The Strange Career of William Ellis

The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

To his contemporaries in Gilded Age Manhattan, Guillermo Eliseo was a fantastically wealthy Mexican, the proud owner of a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park, a busy Wall Street office, and scores of mines and haciendas in Mexico. But for all his obvious riches and his elegant appearance, Eliseo was also the possessor of a devastating secret: he was not, in fact, from Mexico at all. Rather, he had begun life as a slave named William Ellis, born on a cotton plantation in southern Texas during the waning years of King Cotton.
After emancipation, Ellis, capitalizing on the Spanish he learned during his childhood along the Mexican border and his ambivalent appearance, engaged in a virtuoso act of reinvention. He crafted an alter ego, the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo, who was able to access many of the privileges denied to African Americans at the time: traveling in first-class train berths, staying in upscale hotels, and eating in the finest restaurants.
Eliseo’s success in crossing the color line, however, brought heightened scrutiny in its wake as he became the intimate of political and business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Ellis, unlike many passers, maintained a connection to his family and to black politics that also raised awkward questions about his racial status. Yet such was Ellis’s skill in manipulating his era’s racial codes, most of the whites he encountered continued to insist that he must be Hispanic even as Ellis became embroiled in scandals that hinted the man known as Guillermo Eliseo was not quite who he claimed to be.
The Strange Career of William Ellis reads like a novel but offers fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race. At a moment when the United States is deepening its connections with Latin America and recognizing that race is more than simply black or white, Ellis’s story could not be more timely or important.

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“Shadows at Dawn is the fascinating story—actually four stories, a Southwestern Rashomon—of the massacre of Apaches near Tucson on April 30, 1871, by Anglos, Mexicans, and other Indians. Extending over four hundred years, centering on that awful event, this book is impressively researched and a major contribution to the history of clashing cultures and memories of the desert frontier.”

Walter Nugent, author of Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion

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“Shadows at Dawn is western history at its best! Karl Jacoby has judiciously uncovered the many hidden layers as well as legacies behind one of the darkest moments in America’s past—the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous peoples. In the process, he restores the Camp Grant Massacre to its rightful place at the center of Arizona’s traumatic 19th century past. A wonderful and moving achievement.”

Ned Blackhawk, author of Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West

“A brilliant narrative writer and gifted historian, Karl Jacoby rescues the Camp Grant massacre not simply from the forgetfulness of the past but from the all- too-human urge to simplify the tangled complexity of our motivations, interactions, histories, and memories. This book should be required reading for polemicists and apologists alike, and for anyone wanting to think deeply and well about the meanings of that curious thing we call ‘history.’”

Philip J. Deloria, author of Indians in Unexpected Places

“Jacoby’s story-teller’s ear listens to the tales that have swirled around the Camp Grant Massacre since the spring of 1871 and draws them into a conversation that—like it or not—is long overdue. Studied with a cool eye and open heart, the perspectives merge into a kaleidoscopic vision of the American West that remind us that we may be done with the past, but it is seldom done with us.”

James F. Brooks, author of Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands

“In this landmark book about a tragic collision of multiple cultures, Karl Jacoby subverts a thousand Westerns by showing us that the West was not a sepia- toned world of cowboy or Indian, villain or hero, white hat or black. The West so carefully re-imagined in Shadows at Dawn was a far more complicated place—a place that lived and died in a surprising gamut of hues.”

Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder

“Shadows at Dawn is an absorbing, brilliant study of the Camp Grant Massacre in 1871. Karl Jacoby sees this terrible event in its full complexity. His is one of the best studies ever of the long conflict between tribes and races, soldiers, citizens, killers and victims, in the wild unregulated Southwest.”

