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An Exercise in Raw Power: A Bioarchaeological Perspective on American Violence & Westward Expansion

Author(s): John Crandall

Year: 2016

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Bioarchaeologists have rarely marshalled data from historic American burial assemblages to explore the dynamics of violence in the borderlands West. This paper considers the social dynamics of American violence under Manifest Destiny through an exploration of ballistic trauma patterns documented in extant historical bioarchaeology literature. This study examines the lives of 42 individuals whose remains exhibit fatal gunshot wounds from across the mid-17th and early 20th century America. Trauma data were historically contextualized and compared between region, age group, sex, race, class, and occupation. Available data challenge prevailing ecological models in which violence results from the ‘social disorder’ of single male settlers living in dense boomtowns. Skeletal trauma is found only among rural and pioneer families in the West. Most shootings occur as a result of political massacres and ambushes. 38% of injuries occur as a result of racial or religious conflicts. No victim on the frontier is middle- or high- class. Shootouts, and the subsequent treatment of victim’s bodies, pattern along racist, classist, gendered, and protestant lines rather than being senseless. As President Barack Obama has observed, borderland violence is best seen as an “exercise in raw power” that transformed competing frontier communities into citizens within America’s social hierarchy.

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An Exercise in Raw Power: A Bioarchaeological Perspective on American Violence & Westward Expansion. John Crandall. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Orlando, Florida. 2016 ( tDAR id: 403933)


Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America