The long road to a small but iconic battle between the U.S. and the Plains Indians' "most warlike" tribe is richly recounted in Cheyenne Summer: The Battle for Beecher Island: A History by historian Terry Mort (The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars). Examining "the antagonists" in detail--the Cheyenne, the U.S. Army and the civilian settlers--Mort constructs a long opening act with an eye toward the inevitable, bloody denouement near what was to become the Colorado-Kansas border in September 1868. Mort spends most of the book detailing various cultural aspects of the antagonists, reserving his keenest observations for the Cheyenne--a culture steeped in nomadism, utterly at odds with the Anglo-Saxon belief in settlement. Mort posits provocatively that it was a "manifest destiny" that nomadism could not withstand the settlement of the Plains and "even the strongest advocates for the Indians understood the Plains nomads would sooner or later have to surrender their way of life." But not without a fight, of course.
While strategically insignificant, the Battle of Beecher Island, between 50 army scouts and a few hundred Cheyenne and Sioux warriors, serves more as an allegory of the larger cultural, demographic and societal shifts that Mort crisply outlines throughout the book. One quibble is the misleading title (the battle takes up a mere 70 pages), but Mort makes up for it with a boldly argued and well-researched study of the limits of negotiation between two fundamentally irreconcilable cultures in 19th-century America. --Peggy Kurkowski, book reviewer and copywriter in Denver, Colo.