men (and vice versa). Anglo religious crusading simply “inhibited genuine communication,” creating a “cultural gulf,” no matter how strong the humanitarian impulse. As we have seen, the Spanish government was wise enough to rely on gifts pointedly distributed by military captains, rather more than on the friars, as front-line persuaders to peace and settlement.

    Indian chiefs understood far better their warrior counterparts, and trusted them more readily, than civilian agents or aggressively anxious mission padres. Thus, on apache chief, describing a US Army officer he had known, “When he promised a thing he did it.” Such tributes were common and reinforced the army’s contention that Indians preferred military to civilian agents.” Thus also, within days or hours, Miguel Caldera could gather Guachichil warriors for military enterprises against other Indians; warriors recently hostile and undoubtedly more attuned to Captain Caldera than to the nearest friars.

  7. As consequence of this, the US Army of the 1870’s and 1880’s claimed “superiority in managing and civilizing Indians…Some treaties and executive agreements with Indian tribes required an army officer to oversee the issuance of Indian goods and rations. The conspicuous presence of a military observer in such transactions…drew a contrast between civilian dishonest and military integrity highly favorable to the army’s image.” This is a very close parallel, mutatis mutandis, of the reasoning behind the captain-protector gift-giving role on the Chichimeca frontier.

These examples of parallel and contrast illustrate fundamental facets of North American history: The several centuries of Mexican northward expansion are not only a principal theme (too often neglected) of Mexican historical growth, but they should be of compelling interest to Anglos as well as Mexicans. When the Anglo “western” met the Mexican “northern,” the former learned more from the latter than vice versa, although interchange was there – more balanced as time went on.

But the Anglo “western” generated a massive and seemingly endless popular interest which became global (thanks to Hollywood movies and a western literature which ranged from awful to excellent), popular in Mexico itself and recently imitated in Italy. This mammoth edifice embraces painting and other art forms, generations of children playing “cowboy-and-Indian,” dress styles and, of course, satire and parodies. The Anglo-American West lives on in quantities of museums, touristic ghost towns and more than sixty “corrals” of “Westerners” in cities over the world.

Not so with the Mexican “northern.” Barely getting a nod from Mexico’s national historians, largely unrecognized as a deep and abiding influence in shaping Mexican destinies, giving rise to no literature, no creative writing, no pageantry or musical expression, no string of heroes and villains (mythical or real), the Mexican “northern” is an almost forgotten historical world packed with even more romance and drama than its “Anglo” echo. And for the millions of Mexican ancestry now in “Gringolandia,” the life and deeds of Miguel Caldera and his frontier people are genesis of identity in a richly human historical panorama.

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