Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Wickenburg Massacre and White Perspective

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, celebrated both as a rejection of a federal holiday celebrating genocidal degenerate Christopher Columbus, and as an opportunity to enrich global understanding of the Indigenous peoples who once existed on what we now call “The Americas”. I remember the rosy picture painted of Columbus during my public and private schooling. Nice guy, right? Coming over here and giving all the great benefits of white culture to the savages he found? Yeah, if you buy that narrative, I’ve recently obtained the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, and boy have I got a deal for you!

Last year, I made my first Indigenous Peoples’ Day post, shortly after receiving some cards from the 1871-73 Wheeler Expeditions. It was a brief post, which basically hinted at what I was planning on doing with the cards going forward. Today, I’m going to focus on the 1871 Expedition. More specifically, I’m going to direct your gaze to the white perspective as portrayed by the captions. As subjects, I’ve selected five cards from the set, dealing first with what has come to be known as the Wickenburg Massacre, and second, with Indigenous peoples’ portrayal in general. If you’re a pale-skinned reader in a country with a history of participating in, or existing by virtue of, colonialism, I hope this will make you at least mildly uncomfortable. It is not enough to acknowledge our collective past. We must confront it head-on.

The Wickenburg Massacre

To make a long story slightly shorter, here’s a capsule description of what was then called the “Loring Massacre” and has come to be known as “the Wickenburg Massacre”. On 5 November 1871, a stagecoach containing between 9 and 10 people headed west from Wickenburg, Arizona Territory. Two miles out, one of the passengers realized he’d left something behind, and hopped off to walk back to town. A further 4 miles down to road, six (by most accounts) or seven (by some modern explanations, backed by forensic evidence) people were shot to death. One man was scalped and mutilated.

There were possibly two survivors: Mollie Sheppard, a bordello owner with a less-than-savory reputation probably – but not definitely – survived. William Kruger, a gambler and transient with an even worse reputation, had definitely survived. It was based on his testimony that the horrors to come would come to pass. What is certain is that, even at the time, it was unclear who committed the murders. Before he was himself under suspicion, Kruger stated plainly that it was the work of “Apache-Mohaves”. Of course, conflating the various Apache peoples with the Mohave people is absurd, and blame was quickly reassigned to the nearby Yavapai.

Other theories quickly emerged however. Mexican bandits aping the outfits of the Yavapai might have done it. Whites also might have been the culprits – a bungled attempt to rob a stagecoach (leaving animals and weapons behind, which an Indigenous raiding party would not do). Finally, there are various theories that Kruger – possibly working in conjunction with Sheppard – set the whole thing up. Robert Stack illuminates this possibility for us:

My late grandmother would be so happy that I’m using this programme as an illustration. Robert Stack was apparently quite the hottie in his day.

What Mattered: The death of white writer Frederick Wadsworth Loring

The people riding on the stagecoach were all white; one of them was a person of note. Frederick Wadsworth Loring was a Harvard graduate, who had already published his first novel. “Two College Friends” is considered an early work of gay male fiction, centered around the American Civil War. His death at 22, just after completing a stint with the Wheeler Expedition, was tragic – of course! Anybody being shot to death riding on the outside seat of a stagecoach is not to be envied. I don’t revel in people’s deaths, especially if they could have produced more early gay fiction! Here’s Loring, as captured by stereographer T. H. O’Sullivan:

An image of Loring posing with his mule, taken by T. H. O'Sullivan on the 1871 Wheeler Expedition - note the teepee in the background; it is impossible to determine whether it is occupied by white men or indigenous peoples
Objectively, this is a very nice stereoview.

But it is the caption, on verso as is customary with the Wheeler Expedition cards, which is especially telling:

Verso text from above image of Loring posing with his mule.

