Among the Intellectualoids

Misremembering History

America's "sordid history," as memorialized in Taos, New Mexico.

By 9.23.09

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It's an article of faith for the secular and Religious Left that Western civilization is a pox upon the planet. According to this not-so-new mythology, the earth and its indigenous peoples were essentially good. But European civilization, corrupted by Christian Constaninianism, injected corruption, conquest and genocide into largely pristine cultures.

In 1990, the National Council of Churches infamously denounced the impending quincentennial of Christopher Columbus' "invasion" of America, which brought only "slavery, genocide, theft and exploitation." In earlier years, the church council, whose chief denominations had helped found the United States, had celebrated American democracy. But the NCC's ideologues, like most of the Religious Left, no longer heed Christianity's traditional understanding of humanity as fallen. In the preferred mythology, people are good but corrupted by "systems" primarily associated with capitalism, patriarchy, and the Church.

This stance recently surfaced in an op-ed for Evangelical Left Jim Wallis' Sojourners by Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. Clawson had visited Taos, New Mexico, where she vividly examined America's "sordid history," which has amazingly not been "completely hushed up." She darkly surmised: "In most of the country it is easy to forget who we stole the land from, who we enslaved to build initial infrastructure, and who we oppressed on our path to becoming a 'great' nation." But apparently the truth broke through in New Mexico.

Or at least Clawson's fragmentary understanding of truth. She recalled attending an "emergent" (liberal evangelical) church gathering at Glorieta, New Mexico, where in 1846 the Mexican army had "made its last stand against the invading U.S. army" during the Mexican-American War, only to be "massacred" by Americans. In fact, the U.S. Army's conquest of New Mexico was peaceful because the Mexican Army near Glorieta dispersed, never to reassemble, and fueling rumors that the Mexican commander was bribed.

"It puts things in perspective to know the history of the place -- knowing who died so we could use a spiffy [church] retreat center," Clawson sarcastically observed, apparently unaware that no casualties occurred there until another conflict, nearly two decades later, between Confederates and Unionists. In her truncated version of the Mexican-American War, she remembers New Mexico as the "land we stole."

More specifically, Clawson presented a very jaded history of the U.S. response to a New Mexican uprising in the ancient village of Taos in 1847. She recounted that "after the U.S. took New Mexico, local Indians and Hispanics were fearful that the U.S. wouldn't honor their ownership of the land and so staged a rebellion against the U.S. governor in Taos." In this process, the governor "ended up dead," though Clawson declined to explain how. The U.S. Army "moved quickly to quash the revolt." During the U.S. attack, she explained, many villagers, including women and children as well as "some of the insurgents," sought refugee in the Catholic church. According to Clawson's remembrance, the "U.S. army burned them alive inside the church." 

Such a horrible scene recalls the episode in Mel Gibson's The Patriot, when a sinister British officer encircles a colonial church and incinerates its unarmed and worshipping congregants. That scene was a fiction, and Clawson's history is mostly fiction as well. The New Mexico governor was in fact scalped alive and then shot dead in his house, after an extended appeal to the insurgents at his door. His wife and children, with help from an Indian servant, and accompanied by Mrs. Kit Carson, had just escaped by digging through the house floor. The governor's scalp (one account says his whole head) was paraded through the streets by gleeful insurgents, who also murdered the local judge, the sheriff, circuit lawyer and other Americans.

Then U.S. Army Colonel Sterling Price is better now remembered as a Confederate general in the Civil War, and maybe better still as the namesake of the cat owned by John Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, in his Academy Award winning True Grit. After the atrocities at Taos, Price marched his force there. He had learned of the rebels' plans to "murder all the Americans in Taos, together with those Mexicans who had either accepted office under the American Government or were favorable to Americans." When he arrived, the dead Americans were "lying about the streets, mutilated and disfigured in every possible way, and the hogs and dogs were making a repast upon the remains."

Mexican and Indian insurgents gathered into the ancient Taos Pueblo, with many of them in its church. Across three days, Price's forces pounded the thick pueblo walls and church with cannon and explosives, eventually blasting through the church. One hundred fifty out of possibly 700 defenders were killed. There were about 50 casualties among the U.S. force of about 500, which also included some French traders and allied Mexicans. The next day, according to one account, the women among the defenders emerged with white flags, and a surrender was negotiated. 

Unlike what Clawson learned during her emerging church convo in Taos, seemingly no authoritative histories claim that the U.S. Army torched a church full of women and children. The church at Taos, at part of a fortification, was full of armed insurgents and was pierced by cannon shell and manually thrown explosives. Insurgents, and their accompanying civilians throughout the fortified pueblo, later surrendered. A handful of the insurgents were tried and hanged for murder or treason, while several evidently were acquitted. The rebellion in New Mexico was squashed, never to be repeated. After conquering Mexico City, the U.S. ultimately paid more than $30 million to Mexico for the territories that later became New Mexico, Arizona and California.

These territories, like virtually everyplace on earth, were not new to conquest or savagery. In the 1840s, the Mexicans were still at war with Apaches and other Plains Indians. The Spanish had conquered the territory centuries before, from tribesmen who themselves had waged wars of annihilation against each other. But Clawson remembers only the U.S. conquest, guiltily recalling that she is "enjoying the benefits of past oppression" originating in "great evil." Even some Indians in New Mexico thought it rude to remember "how the U.S. army massacred their people," she noticed. But Clawson had "no choice but to confront the sins of our collective past." In fact, she is a "huge fan of going to places where that history is in your face," even though it is not "fun to visit the site of a massacre, or of a firebombing, or the Holocaust Museum."

Condemning ancestors for their supposed moral inferiority can provide smug pleasure, no doubt, especially while attending a church conference. But moral smugness is not an accurate guide for history, especially when assuming, as many on the left do, that human evil virtually originated with Western civilization and reached its zenith under the United States.

 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.