Beyond cowboys and Indians

Larry McMurtry on the bloody reality behind the myths.

Beyond John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, American consciousness concerning the West ranges little beyond Monument Valley, Geronimo, and George Custer. And, perhaps, Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove."

As the eminent novelist has acknowledged, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (and subsequent TV miniseries) set out to deflate Western myth but instead reinforced the very notions it aimed to debunk.

Of late, the prolific author has continued his quest to shatter Western legend through his nonfiction works.

He recently penned a dual biography of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody, outlining the theatrics inherent in their lucrative touring shows.

With Oh What a Slaughter, Mr. McMurtry serves up a slim volume of the sanguinary arts, chronicling Western massacres during the last half of the 19th century. These are not blaze-of-glory shoot-'em-ups. McMurtry chronicles legacies of deceit, mistrust, betrayal and sadism, principally carried out by whites against Indians, but not always.

Other than the tragic, avoidable events at Wounded Knee in 1890, none were happenstance, he writes. They were premeditated and often executed with little remorse.

McMurtry chronicles the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, a bloody mass killing in Colorado that left behind a trail of corpses.

He also writes of massacres at Sacramento River (1846), Mountain Meadows (1857), Marias River (1870), Camp Grant (1871) and Wounded Knee. Indian routs at Fort Phil Kearny and Little Bighorn are examined, too.

McMurtry always allows for historical vagaries. He describes conflicting accounts and concludes "the only undisputed fact about a given massacre is the date on which it occurred - almost everything else remains arguable, including body counts."

"Oh What a Slaughter" is hardly a gentle read but it is a compelling one.

It seems all but impossible to leave this meditation on mass killings with anything other than a combination of fascination and revulsion.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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