The only apparent reason it doesn’t call for Loring’s beatification is that most of the people involved were presumably of various Protestant denominations. Insidiously, note the phrase “was brutally murdered by Apache-Mohaves”. Let’s unpack this a bit – Loring was shot, and expired shortly thereafter. Not a particularly brutal death in the American West of the period – unless of course “brutal” is intended to attach to the murderers. Curiously, the murders are still attributed to “Apache-Mohaves” qua Kruger’s statement. Given that this was an 1873 printing, even if the captioner believed the story of Indigenous peoples ambushing the stage, it ought be Yavapai. No mention is made of alternate explanations for the massacre. No mention is made of tracks that seem to lead towards the Yavapai basin, then suddenly double back towards Wickenburg.

Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered less than white peoples’ lives

This subheading should be commonsense to anybody who has studied American history from a truth-telling point of view. Ignore what you learned in your high school classrooms, at least if you’re of my generation. To drive this point home, however, it should be pointed out that the Yavapai and Western Apache had been under an extermination order since the mid-1860s! (Braatz, p. 92)

There was a bit public outcry over the Camp Grant Massacre, in which 144 Aravaipa Apaches – almost all women and children – were brutally killed by a posse. Dozens of babies were taken away to be sold into slavery. The outcry was more or less immediately silenced, however, when six (or seven) white folk lost their lives on the road from Wickenburg. While President Grant insisted on a trial for the 104 posse members that had been identified, they were all found “not guilty” in minutes. Clearly, justice was reserved for white victims – and proportionality in justice was nothing but a joke. Cue Lieutenant Colonel George Crook.

Crook by name, crook by deed

Crook was an ambitious military man, having served with distinction during the American Civil War. In the late 1860s, President Grant placed him in charge of Arizona Territory. It was he, and in turn his subordinates, who were responsible for settling the Wickenburg Massacre. Crook was not a kind-hearted man; his disdain for Indigenous peoples was not exactly a state secret. In point of fact, as early as 1870, Crook was recruiting the first organized brigades of Apache scouts. He did this in preparation for the day he got the mandate to drive the Indigenous peoples onto some dodgy reservation. That mandate began to form on 5 November 1871, and apparently O’Sullivan captured a stereoscopic image of one of Crook’s scouts:

T. H. O'Sullivan's capture of "Maiman", supposedly a "Mohave Indian". While various indigenous peoples participated in the "Apache scouts", the Mohave were not among them.
Verso text for above image of "Maiman", an indigenous person and possibly one of Crook's scouts.

The implication that “Maiman” was a Mohave person and one of Crook’s “Apache scouts” is rather absurd. Of the many Indigenous peoples who contributed members to this brigade, the Mohave were not among them. “Maiman” does not show up anywhere online. There is every possibility that this was indeed an “Apache scout”, possibly named “Maiman”, but if so, he belonged to a group besides the Mohave people.

Maiman or no-Maiman, in his investigation, Crook brought in his scouts, and they informed him of the tracks that doubled back. Regardless, he decided to place the blame on the Indigenous peoples rather than the Mexican bandits, the white settlers, or the dodgy character Kruger. Evidence be damned, in 1872 he initiated the Yavapai Wars. While a detailed description is outside the scope of this blog post, you can guess what happened next. Almost half of the Yavapai were wiped out, and the rest were forced onto a reservation in 1875.

Indigenous Peoples through the White Man’s Eyes

As we’ve seen in the captions and commentary so far, in the 1870s, all Indigenous people were basically conflated by region. Live in Arizona Territory? You’re an Apache to the locals, and a Mohave to the Wheeler Expedition. Nevermind that you’re actually a Yavapai. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody versed in white conflation of nonwhite peoples. It is easy enough to differentiate between different whites of course – think of the stereotypical 1950s British landlady’s “No dogs, colored, or Irish” signs – even speakers of the same language can be differentiated by accent! But even in modern times, North Korean, Uighur, and Japanese people can simply be “Asians” or “Orientals”, depending on your Anglophone country. That’s sad, but there’s some sadder nonsense coming up. Let’s look at three more cards.