Larry McMurtry

Shadows at Dawn

A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History

In the predawn hours of April 30, 1871, a combined party of Americans, Mexicans, and Tohono O’odham Indians gathered just outside an Apache camp in the Arizona borderlands. At the first light of day they struck, murdering nearly 150 Apaches, mostly women and children, in their sleep. In its day, the atrocity, which came to be known as the Camp Grant Massacre, generated unparalleled national attention—federal investigations, heated debate in the press, and a tense criminal trial. This was the era of the United States’ “peace policy” toward Indians, and the Apaches had been living on a would-be reservation, under the supposed protection of the U.S. Army. President Ulysses Grant decried the act as “purely murder,” but American settlers countered that the distant U.S. government had failed to protect them from Apache attacks, and they were forced to take justice into their own hands.

In the past century, the massacre has largely faded from memory. Now, drawing on oral histories, newspaper reports, and the participants’ own accounts, prizewinning author Karl Jacoby brings this horrific incident and tumultuous era to life. What brought this party together on that fateful April morning, and what led them to commit such a stunning act of violence? Shadows at Dawn traces the escalating conflicts, as well as the alliances, that transpired among the Americans, Mexicans, Apache, and Tohono O’odham living in the borderlands over the course of several hundred years, beginning with the seventeenth-century arrival of the first Spanish missionaries. The American presence brought further transformations, especially after the Gadsden Purchase transferred a large swath of Mexican territory to the United States, leaving many Mexicans feeling like foreigners in their own land. By recounting the events from the perspective of each of the four parties involved, Jacoby challenges the dominance of the American version of the western story and also reveals the way each group has remembered, or forgotten, the massacre.

Prodigiously researched and powerfully written, Shadows at Dawn examines a forgotten atrocity and in doing so paints a sweeping panorama of the southwestern border lands—a world far more complex, culturally diverse, and morally ambiguous than the traditional portrayals of the Old West.

More: An Interview with Professor Karl Jacoby

Read the Introduction to Shadows at Dawn (PDF)

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Crimes against Nature

“An unsettling study of early conservation, one that reminds readers that battles to save nature were also battles to colonize places and peoples…. This is an excellent and timely book.”

Joseph Taylor III, Journal of American History 

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“Jacoby crafts a sympathetic portrait of the classes without the means to support their claims to the natural world, while dismantling some of the stereotypes and larger myths that have long enveloped the conservation movement.”

The Oregonian

“Rarely has this level of originality, close reasoning, and historical texture been brought into such harmony while preserving the whiff of lived experience.”

James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State

“A compelling new interpretation of early conservation history in the United States. . . . Powerfully argued and beautifully written, this book could hardly be more relevant to the environmental challenges we face today.”

William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

“This insightful and lucid book combines social with environmental history, enriching both. . . . Timely, eloquent, and provocative, Crimes against Nature illuminates contemporary struggles, especially in the West, over our environment.”

Alan Taylor, author of William Cooper’s Town

“A well-conceived, solidly researched, and clearly written work with important conclusions but even richer possibilities.”

Thomas Dunlap, Reviews in American History

Crimes against Nature

Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation

Utilizing case studies drawn from three of the United States’ earliest and most prominent conservation sites—the Adirondacks, Yellowstone National Park, and Arizona’s Grand Canyon—Crimes Against Nature reveals how nineteenth-century efforts to control nature became irretrievably entangled with attempts at controlling the behavior of rural Americans. Viewed from the perspective of the inhabitants of the American countryside, conservation represented the imposition of a new legal framework on the natural environment, one that transformed many previously acceptable practices into crimes: hunting became poaching, for example, the cutting of timber, theft, and the setting of fires, arson. These dramatic changes enmeshed, in turn, a diverse array of rural folk, from Abenaki, Shoshone, and Havasupai Indians to poor whites in New York, Montana, and elsewhere. Before Crimes Against Nature’s novel blend of social and environmental history, such individuals had been virtually invisible in the scholarship on the American relationship with nature, which had focused instead on what the environmental historian Richard Grove once termed the “pantheon of conservationist prophets”: celebrated figures such as George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt, who collectively laid the political and intellectual groundwork of the conservation movement.

Read an excerpt from Crimes Against Nature: Download PDF

Excerpt courtesy University of California Press

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