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Posted on Mar 17, 2009 in Books and Movies

Circle the Wagons – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

Circle the Wagons! Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films. Gregory F. Michno and Susan J. Michno, McFarland & Co., 2008. $55.00 (hardcover)

The prevailing conventional wisdom is that, despite the ubiquity of wagon train attacks in popular culture such as Hollywood film portrayals, these attacks were rare.

Veteran Western historian, Gregory F. Michno, and co-author, Susan J. Michno, are on a mission. They are out to set the record straight on the “did they or didn’t they?” question regarding Indian attacks on pioneer wagon trains. The prevailing conventional wisdom is that, despite the ubiquity of wagon train attacks in popular culture such as Hollywood film portrayals, these attacks were rare. As the Michnos prove in Circle the Wagons! Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood, conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s “plainly, simply, irrevocably wrong.” They decry as “whitewashing” frontier history the recent disturbing trend of western historians to focus almost exclusively on white atrocities while simultaneously ignoring Indian depredations – presenting Indians merely as hapless “victims” of white aggression. Therefore, ignoring the abundant historical record that clearly documents numerous Indian attacks on wagon trains, principally by narrowly focusing only on the Oregon Trail and on a short period of time during the westward migration era, recent historians support their single-minded “victims” agenda and do history a disservice. Although the authors freely admit that “white soldiers and civilians also participated in atrocities against Indian tribes,” these crimes “have been detailed in numerous books and movies over the past 50 years,” while “the very real trail danger that emigrants faced from Indians” either has been covered up or simply ignored. In other words, the ‘Custer died for your sins’ school of western history has created a modern mythology that blindly ignores the historical record. Circle the Wagons! does an admirable job of reporting the facts and setting the record straight.

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The Michnos’ modern myth-busting proceeds through 35 chapters, each recounting — often in gruesome, stomach-churning detail — one or more documented attacks on pioneer wagon trains and the attacks’ chilling aftermaths. The book covers Indian attacks on 61 wagon trains (civilian and military) from 1829 to 1876, spread from Iowa to Oregon, and Wyoming to Arizona. No single tribe held a monopoly on wagon train attacks, the Michnos report. The perpetrators represented numerous tribes, including, among others, Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapahoe, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Paiute, Shoshone, Bannock, Pawnee, and Mojave. These 61 attacks examined by the Michnos were far from the only ones – there were, of course, “many more” the authors note – yet these referenced in Circle the Wagons! certainly are more than adequate to belie the myth perpetuated by too many recent historians that frontier overland travel was “a walk in the park.”

Particularly disturbing are the accounts – many are first-person survivor testimonies –of white female captives who routinely suffered rape, mutilation, starvation and abuse as slave laborers at the hands of their Indian captors. Using the women’s own words, the Michnos expose the claim that women captives were treated well and that many wanted to stay with their captors as cruelly distorting the abominable conditions they endured during captivity. The notion so popular now with many western historians that the women’s Indian captivity was a picnic-like romp in the idyllic frontier wilderness is a shameful distortion of the truth. One woman survivor’s lament likely speaks for the feelings of most white women captives when she said that she “would fain have preferred the most cruel death to life such as mine.”

The Michnos also link the real-life wagon train attacks in each chapter to Hollywood films that portray either the actual historical event or an attack that exhibits similar aspects to those depicted in the film. In doing so, they discover that the earlier Hollywood portrayals – films made before the mid-1950s – tend to “get it right” concerning wagon train attacks much more often than do later films. Although they admit that these earlier Hollywood films can be justifiably criticized for lacking today’s realism in capturing the dress, weapons, and accoutrements of pioneers and Indians, often feature naieve and simplistic plots with stereotypical characters, and present a sanitized “G-Rated” version of frontier warfare, the Michnos assert that “at least in the first half of the 20th century … we find that Hollywood has produced more accurate history than have a number of historians.” Before Old West history was shanghaied by the PC crowd interested only in down-playing frontier violence and in promoting Indian victimization, the Michnos find, “Hollywood [did] a commendable job in depicting actual events.”

As a final judgment of this subject, it is hard to improve upon what the Michnos wrote: “Warfare and violence happened. They need not be glorified, but they can’t be denied. Historians have an obligation to present the truth, but when they alter or hide the truth because they have become self-appointed guardians and censors with their own political agendas, they become lesser specimens than the members of the media that they malign.” The “lesser specimens” would greatly profit by consulting the facts presented in the Michno’s “must read” book.

ACG Intel:

Circle the Wagons! Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films

2 Comments

  1. Finally! As a western historian I’ve been frustrated by the way Hollywood and the entertainment industry have altered American history to their anti-American agenda. Atrocities were on both sides but it seems more cruelly on the Indian side because of their religious beliefs. My own Great5 Grandfather Thomas Hall, a Revolutionary War vet was killed along with his wife by Cherokee Indians in 1794 at the age of 92. You can read about Indian atrocities in western Virginia (not West Va) in the late 1700’s by just googling. You can hear about the Sand Creek massacre but not about the thousands estimated killed by Indians in retaliation. History is history. We all live in peace now as we should but like the Indians we can’t forget what our forefathers on both sides sacrificed to build this country.

    • Hey Cliff ! My name is Bill Colwell when I was about 2 year old me and my younger brother were adopted by the Colwells because our mom and dad split up and divorced. Our real parents were Clay and Eva mae Hall his mom and dad was Pleasant Hall and Arta Meade Hall his dad was John Hall his father was Allen Hall his father was Jonathon Hall his father was Reuben Hall and his was Jesse Hall and his Thomas Hall b. 1702 and d.1794 and his wife Martha b.1700-1705 and d.1794 my 7th great grandfather and grandmother. I think we may be cousins. I have heard there has been a lot of indian blood through out our familys history. Do you know if it was Captain Robert Benge a cherokee who killed our grand parents, let me know if you do.

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