The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1998, Volume 44, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880-1920.

By Clare V. McKanna, Jr. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1997. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Index. xiv + 206 pages. $40.00 cloth.

Reviewed by David A. Johnson, professor of history at Portland State University, Managing Editor of Pacific Historical Review, and author of Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890.

In Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880- 1920, Clare V. McKanna, Jr., examines an old topic — Western, or Frontier Violence — from a fresh and revealing perspective. Rejecting an older historiographical tradition that focuses on episodic, oftentimes apocryphal, accounts of gunfights, range wars, and vigilante movements, McKanna focuses on homicide as defined by coroners — “the killing of one human being by another that cannot be clearly identified as accidental” (p. 10). With this as his basis for comparative analysis, McKanna explores lethal violence across the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American West: its contours and frequency, and its relationship to the experience of minorities.

The book begins with a valuable review of the scholarly literature on Western violence; the volume’s notes, it should be noted, cover the field thoroughly. It turns to the author’s thesis. Put briefly (and in fairness to the author, incompletely), McKanna holds that high levels of lethal violence followed from the convergence in the West of rapid industrialization, labor exploitation, and the coming together of immigrant and resident populations divided by culture, class, and race — on the one hand, African Americans, European immigrants, Hispanics, and Indians, and, on the other, “established northern European elites.” This convergence, McKanna argues, was endemic in the late nineteenth century West. Economic and social change, migration, and culture conflict, which differed according to the details of each locale, produced — in common — intergroup tensions that fostered local cultures of violence marked by high rates of homicide.

Chapters three, four, and five are the heart of the book. Each offers a case study of the dynamics of Western sub/cultures of violence. Chapter 3 treats Omaha, Nebraska, where a racial clash of cultures followed the immigration from the South of African Americans who carried with them Southern notions of honor and a collective experience of violence that, in the context of restriction and discrimination, resulted in violent neighborhoods and a violent city. Chapter 4 examines Las Animas County (site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre), where in the early twentieth century immigration and social change associated with industrial mining similarly provoked heightened levels of interpersonal violence among and between whites, Hispanics, and Eastern European immigrants. Chapter 5 studies Gila County, Arizona, where the rise of copper mining and labor regimentation, along with long standing Indian-hating on the part of Anglo Americans, produced yet a third “regional subculture of violence.” In every instance before police, courts, and state, minorities experienced something far short of criminal “justice.” Indictments, convictions, and punishments of African Americans, Latinos, and Indians in the West were without exception more frequent, certain, and harsh than for whites.

Homicide, Race and Justice is an ambitious book, theoretically and descriptively. Rejecting overgeneralized concepts of “frontier violence” on the one hand, and untheoretical narrative on the other, the author offers a middle range theory that can be applied comparatively to different locales — western and otherwise. A major accomplishment on McKanna’s part is his emphasis on homicide, a form of lethal violence for which historical evidence (through indictment and other records, prison registers, census data, newspapers, and — above all — coroner inquest reports) is widely available. Formally defined as a statistical variable, moreover, homicide offers a relatively reliable measure of lethal violence that can be (and here is) studied comparatively.

Providing an approach to the study of violence that other scholars can test in different places and under different conditions, Homicide, Race and Justice advances historical research. While subsequent researchers will likely challenge, and in time extend and revise, aspects of McKanna’s conclusions, there is no doubt that this book will influence scholarship for years to come.