Shortly before dawn on the morning of April 30, 1871, a group of Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and Tohono O'odham Indians from Tucson and San Xavier del Bac attacked a would-be Apache Indian reservation located along a creek bank in Arizona Territory's Aravaipa Canyon. This incident, in which the raiders killed perhaps as many as a hundred and forty Apaches, many of them sleeping women and children, has come to be known as the Camp Grant Massacre after the U.S. Army base near which it took place.
As the documents available on the Shadows at Dawn website illustrate, this early morning assault on the Apache camp generated a heated debate, both locally and nationally, over the causes and consequences of violence in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. These efforts to decry, justify, and, in some cases, obscure the story of the massacre raise important questions about the relationship between history and violence that all those who study the past continue to grapple with today. To what extent, for example, should the massacre be described as an inevitable outgrowth of federal Indian policies, the borderland's cycle of raids and counter-raids, or some other factor? And in what ways does the massacre instead represent a break from the moments of peaceful interaction that existed in the region?
Above all, the massacre illuminates one of the great ironies of the historical process. Violence produces vast silences in the historical record through the destruction of witnesses and the intimidation of survivors. Yet at the same time violence also creates history, not simply through its transformative impact on human societies but through the need it instills among those who have perpetrated or endured acts of violence to articulate what they have experiencedand to defend what they have done to others.
The Camp Grant Massacre was no exception. Although the attack silenced the voices of scores of Apache women and children, it is also one of the best-documented events in the nineteenth-century borderlands. The paradoxical result is that this moment of great violence captures, as few incidents from the period can, the world of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in compelling detail. In a further illustration of the intimate connection between history and violence, in 1884 several of the perpetrators of the attack founded the Arizona Pioneers' Society, a precursor to today's Arizona Historical Society. Among the first speeches and publications produced by members of the Pioneers' Society were efforts to justify their participation in the April 30th attack on the Apaches in Aravaipa Canyon. Those who had enacted violence, in other words, also took steps to ensure that their acts assumed a prominent place within the historical record.