Specimens for Study

A T. H. O'Sullivan portrait of two indigenous peoples, taken on the 1871 Wheeler Expedition (his first)
It would be hard to argue that this is anything but an amazing stereoview, regardless of the motion blur.

Before we get to the verso text for this image, let’s just take a moment to praise the actual artistry of it. Images of Indigenous peoples without any trappings of white society are rare enough. This one is obviously candid – note the motion blur – and it’s really top-notch stereography. Depth of field, stereoscopic depth, and contrast make the figures stand out. It’s stunning. But then we flip it over…

Verso text for the two indigenous people standing by the river above.

These Indigenous persons – who may or may not be Mohave, based on captioning errors already shown – are “specimens”? This reminds me of something. I’m trying to think of what… but the fetishization of the height as a defining characteristic is not unlike the primatologist describing a newborn gorilla exceptional for its size. These two persons are reduced to admirable physical descriptions. Oh! I’m remembering what I’m was trying to think of earlier – slave catalogs from the pre-Civil-War American south. And of course, the horrific medical experiments that were performed on some of the slaves brought over here. That slavery should jump to mind is no coincidence; if this country was built by chattel slavery, it was built on the bones of hundreds of Indigenous peoples that no longer exist, and on the native homes of many peoples that still exist, in concentration camps reservations.

A T. H. O'Sullivan stereoview which claims to be of Nee-chi-qua-ra, a "good specimen of the Mohave type", but who could actually belong to any number of indigenous peoples, being that we can't trust the captions!
Verso text for the above T. H. O'Sullivan stereoview.

So O’Sullivan took this portrait, obtained a name, and reduced the subject to “specimen” status? Is there a possibility that he was not the original captioner; that someone else took his field notes and wrote this Josef Mengele-esque grotesquerie? Can this man who took such beautifully natural and humanizing stereoviews of Indigenous peoples over three expeditions really be such a bastard?

Yes, sadly, T. H. O’Sullivan was a remarkable stereographer AND a bastard

A T. H. O'Sullivan stereoview depicting two "Mojave" (unknown indigenous peoples) napping. Wheeler expedition of 1871.
Enjoy looking at this stereoview before you read the verso text – you might not want to look back.
Verso text of indigenous peoples napping

One gets used to appreciating really good stereoviews made by scumbags. My deep appreciation of Heinrich Hoffmann’s exemplary technique is testament to that. But this caption sent my skin crawling. Let’s unpack it, line by line:

Mojave Indians caught napping.

There are various ways to “catch” things. I can playfully “catch” my wife and throw her down on the couch when she teases me. More frequently used, hunters try to “catch” their prey. And as we will see, this is more predatory than just about any non-NSDAP stereoview in my rather extensive collection. When you think of “caught napping”, perhaps you think of someone caught slacking off on the job. This is much more insidious.

The first opportunity to get pictures of them,

OK, so the Indigenous people portrayed were clearly known to the hunter (photographer) prior to this – he was aware of them, but lacked opportunity. Why’s that?

owing to a superstitious fear of the camera.

So the individuals did not wish to be photographed, and O’Sullivan just stalked them until they fell asleep and did his business? Think we might have a word for that kind of behavior? I can think of one real easy like. One that conforms to the predator model suggested by the first sentence. You know what it is.

But worse still, this Irish Catholic had the gall to disregard the spiritual concerns of his unwilling subjects on the basis that they were “superstition”. Keep in mind what his own beliefs entail: let’s start with transubstantiation. Eating a communion wafer and drinking wine that has been blessed means you’re literally committing cannibalism on a 2000-year dead superhero! Now let’s talk about the triune god: he’s three things (father, son, holy ghost) and one thing at the same time. Leibniz’s Law anybody? And finally, a superbeing that is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent but creates a world with any evil is a contradiction in terms.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think cameras are dangerous either. But I wouldn’t point one at someone who explicitly asked me not to – especially if they believed there was a negative spiritual consequence to it. The belief that cameras remove some essence or qi or whatever you want to call it has evolved in parallel on at least 4 of the 7 continents! Unlike the belief that you must eat one part of a three part god that’s still only one entity at least weekly. Talk about superstition!

