The Opening Attack on Indigenous Life
||The standard account says that the opening military
action of the U.S.-Mexican War was the fight on April 25, 1846, between
patrols of the two armies, when Zachary Taylor's men were operating south
of the Nueces River. This is the action that President Polk described
as an attack against American troops, on American soil, when he asked Congress
to declare war.
It is conceivable that this really was the first action. More likely, if the memoirs of old mountain men can be trusted, the "first" conflict between U.S. military agents and armed Mexican citizens was an action that neither the Mexican nor U.S. government knew about, even if it did follow indirectly from orders given by Polk.
The men involved on the U.S. side were not exactly soldiers, but were employed by a U.S. Army officer, who let them go to act on this occasion. The "Mexicans" in question probably had no idea that they were citizens, and the Mexican government had only the vaguest notion that they existed. It certainly gave them no protection. The event does not figure in textbook accounts -- in either English or Spanish -- because the Mexican citizens killed were "uncivilized" Indians, whom neither national culture bothered to respect.
The incident was "ordinary." It looked forward to a silent element in the eventual peace settlement between Mexico and the United States. Citizens of the two nations believed, quite absolutely, that their governments enjoyed sovereignty over Native American populations.
As in the late-20th-century debate on language-teaching, "mainstream" thought had no conception of popular thought as having any kind of movement of its own, any capacity for innovation and development.
The officer in that "first" encounter was Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, of the Topographical Engineers. The enemy was a village of Indians in the far north of California. In 1845, Frémont was ordered to take an exploring party west, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Before he left Washington, he received informal briefings from his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and from secretary of the navy George Bancroft. Later he received orders by way of special messenger. All these orders certainly left the explorer free to have friendly dealings with U.S. citizens who had settled in California, and with the U.S. consul in Monterey. As he headed west, Frémont collected a party of sixty men, heavily armed. They reached California in December, and quickly became themselves the palavering "hostiles" in relation to local authorities. When Mexican officials threatened to fight, he backed off, taking his force north into the Sacramento Valley, to forage and await developments.
In mid-April, 1846, he stopped at the ranch of Peter Lassen, an immigrant Dane who had a land grant from Mexican authorities. The ranch people, complaining about agitation among the local Indians, asked for help in making a pre-emptive attack. Frémont's men, who could not allege that they had been threatened themselves, wanted to accept. Their commander, knowing that he had no authority to initiate armed action on Mexican territory, agreed to discharge his men, then re-employ them after the action. These attackers found a thousand or more Indians engaged in a supposed "war dance." Moving in for what one of them called "perfect butchery," they killed some 175.
This one fight, unnoticed in any formal reports that officials sent back, contained within it the structure of the war. Mexican officials, paying little attention to the rights of indigenous people or even to the danger of encouraging foreign settlement, had allowed the Lassen group in. Frémont's people, assuming that settler blood was thicker than law, attacked in order to prevent the villagers from resisting rancher intrusion. They won, and they took their victory as a casual definition of right. If the Polk administration had ever heard of that fight, it would not have recognized the enemy as "Mexican," or the encounter as an occasion for formal war.
Two thousand miles away, in the zone between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, and a few days after the fight at Lassen's, a Mexican Army patrol attacked a patrol from General Zachary Taylor's troops. This was the occasion that Polk sought, and he sent off to Congress his call for a declaration of war.
By that time, a messenger to Frémont was bringing rumors that "real" war was about to begin, along the Pacific coast. Nothing official yet, it was enough for Frémont to move his men back toward the Hispanic towns of central California. Traveling with his crew of mountain men, he joined forces with some of U.S. citizens who were already on the scene. His new companions began to bully the Hispanic settlers of the valley, and Frémont adopted the role of the commander who either defends his men against civilian complaints, or knows nothing about what his followers are doing. They demanded support from local landholders, imprisoned some that they could lay hands on, and shot down one group who were coming to negotiate. They finally ran up a flag that proclaimed themselves an independent "California Republic" -- all two or three hundred of them.
This was in June of 1846, before there were any U.S. officers on the scene with formal orders to fight a war. But there was no great Mexican force either. Frémont prevailed. In the later, formal stages of the war in California, he pursued an idiosyncratic course: brutally aggressive at times when the Polk administration wanted to sound conciliatory, then conciliatory when the administration had adopted a hard line toward local populations. He got himself court-martialed for violating regulations about command.
But not for attacking Indians.
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