Social Studies Department Chair Dr. David Beyreis has a new book release! Blood in the Borderlands: Conflict, Kinship, and the Bent Family, 1821-1920, discusses one of the most famous families in the history of the American West, The Bents.
The book came out of his dissertation that he started around 2010 or 2011 and became his full-time “book project” in 2013. He joined us for a Q&A:
What was most rewarding about writing Blood in the Borderlands?
Seeing it on my own bookshelf is pretty exciting. You spend years collecting works by other people and putting those books on your shelf. So, to see it next to books by authors you really admire is gratifying. And just being done is nice. It’s time to move on to the next thing.
What first got you interested in the Bent family?
I’d always been interested in the broader topics connected to their experiences – the fur trade, Manifest Destiny, the Plains Indian Wars, etc. – so I was looking for a subject that could bring all of those things together. I was also interested in the question of borders and borderlands. Specifically, how do people interact with each other in those places where national governments don’t exercise much control, and how do they adapt when the government tries to impose its will? I got lucky and found a great group of people to investigate. I also wanted to be able to do research in Colorado and New Mexico.
You put a focus on the women of the family in this book – what can you tell us about the Bent family women? Why were they of particular interest to you?
They were a fascinating group of people. William and Charles Bent, the brothers who started everything, had to marry local women if they wanted to be successful. William married three Southern Cheyenne sisters simultaneously – not a terribly unusual practice for the time and place. If he wanted to make money and make sure his family was safe, this was the first step to take. Everyone knew this and took it for granted. Later, two of the wives divorced him, but that’s another story. Charles Bent had a common-law marriage with a woman in Taos, New Mexico – María Ignacia Jaramillo. She came from a pretty influential local family. Like William, Charles knew that if he wanted to get “plugged into” local power networks, marriage was the best way to do it. These men did not control their wives. The women had a great deal of personal autonomy. The second generation of women in the family were just as significant, and for the same reasons. If the men in the family got rich, it was because they married the right women.
Do you see any examples of “history repeating itself” when you compare today (or last few decades) with 1821-1920?
I suppose I could point to a couple of possibilities: borders are still impossible to “control.” There is a lot of talk about “securing our border,” in the sense of keeping this group or that group out or this product or that product out. That’s never really been feasible at any time in American history. Borders are naturally porous and usually artificially constructed. People who live along the edges of nations are always adapting and reinventing themselves. The Bents are a great example of this. I could also say that some people are still uncomfortable with the idea of an “Other” being out there somewhere. Peoples and families who don’t conform to the way society thinks they “should” be – racially, culturally, religiously, etc. – can have a tough time. The Bents certainly did not have an easy time of it.