The weather was quite warm, as may be inferred from the lack of covering.

Or maybe the Indigenous people pictured didn’t want your damn smallpox blankets, you twat! Excuse me if I’m slipping into my “John Oliver on a rant” mindset, but the blatant disregard for these people – here depersonalized – is horrific.

(The geologist in the background pondering whether the specimens before him are pliocene or eocene, but concludes that they are “carboniferous.”)

There’s that word again – “specimens”. Only now you’re using it for rocks. In your stupid head, Indigenous peoples are there to be photographed and catalogued like you’re a geologist studying rocks. They are not people like you, with aspirations, desires, fears, the possibility of becoming their homeland’s most facile storytellers (a la Loring, the murdered 22-year-old white writer above). They’re specimens. And you’re hunting them. You’re a real specimen yourself, O’Sullivan – and I won’t say what of.

Some Final Thoughts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Just a few final thoughts on some things brought up by these cards, and by decades of political involvement including in Indigenous causes…

On reparations

While I’m glad that we’re finally having some more open discussions about reparations for Black Americans due to both slavery and systemic racism, I’m saddened that the conversation has not appreciably widened to include Indigenous peoples. Before we start talking about building walls to keep people out of the country that we stole from them, why not talk about doing something to better their current situations? We have corporate welfare in this country – which often includes violating reservation sovereignty to build oil pipelines and other infrastructure. We might not like to acknowledge it, but it’s a form of American apartheid that has been there for centuries. The first step is to become aware of it. The second point is to lend your voice, your blog, your podcast, etc.

White perspective and Hollywood depictions

White perspective might be evolving, but not as fast as it should. In the earliest Westerns, “Indians” were always the baddies. More recent depictions of Indigenous peoples may be more positive, but smack of tokenism; just rewatch some of my wife’s childhood serial “The X-Files”. Some cause for hope is recent slow-burner cop show “Longmire”, which hangs a lampshade on a lot of conventions while depicting some of the conflicts of a white town near a reservation. But the cause for hope is immediately dashed when you learn that the primary Cheyenne character is played by… a non-Indigenous actor. The most compelling new TV show this year is Lovecraft Country, with a Black showrunner, a predominantly Black cast, and no whiff of the white gaze. I would love to see actual media depicting Indigenous peoples created by… Indigenous peoples. Wouldn’t you?

Choice of nomenclature

I avoided both “Native American” and “American Indian” in writing this, because I understand that there is some contention in both, and the last thing I want is to offend Indigenous peoples on this of all days. I can understand the controversy, as well – since both have “American” in the phrase, and the peoples in question come from traditions that predate… America, the name we gave to the land we butchered Indigenous people to steal, while irreversibly altering what remained of their societies. I understand from discussions with some First Nations people in Canada that this is pretty uncontroversial, and I can see why. They were there first.

If you found any of this disturbing…

…this is probably for the best. Question your prejudices, just as I had to question, and ultimately change or remove nomenclature just during the writing of much of this yesterday. Is it sad that Fred Loring died at the young age of 22? Yes, of course! But it is 144 times as sad that Aravaipa women and children were slaughtered en masse with no repercussions. White society has been of just about no use to anybody except… white society. Those readers who, like me, are a part of white society can either: educate yourselves and try to change things going forward, including the shape of the discussion. Or you can go back to worshipping Christopher Columbus, and playing Cowboys and Injuns. For now, I’ve done my little bit today. I hope less than another whole year passes before I can do something else. What can you do?


2 Replies to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Wickenburg Massacre and White Perspective”

    1. Thanks Tony! Especially given the day, it’s impossible – or at least irresponsible – to present the sort of neutral histories I usually undertake. In general, my studies of the Great War and the Third Reich are concerned with past history; as the ridiculously unfair treatment of Indigenous peoples continues to this day, it is “living history”, and merely recounting events without exploring their present impact amounts to naval-gazing.

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